Volume IV - 1997

PrTEE: Professional Training Expansion English: An Approach to ESP
   by  Lisa Isenstead

         Lisa Isenstead holds an undergraduate degree in German and Comparative Literature and an M.A. in TESOL from Hunter College, and has an extensive professional and academic performing arts background. She teaches a non-native humanities section and bridge course at the Manhattan School of Music, and developmental writing to nonnative speakers of English at Hunter College in New York City. She is particularly interested in developing alternative approaches to language acquisition using college level curriculum content-based materials.

         Editors' Note: In the following article, Lisa Isenstead outlines an original and imaginative but practical approach to the teaching of language in a highly professional arena. The introduction sets forth the principles involved, which are appropriate for intermediate and advanced students, but are especially valuable with beginning classes. Often, the students in these classes are talented and knowledgeable but have limited ability to communicate in their new language. Adding to the difficulty is a dearth of commercial material for the particular specialty. Ms. Isenstead offers a solution.
         It seems inevitable that "PrTEE" will inevitably be referred to as "Isenstead's 'Party' Approach"_whether she likes it or not. Her techniques do seem quite coherent and interesting, but not quite a party.

         In English for Specific Purposes (ESP), communication in the second language is often restricted to particular areas of content that are quite complex. These broad areas of specific knowledge require sophisticated grammatical structures, idiomatic expressions, fixed phrases, and a content-related lexicon. When no relevant teaching materials exist, then teachers must experiment to help solve the problem. Most of the principles that follow were developed in the context of advanced music training. And it is from this context that we will draw our examples. If we broaden our perspective, however, we will find that these principles just might constitute an approach that is helpful to language teachers in virtually any area of professional or technical sophistication, including more practical undertakings. For example, banking, aircraft maintenance, driver training, highway construction, medical education, food preparation, business management, computer operation, and office supervision. To a large extent, the needs of students and of teachers in each of these fields are broadly quite similar. Primary among their concerns is accurate communication involving specific concepts in a highly developed field. It is to such teachers that this article is primarily addressed.

Characteristics of Expansion Approach

         The central, underlying aspect of what I call "Professional Training Expansion English" is the use of low-level content as a springboard to higher level content. This kind of "expansion" is virtually impossible in general language training, which has no specific content to expand. An image related to expansion is an accordion in which each fold expands to serve as the basis for more sophisticated material. A very simple example of this would be "The Parts of a Saxophone" (Low-Level) which would expand into "The Development of the Role of the Saxophone in Contemporary Orchestral Music." The expansion of content has parallels and implications for such things as the sequencing of structures and vocabulary. It would be wise, I believe, to list and briefly discuss the characteristics of "Expansion English," which I do immediately below. The remainder of this paper is, in effect, a discussion of those characteristics.

1. Low-level content serves as a springboard to higher-level content, as we have discussed above.

2. Incorporation of grammatical structures and lexical items grow out of the student's need to express content and not out of the teacher's or the textbook author's decision as to what should logically be presented next. For example, "How should I hold my elbow?" may well precede "Give me my bow." The particulars of communication are by no means the same for each field, and decisions regarding sequencing should be based on close and careful observation.

3. Expressions and vocabulary to be focused on are those immediately heard and expected by content area experts. For example, a music tutor might say, "Float the tone. Don't explode it." These expressions must be uncovered and learned by the language teacher. In an ongoing project, the teacher and his/her colleagues can periodically update a master computer file in which these phrases and clauses are indexed according to such key words as content category (e.g., "Quality of Tone" and "Fingering the Keys of the Instrument"), lexical constituents, and immediately related grammatical structures. New entries can be marked and content experts asked to check them for accuracy and possibly to provide additional examples of usage.

4. Cordial relations should be developed with content area teachers whose cooperation is indeed valuable. They can admit language teachers to their classes, check technical material before it is printed out, and provide assistance in countless other ways.

