Teaching a foreign language for specific purposes - audiences and materials

This article presents two aspects of foreign language teaching for specific purposes: the audience, which is distinctly different from that of an ordinary language class, and the availability of materials, which greatly affects the style of teaching.

Currently, foreign language teachers are able to find any kind of resource and material that they need for their course online. Be it grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation, there are so many handouts, displays, videos, and other types of files available that it is sometimes difficult to choose the right ones for your course! We can honestly say that designing an online course in a foreign language can become, over time and with practice, a piece of cake.

However, many online courses are designed for specific audiences, which are often of a type that cannot be brought together in a physical location. They may be students in a Master’s or PhD program, employees of a multinational company, or simply learners that need additional expertise in a certain sphere of knowledge that is not covered by traditional textbooks or handbooks. Teaching and learning a foreign language for specific purposes can bring together audiences that come from the following fields:

  • business and economics
  • tourism
  • international relations
  • medicine
  • law
  • arts and humanities
  • science

…and many more.

A foreign language course for a specific purpose can be also competence-oriented focusing on:

  • oral techniques: leading an interview, debate skills, presenting a problem, etc.
  • correspondence
  • creative writing
  • translation, etc.


In each one of these cases, the teacher is faced with a specific audience that they know nothing about before the start of the course. They cannot rely on already existing group dynamics to get their subject covered. They don’t know the group’s average age, their prevailing gender, or the social competences that their students will have. There is no background. In order to more clearly see through these muddy waters, the teacher can rely on two things. First, they can specify that a participant must have reached a certain level in the foreign language in order to be able to take the course (At least a B1 level is usually required for students to be able to interact in a foreign language). In some fields, like law, the level may need to be B2. This way the teacher can be sure that the students will not only be able to learn specific vocabulary and phrases, but that they also will be able to use them correctly in a detailed context. Second, they can create a short survey for students to fill out prior to the beginning of the course that contains information about their background. One of the most important pieces of information that it should contain is whether the future student has experience in the particular field (for example, if they are working or have worked in the sector, or if they are studying for a degree in it, etc.). Having professionals in a class is an important piece of information because their experience often guides the teaching and learning process. They are often the best source when the teacher runs out of resources, or when a real-life situation is used as an example.

Needless to say, in an online course the audience is often made up of specialists in their sectors and their expertise should never be overlooked. Keep in mind that they may not be ready to discuss personal topics, and try to interact with them based on their past and present (or future – for graduate students) experience.

So, as we said, the level of knowledge of the foreign language is the first criterion for selecting the students. Group dynamics will be established later on and only then will it be possible to rely on games, puzzles, or other more entertaining activities.

Materials – Content

The content of the course should always be based on the specific sector in which the knowledge will be used. Of course, this means a lot of work for the teacher because, at best, each activity and exercise should consider the context in which the language will be used. But for the teachers themselves, designing new grammar and vocabulary exercises is not always easy; given that this may also be time consuming, it is best to start with authentic material in the particular field.

To begin the course, the teacher should do some research in the field. This may include reading general information about the sector or on more detailed topics like introduction to economics, law, etc. in order to complete the first phase. This will help the teacher better understand and be able to identify the particular reason why the students are taking the course. It may also help to answer the question: What are they supposed to be able to do with this new knowledge at the end of the course? If it is formal letter writing, then the course should provide examples of such letters. If it is a sustained monologue (an oral description or expression of a point of view), then the teacher needs to use interviews and discussions, which are easy to find on news sites.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of written and oral documents widely used in some areas:

  • law: speeches, written statements, cases
  • humanities: speeches, interviews, definitions, arguments
  • economics and science: definitions, arguments, justifications
  • medicine: examples, lots of vocabulary, case studies

In the next article in the series you will get some insight into more specific techniques and organization models in order to design an online course for a specific audience using an e-learning platform.

You can find some additional advice in the following articles:

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Emanuela Svilarova is assistant-professor in French as a foreign language at Sofia University "St Kliment Ohridski". Her activity includes classes for beginners up to Advanced - B2 levels, and classes in French for specialized domains - humanities, economics. Apart from language teaching, her fields of interest include French and Bulgarian contemporary literature and comparative literature. She has participated in the creation of textbooks for high schools of intensive French classes, the handbook "Laughter in class" and in various teaching- and learning-oriented projects.
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