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Creating a Comfortable, No-Nonsense Environment for ESP
Recognizing the Special Needs of Engineers in ESL/EFL

Maria Spelleri, of the Literacy Council of Sarasota, Florida, has a lot of experience teaching English to engineers. In this article, she shares her comments from a recent TESL-L discussion. See also "Getting Your Engineers to Speak in English".

I think professionals who are learning English feel the risk of looking foolish more so than the average ESL/EFL student. In the case of the engineers, they are probably extremely proficient in their field, used to being in control and feeling confident when working together with their colleagues- in engineering. Put them in the ESL/EFL environment, and they are stumbling novices again, their mistakes spoken aloud for all to hear.

As a teacher, you have to do all possible to make the class a comfortable environment for revealing imperfections. To start, I would pull no punches- keep the class on topics they know, whatever they may be in science, technology, etc. Avoid cutesy, game, and psycho-social stuff until you know each other well (if even then). Let them know that they have so very much to teach you, and that you hope to learn a lot from them. Show them that they have the subject knowledge, and you are going to help them find the words they need to express that knowledge in English. You are a team.

Next, I would use authentic materials as much as possible. It has been mentioned that they are readers, so find interesting readings that a non-engineering teacher can more or less understand. The Internet, popular science magazines, High school and intro college text books, etc. Look on-line for company product specification sheets. Have them summarise, paraphrase, prepare mini-lessons for you and the others (don't forget to have them draw and talk about diagrams and systems!).

Isolate and work on job related functions like cause and effect, describing, hypothesizing, talking about measurement and dimensions, numbers and their relations. You can find guidelines to these in a Technical English text. Very importantly, look for, point out and teach collocations in every reading you go over, as well as those tough compounds that are so popular in the technical fields. ("Radar antenna microchip control panel monitoring system"- just made it up, but I've come across similar!)

By Maria Spelleri
Literacy Council of Sarasota, Florida

2002 ESL MiniConference Online