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Week 2 – Sarah Benesch’s ‘Needs Analysis and Curriculum Development in EAP: An Example of a Critical Approach’

I get really disheartened reading articles like this. It has been 16 years since Benesch wrote this article and we still have not managed to affect any great change on the academy.

Synopsis:
Benesch begins the article by doing something she is very good at, by situating her arguments in a historic context. As a consequence we get a brief history of needs analysis in EAP; an analysis that examines the target situation and collects data that can inform what a student needs to know in order to fit in to that situation. This produces a ‘taxonomy of needs’ that are intrinsically influenced by the compiler’s own ideology and are ignorant of socio-political issues affecting the students. Here Benesch uses language like: power, level playing field, unequal social positions, subordinated, hegemonic influence.

Benesch rightly critiques the traditional descriptive needs analysis and offers two examples of EAP studies that have highlighted key issues in EAP but have seen the solution lie in transforming the students, not the academy. One of these is McKenna’s (1987) study into raising questions in lectures. The conclusion of this study was that “EAP should not encourage ESL students to ask questions when they do not understand terms since ‘native speakers hardly ever do so’” (p.727). Benesch suggests that looking at this needs analysis critically we should consider the solution to this problem lying in the lecture theatre, not with the students needing to adapt. She proffers, why not get the lecturer to have intervals in the lecture for peers to discuss their questions together?
Benesch discusses her own context to illustrate the effectiveness of critical needs analysis, in what she calls a ‘paired course’ (p.730) between ESL and psychology. The psychology element of the course had evolved, out of necessity, into an anonymous information giving spectacle. Due to budget cuts classes could only be housed in vast lecture theatres and students could not access the lecturer in a more conducive environment. The course also employed computerised multiple choice testing to ease the marking burden on academic staff. This meant that students had to memorise an insurmountable amount of information in preparation for the test.

Benesch defines critical needs analysis as a process which “acknowledges existing forms, including power relations, while searching for possible areas of change” (p.732). In order to better inform the curriculum she follows three steps: dealing with the limitations, challenging the requirements and creating possibilities. Benesch concludes that lecturers can be allies in the search for a better academic experience for EAP students and that EAP classes can be agencies for social change (p.736).

The discussion Benesch outlines in the challenging the requirements section is of greatest interest to me. We so often see needs analysis as an examination of the target situation, but what of the discipline teachers? Do they ever consider needs analysis? What interests me about this section of Benesch’s article is that the lecturer comes into the EAP classroom and discovers a great deal about what a disservice such a course does students. While the lecturer is in the EAP classroom, the students have the opportunity to discuss the academic course content with him and ask questions they have been previously unable to ask (for similar reasons identified in McKenna’s study). Student comments after this session are incredibly telling of how valuable they found this … well it can only be called a seminar. One student said “I hope that he would have more chances to teach us again” (p.734). This is their weekly lecturer they are commenting on! There is great knowledge to be learnt by looking in the EAP classroom and as lectures get ever bigger and further populated by non-native English speakers there has never been a better time to do it.

As an undergraduate I studied American Studies at the University of Hull. Here lecturers were always accessible and seemed to thrive on debate and discussion. Tutorials and seminars were intimate and meant to my chagrin that I HAD to do the reading as I would soon be found out for having not! In my third year I studied at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I took Sociology 101 for one option and experienced first-hand the kind of course Benesch describes, actually in was also in 1995/6. The exam was multiple choice and lectures were anonymous. I do not recall ever speaking to another student, let alone the lecturer, probably because my attendance was shocking. The lecturer could never have known I was not present, and I (perhaps in hindsight unfairly) felt she probably did not even care. This was in stark contrast to my time in Hull, but does not differ to the student experience in many British universities now. But what a disservice we are doing the students.

I am sure lecturers are as equally unhappy about this situation as we are, but if there was only closer analysis of what EAP teaching could offer the academy we could reinvigorate the academic experience for students. I know from student feedback that this is why students often enjoy their ESP courses taught in our department, because in a smaller class they get an academic experience not afforded them in their discipline.

Why doesn’t the academy look toward the EAP classroom for answers? Why are we looking out more than they are looking in? The answer, I fear, lies in power, in hierarchy. It saddens me to hear EAP teachers speak of themselves and what they do in lesser terms than academics, not that this view is not perpetuated in the academy. I truly believe that all people are equal. And this is why I am so disappointed that Benesch applied the adjective ‘gracious’ to the psychology lecturer. After all her talk of levelling the playing field and challenging power, she uses THAT word – “Richter’s gracious and enthusiastic cooperation” (p.733). The first dictionary definition of this term came up on the internet as “courteous, kind, and pleasant esp. toward someone of lower social status.”

Benesch , how could you?

Benesch, S (1996) Needs Analysis and Curriculum Development in EAP: An Example of a Critical Approach TESOL Quarterly, 30 (4) 723 – 738.

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