Teaching English to students from the science and tech fields.

By Linley Bignoux


Teaching to Science and Technology industry students English have certain considerations. Teaching English to students from the science and technology fields comes with some issues that teachers need to be possibly aware of

Typically science and technology students backgrounds predominately come from engineering, information technology and technical oriented backgrounds, which includes the aerospace, chemical and computer-related industries. They come from a broad spectrum of engineering and scientific disciplines generally speaking.

Generally, problems will occur when companies or job functions and roles require the use of English and the students to learn English as well. Although students may have a firm grasp of scientific, technical jargon and language and can converse about concepts in their field of expertise, they may, however, struggle in everyday or general conversation whilst be lacking in vocabulary knowledge.

They might not have put time and effort into learning English over the years due to several reasons. Although these types of students can and will read at a high level, they lack confidence when speaking English or having conversations overall.

The use of translation package software for email correspondence and their spoken grammar may be at a low level making it difficult to put parts of speech together and have a conversation.

These students have issues since they don’t often use the English language, their irregular use of the language is compounded by the fact that they are not exposed to situations or scenarios whereby presentations, conferences or generally networking or socialising among peers is not common, they lack exposure and lack fundamental speaking dialogues in these situations.

This is a problem since if they are applying for jobs in global or multinational firms they might be asked to go to conferences and give detailed presentations, whilst also socialising with peers.

These students often differ from other professionals since they have problems with associating the differences in the technical language and jargon vs everyday spoken dialogues. They learned English at university and use it in online communications but were never exposed to real conversational English or straying away from it, the textbook cookie-cutter English is what they may know.

They can be proficient readers and understand texts but have real issues with pronunciation overall. Natural communication does not come easy, meaning that even in their native language they don’t talk or converse much.

They speak perfectly and at a very high level in their native tongue, and won’t speak because they are embarrassed about their level in English.

Generally, they are somewhat embarrassed about their English speaking ability making them less likely to speak (lack of confidence and/or lack of spoken practice), even though they are quite advanced in their native language or mother tongue.

Encouraging these students to increase their vocabulary is important since students in this category might benefit more from listening comprehension to model words, and pronunciation is key.

Although they may have good reading skills, activities that include a variety of subject areas with a good focus on word families with the inclusion of natural conversation will build confidence, whilst ensuring new vocabulary is always introduced.

Using audio such as podcasts and radio programmed for listening comprehension skills and tasks, again with word families or groups(lexical sets) I find will boost vocabulary which is focused on the functional language they can use in addition to everyday conversational language.

As a teacher being encouraging whilst utilizing lesson time where they can practice speaking in a real conversation to gain a good grasp on speaking skills and build their overall confidence.

Correcting grammatical errors and mistakes in pronunciation in a kind yet knowledgeable way I can consider to provide them with links to grammar exercises or online tutorials.

Encouraging students to consider and select learning materials totally outside their comfort zone will aid them to learn new English vocabulary.

Asking students to write down vocabulary, new words and phrases, selecting up to 3 words per lesson, ideally integrating that into their day to day conversations will be another key task for them.

Introducing vocabulary for the low-level English technology student
will have to be suitable, covering an interesting topic with concepts that can be understood at this level. The use of different types of exercises such as Gap fills, Vocabulary used in written text, the vocabulary used in a different context or situation exercises. These students don’t know a lot of words at this level, slow steps will be important.

Synonym matching, phrases and phrase matching, each of these mentioned test for understanding of the ideas in written text and can be used to define bits of language and test students overall comprehension.

The use of audiovisuals which overall have clear aims and objectives for the student to learn and possibly achieve is a great way to complement other learning materials.

Again, low-level students tend to have a limited vocabulary, so exercises involving first listening than reading will be crucial since oral comprehension and responding to questions will be difficult. This link focuses good enough on things you can model pronunciation upon to, making it easy for the student and yourself.

The role-play and discussion in lesson materials will be quite important since learners will need to talk in real-life situations outside their job domain or area of expertise.

Remember that learning materials should have an exercise that each test for a particular skill on listening, speaking and reading and match up to aims for a particular lesson with slow or incremental steps, especially for low-level learners this is quite important for them.

