Sam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores how teachers of English for Medicine can use role-play to enable learning in the classroom.
Teaching English for Medical Purposes (EMP) to a class of trained or student doctors can be a daunting prospect.
They have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body, whereas most of us who teach English for Medicine – probably don’t. And that gap between our knowledge and theirs can lead to a bit of self doubt as we prepare to step into the classroom.
In my experience, there are two things to remember in situations such as this. The ﬁrst is to remember your role in the classroom. You aren’t supposed to be the expert in medicine – you’re the expert in teaching communication skills. Reminding yourself of this will help you to keep focused on what you’re doing and, just as importantly, it’ll help you to keep calm if you feel anxious or daunted.
Second, remember to use your students! It might seem strange to think of your students as a teaching resource, but it makes perfect sense. If you can turn their knowledge into your asset, lessons will become easier to teach and, hopefully, more rewarding for your students. Here’s how.
Teaching communication skills in EMP is essentially about facilitating learning so that your students can develop ﬂexibility and conﬁdence. If you can create realistic situations where your students actively use their medical knowledge, you will give them very real skills practice for their place of work. One way to achieve this is through role-play exercises.
Role-plays give students the freedom to use their specialist knowledge, which is always good for building their conﬁdence. At the same time, you get to learn from your students; they supply the specialist information, and that takes a little bit of pressure off you. The key to good role-plays is organization – as long you understand what skills your students need, and can organize and control the activities to that effect, you are doing your job.
Communication in medicine lends itself well to role-play activities. In fact, the possibilities are almost endless, as even the most basic role-play can be tweaked to be as complex as you like.
Consider, for example, taking a medical history from a patient. You can create a lesson using just one word – such as headache– and the students’ knowledge. Ask them to create a brief case presentation: a 25-year-old patient presents with a (tension) headache. Students can take turns taking the history from the patient. Give each of them ﬁve minutes to take the history, allow two to three minutes for feedback, then follow it up with whole class feedback.
A role-play such as this is made more challenging by asking the ‘patient’ to adopt an attitude (aggressive, annoyed or challenging, for example). Alternatively, students can work in groups of three so the third student acts as a monitor of the ‘doctor’ who checks medical detail. You can refer monitors to particular pages of medical text books too.
Medical case histories also lend themselves to information gap activities. These activities are where the ‘patient’ presents to the doctor with an illness that the doctor does not know about. To make this type of activity more challenging, you can:
- restrict the enquiry to different types of headache – tension, migraine, haemorrhage, thunderclap, for example
- set the activity for a speciﬁc ﬁeld, such as respiratory medicine
- make it completely open – let students decide on the patient’s problem themselves.
With these tips and ideas in your bag, there’s no need to worry about what you don’t know. Just concentrate on what you’re supposed to, and remember why you’re there – to facilitate the learning process.
As a lay person rather than a medical expert, you as the teacher are the ideal candidate for getting doctors to ‘decode’ medical language in the way they would need to if they were speaking to a patient. Your lack of specialist knowledge can actually be beneﬁcial in the classroom.
So, be open to role-plays, be clear about your objectives for each activity, and don’t forget to use the wealth of knowledge sitting inside your students’ heads. I’m sure they’ll be happy to share it.
What are your experiences of learning from students?