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First Lessons for Academic English Classes

How to start English for Academic Purposes classes in a pleasant and useful way.

Needs analysis

As with most other classes, I like to start EAP courses with a needs analysis, in this case one focused mainly on finding out their academic interests and difficulties in using English as part of that (in the past, present and future). I tend to do this with students interviewing each other in pairs and making notes on a form that I give them. I do this even with Academic Writing classes, as they can benefit from a bit of speaking to warm them up. It also helps them to get to know something about their classmates, so they can understand if the class deviates from their own ideas on what or how to study because of other people’s needs, interests or ideas. The forms are then handed in so I have a note of people’s needs and wants.

Linking to needs analysis

An obvious way to continue with the rest of the first lesson is to link it in with the needs analysis stage. One way is to continue discussion of the last question on the needs analysis form. I often do this by making the last question “The best ways to improve your academic English/academic writing/academic presentations in English”, something that leads naturally to language for giving and supporting opinions. You could also do something similar by getting them to define academic writing or good academic writing, moving from that to phrases for defining your terms.

You can also link other functional language directly in with the needs analysis stage in similar ways. The function that is most likely to come up during needs analysis in pairs as described above is phrases for checking and clarifying such as “What do you mean by…?” and “I can explain that better with an analogy…”

Another possibility is to link from needs analysis straight into a form of academic speaking or writing. The two most obviously connected are introductions to presentations for speaking classes and academic applications (for jobs, courses, scholarships etc) for writing classes. After asking each other for information and making notes in the needs analysis stage, students can discuss which information is most suitable for the kinds of academic communication you are covering, then try to put it into the right format. With presentations this will depend on the topic being covered, so students can work together to find suitable information for both of them for presentation topics like “Socks” and “The future of buses”.

You can also go from needs analysis into survey questions in presentations by asking students to guess similar things about the rest of their classmates and then make up questions like “Please raise your hands if…”, “How many people here…?” and “I imagine most people here… Can I just check if that is true?” The final one also ties in with generalising and hedging language.

Two more ways into any of the functional language that are likely to come up in the needs analysis stage are correcting mistakes and asking them to brainstorm (better) phrases that they could have used. It is also possible to combine those two, with students going from correcting their own mistakes on the board to correcting other typical mistakes for different academic functions that the teacher has prepared on a worksheet, then brainstorming more possibilities for each of those functions.

Error correction can of course also be used to link needs analysis with grammar, with the two most common mistakes that you are likely to find and so prepare follow-up for being:

  • determiners (especially “a” and “the”)
  • prepositions

The final possibility is going from needs analysis into vocabulary, with words used to describe kinds of academic communication (essay, dissertation, etc), jobs (lab assistant, visiting professor etc) and qualifications (PhD, post-doc etc) most likely to come up naturally.


Another way of looking at what to do first is to think about their priorities, i.e. what they need first and what they need most. Their main priority time-wise is likely to be emails with written work attached, for example the email with the essay that I always ask them to send me before the second lesson. This can be presented with an error correction task (maybe adapted from a real particularly annoyingly pushy email you received!) to link in with other correction tasks mentioned above.

Academic Writing students are also likely to need planning techniques and sentences for defining their terms from the very first homework.


The third way of approaching a first lesson is to try and give them an overview of the whole area of academic language that the course will deal with, with future lessons revising, expanding on and reinforcing it. The overview could be a review of grammar, vocabulary, functional language and/or tips, perhaps linking into the needs analysis stage in the ways suggested above.

Tips on good academic writing are easily collected from books and websites (for native or non-native English speakers). I tend to add some bad tips based on common misconceptions such as “Use lots of passive sentences” to these, getting students to cross off the wrong ones. This can be tied in with language by making the tips ones that students can brainstorm useful words and phrases for afterwards such as “Explain the structure of your writing in the introduction” (e.g. “In this essay I will… and then…”) and “Define your terms as you go along” (e.g. “…, used here to mean…”). A similar activity is to make many, most or all of the statements about academic English over-generalised, then get students to use hedging language to make them more true.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | July 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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