5. Language teachers should participate when possible in professional training sessions, such as Master Classes for advanced students, and help out as refreshment assistants, slide projectionists--even volunteering for an occasional off-site presentation. What might seem awkward at the time will usually prove most useful in the teacher's expanding familiarity with the particular units of language used to convey precise concepts in a specific field.

6. Whenever possible, the language teacher should keep a cassette recorder going at meetings such as those listed in Item 5. No matter how memorable a phrase might seem at the time, it will probably elude recall when you are preparing for a class or updating a computer file.

7. The teacher would do well to conduct and transcribe at least parts of informal interviews in which content area teachers are asked about the goals of their courses, their general classroom techniques, and their expectations of students. Such a recording will be extremely helpful to students both in knowing what will happen in class as well as becoming somewhat familiar with the content area teacher's pronunciation, phrasing, and other phonological characteristics. The area teacher should of course be apprised of the uses of the recorded interview and be gracefully given an opportunity to decline.

8. In discussing technical information, the language teacher assumes the role of student, and the student assumes the role of teacher. This makes it possible for students to gain authentic practice in speaking like the expert he or she is. This exchange of roles is difficult if not impossible in a regular, that is, non-ESP classes.

9. The teacher makes a constant effort to have his or her class visited by content area faculty, by members of the technical and administrative staff, and by residents of the community. This policy often results in dynamic exchanges and in the student's being accustomed to the variety of persons he or she will meet on and off campus.

10. The teacher should be on the lookout for projects to involve students in the activities of the particular school. Here in the conservatory, master classes, visits to content area classes, and the like all offer students the chance to practice note taking skills and report giving techniques. These activities also serve to inform the teacher of content area knowledge he/she might lack.

         There are many other smaller principles that will be appropriate to some language programs and inappropriate for others. The ten given above, however, broadly define the approach I have developed and articulated over the years with the help of countless colleagues and students. Personally, I would advise you to specify the additional principles that are relevant for your program. The process in which you tell yourself who you are and what your goals are is invaluable and almost always an occasion for professional growth. I would like to turn now to a closer look at a typical ESP situation in which these principles have proven very valuable indeed.

The Second Language is Music

         My school is a music conservatory--The Manhattan School of Music, to be exact. Here the L1 is the student's native language, the L2 is music, and the L3 is English. The broad content area of communication is also music and the performance of music. International students are here to improve their music skills, not their English language skills. Still, each must successfully complete a rigorous humanities core, music history courses, and music theory courses. For these, a relatively high level of proficiency in English is essential.

         Suddenly, out of nowhere an old saying floats above the tangle of questions: "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach." Well then, maybe the way to a music student's heart is through music! But, there are no ESL classroom texts which target the needs of international music students in terms of linguistics, content area, and performance. Conclusion? Develop your own materials. Choose an ESL grammar textbook for the students, but develop your own music-related materials. How to begin? Let's begin with a violinist.

Parts of the Problem


         A young college freshman from another country arrives at Kennedy Airport in New York City with suitcases in tow and a violin carefully slung over his shoulder. His destination is an American music conservatory. His goal is to study for a Bachelor or Master's of Music and then to return home to his country. He has arrived armed with:

(1) Six to eight years of grammar intensive study of English_which often will serve him neither in his daily needs in the city nor in his academic and performance needs in the conservatory.

(2) A 450 TOEFL score--which will not gain him entrance to classes other than his weekly lesson with his instrumental teacher.

(3) A bilingual dictionary--of which he will have to become quickly independent.

(4) A firm grasp of basic music theory--which he will have to relearn as well as expand considerably--in English.

(5) Basic music history--which he will have to deepen and broaden--and write about in English.

(6) A honed violin technique which he may have to discard, at least in part, for another.

(7) Innate musicality, talent and skill--which is why he is here in the U. S.

(8) The knowledge that his countrymen at the conservatory will share all of the many years of carefully preserved, translated classnotes as well as sample exam questions for all of the music history and music theory classes he will have to take to complete his degree.

