Needs analysis: what is it and how to do it?



“There is no such thing as General English.”

The statement above is not an actual quote, but more a summary of a point of view that comes from the world of teaching English for Specific Purposes (of which Business English is really just a part). The idea behind it is that nobody needs ‘General English’, because they all have their own specific needs for the language. I think that General English textbooks still serve most of my ‘General English’ students fairly well, but it does give an idea of how an ESP approach, and ESP students, are different.


The magic word is the word ‘needs’. We can only start teaching an ESP student when we know what their needs for the language are. This is also true of all students of course, even if the only thing we find out is that they have no specific needs. The other thing we need to know before starting is what the students want. These two things are often very different from each other!

We can find out student needs and student wants by asking the students questions about themselves and the language (which is what we will be calling ‘needs analysis’ here) and then finding out how much you agree with what they just said (‘diagnostic testing’). Given the definition of diagnostic testing used here it seems obvious to tackle it after needs analysis, and it will be dealt with in the second article, on the subject of ‘First Classes’.

Needs Analysis

When we are deciding how to go about needs analysis with a student/group of students, we need to think about two questions:

  1. What do we want/need to know about them?
  2. How can we find it out?




Needs analysis: What do we need to know about our students?

A good way of starting to design a needs analysis for a student (or a general needs analysis format for a school) is to brainstorm all the questions you could possibly want to ask them, and then edit them down. We can brainstorm and organise the questions they should/can be asked by several schemes:

  1. By question word
  2. By skills and language
  3. By time
  4. By place


By question word

  • What. What exactly do you do in English in your job?
  • When. When is your next meeting in English?
  • Which. Which parts of the language do you find most difficult?
  • Where. Where do you use English? – in meetings
  • Who. Who do you speak English with – native / non-native speakers?
  • How. How formal does the English you use need to be?
  • How much. How much homework can you do?
  • How long. How long have you been studying English?
  • How often. How often do you watch English language films?
  • How far. How far do you want/need to go with your English?


By skill and language

Which skills do you use/need/lack most?

By time


e.g. study / use of English / exposure to English in each of these three times.

By place

Inside work (see above) / outside work (e.g. travel/films/TV)





Needs analysis: how to carry it out in the classroom.

There are two times needs analysis can be done, with various advantages and disadvantages:

  1. Before class
  2. During the first class


Before class

This can be done by giving them a form to fill in or by asking them questions in the level test and making notes to be passed onto the future teacher.


Example needs analysis: questions for the beginning of the course.

About the present situation at work

What’s your job precisely?

Do you use English?

What do you do? situations / medium / channel / genre

What percentage of each?

Which of these do you find difficult/ need to improve?

What fields/ topics do you need to talk about/ need vocabulary of?

Which of these areas do you need most to improve your English?

What exactly do you need to do that?


About outside work

Are you doing anything to improve your English at the moment?

Do you do anything else in English? (CNN?, subtitled movies?, DVD?, business papers?)

What resources do you have at home/ work?

  • Dictionary- bilingual/ monolingual
  • Internet access
  • TV/ DVD
  • Press- general and specialised.

Do you travel to English speaking/ other countries?


About the past

Same questions as above for past.

What’s the last thing you did in English?

Have you studied English before?

How long/ to what level?


About the future

What are your short term and long term aims for English?

What’s the next thing you have to do in English?

Any big conferences / meetings / business trips / conference calls / presentations coming up?

How far do you want to go with your English (each skill)?



How do you like studying English?

What did you think of your previous lessons?

What’s the best way to learn a language?

How much homework can you do?

During class

The method depends on the situation:

  • In one-to-one classes, you can simply ask them the questions and write down the answers. For this, a reminder list of possible questions and a form to write the answers down on are useful (see below).
  • In group classes, they can ask each other questions about themselves and the language, or they can negotiate priorities or even the syllabus together.
  • To ask each other the questions, the teacher will need to give them some help by brainstorming some categories of questions, such as the question words brainstorm above. They will then need a format to write them down on (see Interview Form). Negotiating a syllabus can be done by giving them a list of things to prioritise by importance/usefulness, and then ask them to agree together on those priorities in ever larger groups (a pyramid ranking debate – see Lesson Plan Business negotiated syllabus).





Interview form

This form can be used in almost every situation – in needs analysis during level test interviews, in one-to-one, first classes, and for students to interview each other in pairs. First, you can brainstorm a couple of possible questions for each section and write the relevant question words (but not the whole questions) on the board.

First to build up to it, you can brainstorm a couple of possible questions for each section and write the relevant question words (but not the whole questions) on the board.

Business needs 2

This form can be too detailed and time-consuming to give as a written needs analysis, also a needs analysis where students only need to tick boxes doesn’t tend to work as well, as students tick away without thinking much about the options.



Needs analysis: discussion and thinking points.

Look at the examples of needs analysis forms given and decide how and when you could use them. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each form?

Could they be used:

  • before and/or during the first class?
  • for a spoken and/or written needs analysis?
  • in one-to-one classes and/or group classes?




Are there other ways of designing forms?

Yes, this task can be approached in many ways, please see some templates below for ideas for other ways to approach this, and feel free to adapt the content to a way that suits both you and your students best:

Needs Analysis

Needs Analysis 2

Needs Analysis 3

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