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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.

Here are a few of their ideas:

1) Work with an expert.
If you’re not a content specialist, arrange for content specialists to visit the class as often as is reasonable.

2) Use your students as a resource.
Don’t forget that often, the students themselves are content specialists. Get them to transfer their specialist knowledge to you as part of the teaching process.

3) Be confident in your ignorance.
Let the doctors and pilots and bankers get on with being content experts and remember that your job is at least in part to help them with enabling language: asking for information, getting clarification, saying when there’s a problem, and so on. You don’t need to be able to answer, on the spot, every technical Enlgish vocabulary question they throw at you.

4) Demonstrate that you are an expert in teaching English.
Remember, this is what you’re being paid for. Anyone can bring authentic materials into the classroom, but it takes a skilled English teacher to turn them into pedagogically sound lessons and materials.

5) Do your research.
Being an expert at teaching English doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research specialist content. Read as much as you can and always work to improve your game.

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  1. I was wondering what relevance Extra-Sensory Perception had to teaching English… although sometimes it could be an advantage! 😛

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