         Deep in his heart he is sure that he will never really have to acquire advanced English skills to finish his studies. He is a musician; music is an international language needing no translating. He's going to return home. After all, he's not an immigrant. He's sure he'll be out of ESL classes in one semester.


         The ESL teacher who knows that despite the student's lack of commitment to language learning, the need to develop English skills is essential in academic and performance studies at the conservatory. Students need to be "weaned away" from memorized lists and put into free fall where all their knowledge will be available for use--spontaneous, creative linguistic use.

         The elements I took into consideration were
(1) the students' primary interest_music,
(2) their lack of interest in English, and
(3) the various situations in which they needed to communicate in English.

         I concluded that by making my ESL classes content-specific, these three areas would be addressed. Since there are no commercially available textbooks which apply to this situation, I narrowed my search to books that could be used more as grammar references than as all-encompassing texts. I chose How English Works by Ann Raimes because it is an inductive approach to structure, and then went about assembling, developing and incorporating music-related materials and activities.

         In addition, I decided to open the doors of my classroom to other faculty members, technical and administrative staff as well as to community members. My presence as classroom teacher guaranteed a safe haven for interaction to occur between the students and guests. In this non-threatening atmosphere, students could come into close communicative contact for the first time with people they would meet in their mainstream classes, in the corridors and in their professional and private lives. They would gain important academic knowledge and make positive personal contacts.

Gathering Related Information

         Prior to the first class, I toured the conservatory including the library, offices, rehearsal studios, concert halls and backstage areas. I also identified and spoke with administrative personnel, librarians and technicians in all these areas. Could library and backstage tours for small classes be arranged? What were the most common reasons for foreign students entering a specific office or backstage area? What vocabulary and/or grammatical structures would students encounter and need? My second task was to speak with as many classroom teachers in music history and music theory and with as many instrumental and vocal teachers as possible. Could a small ESL class sit in on a music history lecture to practice note-taking? Would professors visit the ESL class and talk with the students and/or answer questions? What specifically would a student need to ask or say at a master class or jury? Lastly, I sat in on pre-school meetings in the large lecture hall (which doubled as the small concert/master class hall) to test out the acoustics. From which part of the hall could a professor or master teacher best be seen and heard? All the information I gathered laid the foundation for the "PrTEE Principles" from which I began to plan, and the content-specific areas from which I began to teach.

Individual Differences

         Getting to know more about each student became the next important issue. I wanted to learn the nationality, education level, place of residence, time spent in the U.S., and the level of proficiency in English (determined by departmental testing as well as from TOEFL scores). To me, however, it was more important to learn about the music background of each student: Who had studied what, where and with whom? Who played which instrument? Who wanted to play in an orchestra, play chamber music, be a soloist? Who were the singers? Who sang opera, church music, jazz? Who were the composers, the conductors? Who was undecided? There is sometimes a pianist with a beautiful singing voice who is vacillating between the two; or a classical drummer who wants to play jazz drums. This information helped to locate broad areas for large-scale class projects, and provided concrete ideas and materials for smaller ones.

The Students' Instruments and Their Bodies

         For all levels--beginning, intermediate and advanced--the start of the semester was occupied with the usual introductory activities one finds in most ESL classrooms. Students at the beginning and low-intermediate levels of ESL, were not admitted to mainstream classes: they were permitted only their major lesson, orchestra rehearsal and chorus rehearsal. One of the music-related problems that students faced at this level was that they could talk neither about their bodies nor about their instruments in English. A Total Physical Response (Asher, 1982) task arose out of this need. Simply put, students were asked to describe their instruments and how they related to their bodies. Students worked in pairs or alone, depending on their preference, and were responsible for developing their own vocabulary lists. Also, over a period of several class sessions, the class as a whole brain-stormed a vocabulary list for the body in general. Adjectives, adverbs and verbs were added as they related to specific musician's needs. For example, a violinist might speak of the relaxation of the shoulder of the bowing arm, whereas a singer might speak of the involuntary movement of the diaphragm. Students were encouraged to speak to their major teachers about the specialized vocabulary they used. All this culminated with each student's presentation of his/her instrument, its parts and how it affected the student's body or vice versa. At an intermediate level, students might also include some historical material about their instruments as well as introduce and play a short selection.

