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Tricks of the trade: teaching English for engineering

6 Comments

Lewis Lansford, co-author of Engineering 1, talks about why teaching technical English isn’t as daunting as it seems. Lewis will be speaking on this topic at the 2012 IATEFL BESIG conference on 17th November 2012.

I was freaking out the entire summer before the class started.
I hadn’t a clue.
I had no experience in the industry.
I realised a teaching mistake could have fatal consequences.

These are the words of English teachers describing their thoughts and feelings as they began the journey into teaching English to engineers and technicians. Many technical English teachers never planned teach technical English, it just happened to them – they were in the right place at the right time – or some might say the wrong time.

Consider this technical English sentence: Our tools sinter or anneal thin-film materials using the photonic curing process in only milliseconds. It’s easy to see why teachers feel frightened. How can you possibly help students express ideas that you yourself don’t understand? And what teacher wants to feel that they’re the person in the room with the least knowledge and experience? The teacher – and not the student – is supposed to be the expert, right?

But is the above sentence a typical example of the language Engineers and technicians need? While highly technical language is an important component of any technical English syllabus, it isn’t the full story. So what is the full story? Here are four lessons learnt by the same four teachers who made the comments at the start of this blog.

It isn’t as daunting as it seems at first

The above sentence about sintering is representative of only a small part of the language engineers need. Just like any worker communicating in English, basic transactional language is the broad foundation that the technical language rests on. As a teacher, you’ll often be in highly familiar territory, because this is general rather than specialist English – Did you get my email? I can’t make the meeting on the 9th, and so on.

Allow your students to teach you

When you are confronted with difficult material, don’t panic. You can make your own ignorance an asset in the classroom by having your students explain technical terms and concepts to you. This sort of explanation is a skill that will serve them well in the work place, and it will help you develop your own expertise as a technical English teacher.

Demonstrate that you’re a language expert

OK, you haven’t mastered the photonic curing process mentioned above, but that’s not what your students want to learn from you. Your job is to bring teaching expertise and a good understanding of the English language to the classroom. Instead of being held back by what you don’t know, play to your own strengths and deliver pedagogically sound lessons.

Fun is pedagogically sound

We often imagine that a classroom full of engineers will be serious students who want ‘hard’ lessons. It’s true that if your students are involved with safety-critical systems such a brakes in cars or control systems for airplanes, it’s important to get it right – mistakes could put lives at risk. But the experience of most teachers is that like all students, engineers are at their best when classes are fun, even when the subject matter is potentially heavy. Technical vocabulary can be taught and revised using crosswords, word searches and puzzles, and communication activities can take the form of games. For example, students can analyse the function and purpose of a piece of equipment by imagining what life would be like without it; students enjoy this sort of break.

Most teachers find that once they’re used to teaching technical English, they have no desire to go back to the general English classroom, with the same old conversations about Lady Gaga, the Loch Ness Monster, and favourite festivals around the world. If you find yourself in a state of panic over an upcoming technical-English teaching gig, take heart and listen to people who’ve been there: It won’t be as bad as you fear, and you’ll probably end up enjoying it.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

6 thoughts on “Tricks of the trade: teaching English for engineering

  1. Pingback: Tricks of the trade: teaching English for engineering | Lewis Lansford

  2. Great advice.

  3. I’ve been teaching technical English for almost 10 years and it has been the best move I’ve ever made in the field of ESL. I have enjoyed the experience of learning from my students, they have enjoyed changing from repetitive topics in General English courses to more interesting matters.

  4. I also have been teaching engineering students since 1998 and one of the things I agree with is to let the students teach you. I used to spend enormous amount of time trying to find things on the net that would apply to them. Then I thought “Let them do it” Two assignments for grades that are very useful are: Have them find an article about their subject matter and give a summary and personal opinion about it as well as the article itself.
    Another idea was the same for a presentation including a video of no more than 10 minutes about their subject matter. They have come up with so many more ideas than I could ever think of.Good luck!

  5. Thanks for you very useful advice as I am going to venture into this specific area this year.
    Maria Vieira

  6. Hi
    I would like to try to teach technical English too, and we have a problem in technical English now in Laos

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