Scholarly Technical Education Publication Series (STEPS) Vol. 4, 2020

English, A Need? A Closer Examination of Vocational Undergraduates’ Perceptions on the Need for English Language Skills in the Academic Life


    Dilini Ranasuriya
    Senior Lecturer,
    Faculty of Education, University of Vocational Technology, Sri Lanka

    Sreemali Herath
    Senior Lecturer
    Postgraduate Institute of English, Open University, Sri Lanka


In order to cater to these changing needs, two branches of English Language for Teaching (ELT) namely English for General Purposes (EGP) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) have emerged. Although EGP is what is observed to be practiced in the ELT classrooms over the years ESP has created an immense interest among ELT practitioners desiring to make a change in academic and professional setting. The aim of the research is to find out what type of content is required to fulfill the aims of the students academically. The current study which blends both qualitative and quantitative methods was carried out with 40 undergraduates Findings of this needs analysis revealed that EGP alone would not cater to the needs of the stakeholders as the students were expected to reach out to the industry after completion of the degree and in this sense suggestions were brought forward to design a curriculum with a blend of ESP and EGP. There was a strong recommendation of revising the current curriculum to suit the requirements of both the academic context and the context of the target career.


The demand for vocational education seems to be on the rise with the need to employ graduates who are not only paper qualified but also skilled. Vocational Education which was not talked about for many years in Sri Lanka came into light in 1971 with the increase of the unemployment problem. The evolution of The National Vocational Qualification framework, or NVQ, as famously known, has paved the path for youth of Sri Lanka in providing the opportunity to achieve international recognition for qualifications, skills and knowledge.

NVQ framework consists of seven levels of qualifications from Level 1 to Level 7. The first level which is the National Certificate is recognized as the acquisition of a core of entry level skills. Level 1 is followed by National Certificate for Level 2, 3 and 4 which are recognized as increasing the levels of competencies. Further Level 4 qualification is awarded for full national craftsmanship. Level 5 and 6 is the National Diploma, awarded for the recognition in the increasing levels of competencies ranging from technical level to management level. The final on which the current study is based on is NVQ Level 7 which is the Bachelor of Technology degree and this is awarded by the only vocational degree awarding body in Sri Lanka which is University of Vocational Technology (UNIVOTEC) which is also the setting for the current study. .

Univotec was established in the year 2009 with the objective of opening the path to students from the Technical Education and Vocational Training System, entering into the university based on their aptitudes and abilities, to acquire university education. Unlike the conventional university education system in which the education is more focused on learning, Univotec produces graduates with a degree that is furnished with specific knowledge and skills needed to perform a particular job role. As the entrants to Univotec have diverted from the traditional education system there are many who have only qualified themselves up to Grade 8 or followed up to the GCE Ordinary Level exam but had not completed the exam, and a minority who have sat for GCE Advanced Level examination but had not gained entry to a state university. Although it could be to a certain degree considered advantageous, it could be considered disadvantageous especially with regard to English language proficiency the respective undergraduates are at a very low level. This has however hindered the education of many undergraduates which has recorded a large dropout rate especially as the medium of instruction is English. Therefore this observation made the researchers to commence the current study with the Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech) in Mechatronics degree undergraduates as it draws a large amount of applicants each year comparatively to other degree programs and has also resulted in a very high dropout rate.

Hence the current study explored the answers to the following research question: What are undergraduate’s academic communicative expectations?

Communication Skills” should it be EGP? or ESP?

Currently, Univotec offers an English module titled “Communication Skills” which is offered to the undergraduates in order to support the degree programs as they are offered in English yet this has not given a productive outcome. As per my observations as a lecturer of the respective module the “Communication Skills” module consists English for General Purposes (EGP) and less of English for Specific Purposes (ESP).

Thus this study was carried out to explore the views of the undergraduates of Univotec in order to find if they were comfortable with the current EGP module or needed a more ESP module that would be more beneficial for the performance both at the academic and the industry level.

As per Hutchinson and Waters (1989) English Language Teaching (ELT) could be broadly divided into two branches and one is English for Specific Purposes (ESP) while the other being English for General Purposes (EGP). While EGP is more focused on developing a strong language foundation of the learners in consideration of basic grammar and communication, the focus of ESP is primarily on the language and instruction that is more focused on specific communicative needs that engages in development of communicative competence in a specific discipline such as accounting, Information Technology etc.

