Monday, 29 March 2010

English for nursing

I was sitting in the staffroom between lessons this evening and one of the teachers asked the room, 'What's the name of that thing nurses wear on their heads?' No-one seemed to know, and then someone suggested, "Ask Jeremy - he's got two books on English for Nursing".

Well, yes. But there weren't any hats in either book, as far as I remember. Not a priority. As far as I'm concerned, the thing nurses wear on their heads is called a nurse hat. Perhaps a kind reader could fill me in on the proper name, although I'll admit now that I'm not really that worried about not knowing.

The point is this: what do nurses (or any other sets of ESP learners, for that matter) need English for? To explain the various parts of their uniform? Or to deal professionally and symathetically with patients in crises or high-emotion situations and with other medical professionals in situations where accuracy may make the difference between life and death?

In our new book, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-Intermediate, we teach nurses and nurse trainees how to speak with patients who have suffered embarrassing situations (like incontinence). Just stop for a second and think how you would help someone maintain their dignity in that situation ... and then try doing that in a foreign language ... at pre-int level.

We also teach them how to reassure patients who are about to undergo unpleasant operations, such as having a tube inserted through their nose into their stomach. Again, stop and think for a second how you'd deal with that.

We've got a unit on communicating with terminally ill patients.

Last week I had a phone meeting with Virginia Allum, one of the authors of our nursing books (together with Patricia McGarr). Virginia's a hugely experienced nurse and nurse educator (as well as being a great English teacher and writer). She told me that every single dialogue in both books was based on real situations she'd been through as a nurse. Incontinence, tubes up noses, dying patients, everything. It was quite moving hearing her talking about her experiences, and how absolutely important language skills are - for native speakers as much as for foreign language speakers.

Sometimes they were great experiences where she'd done everything right. Others were based on failures, where she'd later analysed what went wrong and what she should have done.
It's easy to lose sight of the fact that we're talking about real-life situations here. This isn't just about teaching people to talk about their holiday palns or to use future perfect instead of future continuous or whatever. It's about making a real difference to the lives of our students and, in turn, to the lives of the people they'll deal with in English.

As I've said before, the most important person in the classroom may not actually be in the classroom. It may be a patient with a tube up their nose or worse.

I hope users of the books go on to use the language and techniques from them. If, as a result of this book, a patient is treated with extra dignity and tact, is reassured when scared, is listened to when they need to talk ... well, for me, that's what it's all about.

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  1. Thanks for the kind words, Jeremy. By the way the thing on a nurse's head is a nurse's cap but we don't wear them much these days. Communication is very important in any job which involves people and more so where stress, fear, pain or uncomfortable moments are involved. Practising a dialogue with a fellow student or friend is a good way to become familiar with your possible responses to future conversations. The more confident you are with responses to a given dialogue, the more likely it is you will be able to vary the dialogue to suit changed circumstances.For example, practising the dialogue where the nurse asks a patient about his pain level can be practised to give responses to ' I'm fine, thanks.No pain at all' or 'It only hurts a bit now' or 'It's getting worse'. Being able to practise your response to a variety of patient statements helps you feel more relaxed about your conversations.

    Another important strategy is the 'buying time' strategy. In the healthcare area, it's very important to understand clearly all sorts of information about patient care. Sometimes this information is given over the phone which can be a challenge. Using phrases such as 'I'm sorry, I didn't follow that. Could you please repeat that more slowly?' are very important. One of the differences between regular ESL courses and ESP courses is that some information in conversations in ESP areas may have serious implications if not understood clearly.For this reason, students of ESP courses can feel quite pressured. Once again, practice of dialogues and familiarity with specialised language e.g. abbreviations used in hospitals can help out.

  2. I've been using the pre-intermediate book for three months now, it's very useful at class annd can be easily used at home for individual study. The listening part (with scripts) is 100% authentic language, real-life situations, different dialects, etc. Grats!

  3. Sound's like a much needed text book. I know there are a lot of overseas nurses in the UK who would really benefit from more tailored English training.