Syllabus Design: Needs Analysis

The term “needs” is sometimes used to refer to wants, desires, demands, expectations, motivations, lacks, constraints, and requirements.

Needs in syllabus design are often described in terms of a linguistic deficiency, that is, the difference between what a learner can presently do in a language and what he or she should be able to do.

Needs analysis is directed mainly at the goals and content of a course. It examines what the learners know already and what they need to know. Needs analysis makes sure that the course will contain relevant and useful things to learn.

Good needs analysis involves asking the right questions and finding the answers in the most effective way.

The Purpose of a Needs Analysis

Needs analysis in language teaching may be used for a number of different purposes, for example:

  • to find out what language skills a learner needs in order to perform a particular role, such as sales manager, tour guide, or university student
  •  to help determine if an existing course adequately addresses the needs of potential students
  • to determine which students from a group are most in need of training in particular language skills
  • to identify a change of direction that people in a reference group feel is important to identify a gap between what students are able to do and what they need to be able to do
  • to collect information about particular problems learners are experiencing.

Needs Analysis for ESL Programs for Public Schools

You will perform a needs analysis for the following reasons:

  • To compile a demographic profile of all the languages and language groups represented by the students
  • To assess their level of language acquisition in their native language and in English
  • To determine their communicative abilities in English to determine their formal knowledge of English
  • To find out how students use language on a daily basis
  • To determine what English language skills are necessary to enable students to participate in all school and community activities in English
  • To find out what prior experiences students have had with formal educa-tion
  • To determine the attitudes of the students and their families toward formal schooling and’ education
  •  To find out what pre literacy and literacy skills the students possess
  •  To ascertain the students’ level of cognitive development and acquisition of academic skills in their native language(s)
  • To ascertain what cognitive and academic skills students have acquired in English
  • To determine the cultural, political, and personal characteristics of students.

Deciding the purpose of a need analysis

The first step in conducting a  need analysis is deciding what its purpose or purposes are.

For example when a need analysis of restaurants employees is conducted the purpose might be:

  1. to determine current levels of language proficiency of employees
  2. to determine how many employees are in need of the language training
  3. to identify senior restaurant staff’s perception of language problems employees have on the job
  4. to identify employees’ perceptions of language difficulties they face on the job
  5. to ascertain the types of transactions employees typically perform in English
  6. to determine the language characteristics of those transactions
  7. to assess the extent to which employees’ needs are met by currently available programs and textbooks

In other cases, learners’ needs may not be so immediate for example, students learning English as a secondary school subject in an ESL context. Here English may be a compulsory subject that is considered an important part of a child’s general education. However, even though the students may not have any immediate perceptions of needs, curriculum planners will generally have consulted employers, parents, teachers, and others to find out what knowledge of English they expect highschool graduates to achieve.

In many countries, the introduction of English or another foreign language in elementary or secondary school is based on what curriculum planners consider best for students to study at school in the same way that math, history, and physical education are included in the school curriculum Learners are not consulted as to whether they perceive a need for such knowledge. Their needs have been decided for them by those concerned with their long term welfare.

The Users of Need Analysis

A needs analysis may be conducted for a variety of different users. For example, in conducting a needs analysis to help revise the secondary school English curriculum in a country, the end users include:

  1. curriculum officers in the ministry of education, who may wish to use the information to evaluate the adequacy of existing syllabus, curriculum, and materials.
  2. teachers who will teach from the new curriculum
  3. learners, who will be taught from the curriculum
  4. writers, who are preparing new textbooks
  5. testing personnel, who are involved in developing end-of-school assessments •
  6. staff of tertiary institutions, who are interested in knowing what the expected level will be of students exiting the schools and what problems they face

The Target Population

The target population in a needs analysis refers to the people about whom information will be collected.

Typically, in language programs these will be language learners or potential language learners, but others are also often involved depending on whether they can provide information useful in meeting the purposes of the needs analysis.

For example, in conducting a needs analysis to determine the focus of an English program in public secondary schools in an EFL context, the target population might include:

  1. policy makers
  2. ministry of education officials
  3. teachers
  4. students
  5. academics
  6. employers
  7. vocational training specialists
  8. parents
  9. influential individuals and pressure groups
  10. academic specialists
  11. community agencies

Procedures for conducting needs analysis

A variety of procedures can be used in conducting needs analysis and that kind of information obtained is often dependent on the type of procedure  selected. Since any one source of information is likely to be incomplete or partial, a triangular approach (i.e., collecting information from two or more source) is advisable.

Many different sources of information should be sought. For example, when a needs analysis of the writing problems encountered by foreign students enrolled in American universities is conducted, information could be obtained from the following sources:

  1. samples of student writing
  2. test data on student performance
  3. reports by teachers on typical problems students face
  4. opinions of experts
  5. information from students via interviews and questionnaires
  6. analysis of textbooks teaching academic writing
  7. survey or related literature
  8. examples of writing programs from other institutions
  9.  examples of writing assignments given to first-year university students

Procedures for collecting information

Questionnaires are one of the most common instruments used. They are relatively easy to prepare, they can be used with large numbers of subjects, and they obtain information that is relatively easy to tabulate and analyze. They can also be used to elicit information about many different kinds of-issues, such as language use, communication difficulties, preferred learning styles, preferred classroom activities, and attitudes and beliefs.

Self-ratings: These consist of scales that students or others use to rate their knowledge or abilities. (Self-ratings might also be included as part of a questionnaire.)

Interviews: allow for a more in-depth exploration of issues than is possible with a questionnaire, though they take longer to administer and are only feasible for smaller groups. An interview may often be useful at the preliminary stage of designing a questionnaire since it will help the designer get a sense of what topics and issues can be focused on in the questionnaire. A structured interview in which a set series of questions is used allows more consistency across responses to be obtained. Interviews can be conducted face-to-face or over the telephone.

Meetings:  A meeting allows a large amount of information to be collected in a fairly short time. For example, a meeting of teachers on the topic “students’ problems with listening comprehension” might generate a wide range of ideas. However, information obtained in this way may be impressionistic and subjective and reflect the ideas of more outspoken members of a group.

Observations of learners’ behavior in a target situation are another way of assessing their needs. For example, observing clerks performing their jobs in a bank will enable the observer to arrive at certain conclusions about their language needs. However, people often do not perform well when they are being observed, so this has to be taken into account. In addition, observation is a specialized skill. Knowing how to observe, what to look for, and how to make use of the information obtained generally requires specialized training.

More English Teaching Resources

Check these pages and sites before you go:

  1. Syllabus Design and Course Planning
  2. Syllabus Design: Situation Analysis
  3. 5 Great Strategies to Cut Teacher Talking Time
  4. 14 Essential Characteristics of a Good Language Learner
Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English