With the knowledge gained from ESP, it would be beneficial for students in application of what they have acquired to their major field of study, that would include subject areas such as accounting, business management, economics, or Information Technology.

Islam (2014) in his study brings out the differences and similarities in the roles of ESP and EGP and he states that the key focus of EGP is on general English language abilities of students whereas the focus of ESP is on specific skills and needs of learners based on a detailed analysis of learners’ professional/academic needs. Rahman (2015) too brings a similar statement highlighting that the learners and their purposes for learning English as the important difference between ESP and GE (General English) and ESP learners are highlighted as adults who already have some acquaintance with English and learn the language so as to communicate a set of professional skills and to perform particular profession-related activities. While comparisons on EGP and ESP are drawn hence Larouz and Kerouad (2016) highlights that as per many scholars and researchers the methodology in ESP bears a lot of similarities with methodology in EGP. Although ESP is said to prepare the students for authentic situations, both EGP and ESP incorporate the same concepts and approaches such as authenticity. As per Zohrabi (2013), EGP is highlighted as a foundation course in any curriculum which paves the way for ESP.

Mackay and Mountford (1978) states that the term “languages for special purposes have been a key interest in relation to English Language Teaching (ELT)”. The purpose of “languages for special purposes” is defined with reference to occupational requirement and this definition applies to ESP as well. The aim of ESP is to develop learners’ communicative needs especially for improvement. ESP students generally possess fundamental language skills and this is done in preparation for their career path. Thus for this particular reason ESP concentrates lessons on grammar and language but focuses more on language in context. ESP which is developed as an independent discipline has gained much popularity throughout the world. It is largely acquainted with tertiary education as students specialize in different areas. One such example that could be brought out is if an individual is to work as a receptionist, thus the terminology and the language skills that they would be expected to use will enable them to confidently respond to the concerns of their customers. Thus in their learning of the language the expectation will be not to learn complex grammar but merely the language that is required to perform their job effectively.

Further ESP emphasized as a solution to learners which was not fulfilled by General English to meet the needs of learners in order to be used in their professions. ESP is an independent discipline from EGP and it has gained acceptance throughout the world. ESP hence is more concerned with the career path of the learners and it plays a vital role in the development of communicative needs of the learner.

These definitions of ESP are provided in order for the researcher to get a broader understanding of the two terms EGP and ESP and the context that they are used in and give the reader a view of what will be looked at in the current research.

Research Methodology

While the choice of the setting was Univotec and the degree being B.Tech in Mechatronics and the study was carried through a Needs Analysis (NA). The reason for the incorporation of the NA is that the long term goal of the current research is to develop a curriculum for the respective target group. According to Ting (2010) NA is the first stage in ESP curriculum design before syllabus, materials and teaching activities are decided.

As quoted by Veena (2016), Richards (2002) the first step in conducting a needs analysis is to decide exactly the purpose or purposes for carrying out a NA and following steps have been listed as major purposes of needs analysis.

  1. To find out the skills a graduate needs in order to perform a particular role at a workplace.
  2. To examine if the existing curriculum adequately addresses the needs of potential students.
  3. To know the needs of a particular category of learners in order to train them in specific skills.
  4. To discover the gap between needs and abilities.
  5. To collect information about the language related particular problem the learners are experiencing.
  6. To gather information of the learners pursuing a learning program; their attitude to learning the English language; their previous learning experiences; cultural background should also form a part of this information gathering process.
  7. To assess the effectiveness of the prevailing program and to gather information regarding the preferred styles of learning or learning needs, importance of particular language skills for the learners, role relationship between teacher and learners, preferences of teaching learning activities etc.

Brown (2009) defines NA as a systematic collection and analysis of all information that is necessary for defining a defensible curriculum. In the current study, the NA model introduced by Brown (2009) had been incorporated and that is because Brown’s NA approach is seen as the most relevant to conduct the current study and its step by step guidance made it easy for me in carrying out the NA which otherwise would have been a trying task . Thus the NA applied is carried out with three systematic steps: (1) making basic decisions about the needs analysis, (2) gathering information, and (3) using the information. These steps consist of 10 steps as follows:

Figure 1: Needs Analysis process (adopted and adapted from Brown, 2009)

As quoted by Veena (2016), Richards (2002), states that the first step in conducting a needs analysis is to decide exactly the purpose or purposes for carrying out a NA. Further the following steps have been listed as major purposes of needs analysis.