Students Teach Teachers

         The teacher too can be taught by the students if his/her knowledge of the content area in question is not extensive. The teacher can and should ask questions of the students about the content of their presentations in the same way that the students ask questions of the teacher about linguistic issues. In this way, not only does an authentic dialogue ensue between student and teacher, but this dialogue works as a model for the rest of the class. Other benefits include the student's being given the opportunity to teach the teacher in his/her area of expertise and to approach the authority and practice speaking at least as an equal.

         Areas of grammar quickly present themselves: simple present, imperative, comparatives and prepositions. All these were questioned, explained, discussed using the task the students were engaged in. Grammar exercises based on this activity were easily developed in a fashion that was interesting and relevant to the student. A young harpist, for example, permitted the class to examine and touch her harp after her presentation. Some of the students wanted to ask questions about the use of pedals, but could not formulate their questions. Which of the "WH" words does one use? Is it press on the pedal or press in the pedal--or simply press the pedal? Such questions can be quickly expanded on the spot to apply to each student's instrument. A homework assignment might ask students to write simple directions for picking up, holding and manipulating their instruments. Follow-up might include a close exercise using the students' own directions to target prepositions or phrasal verbs.

         Through all this, I too found that I was learning. Often, despite my own background in the performing arts, there was an information gap between myself and the class. What exactly do you mean by double-stopping on the violin? This information gap enabled an authentic dialogue to develop between the students and myself. I assumed the role of student and the students assumed the role of teacher. Such interactions gave students the opportunity to be the authority and practice speaking as experts where each felt most comfortable. As the boundaries between us relaxed, we exchanged roles more spontaneously with each learning from the other.

Motivations for Taking Notes and Doing Research

         After moving to the intermediate level of ESL, the young musicians were permitted to register in mainstream classes. I must stress a point here. Because foreign student organizations at the conservatory kept an extensive file of classnotes, handouts and samples of essay questions, students were not concerned that they didn't understand everything in a lecture. They had other resources to which they could turn. A problem did occur, however, when a new course was offered in music history by a newly hired faculty member. There was no file of classnotes for students to rely on for this course. The content area was new to most students. As a result, even advanced ESL students found the course difficult_background and vocabulary were missing. Many were, for the first time, on their own.

         To teach to this need, the thrust of the next group project became note taking and summary writing. I approached a music history professor who was teaching a required music history course. This professor usually hands out to students a study sheet which includes names, places and a music vocabulary list for the lecture. I asked for the list one week prior to our visit. Then the class and I divided up the items on the list amongst pairs of class members. Each pair was responsible for presenting brief definitions of each item on the list. To facilitate and expand this exercise, a trip to the library was planned with the help of the head librarian. The library at the conservatory has many sections that contain music manuscripts, records, tapes and CD's. These, the students were already very familiar with; but, they were unfamiliar with the humanities and research sections. So, the librarian introduced the research section using several items from the lecture list, as examples. After the introduction, she and I assisted the students in locating the sources they would need to complete the assignment. At the next class meeting, each student shared the results of his/her research. Soon, despite the fact that students had not read the assignment in the music history text (which in reality they might not do anyway), each had some background information about the content of the forthcoming lecture. In the lecture hall, students were encouraged to sit as close to the lecturer as possible. The lecturer in turn welcomed the ESL students to his class immediately prior to beginning the day's lecture. We all took copious notes.