For an intermediate level English student from the science and technology field, we need to consider them as well.

The reasoning is clear here considering that even though these students might be quite technical in their fields, for an intermediate level student it would not be ideal or suitable for them to read or select English text which can be more let’s say more “academic”, that would be for more advanced students.

However, if you believe it fits within reason at their level of both speaking about the subject and reading the subject matter in a particular written text then it is fine. If it suits them since students can understand written texts whilst understanding the main ideas and independently be able to describe opinions, state facts and discuss the articles for questions and answers, which fit their language level or competence then it is fine yes.

Generally, as an English teacher, you need to read written texts to see if they are appropriate and try to ensure you are not introducing vocabulary that is too complex or academic. You can use a text analyzer on the web to run through vocabulary as well to see the words that will be used and see if you can fit them into word families or lexical sets as well.

Finally, choose written text with ideas that themselves are presented within them (for example what the article is talking about, the gist of the story, what was the conclusion ) does not overwhelm students with concepts that introduce more complex vocabulary, the focus is important in any given English lesson.

Sometimes students read above their level and/or below it, so you need to be mindful of this depending on the student’s capabilities and reading interest. Keep it simple enough, even though it might be quite technical already, especially if they choose something outside their technical domain or professional life. You need to grade your language as well, meaning that your students are not at the same level you are as a speaker, you are a teacher of the English language and you need to slow down and speak clearly and emphasise your words and be patient with students.

Now that leads me to the teacher teaching particularly scientific, technical students and how this may work and try to debunk some myths here. You need to have the passion of teaching these subjects to be able to convey and be enthusiastic, not being “scientific” is not an issue in itself, its a label.

You don’t need to be scientific, you need to just research the topics well, so you need to be interested and inclined to take on research and read a lot on subjects, read read and read on a variety of topics that you can relate to oceans, space, forests, sustainability vs ecology et etc.

Going to the supermarket can be quite scientific if you break down the technology used now at stores into steps or sequences involved (bar codes, self serve checkout counter computers, how products are shelved)etc etc. The trick is to explain the world or environment around us, mundane can become interesting.

Generally speaking, teaching on scientific topics are not really different to teaching in general. What changes, in my opinion, is the context and vocabulary and topic, interesting to note that most scientific subjects that are talked about appear in a lot of mainstream media as well and we live in a world that uses science to explain things, even going to the toilet.

The difference is like anything in vocabulary it’s the varying degrees in word complexity. For me learning the vocabulary yourself as a teacher is important.

What confuses people is that science is not exclusive to teach, its the passion and knowing some of the vocabulary involved and making that the basis of every lesson, you learn just as much as you teach and visa-versa, along the way you learn more and more as you go, meaning that for if a teacher has/is having difficulty or are apprehensive or not confident, they can learn.

If you can explain English grammar and explain the nuances of English (which can be quite intense and technical in all its parts), you can explain scientific concepts, since teaching itself relies on scientific principles, theories used in lessons and teaching strategies(pedagogical).

You need to intertwine subject knowledge and your teaching knowledge or experience to grow teaching content, no different from teaching English, just that the topics change, but methods of teaching don’t. What I am doing is teaching a topic, but I am not a scientist myself, so what! Science is not exclusive to teach, teaching about a topic is already what we do may it be grammar(parts of speech or phrasal verbs).

For example: listening and reading forms an important part of teaching these technical or scientific types of students, therefore doing the same as a teacher will help, such as listening to podcasts and reading about science-based topics will broaden your knowledge, staying informed ourselves as English teachers. So it just means that relating to methods and theory of teaching is just have an inquiring mind, passion and a liking to explain the world around you using your already known teaching strategies or techniques.

The vocabulary used in scientific articles, how science articles talk about evidence, how science works and research is explained in presenting findings, conclusions, questions can be taught just like parts of speech, conditionals and phonetics and modal verbs are taught for example, in a sequence and a module format with simple language, this will expand on existing teaching know-how, this can be taught to English teachers in a simplified way.

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