  1. To find out the skills a graduate needs in order to perform a particular role at a workplace.
  2. To examine if the existing curriculum adequately addresses the needs of potential students.
  3. To know the needs of a particular category of learners in order to train them in specific skills.
  4. To discover the gap between needs and abilities
  5. To collect information about the language related particular problem the learners are experiencing.
  6. To gather information of the learners pursuing a learning program; Their attitude to learning the English language; their previous learning experiences; cultural background should also form a part of this information gathering process.
  7. To assess the effectiveness of the prevailing program and to gather information regarding the preferred styles of learning or learning needs, importance of particular language skills for the learners, role relationship between teacher and learners, preferences of teaching learning activities etc.

While the center of the current research is a Needs Analysis (NA), the researchers have incorporated qualitative and quantitative research design. As per Richards (2005) ‘qualitative and quantitative data do not inhabit different worlds. They are different ways of recording observations of the same world’ (p. 36). Inspired by Richards (2005) a mixed methods research design is adopted in the study while data collection tools such as questionnaires have been incorporated interviews were used to obtain qualitative data.

The Study Sample

As the main concern of my study is exploring the English Language needs of students to enhance their academic and professional performance the sample size is limited to undergraduates following B.Tech in Mechatronics. In order to choose the study sample, the Purposive Sampling technique was used and as Palys (2008) highlights , purposive sampling is seen as a series of strategic choices about with whom, where and how a researcher carries out a research.

As a long term goal of the study the researchers intend to propose a curriculum outline for the B.Tech in Mechatronics program, the undergraduates were selected from the respective degree program and the sample consisted of both male and female participants and they were Sinhala and Tamil first language (L1) speakers.

Analysis of Data

The obtained data from the interviews were transformed from the recordings into texts. Furthermore the interviews that were conducted in Sinhala were transcribed and translated into English while interviews conducted in English were directly transcribed.

The data which was pre-coded and coded was put under themes to carry out comparison effectively. While qualitative data was analyzed hence the obtained quantitative data from the questionnaire were descriptively analyzed. The quantitative data was used for more or less triangulation of data that was obtained from the qualitative data methods. As the strength of data was more focused on qualitative data analysis, the quantitative data was not analyzed in depth.

Results and Discussion of Findings

The data that was obtained from the Needs Analysis was analyzed in the respective segment under two major themes namely English Language Needs in Academic Life and English in the Work Environment.

English Language Needs in Academic Life

Majority of the undergraduates expressed the need for “English” in order to perform in both theory and practice based sessions in the academic context as English is the medium of instruction at Univotec. Apart from the fact that English was a need in academic performance certain statements highlighted that as the majority of the text books in relation to Mechatronics is in English in order to read and understand the books, journals and handouts provided by the lecturers English is essential.

Mechatronics consisted of a larger composition of Technical Terms and for this reason to understand the terms better English was vital and by knowing the meanings of the technical terms one was able to perform better at examinations. Although the academic requirement was more on the Technical Terms at present although they were taught “Communication Skills” yet these lessons did not cater to the need of learning Technical Terms and the lessons and the handouts were criticized as they were more on General English than on their subject related “English”

However it was pointed out that the module consisted of more of General Vocabulary and this as per the views of the students was only helpful in writing essays. Writing essays was given priority over Mechatronics terminology by the language lecturers as per the views of the undergraduate and also the curriculum consisted of the respective area for development and paid no attention to the technical terms building .

Many expressed that there is a strong need for English when it comes to Examinations. As per the undergraduates at the exams it was necessary to know how to write and read well in English.

In the exploration of the attitudes of the students towards writing and reading as used in the examinations, it was reflected that the majority of the students were observed to have scored well in practical components while many have failed to do so at written exams. Their frustration in their inability to articulate their ideas and knowledge in English are expressed as follows:

As per the undergraduate view which is the prime concern in the following study around 40% stated it to be Very Important while a 50% settled into say that it is quite important. Thus a majority of the undergraduates have expressed writing to be of utmost use especially at the examinations. It was emphasized that at the exam the writing skill was essentially required. The undergraduates stated that writing was occasionally practiced at the classroom level and less concentration was given on how to write accurately for questions at the exams.

The details are illustrated further in Figure 2

Figure 2: Importance of Writing Skill for Academic Purposes

ACE - Academic Staff English Very important - 4
ACM - Academic Staff Mechatronics Quite Important - 3
GR - Graduates Not very Important - 2
UG - Undergraduates Not Important - 1
IE - Industrial Personnel

Further majority stated that the fact that they lacked a sufficient amount of vocabulary was the reason behind the hindrance in expression of ideas. Although as per some of the students there is a content of vocabulary which is included in the lessons it does little help in improving writing.

