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Needs analysis and the General English classroom

Paul Seedhouse

Although learners’ needs are theoretically of prime importance in current learner-centred approaches, needs analysis is rarely carried out in the General English classroom. It is argued that this is partly because of an erroneous belief that it is not possible to specify the needs of General English learners, and partly because of a lack of literature on the practicalities of analysing needs data in the context of General English. An example of the analysis of psychological and social needs in one particular General English classroom is worked through in detail. The purpose of this is to show that it is possible to specify General English needs, even in the abstract area of psychosocial needs; to demonstrate that needs analysis can be useful in the General English classroom with respect to problem-solving and as a basis for designing aims, courses, and materials; and to provide a concrete illustration of how analysis of data can be performed, and how a tight and direct link can be maintained between needs, aims, and materials, and what actually occurs in the classroom.

Introduction

Needs analysis tends to be associated with ESP, and is neglected in the General English classroom. Hutchinson and Waters (1987:53-4) say that ‘What distinguishes ESP from General English is not the existence of a need as such but rather an awareness of the need . . . for the time being, the tradition persists in General English that learners’ needs can’t be specified and as a result no attempt is usually made to discover learners’ true needs.’ One might expect to find an increased interest in the analysis of learners needs at the heart of current learner-centred and communicative indeed there have been several general approaches, and acknowledgements of the place of needs analysis in curriculum design, for example in Richards (1990:2): ‘Needs analysis is also fundamental to the planning of General English courses.’ However, close analysis has been noticeably absent: during the past five years, for instance, there have been no articles on needs analysis in either ELT Journal or Applied Linguistics.

The problem for the General English teacher who is interested in needs analysis appears to be this: there are some excellent guides to the theory of ELT Journal Volume 49/1 January 1995 © Oxford University Press 1995 59

needs analysis (Berwick 1989, Brindley 1989) as well as Munby’s exhaustive lists and taxonomies of communicative needs (Munby 1978). But the crux of the matter is how one interprets the data collected, and what one does with it, When you receive a pile of questionnaires back, how do you convert them in practical terms into courses or materials? As Berwick (198959) observes: ‘Interpretation is probably the most practical problem any needs assessment manager is going to encounter . . .‘. At this point the General English teacher currently appears to be on his or her own, without any guidance on how to go about it. Needs analysis in the General English

classroom

The rest of this article gives an example of how needs data were collected, interpreted, and translated into materials design. The procedure is not intended as a guide or a model: there are many possible types of needs analysis (outlined in Berwick 1989). Rather, it is hoped to provide the reader with a basis for judging whether it is possible to specify learners’ needs in the General English classroom, and whether or not it is a potentially useful exercise. In this case the needs analysis was carried out because the learners did not appear to be validating or engaging with the main coursebook being used. It must be stressed that this was a particular type of analysis suited to a particular situation: the emphasis was on discovering motivation, and psychological and social needs, rather than on making lists of individual communicative needs or linguistic items.

Needs analysis questionnaire...
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