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I think most teachers would agree that the better we know our students, the better we’re able to teach them. This is one reason why we often start courses with ‘getting to know you’ activities, which encourage students to exchange basic personal information with each other and the teacher. However, in addition to getting to know our students as people at the beginning of the course, we also need to get to know them as learners. The process of collecting information about our students’ needs, interpreting this information, and then making decisions about the course based on what we uncover is called ‘needs analysis’.
What exactly do we mean by ‘needs’ in the context of English language teaching?
First of all, each student begins a course with their own perceived needs. Sometimes these are very specific, perhaps related to their studies or profession. One student may work in an office and need to write emails, while another may work at a clothing shop and need to interact with foreign customers. Other needs may be more general, for example, reaching a B2 level of English by the end of secondary school. These general needs might also be thought of as long-term goals.
Another type of need is related to the students’ current level of competence in the language. This type of need is usually more easily perceived by the teacher than the student. For example, during the first few lessons, the teacher may notice that their students have difficulty with comparative and superlative adjectives, or they don’t distinguish between certain English vowel sounds like /iː/ and /ɪ/.
Yet another type of need we should be aware of at the beginning of a course is not determined by the students or the teacher, but rather comes ‘from above’, handed down by ministries of education, official exam boards, etc. For example, students may need to improve their essay writing skills because it is a genre of writing commonly tested in high-stakes exams.
Needs analysis activities
Now let’s have a look at some classroom activities that can help us identify our students’ needs.
An obvious activity type for needs analysis is questionnaires. These will have to be tailored to fit your particular teaching context, but they should ideally include a range of questions about students’ motivation for taking the course, prior learning experiences, perceived strengths and weaknesses, situations in which they are likely to use the second language, goals and expectations, learning preferences, etc. Questionnaires have the advantage of taking up relatively little class time; they also provide you with the same type of information about all the students.
Note that it’s important to grade the language used in questionnaires to your students’ level. If they don’t understand the questions, they won’t be able to answer them! With lower levels, there is a good argument to be made for doing this type of needs analysis activity in the students’ first language.
With higher levels, however, you may want to follow the advice of Anderson (2017:48), who proposes turning needs analysis questionnaires into a ‘social event’ by having students do them in pairs. The idea is to have students take turns interviewing each other and noting down their answers on their worksheets, which are then handed to the teacher at the end of the activity. Meanwhile, the teacher monitors the pair work, taking notes on both the needs discussed by the students and any language-related needs they notice along the way.
2. ‘Find someone who …’
There are many classic ELT activities, such as ‘Find someone who …’, that can easily be given a needs analysis twist. For example, instead of using this activity to practise grammar or vocabulary, you could write questions that focus on how students use English outside of class or their learning preferences in class (working individually vs in pairs or small groups, how they like to be corrected, etc.).
To name just a few, board games, class surveys and discussion cards are other examples of classroom activities that can easily be adapted to get students talking about their needs.
If you are doing a Business English course, where students are likely to have very specific needs, you could write several different situations (participating in conference calls, answering emails, etc.) or language functions (negotiating, politely disagreeing, etc.) on cards and ask students to rank them in terms of how important they are to performing their job. With groups that are likely to have less well-defined needs, such as a conversation club for adults, you could put 25 or so topics on cards and ask the students to narrow them down to the ten they find most interesting.
4. In writing
For needs analysis to be successful, students have to be open and honest about the information they share. If you think your students would be more comfortable doing so in writing, you could set them the task of writing you an email. In the task instructions, specify exactly what kind of information you would like them to include, e.g. their perceived strengths and weaknesses, their goals, time restraints to studying outside of class, etc.
5. Looking at the materials
One final activity is to put students in groups and give them the coursebook you plan to use. Ask them to look through it and discuss which parts they find most useful or interesting. There is rarely time in any course to do every page in the book, so it can be helpful to both the teacher and the students to think about what to prioritize. You might even find that your students want to do sections of the book that you would have completely skipped!
There are a number of benefits to needs analysis. Just like ‘getting to know you’ style activities, classroom tasks focused on needs analysis can help create a sense of community. It shows students that they have a voice and that you are prepared to listen. There are also practical benefits. If we are more aware of students’ needs, we can use class time more productively. We are less likely to misallocate time to language activities our students are already quite confident with, giving us more time to focus on language activities that they do need more practice with. We are also more likely to select lesson content that is better suited to our students’ needs.
According to Graves (2000:101), in every course we teach, we can assume that ‘there is a gap to be bridged between the current state and a desired one, or progress to be made towards a desired goal, or a change to be made. The purpose of the course is to bridge the gap or some part of it, to help students make progress or to effect the desired change.’ The better we understand the nature of this gap, the better we will be able to help our students bridge it.
Once you have carried out a needs analysis, the next step is to process the information you have collected and use it to inform your decisions about the course. In practice, it will probably be impossible to address all the students’ needs within a single course. It may also be hard to reconcile certain needs with the demands of the educational institution where you work. For this reason, it’s important to be clear and honest with students about which needs can be realistically addressed in the course, and which ones can’t, and why.
One final thing to bear in mind for both teachers and students is that the goal of needs analysis is not to co-construct the perfect course, but rather to exchange information ‘so that the agendas of the teacher and the learner may be more closely aligned’ (Nunan 2008:79). This helps teachers do their work more effectively, and it helps students better appreciate the learning experience they are about to take part in, as well as empowering them to be active participants in this experience right from the start.
Anderson, J. (2017) ‘Peer needs analysis.’ English Teaching Professional. Issue 113
Graves, K. (2000) Designing Language Courses: A Guide for Teachers. Heinle & Heinle
Nunan, D. (2008) Syllabus Design. Oxford University Press