         At the end of the lecture, the class and I discussed several options with regard to our next step. For example, students could work in pairs or groups and compare notes, or they could write summaries from their notes alone or in pairs or groups. Since the class was multi-level, students of different levels could be paired together, or students could choose their own partners. In this class each student wrote a summary. At the next class meeting, summaries were compared. (A few students had even gone to the library to double check their notes.) Class members decided to write a single lecture summary combining elements from all of their notes. Students disagreed, discussed, wrote, corrected and revised until finally a draft was agreed upon.

         The acid test of the comprehension of the lecture was, however, up to the lecture professor. Since the relationship was a solid one, the class summary was given to him. Two weeks later, he came to the ESL class at my suggestion to comment and answer any questions students might have. This kind of activity serves many purposes: it aids student confidence, builds background information, gives students active and guided practice in the use of the library, demonstrates how one goes about answering one's questions about content area matters, and brings students into close, meaningful contact with other faculty members.

A Final Project

         At the end of each semester, the conservatory presented a full-length opera in which many of the young musicians took part. That year the opera was The Seven Deadly Sins with music by Kurt Weil and libretto by Bertolt Brecht. Some students sang roles in the production, some played in the orchestra, others worked backstage in technical capacities, while others ushered on performance nights. There were some who were not involved at all. Still there was interest. This last class project was geared to the advanced ESL students and took the entire semester to complete. It involved not only content area and independent research projects, but interaction with faculty involved in the production and some of the community at large. The Director of the Opera Department along with set and costume design assistants were invited to the class. They brought a model of the set, costume sketches, and fabric swatches which they used to illustrate their discussion of the directorial and design concepts for the opera. As with all previous class projects, the grammar which arose for consideration was based on the grammatical structures which were at issue in students' speaking and writing about the content of the project.

         Content area(s) involved included music history and performance techniques; independent research projects included relevant background topics proposed by the class and myself. Students reported back to the class on the findings of their research. This piecing together of information prior to meeting with the opera production staff lay a solid foundation for student understanding. This information included everything from broad artistic, historical background of people, places and performances to specifically relevant vocabulary and grammatical structures.

         By the time production and faculty members arrived to talk to the class about their individual contributions to the opera production, a solid foundation aiding aural comprehension had been laid. Students had given their own short reports on such topics as Kurt Weil, Bertold Brecht, developments in jazz in the early '20s. I had given an overview lecture of art, theatre and politics in post World War I Germany. The production staff, in discussing their contributions to the opera added interpretive depth to the students' background knowledge. For example, the director spoke of her concept of the production; the conductor discussed his approach to the score; the set, lighting and costume designers discussed and presented their designs, and the, diction/dialogue coach presented his/her ideas. Interlaced amongst all these activities was a journal in which each student noted his/her responses, opinions, took notes on student and guest lecture presentations, and recorded relevant vocabulary. This journal became a record which was used as a reference for writing a final composition using the semester's work as a base. I chose topics and discussed them with the class beforehand.


         The PrTEE Principles can be applied to many technical, business, and scientific ESP teaching situations that demand a tailor-made approach on the part of the teacher. I have successfully used these in working with a Chinese microbiologist, and with mixed nationalities in a pasta factory. Students sometimes feel more comfortable with lists of verbs and close exercises, but they quickly find that working with lessons written for their unique workplace produces more immediately successful communicative experiences.


Hall, David and Brian Kenny. 1988. "An Approach to a Truly Communicative Methodology: the AIT Pre-Sessional Course." English for Specific Purposes, 7:19-32.

Kenny, Brian 1993. "Investigative Research: How it Changes Learner Status." TESOL Ouarterly, 27 (summer): 217-231.

Long, Michael H. and Graham Crookes. 1992. "Three Approaches to Task-Based Syllabus Design." TESOL Ouarterly, 26 (Spring): 27-56.

Potok, Chaim. 1967. The Chosen, A Fawcett Press Book. Ballantine Books.

Richards, Jack C. 1990. The Language Teaching Matrix, Cambridge University Press.

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