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#qskills – Do you have any advice for teaching technical English?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Do you have any advice for teaching technical English?

Tamara Jones responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.



Tricks of the trade: teaching English for engineering

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.


Activities for Techies

Mechanical cogsVicki Hollett, author of the Tech Talk series, gives her thoughts on the types of activities that work for Technical English students – and gives you a few to try out!

Business and Technical English share a lot of similarities. They’re both task oriented and English for getting things done. But if I had to sum up Business English in one word, it would be ‘purposeful’. It’s about people, their plans and their desires to achieve things. And if I had to sum up Technical English in one word, it would be ‘practical’. It’s less about people and more about identifying and solving problems with things.

Business Talk = What's the goal? Let's co-operate and see if we can work it out together. I want to make it happen Tech Talk = What are the specs? Let's measure it and see if it's right. I want to solve the problem.

So what kinds of classroom activities go down well in classes of engineers and Technical English students? Let me illustrate:

It’s the height of the French Revolution and the tumultuous crowd roars as three men are led to Madame la guillotine. First up is an English teacher. ‘Any last words?’ they ask as they stick his head in the machine. ‘No’ he replies as the newly sharpened blade begins its inexorable fall. But then, it judders to a halt. The crowd is perplexed, but fate has spoken. The teacher is spared and free to go. So the second man steps up and he’s a training manager. There’s thunderous applause from the crowd. He has no last words either and once more the blade jams just above his neck. The crowd goes crazy, but again he is free to go. The third man is an engineer and as he’s marched towards the guillotine, he takes a careful look. ‘Any last words?’ they ask. ‘Why yes, I think I can see the problem you’re having here. You see that little nail that’s sticking out of the wood up there…”

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