Thus many statements revealed that on the part of the learner too much effort has to be laid and also as in the introduction, the students of Univotec come from a wide range of educational contexts, such as dropping out of school as early as Grade 8.

Thus it was visible that many who stated that writing and angering at exams was tedious came from such backgrounds and due to their less exposure to structured language instruction as essay writing, the performance at the examinations hence resulted to be “Poor”. It was not only at the examinations that the students found “Writing” to be difficult but also during lectures “Note Taking” was also somewhat difficult due to poor English writing skills.

Expressions at the interviews highlighted that lack of good writing skills and a sound vocabulary hindered their expression of ideas not only at the exams but also in writing assignments and project reports based on the industrial experience. According to the students although an area namely project writing is addressed in the first year of the English module, however this is said to be forgotten in the following years with the engagement in industrial training and the other main modules.

While some exaggerated reading and writing skills for a minority, knowing the practical aspects of Mechatronics was sufficient in helping to get through the exams and the statement below supports the fact further. Reading was also perceived as important at exams especially to read and comprehend the questions. While writing in English was highlighted as somewhat challenging, reading and understanding the questions was also considered tedious. The chart below displays the importance it had on the undergraduates.

The details are illustrated further in Figure 2

English and Lectures

Although listening was not favored by a large majority many have expressed it to be as challenging as the other skills in trying to comprehend the lectures. Except for one or two lecturers who were said to be bilingual, all the other lecturers used English as the medium of instruction. As the staff consisted of two foreign lecturers the students had no choice but to listen to the lecture no matter how difficult it was. While it was difficult comprehending the lectures of the two foreigners as per most students it was stated as a good experience as with the local lecturers they would be able to ask the meaning in Sinhala without giving much effort in learning the language but with the two foreign lecturers they were forced to understand no matter how difficult it was.

English and Presentations

The study also revealed the perception of the undergraduates towards the skills of speaking in the academic context and the Figure 4.4 displays their views. Among the four language skills Speaking was largely favored and was also one of the most needed skills in the academic context.

Figure 4: Importance of Speaking Skill for Academic Purposes

For many, presentation or speaking in English was highlighted as important yet challenging, especially as the majority of the students found it difficult to express their opinions during the time of presentations. Although the current “Communication Skills” module does concentrate on presentation skills during the first year, as the undergraduates take the first year lightly and are not focused many miss out on useful hints given on doing presentations. The responses of the undergraduates also stated that the time allocated for them for doing presentations was insufficient to train the students in reaching their objective of making effective presentations. In addition, as the presentations for the English module are based on more general topics such as “poverty” the student did not see how such topics were relevant to the industry. They did not invest in general topics as they could not provide the skills they thought they needed for the workplace. Thus the need for more subject related topics in presentations was strongly emphasized.

As per one of the undergraduates, it was highlighted that the need for skills such as asking questions were not incorporated in the current “Communication Skills” module and this was exaggerated as very essential in order to proceed with the subject related modules. The above experiences highlight that though there was a need for speaking in the academic context there were insufficient activities to encourage an active English speaking environment in the current module.

Summary of Perceptions

Thus the majority of the expressions of the undergraduates highlighted that possessing solid English language skills will contribute to reducing the student dropout rates at Univotec. The views that were brought out in three of the key areas of the academic context: Examinations, Lectures and Presentations as displayed above further highlighted perceptions held by the undergraduates on English.

As per the views of the undergraduates the need for English was strongly felt especially during the second year with the industrial exposure as they were expected to move with undergraduates of other universities and communicate with the hierarchy of the company in English . Thus it was stated that it was at this point of the university life the undergraduates realized how far behind they were, in terms of the English language, compared to undergraduates from other universities during their industry training.

The undergraduate views also exaggerated that poor English language proficiency affected the grades of the undergraduates as many were compelled to miss a batch or drop out of the program entirely. This was clearly seen in the year 2014 where as per the statistics obtained from the university although 58 students were registered for both full time and the part time degree programs, but in the year 2012 only 7 graduated.

The responses also revealed that in order to move from the first year to the following year a good command of English was needed due to the advanced content of Mechatronics modules taught in the succeeding years. This was also highlighted to be essential due to the link between the theory and practical modules.

