I spent an evening last week as a judge at the regional final of a public speaking contest organised here in the UK for secondary school students. After our issue in January, I was keen to see how normal British teenagers handled communicating to an audience. Admittedly they didn’t have the grammar and vocabulary problems your learners probably have, but they still had to cope with a whole range of skills: getting attention, maintaining interest, projecting their voice, showing their personality, controlling their nerves, being aware of body language, emphasising the right words and being warm, informative and entertaining all at the same time.
The final was a great success and the winners were outstanding. It made me wonder what the motivation was for those learners, aged from twelve to fourteen, to attend extra classes at lunchtime or in the evening in order to become better communicators, but it didn’t take me long to realise that such skills would be useful in oral exams, in interviews for further education, talking to potential employers for holiday jobs or internships, presenting projects in class and generally become someone who can show what they know and think in an engaging way. Their extracurricular activity has a real purpose.
This issue is looking at English classes with a real purpose, courses often known as ESP. Before anyone comments, I know that nearly every class these days has a purpose, whether it is to prepare for an exam, or to learn skills for academic study or to get ready for a trip abroad. Nevertheless our profession, and in that I include institutions, exam boards and publishers, still continues to differentiate between General English and ESP. Teachers, too, often find themselves in one camp or the other and think that the transition from one to the other will be difficult. I hope this issue goes some way to dispel that myth.
We look at a wide range of contexts in this issue, from civil engineers to lawyers and from soldiers to students. Each of the contexts has specific language to be learned: vocabulary items and expressions, certain grammatical forms which occur frequently or industry specific phraseology such as you find in the English for aviation. All these specialisms, on the other hand, have lots of things in common – notions of time, quantity, process, hierarchy or sequence – and these can be taught whatever the domain of the students. I remember when I was first teaching and I was struggling with a group of aeronautical technicians from one particular country. The General English we were so fond of presenting was of very little interest to them and I knew very little of how an engine functions. We found common ground and started to have useful lessons only when I realised I had to use what they were interested in and knew about as content for my grammar, vocabulary and function teaching.
Over the years I have taught politicians, models, chemists, lawyers, scientists, train-drivers and many more. They all, fundamentally, are like the schoolchildren in the speaking competition: they want to articulate what is in their mind to someone else using the English language. Provided we don’t forget that, ESP courses can be extremely successful and rewarding to teach. Just make sure that every lesson has real takeaway value. If, when they are at work, they can use what you have taught, your teaching will have been good for purpose.
I hope you enjoy the issue and find ideas to help you in the classroom, issues to make you think about your teaching and opinions you might want to challenge. As ever, I would be delighted to hear from you with a short reply to our Further comments section.
Editor: Robert McLarty
Robert McLarty has been involved in Business English teaching since 1979. He is a teacher and teacher trainer, and has run a number of RSA Diploma and teacher-training courses. From 1986 to 1997, Robert was the Director of ILC Paris. In 1998 he moved to Oxford to run OISE Oxford and in 2004 he joined Oxford University Press' ELT Division as Publishing Manager, Business English.
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