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A professional approach to teaching professionals

EAP for professionalsSam 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. In this post he explores some practical ways of bringing language to life for professionals.

Teaching professionals such as postgraduate doctors requires a number of modifications in approach on the part of any teacher coming into ESP. At a recent event, a participant was reporting a discussion with a volunteer tutor about what he, a retired consultant in the medical field, should call the members of the group he was teaching. He didn’t feel it was right to call his fellow professionals ‘students’. A seemingly minor episode, but it does highlight the shifts that we as professionals need to think about when teaching other professionals. It may be that our students carry on being ‘students’, but our attitude towards them, our behaviour and way of working does need to undergo some transformation.

Working in a team

In the medical field, if you are lucky enough, you may find yourself working as an ESP teacher with a team of health professionals in a hospital setting. You may be part of a team made up of other language professionals, a general practitioner, a nurse, a social worker, (a) consultant(s) along with professional actors/ actresses, all working together in the same training session.

You may, however, be working on your own in a language school and feel that you are isolated, but realise there is more to teaching in the medical field than just doing language practice. In this case, it may be possible to bring in retired or practising health professionals such as consultants or doctors or nurses to help with training, or arrange a visit to a local hospital or clinic. The aim is to make any classroom training as close to the hospital setting as possible, which the Medicine 1 and 2 and Nursing 1 and 2 in the Oxford English For Careers series have aimed to do with their task-based approach.

Training in a hospital setting

A typical training session in communication skills for doctors might involve a multidisciplinary approach with one or more team members where the language itself may appear incidental, but is integral, to the tasks the doctors perform. Each doctor can be given a scenario such as a 25 year-old young woman, Miss Brown, presents with a severe headache. How much detail the doctor is given can be modulated even to the point that all the doctor has is the name and age of the patient; or, if the patient has seen the doctor before, then some past history can be given. For safety and confidentiality reasons, the patient in the training is an experienced actress who has a defined role to play with medical information and details on personality, behaviour and attitude/ mood as well as accent. The history taking is watched by fellow doctors and other health professionals such as those mentioned above, including the language professional. The process is then followed by constructive feedback from the doctor himself, from the actress as the patient, the actress as herself, the other students and trainers. In this instance, the language input on the part of the language professional is dictated by the performance of the doctor in the scenario.

The classroom

The cost of providing the multidisciplinary training described in the previous section may make it difficult to replicate outside the hospital. However, it is possible to create scenarios where the doctors are the patients and their colleagues give feedback from different perspectives (social/ medical/ psychiatric) with the teacher maintaining the role of the language expert. If at all possible, you may be able to bring in actors/ actresses for the scenarios, which will enhance the training considerably. Your students can also be given open-ended problem solving tasks such as dealing with the performance of a colleague. The students discuss the problem in groups of about four within a defined time. Each group member has their own observer who gives constructive feedback on their group interaction. This latter task is a good way to improve insight and self-awareness.

The same training principles apply in other areas of ESP such as business, engineering, finance and law where a problem solving approach can be taken to bring the language to life, focusing not on language practice, but on language use.


How can I teach students who know more than me?

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.

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What was the question?

Female doctor with patient in backgroundIn this article and video, Sam McCarter, author of Medicine 1 and 2, considers the importance of clinical communication skills.

When doctors or nurses are non-native speakers of English, which basic skills do they need for effective communication with their English-speaking patients?

A basic skill for medical personnel, which is often not completely mastered, is asking questions.

A skilful doctor can balance closed questions (‘Does the pain spread anywhere else?’) with open questions (‘Can you tell me a little more about the pain?’) and then cope with a large amount of information in the answer. A doctor who cannot do this risks losing the patient’s confidence.

Yet the very simplicity of the questions may lead students not to take this language seriously enough. This means such questions are often not mastered, because students focus on the more medical doctor-to-doctor communication.

The same applies to counselling a patient, using a very small bank of words to explain a vast array of medical information, while at the same time being able to talk appropriately to other health professionals.

Cue recognition and response are other essential techniques which students need to learn. A patient may hint at something indirectly through stress:

Patient: ‘I don’t take any prescribed drugs’
Doctor: ‘Do you take any other drugs? Like recreational drugs?’

The ‘cue’ may be in the sound of the voice: the patient sounds hesitant. But it may also be non-verbal.

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