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Coping with specialist content in ESP

Industrial plant workers checking plansLewis Lansford explores some of the difficulties of teaching specialist content and vocabulary in ESP. His talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, entitled ‘Mudmen and monkey boards: Coping with specialist content in ESP’, will this explore further.

I interviewed a handful of teachers of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) about the challenges of their job and how they’ve overcome them. All four of these comments were made by teachers during the interviews:

“I’m afraid I’m not up to it.”
“I’m at a loss.”
“I’m not a [content area] specialist.”
“The content teachers might disagree with what I say.”

Of course all teachers have felt these things at one time or another, especially newer teachers who are still finding their way. But all four of the teachers who made the above statements are highly educated, well-trained, extremely experienced professionals. And yet they had all felt The Fear.

ESP teachers work in an environment of constant challenge, often with a nagging sense of self-doubt. While general English teachers are trying to decide whether a discussion about Lady Gaga will hold their students’ attention long enough to get through a lesson on comparative adjectives, ESP teachers might be struggling with the question of whether someone could be seriously injured on the job if tricky technical vocabulary is mishandled in the classroom. It can be a huge responsibility.

When dealing with high-achieving doctors or super-ambitious airline pilots, teachers can begin to feel that they just don’t know much. They forget that teachers, too, bring specialist knowledge to the classroom. The same teachers who expressed the doubts above also came up with these suggestions for how to approach ESP.

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Teaching from a distance via videoconferencing

Teacher teaching a group of students via videoconferenceSam McCarter – teacher, consultant and OUP author – considers the practicalities and benefits of teaching from a distance via videoconferencing.

The problem was one of distance. I am an ESP teacher who is based in London, a couple of hundred miles away from the students and only able to deliver a face to face session once per month. The students were a group of postgraduate L2 doctors in a hospital in the northwest of England. The simple solution was videoconferencing.

The practical side

The equipment consists of two TVs or computer monitors with cameras sitting on top. The box with the camera acts as a receiver and transmitter of data over the phone line. When a connection is made, the students telephone a ‘videoconferencing’ number and the connection is almost instant. The classroom has to be laid out to achieve the best picture: as far as possible not directly at the window, the curtains pulled, and the camera zoomed in at both ends. The teacher sees the whole class, but can zoom in and out at any time to one student or a pair. You need to train one or more of the students to be able to use the remote at the other end.

Is the equipment reliable?

The answer is yes. As with any technology, there have been glitches, but without wishing to tempt fate, they have all been minor: forgetting to switch the camera on, having the TV on the wrong channel and having one of the leads in the wrong socket. But once the system is set up, as long as you don’t touch anything, then it seems to work well. There is a troubleshooter at the supplier that you can telephone who can establish a link to your videoconference to diagnose any problems. One very practical administrator had a neat solution to leads getting mixed up: she photographed the back of the TV for future reference!

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