ESP Project Leader Profile: Margaret van Naerssen

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this TESOL Blog post, you’ll read the ESP project leader profile of Dr. Margaret van Naerssen. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section, Margaret has been committed to keeping TESOL ESPIS colleagues aware of and focused on ESP principles. She had a major role in creating the TESOL ESPIS PowerPoint on ESP. Also, Margaret was the ESPIS chair for two cycles. Outside the ESPIS, she’s been involved with a number of ESP training and program evaluation efforts in various countries to help colleagues recognize the value of the core principle of ESP:  needs assessment. Her responses to the questions below illuminate her expertise as an ESP teacher-trainer.


Dr. Margaret van Naerssen
Coordinator, Cultural & Linguistic Diversity Program
College of Graduate Studies
Immaculata University
Immaculata, PA 19087
1. How would you define leadership?

An effective leader

a) has long-term vision,
b) sets priorities for steps towards a vision,
c) listens to colleagues’ ideas,
d) is flexible,
e) guides colleagues in identifying strengths and interests, and
f) provides opportunities for fulfilling their potential.

2. Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

In many ESP projects, I can’t claim “success.”  I don’t know what happens afterwards, but I’m happy when participants have an “a-ha!” moment about ESP.

In this ESP curriculum project important communications involved a) listening to and incorporating  participants’ ideas, b) being flexible, and c) recognizing that we all had to work together.  ESP helped identify and prioritize real needs.


After the 1992 establishment of the European Union, the Italian Ministry of Education wanted upper secondary vocational/technical students to become competitive for jobs across borders. Job-related English would be important and help in interactions with other Europeans in Italy.

The focus was English for students in tourism programs. The second trainer was Nora Lewis, a colleague from the University of Pennsylvania.

Until just days before departure, the project status remained uncertain: the first Gulf War was starting.  Would we be allowed to travel?  Did we feel safe enough to do so?  U.S. planes were refueling in Sicily en route to the Gulf.

For security reasons, we wouldn’t work in places known as “American” cultural centers, so we had no access to supporting resources.  English teachers from technical schools around Italy came to Rome. Teachers from Sicily had a very long train ride. Their airport was closed!  We stayed in a hotel distant from the center of Rome. However, the hotel was perfect for our tourism theme. Also, this situation forced us to depend on our own resources.

Shaping the Project

Listening to the teachers was critical: They knew their students and their studies. The group chose three areas: a) guides on tour buses, b) helping tourists with daily travel needs, and c) selected food/beverage services. These materials could become models for other topics.

We all felt somewhat daunted about what could do in 2 weeks. Needs assessment was our guiding principle, providing a focus.  Also, in ESP needs must be prioritized: It’s okay to say that we can’t cover everything. Teachers began feeling a bit relieved. Using their input, Nora and I came back with a plan but knowing we’d have to be flexible.

Trying Out Needs Assessment

Around the hotel, we spotted possible sites for informal practice needs assessments: a bank and a travel agency.  Ah, we were eating in the hotel restaurant—another site!  During a daily espresso coffee break in the bar, a teacher noted that we could interview the bartender about customer communications. Besides, maybe he’d teach us some drink recipes! He became our friend!  We were an informal part of the hotel community.

Still, teachers were nervous about doing needs assessments. We talked about strategies for observing communications in a bank and a travel agency. And, no, they did not have to find English speakers to listen to.  They’d observe the communication tasks needed. With the security situation, the travel agency lacked customers. Instead, they ended up interviewing the manager about communications with travelers.

Teachers came back with greater confidence. Some had an “a-ha” moment about needs assessments—once they broke through their comfort zone. Previous academic lectures and readings had made them fearful about needs assessments. As the project evolved, they realized there are practical ways to “do” ESP training.

Building a Unit to Fit a Larger Curriculum

We provided a basic outline for the development of units:

a) Topic
b) General and specific objectives
c) Pretasks for accessing learners’ knowledge about the topic
d) Tasks for learners to identify likely communication needs
e) Practice
f) Consolidation

The pretask for developing oral skills was new to some, and they said, “It’s a waste of time.” Then someone recognized it as similar to a prereading task. “Ah, now I get it! We can engage students and tap into the content of their vocational courses.”

Collaboration With Content Specialists

As teachers had regular communications with the technical faculty in their schools, the ESP idea of working with content specialists seemed natural. They’d just build on those connections. All wanted students to succeed once they left for the workplace. Their classes might be the last formal education for many.

Shifting Priorities and Flexibility

Tourist Brochure

As certain topics became impractical, our priorities shifted. Then teachers wanted to add writing.  At home, I had grabbed a few tourist brochures. Locally we found several English language brochures. One group examined the language and organization in the brochures, and then drafted a brochure about a historical site near a teacher’s hometown.

The writing unit involved students developing hometown brochures: short, easy-to-read materials.  Brochures would emphasize the language of description and sequence (historic events), enable students to read English brochures elsewhere, and help them describe tourist sites in Italy. Some teachers noted their towns were not tourist destinations! However, yes, students might have fun thinking about their towns as tourist attractions.

Becoming Tourists!

With the workload, teachers were becoming restless. How about sightseeing? This was the first visit to Rome for some. All of us wanted to visit the Vatican.  However, the embassy plan required a specific daily workload.

We proposed a Vatican “field trip” to our embassy representative. Although we were tourists, we’d also observe the Vatican guides’ communications. We outlined the task. During the visit we’d take notes and then report back. Approved! ESP could be creative! Of course, it was no surprise when some skipped lunch, going shopping after the Vatican visit. Listening to teachers, benefiting from their expertise, and being flexible—all most valuable!

Question for readers: Do you recall an “a-ha” moment in an ESP project when someone suddenly understood an important aspect of ESP?

An “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized that “festina lente” applies not only to “writing” but also to “ESP curriculum development” (when we take the stance of reflective practitioners)!

Please respond to Margaret’s question in the section below!

All the best,



Knight, K., Lomperis, A. E., van Naerssen, M., & Westerfield, K. (2010). English for specific purposes: An overview for practitioners and clients (academic and corporate). PowerPoint presentation submitted to Alexandria, VA: TESOL Resource Center.

from TESOL Blog


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