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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.


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English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right

Businesspeople shaking handsLewis Lansford discusses the four key elements of success for teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Lewis has written a wide range of ESP teaching materials, including Engineering 1 and Oil and Gas 1 in the Oxford English for Careers series, and English for Cabin Crew.

Most teachers come to ESP teaching with no specialist background in the field they’re teaching (English for medicine, robotics, aviation, law, the military, etc.) It can be intimidating teaching experts in a field that you yourself know little about. The key to success is getting a good balance of four basic elements: special lexis, general English language/grammar, special context and pedagogy.

Special lexis

This is generally the most intimidating part of ESP for teachers and learners. Teachers, who are used to being the expert, find themselves trying to help students communicate clearly using words that they – the teachers – don’t understand. That’s tough. Here are three ways that teachers overcome this feeling of lack:

  1. They learn as much as they reasonably can about the field;
  2. They are honest with themselves and their students about the things they don’t know, demonstrating that their expertise is in language teaching, not engineering or medicine or aviation;
  3. They remember that special lexis is only one part of the whole picture.

English language/grammar

This is an area of ESP teaching where the teacher is the expert. Think of ESP as a pyramid. Special lexis is the small pointy part at the top. The wide foundation of the pyramid is the English that everyone needs every day – the grammatical building blocks of sentence structure, verb tenses, adverbs and so on. Special lexis is important, but is useful only with the support and structure of English sentences to put it into. This holds up the whole pyramid.

Specialist context

Getting things done in English involves discourse – conversation, extended texts, and negotiations. Like grammar, this is familiar territory to the teacher: asking for information, clarifying, interrupting, making suggestions and all the other familiar functions. People in almost any professional or academic situation must do these things. Some specific situations differ across fields. Students of English for medicine need to develop an understanding of the discourse of the hospital, which involves communicating in a very hierarchical environment, often under intense pressure, sometimes with lives at stake. Business people need to learn non-linguistic negotiation skills, and often must learn about how these differ across cultures. The teacher’s job in this case is to develop the best understanding possible of their learners’ target context and to create lessons that give students the opportunity to use English appropriately.

Pedagogy

This is where it all comes together. The key to learners’ success is well-crafted lessons that provide exposure to authentic language, but not too much; allow for plenty of practice and recycling; give the teacher and the learner opportunities to measure and mark progress. Without sound pedagogy – well-planned and well-executed lessons – language learning and development are unlikely to take place. When the teacher gets it right, the other elements fall into place, and balance is achieved.

Teachers often start their first ESP job feeling intimidated by what they don’t know and worried about their ability to deliver useful lessons. Those who stay with it discover that their own expertise in running effective classes using appropriate materials balances perfectly with their students’ knowledge and experience in their own field. Many go on to relish the expertise they develop in teaching pilots, nurses, or engineers – comfortable with what they know, but also confident in what they don’t – which may be the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.

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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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The fear of the native speaker

Jon Naunton is a freelance teacher and materials writer. He is co-author of Business Result, and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This post, originally published in Dialogue Magazine, explores why non-native speakers are often nervous about conversing with native speakers.

Two people looking nervous

Those of us who have taught foreign execs learn early on that they would far rather speak English with other non-native speakers than with an English person, or – heaven forbid – an American.

Executives with status and responsible positions in international companies often dread encounters with mother tongue speakers that leave them feeling confused, infantilized and at a disadvantage. These two stories may help to explain why.

I live near a small town in France that attracts its fair share of tourists. Over the summer I was in the newsagents when a man in a blazer and shorts approached the counter. ‘Have you got my copy of the Daily Mail?’ he barked. ‘You said you’d keep it to one side.’ The shopkeeper looked at him blankly. ‘My Daily Mail!’ the visitor continued in a slowly enunciated bellow. ‘Have – you – kept – it – back – for – me?’ When the shopkeeper shrugged helplessly, Daily Mail man turned around, muttering to himself, and left.

