A terminology-based approach to ESP teaching

Written by: Boyan Alexiev, Department of Applied Linguistics
University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy


Over the past 20-30 years the teaching of ESP all over the world has been developing within the framework of the communicative methodology in specialised FL learning. The latter can be defined in simple terms as the design of ESP courses in special areas of knowledge that utilize classroom techniques ensuring maximum approximation to the real activities performed by the respective subject specialists. We can exemplify the achievements in applying this approach by tracing the major development stages in the ESP methodology:

Two types of syllabuses for ESP courses appeared on the market almost simultaneously. In the function-based syllabuses [1] the teaching material is designed to introduce students to the main communicative functions, e.g. describing shapes, component parts, function, purpose, making definitions, etc. of scientific writing. The teaching material in the notional/concept-based syllabuses [2] is designed to introduce students to the main ways in which essential scientific concepts, e.g. properties and shapes, location, structure, measurement, process are expressed in scientific English. The Reading and Thinking in English series [3], consisting of four books, viz. Concepts in Use, Exploring Functions, Discovering Discourse and Discourse in Action illustrate a combined notional-functional approach. Since 1990, that is, since the book Genre Analysis was published the scientific genre became the pivotal point around which ESP courses started to be organised. The teaching material in these syllabuses is designed to introduce students to the discourse structure of a particular genre in scientific English (e.g. research article, academic textbook, technical manual, etc.).

The aim of this paper is to suggest an approach to the practical use of mini term banks (TBs) in the ESP classroom as aiding tools in real communicative tasks. The paper is some kind of an interim report on a joint project being implemented by a team of five lecturers from the Technical University – Sofia and three lecturers from the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in cooperation with Dr. Blaise and his team from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology within the framework of a World Bank sponsored project scheme. The basic assumption is that our approach is eclectic in character, i.e. it is a combination of those mentioned above, including the utilisation of rhetorical devices (coherence, cohesion, etc.) but having a new perspective on a scientific text. The latter is seen as a web/network of concepts and relations identified by some basic terminology principles. Below we present these principles and suggest a methodology for utilising them in designing an ESP course, exemplified by a model structure of a teaching unit in the field of Nuclear Power Engineering.

Some principles of terminology

Principle 1: Terms represent concepts

Principle 2: Concepts can be broadly classified into:

  1. Entities (material and abstract objects)
  2. Activities (processes, operations and actions)
  3. Properties (with which we differentiate among entities)
  4. Relations (between the other three types of concepts)

Principle 3: A concept consists of a genus characteristic (usually type or part) and species characteristics. Some of these essential characteristics are given in the term/concept definition.

The following are the most common relationships between concepts:

  1. Generic – X is a type of A
  2. Partitive/whole-part – X is a constituent part of Y
  3. Complex – cause-effect, material-product, material-property, material-state, process-product, process-instrument/apparatus, process-method, phenomenon-measurement; object-counteragent; object-container, object-material; object-quality; object-operation; object-characteristic; object-form; object-place.

Application of terminology principles in designing an ESP course

Two stages are suggested in designing an ESP course in a particular subject area, namely, preparation of input teaching materials and designing classroom activities.

1. Preparation of input teaching materials

  1. Texts selection based on main topics in the respective subject (e.g. Building Materials; Timber, Plastic and Steel Structures; RC Structures; Foundations; Construction Elements; Bridges; Construction Design; Construction Technology; Building Mechanization – for Structural Engineering, a 60-hour module)
  2. Text processing – simplification, shortening, NOT adapting (terms and structures preserved)
  3. Mini Term Bank designed on the basis of terms contained in the texts.

TB contains the following info: term, definition, broader/superordinate term, genus-species relation, other relations, translation equivalent, and possibly visual presentation. The TB data are presented in a tabular form.

  1. Selection of suitable topic-based audio/video materials

2. Classroom activities:

Warm up

What do you know about nuclear reactors?

Can you give examples of nuclear reactors?

