began my career in legal English on the back of a trial lesson I gave on Donoghue v Stevenson, a case that still gets lawyers misty-eyed. The advertisement for the position included something like ‘law degree required; experience of language teaching useful but not essential’. And instead of a trial language lesson, I was required to present a case. There is a limit to
how much language can be learned through chalk ‘n talk teaching alone, so I tried to make the presentation as interactive and memorable as possible. I set up a café (look up the case to see why), played all the parties involved and was even able to fashion a decomposing snail sliding out of an opaque bottle. I also included some discussion tasks and other exercises. The Dean was slightly bewildered but gave me the job. That was twenty years ago, since when I’ve encouraged ESP teachers to focus on the kinds of professional language skills students need – including skills transferrable to academic contexts where necessary to support other courses. A course in business English should be just that: business English. Not Business Studies ‘lite’.
Teaching the efficient and clear use of English as a lingua franca should be the basis of any course designed to help our learners’ career prospects. In my case, this might mean a Swiss law student using English to explain some aspect of their legal system to a Czech exchange student. My students will never need to explain the British constitution to a Welsh lawyer. So why teach it? One reason might be that the teacher in question thinks that language teaching is somehow beneath them, and that tertiary level teachers should be teaching something meatier. This is not my view, but it‘s one I’ve often heard expressed.
I recently gave a presentation on moving from a purely academic English focus to a more employability-skills based approach at tertiary level. The general view was that this was A Good Thing. One delegate pointed out that this was far more than simply A Good Thing, ‘It’s a matter of survival.’ But not everyone felt that way. One colleague said, ‘But this would mean that we’re basically just language teachers!’. I countered that there was no ‘basically’– and no ‘just’ either. We are language teachers. And together with the academic staff are giving our students the essential skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in an increasingly competitive and uncertain jobs market.
So how can we know whether we are giving the students what they need? It boils down to three things: 1. being honest with ourselves; 2. working with colleagues to find out how, if at all, our English classes can support their content teaching; 3. informing ourselves about the language skills students need now – and will need on graduation.
Being honest with ourselves on our reasons for teaching what we teach and assessing what we assess can be difficult, especially if we are in a relatively comfortable position at work. We can find ourselves recycling old lesson plans a little too often, winging it more than we once did, and finding reasons that ultimately seem to support ease of teaching rather than usefulness of what is taught. One way to force ourselves to be more honest is to get feedback from the students. This can be through official evaluations, more informal discussions with the students, or monitoring what students are saying about our teaching in anonymous online forums such as Jodel or Uniboard.
Working with non-language teaching staff on aspects of our teaching can help make our courses more relevant to our learners’ studies, whether at school or in higher education. It may be that our students don’t actually need the skills we are teaching them. Why dedicate hours of teaching to getting students able to write a half-decent thesis statement if the only time they’ll ever need to write one is in their end-of-course English exam? Wouldn’t it be better to use the time to get them working on text types they will need to write in the future?
Courses that exist for their own sake only are a wasted opportunity. The ones that help secure our students a good job are invaluable.
Finding out how the students use English now can be a useful groupwork task in a first class, and a class feedback session on the topic can help build group dynamics. We can also work with
employers to help keep our teaching relevant, and larger companies can be a good source of authentic materials for developing task-based learning materials. A regular review of recently published EFL coursebooks can also help us gauge the employability skills that will be most useful to our students.
We would all like to teach to the best of our abilities. That’s why we join associations such as ETAS, attend conferences, read teaching journals, and follow EFL blogs. But we also have many other professional obligations that reduce the time available to help ensure our courses remain relevant. Come the summer break we will naturally want to wind down and forget about teaching for a couple of months. But this summer, let’s take some time to consider what we will be teaching – and why – when we return to work in September. There will likely be some aspects of our courses that could be improved. And if we can put in a little time to make those improvements over the summer while we are away from our usual work pressures, that will be time well spent and we’ll start our first classes of the next academic year fired-up and ready for the coming semester.