Recently at our local airport, blessed by Ryan Air, I met an English aeronautical engineer seconded to a British owned French subsidiary. In the four years that he had been there his wife had picked up quite a bit of French but I had to contain my surprise when I heard him order lunch. His French was, at best, basic. Linguistically speaking, his knuckles were scraping the ground. I was left wondering how he got by with his French colleagues.

Now, I know there is a danger in generalizing from the particular, but I won’t let it stop me. I would argue that Daily Mail man and airport man are fairly representative of how the English perform in other tongues. The use of English as a lingua franca has made us lazy, and Daily Mail man would have been raised in the conviction that it was his God-given right to be understood wherever he trod on foreign soil.

Yet in my opinion, their lack of ease in French goes deeper than either consideration, and has a lot to do with how foreign languages are taught in England. Part of the problem is to do with time – language lessons in England receive far fewer classroom hours than most other EU countries, and it is possible to drop a foreign language at the tender age of fourteen. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sport, a musical instrument or any other skill including languages – you have to put in the hours to achieve a decent level. Time and practice are crucial.

The next problem is to do with expectations. When my nephew started French at secondary school, his homework for week one was to learn numbers one to five. For week two it was six to ten. As part of an exciting school project the kids in his class were supposed to create a French market by drawing cards of fruit and vegetables. My nephew’s task was to draw a big pile of plums – prunes in French – which he duly did. I am certain that he will never forget the word for plum but I wonder if his time could have been – excuse the pun – more fruitfully employed. Nevertheless, on parents’ evening the class’s handiwork was displayed as a reminder of the school’s commitment to excellence in foreign languages.

The net result is that the average English person has such a poor grasp of what it is to tussle with a language that he cannot even begin to comprehend where the difficulty lies when he runs into communication problems. Even when English is used as a lingua franca the native speaker can get into trouble. He is less able to modify his language to accommodate the language level of the person he is trying to communicate with. Once he has received the signal that the other person speaks some English no further effort is made to modify or ‘grade’ his language. This behaviour, wrongly classified as arrogance, is due to benign indifference or being oblivious of any problem in the first place.

All this may go to show why most non-native speakers are happier communicating with English as their common language than having to cope with an unaccommodating monoglot who simply can’t recognize the problem. I sympathize with the reluctance of some EU members (notably France) of adopting English as the principal language of Brussels and Strasbourg, thereby reducing the annual billion Euro interpreting and translating bill. Were this to happen it might confirm the attitude of the English to learning other languages and make matters even worse.

What do you prefer – communicating in English with native or non-native speakers? Share your thoughts below.

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Brave New World English

Robin Walker is a freelance language teacher, teacher educator and materials writer. In this post, he considers the vital role that English now plays in World business and communication, and discusses the increasing importance of English as a Lingua Franca. Robin hosted a Webinar “Pronunciation for International Intelligibility”. Watch the recording of this webinar here.

Last month I took on two clients, both seeking coaching in pronunciation. Pablo works in the finance department of a US multinational that has a key European plant here in northern Spain. His boss is Irish, but most of the people he uses English with are non-native speakers. Pablo handles accounts for the whole of Europe, and even within the confines of his office, he’s in daily contact with speakers from over 17 different countries.

Ana works at the Spanish branch of a German company that makes air bridges, the metal and glass tubes that feed us on and off planes in airports around the world. She uses her English for telephone calls, Skyping and video-conferencing, and with Chinese, Brazilian, Arabian and European clients. English dominates her daily life despite working in Spain, and her office is a Tower of Babel in the making.

Image courtesy of fimoculous on flickr

Wow! It’s happened. (They said it would.)

Wow! It’s happening right now. (It’s everywhere I go.)

And wow! It’s going to go on happening far into the future.

English has gone global, and is being used much more today as a lingua franca (between non-native speakers), than as a native language (between native speakers), or as a foreign language (between native speakers and non-native speakers).

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