A noted factor was that the marks of the students were at an alarmingly low level and the following statement further expresses the reason for such unsatisfactory attendance. Macalister (2010) states that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make a course as interesting and as motivating as possible. Therefore, more attractive teaching methods and lesson planning can help in shaping students’ attitudes towards learning.


The above results have come up as a part of a research that was carried out which was in the hope of designing a new English program for the undergraduates of Univotec. In this study the researcher has looked at the perceptions of the undergraduates on English Language Skills in relation to their academic context. The result of the current study lends itself for the improvement of the current Communication Skills module carried out to help the undergraduates of Univotec to face the main modules related to the degree and in this it is the Mechatronics degree.

What was evident from the views of the undergraduates was that Communication Skills consists primarily of EGP related content. The module which is introduced to support undergraduates to uplift their English language proficiency has not accomplished its goals nor met the requirements of the undergraduates.

The participants exaggerated on the incorporation of more activities related to the four skills which was found to be lacking in the current syllabus. Content of “Writing “ was criticized as it only contained areas such as essay writing and letter writing, which did not complement the requirements of the industry. Thus more task oriented writing activities such as report writing based on industrial needs, writing official and unofficial emails, filling forms and logs, memos, procurement documents lab report was suggested to be incorporated. With regard to “Reading” there were suggestions to include more reading materials that would train the individuals at the examinations and reading of materials such as manuals, e-mails, letters and procurement related documents at industry level. The lack of a focus on technical terms in Communication Skills is a noted drawback in the current curriculum. Technical vocabulary is required both at the academic context and at the industry. A strong recommendation to incorporate technical terms was hence highlighted from the study.

There was a strong recommendation for more activity based learning that includes role plays, individual and group presentations, public speaking and to be included in order to enhance the students’ speaking skills so they can communicate confidently in real life contexts that require them to communicate in English.

The findings further suggested that the use of authentic material that is specific to mechatronics to teach all four skills. This requires handouts to be based on Mechatronics related content. This is expected to enhance the performance of the main stakeholders, both undergraduates and graduates in the academic context as well as in the target career. As displayed in Table 3 the findings revealed some of the cub skills that need to be addressed through the “Communication Skills” module in the academic context.

As the core of the study was on whether the stakeholders needed a more ESP or an EGP curriculum a larger part of the perceptions of the undergraduates dealt around finding if they preferred the content to be more ESP or EGP. The findings revealed that the existing curriculum did little in helping the undergraduates to perform effectively academically especially with Mechatronics related subjects. The students’ responses favored a more ESP curriculum to suit the needs of the undergraduates to aid academically. However further responses revealed that as student’s language proficiencies vary from unsatisfactory level to satisfactory level as they come from diverse educational backgrounds an ESP curriculum alone would not be beneficial.

Thus many suggestions were brought out to use an English module with a blend of EGP and ESP. As Zohrabi (2015) highlights, EGP is a foundation course in any curriculum which is intended to pave the way for English for Specific Purposes (ESP) thus this is an inspiration to use both EGP and ESP to effectively carry out an English language module to the undergraduates of Univotec.


  1. Hutchinson, T. (1989). English for Specific Purposes: A learning-centred Approaches. Cambridge, England : Cambridge University Press.
  2. Islam, M. (2014). 2014, The Differences and Similarities between English for Specific Purposes(ESP) and English for General Purposes(EGP) Teachers.
  3. Larouz, M. (2016). Demystifying the Disparity between ESP and EGP Methodology. Arab World English Journal, Pp.97-105.
  4. Mackay, R. a. (1978). English for Specific Purposes: A case study approach. London: Longman.
  5. Palys, T. (2008). Purposive sampling: Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. . Los Angeles: The Sage.
  6. Rahman, M. (2015). English for Specific Purposes (ESP): A Holistic Review. Universal Journal of Educational Research, p24-31 .
  7. Richards, J. C. (2005). Second Thoughts on Teaching Listening. Regional Language Centre Journal,, 36(1), 85-92.
  8. Ting, S. &. (2010). Grammatical errors in spoken English of university students in oral communication courses. Journal of Language Studies, 53-70.
  9. Veena.P. (2016). Importance of Needs Analysis in Curriculum Development for Vocational Purposes. International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities, 10.
  10. Zohrabi, M. (2013). Mixed Method Research: Instruments, Validity, Reliability and Reporting Findings. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 254-262.