A. Skim the text below to answer the following two questions:

  1. How is heat generated in the reactor?
  2. What is the basic principle of operation of a nuclear reactor?

How a Reactor Works

A nuclear reactor consists of a containment vessel which surrounds the reactor vessel, a number of Uranium fuel assemblies inside the reactor vessel, a loop of pipe that carries water from the reactor to a steam generator and back to the reactor by means of a pump, another loop of pipe to take steam from the steam generator to the turbine generator and then take water back to the steam generator to be made into steam again by means of a pump. The key to the process is the heat generated in the reactor by the fissioning of Uranium235. The reactor is started by slowly withdrawing the control rods from the core to get the nuclear chain reaction started. The fuel begins to fission, each atom of U235 that is struck by a free neutron in turn produces free neutrons, which strike an atom of U235 to continue the chain reaction. The water in the reactor acts as a moderator to slow the neutrons and make it more likely that they will cause fissioning. The control rods can be moved in or out of the reactor to slow down or speed up the fission reaction. The control rods contain material that absorbs neutrons, such as cadmium or boron. When enough neutrons are absorbed, the reaction stops. In addition to moderation the reaction the water acts as coolant to control the temperature of the core and prevent the fuel from melting. The system operates under pressure, something like a kitchen pressure cooker. This allows the water to reach much higher temperatures, nearly 300°F, than it otherwise could without boiling. When this superheated water reaches the steam generator the cool water in the secondary loop is immediately brought to a boil and converted into steam to turn the blades of the turbine and generate electricity. This is the same principle that is used in plants that burn oil, coal or gas, the heat is used to boil water and turn a turbine, the only difference being the source of the heat. There are a number of different reactor designs in use. The various configurations and moderator/coolant combinations all operate on the basic principal of heat produced by a nuclear chain reaction being used to turn a turbine and generate power.

B. Scan the text to identify the technical terms (Note for teacher: the underlined words are terms to be hyperlinked for multimedia presentation in a 2nd check version of the text so by clicking once on the respective term it colours in blue thus allowing students to check their score)

C. Use the term bank to determine the genus and species characteristics of each concept expressed by the respective term in the text (Note for teachers: Students are supposed to have been acquainted in advance with the info presented in a TB and how to access it. The database of each term is entered by clicking twice on the respective term in the check text)

Example: Core – the central portion of a nuclear reactor containing the fuel elements, moderator, neutron poisons and support structures

  • Genus – central portion of nuclear reactor (partitive, i.e. whole-part relation between core and portion of reactor)
  • Species – contains fuel elements, etc.

D. Try to specify the relationships between the concepts presented by the terms in the text in a linear order. Give them as a list. (Note for teacher – before setting this activity it is advisable to make a conceptual discourse analysis, possibly assisted by a subject specialist)


1. Control rods (X) – Core (Y) = object-container (X withdrawn from Y)

2. Control rods (X) – Nuclear chain reaction = cause and effect (withdraw X to get Z started)

E. Make a list of the expressions signalling the relationships specified in D.

Examples (follow the text):

1. X consists of Y = whole-part

2. X surrounds Y = object-place/location

3. X carries Y by means of Z = process-instrument/apparatus/device, etc.

F. Draw a diagram of the operation of the nuclear reactor (Note:Engineering students have experience in drawing diagrams and generally like this activity)

G. Compare your diagram with the one shown on the screen (Note for teacher: the diagram will be shown through a projector on a screen)

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

G. Complete the table using information from the text and the definition of the term that you think is presented in the table. Search for the definition in the mini term bank (Note for teachers: The definition of loop is given below only for exemplification)

Reactor component Position Function
Carries water from reactor to steam generator and back


In a pressurized water reactor, the coolant flow path through piping from the reactor pressure vessel to the steam generator, to the reactor coolant pump, and back to the reactor pressure vessel.

H. Watch the video and note down …/fill in the gaps, etc. (Note for teacher:

Depending on the audio/video material teachers can design a number of various viewing activities)

I. Translate the following text into Bulgarian using the mini TB

Additional text on nuclear reactors – could be that part of the original which was cut off to obtain the working text above.


In conclusion we should point out that the communicative activities presented above are only a small part of the possible activities which can be designed following our approach. For example, a teaching unit would benefit a lot from involving contextual reference tasks since coherence (logical links) and cohesion (linguistic links) are a very important component of the overall structure of a scientific text. We hope that after completing successfully the project and testing the teaching materials, we will be able to prove our thesis that the terminology-based approach to ESP teaching proposed can facilitate the language-mediated disciplinary enculturation process that ultimately renders ESP teaching to all students at tertiary level truly meaningful.


1. Allen P. & Widdowson H. (ed.).1970-1980. English in Focus series, OUP

2. Bates M. & Dudley-EvansT. (ed.).1970-1980. Nucleus series, Longman

3. Widdowson H. (assoc. ed.). 1980. Reading and Thinking in English series, OUP

4. Swales J. 1990. Genre Analysis, CUP

5. Sager, J. 1990. A Practical Course in Terminology Processing. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam/Philadelphia

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