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Needs Analysis: An Introduction

According to Johns and Dudley-Evans (1991), needs analysis or needs assessment is the surveying of English students'
aims and backstories (both English for academic purposes and English for special purposes; and of course in ESL too). It is
also constituted, writes Benesch 1996: 723) "consulting faculty about course requirements, collecting and classifying
assignments, observing students in naturalistic settings, such as lecture classes, and noting the linguistic and behavioural
demands; or combining classroom behaviour." Needs analysis constitutes the general academic method on the basis of
which English courses are planned and developed. To put it in a rather more straightforward way, we may turn to
Basturkmen's own introduction to needs analysis. In both EAP and ESP, English, Basturkmen notes, learners do not have
time or patience to learn all of the English language, and their learning is not for general conversational or educative
purposes. Rather, it is for a particular academic or professional or specialist situation. It therefore makes sense to target
carefully (analyse) the needs of ESP and EAP students, and discover what will be most interesting and relevant for a
particular group of learners. (Basturkmen 2006)

Given the more or less scientific approach that is taken to descriptive linguistics in general, it is somewhat surprising that
needs analysis is generally not submitted to very rigorous criticism (Robinson 1991); it is generally accepted that its
conceptual foundations - the categories listed above - are natural kinds. That is, they are thought to form natural
ontological categories which have submitted themselves to discovery by the linguistic scientist. However, as Robinson
(1991) and Benesch (1996) point out, these categories appear to be heavily ideologically influenced. These descriptive
categories, Benesch suggests, do not offer any consideration of the sociopolitical reasons for a given faculty's choice of
course requirements, the balance of power between student and teacher, and the understanding they have between them.
Furthermore, categories of needs analysis are often rough-hewn and ill-defined - they take the form of broad statements
along the lines of "what the students themselves would like to gain for the language course" or "what the learner needs to
do to actually acquire the language" (Benesch 1996).

Needs analysis, therefore, is a paradoxical discipline for the reason that, it is itself a vague, intuitively decided set of
concepts on the basis of which extensive and rigorous research has been carried out. It against this background that
Basturkmen levels his criticisms. This essay will address what the author takes to be the three most important of these
criticisms.

Criticism 1: Learners are not reliable sources of information


Basturkmen levels the following criticism against needs analysis, citing Long (1996) as her source. She writes that needs
analysis is often carried out by the surveying of learners - that is to say, by asking learners themselves about their own
needs. First ,learners are often unfamiliar with the specific purposes for which they are learning English; they probably do
not know precisely what they require in order to gain the best working knowledge possible for the job or academic discipline
they are about to undertake. This may be extended to the wider criticism; students often do not know what is best for
them. Relatedly, (following Chambers 1980) learners are rarely in the position of possessing, before having begun learning,
of knowing an adequate expressive metalinguistic vocabulary for describing their linguistic needs. Indeed, it would be
unreasonable for us to expect learners to have such a vocabulary. These two criticisms are related in that they are, if we
take them to be justified, damaging to needs analysis in precisely the same way; they both render illegitimate a needs
analysis methodology according to which student consultation is the primary data source. I therefore take them to be sub-
categories of the same criticism: that asking students what their learning needs are is illegitimate. Let us take, then each-
sub criticism in turn, and see if one or other is justified.

The first sub-criticism, put forward by Long (1996), has also been given the superficial appearance of having been
leveled in several other quarters. Hutchinson and Waters (1987) note that there is a great extent to which care must be
taken when identifying students needs following what has previously been taken to be the standard model of needs
assessment - the Munby model. Munby (1978) puts forward what he takes to be a comprehensive model for syllabus design
based on the assessment of students' needs. This model requires that we take into account a number of different factors
into our assessment of students' needs, including, "purposive domain, setting, interaction, instrumentality, dialect, target
level, communicative event, and communicative key." (Le Ha 2005) Information on these areas is gathered by way of a
survey of the students, and the answers students give are placed in clearly defined categories. Hutchinson and Waters
(1987) argue that what this misses out is information which could, but has not so far been, gathered - information on how
much a student enjoys the course. Now this, of course, is not an arguements against asking the student, but it may be so
construed if we look into Hutchinson and Waters' motivation for putting it forward; namely that a large range of
psychological factors are involved in the learning process - factors which must be taken into account in needs analysis. And
it is unclear that simple, strictly structured surveys of the kind put forward by Munby fit this purpose. (Hutchinson and
Waters 1987).

