Teaching English for the Workplace

Teaching English for the Workplace

By Dorothy Cleary

I’ve been involved in teaching English for the Workplace (EWP) classes in New Zealand for over ten years now, and my first comment on the title of this blog is ‘the’ workplace?  That large homogenous mythical place where everyone has the same values and culture, and we all follow the same unspoken rules?  Where we all use polite forms such as “I was wondering if…” and ‘It seems there’s been a mistake..” and nobody teases anyone else and there is absolutely no swearing? That one!

I am a sheltered, academic product of the middle class and I have no experience of what happens on the average factory floor. I live in the Waikato, and many of my learners work in chicken factories, asparagus or strawberry farms, or dairy factories. I really enjoy teaching EWP because it is real, the learners are totally engaged, and, despite my frequent feelings of inadequacy, I tend to get positive feedback.  But, it is constantly terrifying because most of the time I have no idea what I am talking about.  My latest venture is working with people who want to be police recruits. I doubt if watching NYPD Blue or Bad Girls qualifies me for teaching the language of that workplace.

So, if you’re in the same boat as me, maybe we can explore together what’s more or less useful for our learners.

Here is a list of some of the major issues I think about all the time:

1.  Authenticity
•    Authenticity includes my own – that is, I try not to pretend that I know more than I do. Learners love certainty and they need to trust their tutor, but I am very fond of “I don’t know.”
•    It also includes authenticity of material, which is a huge problem. This is partly because of the huge variety of workplaces, and partly because of the difficulty of sourcing authentic and accessible material that has a New Zealand focus. Yes, there is some good stuff, but teachers need a critical eye and ear when assessing materials for classroom use.

2.  Coverage
•    This is the scariest one for me. I love the image of a first language and culture English speaker swimming in their environment. How can they stick their heads out of the water and really see the ocean? This is literally impossible.
•    Resources tend to exhaustively cover the same few topics and ignore vast swathes of culture and language. In EWP, there is, of necessity, a big emphasis on Health and Safety, but this can only be part of any course.

3.  Language
•    Where to start? Yes, thank you, with introductions, and now…? Some of the issues I think about are: identifying the purpose of an utterance, understanding stress timing, calibrating degrees of formality and politeness, knowing what swearing means, learning useful and appropriate formulae, doing chatting when you have a longer response time…

4.  Culture
•    My favourite, because it’s the easiest!  That’s probably because it’s the one I understand the least. This has two aspects:
•    New Zealand culture – the more teachers can expose learners to NZ politics, geography, social history, TV programmes, our fixation with sport, the fact that our animals are actually our children…. and so on and so on, the better they can cope in the workplace.
•    Workplace culture – despite the differences between workplaces there are a lot of similarities to discuss as well.

Enough! Please feel free to add to the list. More on all of the above in future blogs.


Dorothy Cleary has over 25 years TESOL experience, as a teacher, academic manager, curriculum designer and, over the past 10 years, as a resource and curriculum developer for Asia and New Zealand. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University in Wellington (2005) and is an IELTS examiner.

Image source: shutterstock.com/lzf

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