Should “English Studies” in India focus primarily on English literature or English language teaching or both? Do “teaching” and “learning” of English connote the same meaning? How similar or different are the aspirations of the English (Hons.) students from those of other disciplines who study English? As teachers of English, most of us have engaged with the above-stated questions and have tried to address them whenever given a chance. However, the one pertinent issue that has not yet been significantly addressed is that our students, irrespective of their subject specialization, have specific English language needs which can only be met if those needs are identified using thorough needs-analyses, and curricula are framed in accordance with their findings. The answer to the question “What are my students’ English language requirements?” is bound to be relative and therefore attempts to integrate a needs-based approach to syllabus design will be challenging given the mixed proficiency levels of our students as well as the top-down decision-making process regarding curriculum designing in our universities. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to explore the issue of needs-analysis through a self-reflective narrative in the hope of raising awareness among teachers about its importance.
According to Iwai et al. (as cited in Songhori, 2007, p.2) needs-analysis refers to the varied activities involved in collecting information about a particular set of students with a view to developing a curriculum that will meet their needs. Thus, a thorough, multi-faceted needs analysis can help ensure that practitioners/course coordinators have the necessary information to develop courses that are more attuned to the actual requirements of students and lecturers (Jackson, 2005, p.304). Michael Long (2005), highlights how the one-size-fits-all approach does not work in second language acquisition when he writes, “just as no medical intervention would be prescribed before a thorough diagnosis of what ails the patient, so no language teaching program should be designed without a thorough needs analysis” (p.1).
Over the years, different terms have been introduced to define needs analysis such as Present Situation Analysis; Target Needs; Deficiency Analysis; Discourse Analysis; Genre Analysis, etc. Any approach to needs-analysis that attempts to explore the students’ needs and wants, has to take into consideration not merely their actual and expected proficiency in the language, but also their views about English language and their perceived expectations from the English courses they pursue.
I started teaching English at Shri Ram College of Commerce (Delhi’s premier institution offering specialized undergraduate courses in Commerce and Economics) in the year 2000. Prior to this assignment, I had taught English literature for three years at Hansraj College in the same university. Even before I could adjust to the transition in the course structure, the syllabus and the evaluation pattern between the two courses namely English (Hons.) and B.Com (Hons.), I had to grapple with two entirely different sets of approaches to the prescribed English courses. Whereas a majority of my erstwhile English (Hons.) students exuded a certain passion for reading literature and showed commitment and sincerity in attending classes and doing assignments, my B.Com (Hons.) students expressed ennui and displayed no other interest in the course except to simply pass in it. I think more than an academic exercise it became a question of situational necessity for me to explore my learners’ context. Year after year, I interacted with my students to find out if they thought they should have an English paper; what they expected out of their English course; how they would like the course to be taught, etc., with very little realization that I had already taken the first step towards analysing their needs.
Last year, as a pilot study, I decided to conduct a needs-analysis survey of my students in order to find out their perceptions about English, as well as their expectations from an English course. The hypothesis underlying this project was that many students have serious reservations about their English course and these problems ought to be investigated in detail. Also, if the results of this study were found to be relevant then they could be used later to probe similar issues in a larger study thus enabling teachers and course designers to modify/restructure the existing syllabi and teaching methodology in order to make both more relevant to the requirements of the students.
The study was conducted on a random sample of 39 commerce students comprising 25 girls and 14 boys aged 19-20 years .There were 13 students each from three different sections of B.Com (Hons.) third year who were studying the English Business Communication paper. Each section was taught by different teachers. Nearly 50 per cent of these students were not from Delhi and 60 per cent belonged to upper middle class families and had studied at English-medium schools. I decided to use a questionnaire as my research tool since they are “designed for efficiency; can be objectively scored, and the data can be analysed quantitatively” (Wagner, 2010, p.26). My questionnaire consisted of three sections:
- Section I comprised multiple-choice as well as open-ended questions on the students’ common perceptions about English language and its requirement and importance in the contemporary scenario. The questions were designed to gauge if the students believed English to be the link language of the world and were able to formulate some reasons for its wide usage and popularity within India.
- Section II included yes/no questions pertaining to their current English paper. Should English be a compulsory subject for students of commerce? How many English papers ought to be there in a six semester course such as theirs? Does proficiency in English language at the undergraduate level have a direct bearing on their job placements?
- Section III had two parts—a and b. In part a, I asked the students to evaluate the merits of the prescribed course on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 indicated poor and 5 indicated excellent. In part b, the students had to respond to an open-ended question asking them to list some salient features of an English course they would have designed for themselves had they been given the liberty to do so.
The findings of the pilot were as follows:
Students were asked to indicate what percentage of Delhi University students, in their opinion, desired to be proficient in English. The response was as follows: 14 students said that more than 90 per cent of the Delhi University students desired to be proficient in English, 11 students said between 75-90 per cent, 9 indicated between 50-75 per cent and 5 students said less than 50 per cent. Students who indicated a higher percentage validated their opinion by writing that since English is the language of interaction in the present multicultural corporate world are keen to be fluent in it. On the other hand, students who indicated a lower percentage, especially below 50 per cent, suggested that this lack of interest arises due to several factors such as considering English as a non-specialized subject that one only needs to pass in and the English course not being interesting enough to motivate students. All students however agreed that English serves as the common language of communication across the world. In support of their opinion, they listed factors such as increase in the number of English-medium schools across the globe, maximum international conferences and seminars held in English and an increasing number of countries including China found to have people conducting basic conversation in English. Students also felt that English is widely used within India for example, information in the public domain is provided in both English and Hindi. Moreover, there is a rising popularity of English movies, internet browsing sites, mobile apps, music, etc., in English among the Indian youth.