We do not take this to be a justified criticism of needs analysis for two reasons. Firstly, it ignores the way in which most
needs analysis is carried out. Needs analysis does not, even on Munby's now rather old-fashioned model, rely entirely or
even principally on what the student says per se. That is, it does not rely straightforwardly on what a given student says are
his needs as its basis for syllabus design. Rather, it gathers information about a student, sometimes through survey,
sometimes through such elaborate methods as ethnography (Benesch 1996). This point holds for the second part of the

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criticism too. The problem of a student's failing to have the metavocabulary to describe his needs is no longer a problem if
this metavocabulary is supplied by the researcher, and applied no directly to what a student says, it to a set of data that has
been gathered and manipulated.

Finally, it does not seem right to say that needs analysis must be carried out, as Hutchinson and Waters seem at times
to imply, on the basis of a strictly structured, standardised survey alone. Whilst a certain amount of standardisation is
necessary (Berwick 1989), it is far from clear that this is the only way. It may be supplemented, as Jasso-Aguilar (1999)
notes, by way of other methods. She argues that "the use of qualitative research methods and more specifically, of
ethnography, can help to achieve [critical dialogue with-rather than observation and manipulation of-students] by taking
into account the social context of people's lives, and by allowing them to express their own voice and needs." (Jasso-Aguilar
1999: 44) Now, it is clear that this kind of needs analysis would fall into just the kinds of problems suggested by
Basturkmen. But used in combination with a more "objective" Hutchinson and waters-type approach, a balance may be
struck. At any rate, it seems far from clear that Basturkmen's criticism of needs analysis on the basis of the basis of the
student's ignorance is justified.

Criticism 2: The institutional power-balance


Basturkmen's second criticism has to do with the balance of power in a given institution. Citing Auerbach (1995), she
writes that the information given in needs analysis too often comes from institutions themselves. Institutions have
expectations regarding what a student ought to learn and how it ought to be taught, and therefore needs analysis "serves
the interests of the institutions, often at the expense of the learners." (Basturkmen 1995: 19) The assessment of whether
this criticism of needs analysis is justified will depend on two points. First of all, we would need to assess the extent to
which it really is the case that most needs analysis really does involve institutions consulting students when it carries out
needs analysis. We may follow Benesch (1996) and Auerbach (1995) in taking it that this indeed is so. Needs analysis is
generally carried out by institutions on their own students; and given that, in spite of there being popular models, there is
no standard method of carrying out needs analysis (and even if there were it would surely be open to a certain amount of
interpretation) institutions are more or less free to analyse their students' needs as they please. Second, then, we must
assess the extent to which Auerbach's and Basturkmen's criticism really is a danger - either theoretically or in fact.

The criticism currently under discussion can only ever be a theoretical danger insofar is it is extremely difficult to
quantify. The extent to which socio-political motives of an institution are hidden within a needs analysis programme
(Benesch 1996) cannot be set out using hard and fast evidence: the exacting of control by an institution is a subtle and
insinuating process. That is not, however, to say that this is a danger that can be ignore. Benesch (1993) cannot easily be
refuted when she writes that rarely are socio-political factors, such as the socioeconomic positions of the students compared
to each other, the aims of the institution - particularly it's hidden political agenda: "Needs analysis has avoided questions
about unequal power in the workplace and academia, allowing institutional requirements to dominate in the name of so-
called authenticity, realism, and pragmatism." (Benesch, 1993) Auerbach writes that students of EAP are so often so highly
integrated into their programme that they come to believe that their course needs are the same as their ESP needs
(Auerbach 1996). Benesch notes that courses are often shaped to produce students who will fill positions required to be
filled within the university, rather than for the general academic purposes for which the students signed up to the course in
the first place. (Benesch 1996)

What might be said against this criticism? One thing might be as follows: the kind of meta-analysis which Benesch and
Auerbach are demanding requires what might be called a "thick" socio-political description of institutions, along with the
setting-out of guidelines which would describe how, and in what way, the tendency of an institution to use its ESP and EAP
teaching programmes to its own ends, along with instructions as to how to counter this tendency. One might wonder the
extent to which this is really possible. On the one hand, it would threaten the independence of academic institutions if
handed down from above by a regulating body. And it would hardly be instituted by the institutions themselves unless it
were so forced upon them. On the other hand, it is unclear the extent to which it would be possible to properly integrate
the results of studies into hidden institutional motives into teaching programmes without modifying each and every
programme on a case-by-case basis. Doing so might well negate the possibility of a pre-planned course structure
(Hutchinson and Waters 1987).

