Technical language vs. ESL

ESL teachers are expected to know all about the language. Of course, we have no problems explaining grammar, preparing for the exams and of course, going over the most commonly used vocabulary. What happens when you have to teach something you have no expertise on? Should ESL teachers have any other educational background to be more valuable?

One of my students has been preparing for the B1 Cambridge exam.
We’ve been working on all the exam tasks. We practised describing pictures, writing emails, and most importantly, answering according to the key! There are times when I question the accuracy of those exams and if this certificate verifies students abilities to function in the “real” world of English speaking. That’s why when I was asked to leave the exam preparation for two weeks and focus on helping with the fishing school exam preparations, I happily agreed.

I know nothing about fishing vessels, different types of fishing methods and gear used for each one of them. That’s why I started by studying the coursebook on my own. Since it is an adult evening school, there are students of all English levels, ranging from A1 to B2. Although the level is quite low, I found it quite challenging for one main reason – there were many new words to understand and memorise. The coursebook is packed with new vocabulary and explanations. It made me feel quite overwhelmed, so I decided to make a set of worksheets with definitions and pictures. If you are interested in those activities, you can download them for free (with answers!!) at the end of this post.

We went over all the worksheets I’ve prepared and supplemented them with free-hand drawings. I know my most effective way of studying and memorising new material. As my objective is for him to pass the exam, I wanted to give him a variety of different studying methods to make this experience pleasant and useful.

Apart from the ship parts and types of netting, we also revised the types of fish that they are designed to catch and their overall impact on the environment. This student is quite shy and it takes some effort to interest him in any topic. However, this time was a bit different. For the first time in a long time, I saw him genuinely excited about the class. He was happy to label all the pictures and even proceeded by explaining to me the environmental impact and the legal problems with the fishing methods.

Even though it took me a long time to prepare for this class and even longer to learn the new vocabulary, I realised one important thing – my educational background in environmental engineering, definitely helped me understand the topic. First of all, I enjoyed the challenge. Second of all, it reminded me of the marine science course I took in the first year of my master’s degree. I noticed that I was able to engage in a meaningful discussion on the fishing gear and its impact on the environment.

We finished with a discussion about this exam revision. I apologised to him for my lack of knowledge on the matter. I explained that I really tried my best to understand and give him an accurate description of the fishing industry, but I still wanted him to fact check some of the things we talked about. He told me that he appreciated my effort and that it helped him a lot (mostly because he didn’t have to study on his own). Then told me something that truly shocked me…his current technical English teacher doesn’t know anything about the fishing industry and what’s even scarier, apparently she doesn’t know much about the language either. She has a B1 level and all of their lessons are done in Spanish.

How is that even possible? How can a person with a low language level and no technical background be responsible for the education of a group of people? In my opinion, at the end of this course, the students will be able to point to different fishing-related objects and name them, but nothing more than that. These classes won’t prepare them to work in an international environment in the future.

I think that the best combination is to have an ESL teacher with additional educational background. My ESL experience helped me prepare a successful set of revision notes that also focus on possible exam questions. My scientific background helped me focus on the utility of this studying material. I didn’t want to focus on vocabulary only. I wanted to also categorize the items based on their functions.

We still have a few revision classes left. One of them will focus on writing a job application for a fishing expert and an oyster harvester. I’m so happy that I got a chance to work on something slightly different. It woke me up from the Cambridge preparation slumber and doing the same activities over and over again. Most importantly, it gave me the feeling of doing something relevant. I enjoyed getting back into the science mode and refreshing some knowledge obtained in the master’s degree.

What do you normally teach? Do you focus on the exam preparation or do you also dip your toes in more technical or scientific topics? If you are interested in seeing my worksheets, click the links below and get the worksheets with the answers for free

2 thoughts on “Technical language vs. ESL

  1. Yes it’s always challenging to come up with material that corresponds to the adult learner’s needs. Whether it’s fishing or pharmacies, it keeps us on our toes! Great work!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 5 ways of keeping private students | Joanna ESL

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