In response to the first question in this section—Should there be a compulsory English course/paper for students of commerce?— 27 students replied in the affirmative and 6 said “no”, 1 student suggested a diagnostic test and 5 students said a conditional “yes”. Those students who favoured the inclusion of English as a compulsory paper stressed on language proficiency to ensure a better future for them and emphasized that English provided a much required relief to them from other burdensome commerce-centred subjects. On the other hand, students who answered negatively and did not favour the inclusion of English were of the opinion that studying a course under compulsion does not guarantee success and moreover, students pursuing higher studies should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they need to study English or not. One student suggested that there should be an entrance exam in English for college students to judge their proficiency. The students who wrote a conditional “yes” recommended that an English paper ought to be compulsory only if it is rich in both content and skills and incorporates literary pieces, current articles in English, and activities and exercises that are particularly relevant to commerce students. In response to the question, “Should there be a compulsory English paper every semester?”,23 students wrote “no” while 16 students wrote “yes” provided that each paper focused on a different aspect of English studies. These included developing proficiency in different skills, exploring human behaviour and social themes though literature, learning business English, reading literary pieces to understand business-related themes such as risk-taking, leadership, ethics, etc. All the students agreed that proficiency in English would help them to get better job placements while answering the concluding question in this section.
a) In response to the question asking students to evaluate the merits of the business communication course, 5 students wrote that they were satisfied (ticked 4= good); 7 students rated the course as average (ticked 3= average) and 27 students expressed their dissatisfaction (having ticked 1= poor or 2= below average) stating reasons such as the business communication paper was boring/difficult; offered little value-addition; was theory-centred and did not aid in developing their communicative skills.
b) The open-ended question eliciting responses from students on the salient features of an English course they would have designed for themselves included the following: the English paper must develop the students’ soft skills, particularly the communicative competence of students; should include interesting texts so as to stimulate in students a passion for reading literature available in English; should focus on contemporary issues; have interactive teaching methods such as discussions, simulations and presentations; should focus on developing all the language skills, particularly oral skills; classroom interactions must move beyond examination-centred practices and lastly assessment techniques should involve peer-feedback.
Post this pilot study, I have tried to address my students’ needs in several ways (though I still have to adhere to the syllabus prescribed by the Delhi University). I have moved beyond the recommended books and prepared my own PPTs and classroom and supplementary worksheets; and designed interactive assignments and activities keeping in mind the “salient features” of an “ideal English course” recommended by my students. Although it is not possible to share all of it here, yet I wish to substantiate my endeavour to develop needs-based materials and methodology by giving an example. The Business Communication paper has a section on making effective oral presentations. For several years, I had taught this section using the theoretical inputs available in the recommended books on the qualities of an effective oral presentation. However, my students emphasized that they needed practice on how to make effective business presentations, more specifically impactful introductions and conclusions. Since classrooms in my college have an overhead projector, screen and wi-fi connectivity, I decided to develop materials specifically to address my students’ needs. Therefore, following this study, I changed my approach to transact the section on “Making effective presentations” in the following manner:
- First of all, I play a short video of an ineffective business presentation (several videos are available online) and ask student-groups to spot the mistakes related to openings and conclusions and write tips on good presentations.
- Students work in groups and compare their lists and add what they have missed.
- I elicit a typical structure of Introduction (Hook – Objective – Agenda) and Conclusion (Summary – Call for action – Close) and typical phrases used in each part.
- I project an example of the evaluation rubrics designed by me on the screen so that students have an idea of what is considered good practice. I ask them to develop similar rubrics focusing only on the openings and endings of their presentations.
- Each group is then asked to prepare the introduction and conclusion (not the body) of a presentation on the launch of a new product (they are given a choice of several products, or they can come up with their own ideas for a product).
- Each group makes a short presentation and the class votes for the best presentation using the previously designed rubrics for evaluation.
The findings of this pilot study and my subsequent modifications in classroom interactions are tentative as they are based on a very small sample size of commerce students from one constituent college of Delhi University. Yet if a similar needs-based study, albeit more rigorous were to be conducted with a wider sample focusing on perceived and target needs of students, it would definitely yield rewarding results regarding the English language requirements of undergraduate students and the crucial role it can play in developing needs-based syllabi and materials. However, until that happens, at least we as teachers can all do our little bit in making an effort to find out about our students’ requirements from the English courses they study and make small, meaningful interventions wherever possible.
Jackson, J. (2005). An inter-university, cross-disciplinary analysis of business education: Perceptions of business faculty in Hong Kong. English for Specific Purposes, 24, pp.293-306.
Long, Michael. (2005). Second language needs-analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Songhori, Mehdi Haseli. (2007). Introduction to needs analysis. English for Specific Purposes,world,4, pp.1-25. Retrieved from www.esp-world.info
Wagner, Elvis. (2010). Survey research. In B.Paltridge & A.Phakiti (Eds.). Research methods in applied linguistics (pp. 22-38). London: Continuum.