In response to this we might say the following, after Benesch herself (1996). Universities might not be willing to follow
strictly prescribed pedagogical rules, but they might be willing to accept softer guidelines which might, to a certain extent,
help to reduce the power of the institution's aims within ESP teaching. And this may be done, just like needs analysis
research, without entirely sacrificing a more rigid prescriptive approach. Auerbach and Benesch both put forward the notion
that framework might be developed for introducing both structured syllabi and sensitivity to socio-economic needs and
socio-political presuppositions and agendas.

Even if such a framework were not practicable, it would not really detract from the power of Benesch and Auerbach's
criticisms. Whether or not a way of helping to counter the affects of hidden political agendas through prescriptions or
guidelines is possible does not affect the extent to which such agendas exist and problematize needs analysis. Their
criticism is, therefore, fully justified.

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Criticism 3: Language Needs vs. Learning Needs
The final criticism, posed once again by Hutchinson and Waters (1987) before Basturkmen (1996), takes issue with the
aims of needs analysis and their true relevance to pedagogy. Basturkmen asks whether or not it is really necessary or
helpful to identify only the usage needs of a target group of students when in fact what the students need to do is learn the
language. That is to say, even if we discover what a student needs, it is unclear that this will help us to discover what a
given student needs to do to learn the required element of language. Needs analysis, Basturkmen argues, will not tell us
this.

Again, for this criticism to be fully effective, it must first be clarified and expanded. For it to truly be justified, two things
must obtain. Firstly, it must indeed be the case that needs analysis fails to accurately discover the preconditions for a
student's actually learning the desired parts of a language. Second, it must be possible to ascertain what a student will
require in order to learn that language. Let us deal with each point in turn. It is not, on first sight, entirely clear that it is
indeed the case that part of needs analysis encompasses, or at least may encompass, an analysis of a particular student's
pedagogical needs (construed as an analysis of what is required to help a student learn about a certain area). Even a type
needs analysis presented by Basterkmen herself (1996) - one which takes as its mainstay a "thick" socio-cultural analysis)
looks into the things which might hinder the student from quickly learning the target language. And the "critical" progrmme
put forward by Jasso-Aguilar (1999), for example (along of course with Benesch 1993, 1996, 2001) again proposes to
analyse in detail the student's pedagogic needs.

However, the prima facie appearance of a lack of justification on the part of Basturkmen is, it seems, only prima facie.
The dividing line between learning and goals is not as straightforwardly dealt with as the foregoing paragraph might imply.
Following West (1994), we might observe that it is difficult even to say "how" a language is learned - the precise
mechanism of learning - is a wider linguistic question than the present pedagogical study (and than those cited) may
legitimately deal with. But that is not to say that it should be ignored. There is no reason why the results of a sensitively
assessed needs-analysis might not be coupled with current research in learning techniques - and it seems obvious that
these techniques should be considered and applied in needs assessment. The failure of many needs-assessment
programmes to mention this may well be seen as a genuine shortcoming, and thus Basturkmen's criticism can be viewed as
justified.

Conclusion:
Of the three criticisms discussed, the second seems the most fruitful point for discussion and practical improvement.
Benesch and Auerbach's demands for a more socio-politically sensitive approach to needs assessment cannot fail to help
those elements of needs assessment which fail to take into account the details and vicissitudes of the needs of the
individual and the prejudices and agendas of the institution. Having said that, it seems necessary to point out that this
approach comes with danger; structured approaches must sit alongside unstructured discussion, and a position of
compromise must be reached wherein fairness between, and not just within, institutions is achieved. The general rule
seems to be this: approaches to needs assessment must be as comprehensive as possible, taking into account all known
factors.