The ESP/EFL teacher’s role in distance learning

Genovaite Snuviškiene
Lecturer of English
Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Lithuania


The article attempts to highlight the importance of the ESP/EFL  teacher’s role in  the considered case of distance learning. The strategy of teaching English to the undergraduate engineering students that are less advanced in the English language requires teacher’s  multiple competences. The considered case demonstrated that the effectiveness of teaching-learning process offered by the virtual learning system depends on the teacher’s efforts to facilitate the learners’ individual progress in linguistic and other domains. The teacher had to act as information transmitter, as well as performing other roles, directing individual  students towards their goals.


The distance learning courses hosted in the Moodle virtual environment provide new opportunities and challenges to the undergraduate engineering students studying at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. Taking into consideration the needs of the non-native speakers of English studying English for specific purposes at a technical university, the emphasis should be placed on the use of adequate methods. Thus, teacher’s knowledge of what methods to use is indispensible.

The body of educational research on distance learning has already noted that student-centered learning particularly lends itself to activating students in high-tech environment and distance learning (Wagner et al., 1995). According to Muirhead (2001), distance education would demand changing the traditional role of teachers from information transmitters to guides who arrange meaningful learner-centered experiences. However, teaching English at a distance to the undergraduate engineering students most of whom are more advanced in sciences and less advanced in the English  language requires a less student-centered approach. In order to highlight the importance of the ESP/EFL teacher’s role in the considered case of distance learning, the following objectives have been set:

  1. To highlight the importance of implementing Focus-on-form approach in teaching ESP to the undergraduate engineering students.
  2. To demonstrate the necessity for transmitting information to the considered group of the ESP students in the distance learning environment.

Towards a less student-centered approach in teaching ESP/EFL to the undergraduate engineering students

Though many studies suggest the constructivist model of teaching works best in the distance learning environment, it cannot be implemented if the students are not ready to accept it. The case in European Humanity University in Vilnius shows that, in the context of teaching English to diverse cohorts of students, the intention to move toward student centeredness appeared to have significantly enhanced students’ learning, however, integration  between student-centered and more traditional approaches to teaching  appeared to be  a recipe for success (Vasilene et al., 2007).

As regards ELT in the Lithuanian tertiary sector, in A Survey of English Language Teaching in Lithuania: 2003-2004, it has been noted that some Lithuanian students see the knowledge of English gap between school and university as a problem in their further studies of the English language (Thomas et al., 2005). Besides, the experience suggests that most of the engineering students, in particular those engaged in part-time studies, need to improve their General English.

Although practitioners encourage the use of communicative learner-centered tasks, the above described situation requires a new less student-centered approach where grammar instruction could be incorporated within communicative EFL classes. This approach has proved to be efficient in teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) to construction engineering students in Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. The approach to selected special texts was determined by the necessity of form-focused instruction (Snuviškiene, 2010).

The research shows that among the other established approaches to EFL teaching at a tertiary level in Lithuania, Focus on form (FonF), as compared to the other established approaches in CL development, is finding its way in the EFL/ESP classes through the natural needs of the learner fostered activities, presenting focus-on-form instruction (Snuviškiene, 2007). Attention to form can be observed in meaning-focused classes either during planned activities or in occasional shifts to form responding to current students’ needs. In distance learning, focus-on-form instruction can be implemented in real-time classes.

A case of teaching ESP/EFL to the undergraduate distance students

The study is based on personal experience of instructing the undergraduate distance students, who studied English for Specific Purposes as a part of their Construction Technology and Management study programme at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University in the Autumn 2012 semester.  The qualitative analysis of the feedback on the students’ written assignments, the teacher-student correspondence and the content of online communication demonstrated that the teacher was expected to be more active within the following domains:  linguistic domain (problem: gaps in General English); technological domain (problems: lack of knowledge and skills to use Moodle); personal domain (problems: inability to adapt to a new learning environment).

Depending on the students needs, they were pinpointed the gaps in their language knowledge without being distracted from the content. It is not only in on-line classes, that an initially provided explicit knowledge, turned into implicit knowledge by going beyond the actual text by using the same context. This way the students were transmitted the required linguistic knowledge. The study demonstrated the teacher’s efforts to implement Focus-on-Form instruction leading to the students’ individual progress.

The analysis showed that some students were not able to learn due to their personal discomfort and  lack of self-efficacy. The teacher’s efforts to improve motivation of the struggling learners were directed towards the increase of the students’ self-efficacy and progress. Besides, the study demonstrated the lack of either knowledge, or skills to use Moodle. Thus, the students were provided advice. The learners who used to have problems in working autonomously were able to take more responsibility for their own learning at the end of the semester.

Based on the qualitative  analysis, the roles of the teacher in the considered learning environment were identified.  The teacher had to perform the following roles: course designer, lecturer, monitor, information transmitter, assessor, advisor and tutor.


The importance of implementing Focus-on-form approach in teaching ESP to the undergraduate engineering students was highlighted.

The necessity for transmitting information, as well as performing other roles, in the considered group of the ESP students was demonstrated.

The importance of the ESP/EFL teacher’s role in the considered case of distance learning was determined by the positive outcomes of teaching, i.e. retaining the students in the learning situation, contributing to their individual progress.


Muirhead, B., Practical Strategies for Teaching Computer-Mediated Classes”, Educational Technology & Society 4(2)2001. Available from Internet:

Snuviškiene, G., Benefiting from a text-oriented EFL/ESP course. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference. Nation and Language: Modern Aspects of Socio-Linguistic Development, Kaunas University of Technology, Panevežys Institute, Lithuania, 87-92, 2010.

Snuviškiene, G., Teaching  ESL in a continuous process of changes. International Conference. Languages in Lithuania:   Aspirations and Achievements, Vilnius, VKC, 201-207, 2007

Thomas, D. et al., A Survey of English Language Teaching in Lithuania: 2003-2004,  British Council, Ministry of Education   and  Science of the Republic of Lithuania, Vilnius LR ŠMM ŠAC, 22-86, 2005.

Vasilene, O., Karavajeva, S., Learner-Centered Approach and its Implementation. International Conference. Languages in Lithuania: Aspirations and Achievements, Vilnius, VKC, 219, 2007.

Wagner, E. D., Mc Combs, B. L., Learner centered psychological principles in practice: Designs for distance education, Educational Technology, 35(2), 32-35, 1995.