Sunday, 21 February 2010

My first and worst legal English lesson

We all have bad lessons from time to time, and I've certainly had my share of truly dreadful ones. My top five would definitely include my first lesson on the CTEFLA course (shaking like a leaf) and the last one (when I was told it would have to be perfect or else I'd fail the course ... and it was even worse than the first one).

I'd also have to include my first lesson with teenagers, having taught adults confidently for seven years, I was totally unprepared for their lack of interest in my lesson). And my first - and last - lesson with little kiddies. That's one I've blanked completely from my memory. Never again. Ooooh no.

And then there was my first lesson with lawyers. (Apologies if you've heard my story before - I guess I'm a bit hung up on it).

I'd been asked to write a legal English course for the British Council to prepare students for a new exam, TOLES Advanced. For lesson 1, I'd created a Starter Unit, a kind of get-to-know-you, get-to-know-the-exam lesson.

So there I was, facing a pack of 12 highly intelligent and demanding students who had paid a lot of money to learn from me ... A recipe for disaster.

One of my exercises involved students working in pairs to come up with examples of legal English vocabulary - the idea being that they could share their expertise with each other and I'd facilitate it and it'd all be nice and collaborative. A five-minute throwaway activity.

Problem was, my round-up activity generated more questions than answers, and I was totally out of my depth. For exmple, the students wanted me to explain the difference - the legal difference - between renting, letting and leasing. They wanted me to tell them how to pronounce pupillage (rhyming with village or camauflage?). Is it HARRassment or haRASSment? And so on and so on.

All I could do was write the problem words up on the board and bleat that I'd deal with them all in the next lesson. But every word that went onto the board seemed to generate another half dozen. It was awful. My students could see me for what I was, a clueless fraud, and I just wanted the floor to swallow me up.

Here's a selection of the words I was expected to explain or to pronounce and couldn't (or rather, not to a group of professionals):

Somehow I made it to the end of the lesson.

Anyway, before the next lesson I spent a few hours crashing round the internet, finding the answers to all those questions. In case you aren't familiar with, I heartily recommend it for tasks like this. It has links to all the online dictionaries, so you can be sure to find a specialist or generalist explanation of just about any word, plus pronunciation, etymology, everything. Usually.

As an example, I searched for "escrow" (any guesses how to pronounce that one?) and was offered 58 dictionaries, including one from's great dictionary. And Encarta, where I heard it pronounced. (I know I could also subscribe to TransLegal's new dictionary, which has all the information I could possibly want on legal English vocab. But I'm too mean.)

Then I turned it all into a worksheet, or rather two worksheets, one for each of the next two lessons - there was too much to cover in one lesson. Here's the first one - sorry it's too small to read, and also my IPA has become Greek for some reason. But you get the idea.

And somehow I got away with it. I started my second lesson with a warmer to match the words with the definitions - using my old cut-up-slips-of-paper trick. And it was good fun. I was able to explain the subtle differences, with help from other students. And the students learnt something that they didn't know before. And the rest of the course went fine. Phew!

But ... I learnt never to expose myself to such a situation again. As an ESP teacher, take control of what's going to come up in lessons and what your students are likely to ask you to explain. Open-ended vocab generation exercises are bound to end in tears, unless you really know most of the vocab already. Open-ended discussions are great, though - if you're left with four or five tricky items to come back to next lesson, I'd say that's healthy. Any more than that, and you're in trouble.

Anyway, the point of this post, if there is one, is to reassure teachers who are considering going into ESP (like my new friend Neil, for example), that although it can be scary, with a bit of common sense - and learning from others' mistakes - it's actually not too bad. Lesson 1 may be a disaster, but as long as lessons 2 and 3 are better, you're on your way to becoming a great ESP teacher.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post. I remember being thrown to the lions at my first university job. I had expected a 10 minute self-introduction and get-to-know-you kind of class (as explained by my manager the day before)

    Somehow, that morphed into a 2-hour lecture that another manager told me I needed to do. Luckily, I had a lot of practice with quick conversation & discussion topics!

    Thanks for the link to, I'd never heard of it before.