English for IT Outsourcing or Why I Love Teaching Programmers

English for IT Outsourcing or Why I Love Teaching Programmers

Hanna Leliv
by Hanna Leliv 6,979 views |

I am living in a Ukrainian city of Lviv which might soon become another Silicon Valley – there are hundreds of IT outsourcing companies here, employing anywhere from five to one thousand programmers, QA engineers, web designers and other IT geeks who provide mainly software engineering services to the American and European customers.

You might wonder – what does it have to do with ESL? And I have an answer to that – all employees of IT companies have to know English at least at B1 level, whereas middle-range and senior managers, as well as project managers interacting with the overseas partners on a daily basis, are required to master B2-C1 levels. Considering the fact that most graduates of technical schools have a poor command of English, IT outsourcing becomes a wild, almost unbroken field for the English teachers.

Being married to a programmer and interested in IT stuff myself, I decided to try teaching to software engineers upon completion of my CELTA course. And the first conclusion I arrived at was that if a teacher is knowledgeable about IT (at least knows the names of most popular programming languages, key terminology and slang) and keeps up-to-date with the IT news, their life becomes much easier. So far I have worked mainly one-to-one with programmers, web designers, an HR manager, a QA, and a business development manager – levels ranging from elementary to advanced. However, I believe that the following tips and considerations will be relevant for groups, as well.

I would like to start from some challenges I faced while teaching in the outsourcing industry.

Principal Challenges Teaching in IT Industry

  1. 1

    There is a stereotype that programmers are lazy.

    Of course, all bread is not baked in one oven, but this belief is largely true. Combined with a never-ending lack of time, it poses a challenge for a teacher. You should make sure that all activities are relevant for your particular student (they will simply refuse to discuss, say, environmental issues or political problems), the tasks are not too difficult (even if they need just a bit more efforts than usually, the student can get demotivated and abandon the task altogether) and the home task is as to-the-point and time-efficient as possible. These considerations brought me to challenge number two.

  2. 2

    The necessity to tailor to their needs.

    In each case I had to draw up a tailor-made curriculum, broken down into a specified number of classes. The topics should be carefully selected on the basis of a needs analysis. For example, a programmer needs to cover the following topics: meetings, teleconferencing, problem-solving, teamwork, employment, recruitment (job interview), reports, technical procedures, etc. All the themes must be set in the context of IT outsourcing. Special focus is placed on speaking and writing skills (mainly emails, reports, and specifications). It might seem that most Business English textbooks deal with similar topics. True, I adapted some of the materials for my lessons. A couple of times I was lucky to come across a text or a listening comprehension task in an IT context. However, most of the time I had to create my own materials and here comes the next challenge.

  3. 3

    I create custom materials for most of the lessons.

    On the upside, this way my students get unique materials tailored to their particular needs. For instance, one student was going to an IT conference in Finland. I googled this event and found the names of the participating companies. Their business profiles were published on their websites and provided a great resource for a vocabulary task and a role-play. First, my student worked out the vocabulary connected with the business activity of his prospective customers whom he was quite likely to meet at the conference. Then we practiced making a small talk (this time I was representing executives from the participating companies) and had a negotiations role-play (supposing that my student will get a chance to start negotiations with one of the new acquaintances). Later I received a very positive feedback – my student felt much more confident during the event, was not afraid to initiate a small talk and did not worry that he might not understand some words when his conversation partners described their company’s profile.

    Another example: I was teaching Passive Voice to a web designer. I found a blog where an American web designer described the stages of creating a website. Having copied his article into a text editor, I shortened it a bit and created gaps in the sentences where the Passive Voice is used. The student had to put the verbs in brackets into the correct form. This activity led to a discussion whether he uses similar approach, and finally the student had to describe how he creates a design (using Passive Voice).

    Most IT guys have learned English before (at school or at the university) and developed a kind of aversion to grammar (most probably because it was presented and practiced in a boring or convoluted way). Once when I suggested doing two short restricted practice tasks (gap-fill and transformation), my student refused to do that, claiming that he doesn’t like such exercises. So I had to come up with something else. Usually I develop short guided discovery tasks, including the examples from IT context (e.g. I talked on Skype with the customer yesterday vs. I have talked on Skype with the customer recently – why do we use Past Simple in the first sentence and Present Perfect in the second one?). This way a student will see that we’re talking not about some abstract Tom and Mary from a grammar book, but about him and his real customer. And that this grammar point is relevant to his job. Secondly, I try to make the worksheets as logical, concise, and simple as possible, because IT guys like when explanations are brief and to the point, without any ‘rules.’ Charts and diagrams always work well. After a guided discovery, I usually include two short restricted tasks (e.g. fill in the gaps in the article taken from the Internet, multiple choice for the sentences in IT context, etc). This stage is followed by a longer real-life speaking task (e.g. describe your work experience, using Past Simple and Present Perfect; compare the old and the new design of the news website, using comparative structures, etc). The key point in teaching grammar to IT is keeping it logical, simple and real-life.

    The downside of this approach is obvious – preparation of custom materials gobbles up a lot of time. However, most of them can be later adapted and reused with another students of the same level. Again, if you’re interested in technology, it’s much more interesting (and easier) to look for new materials and adapt them to your needs.

  4. 4

    It is important to be tuned in.

    Another challenge is to stay on the same wavelength with your students. The teacher who knows such words as PHP, Java, scrum, agile, bugs, status reports or Netbeans has more chances to survive in an IT English class and will definitely earn more kudos. You don’t have to sign up for programming courses, but at least some basic knowledge of the industry will help you a) create custom materials and tailor-made tasks (come up with examples for your grammar presentation, at the very least); b) confidently take part in the role-plays and other speaking activities, esp. if you have a one-to-one class, where you need to become a conversation partner. You will know which questions to ask during the job interview role-play or which points to raise while discussing the progress of the project (e.g. When will the bugs be fixed? When are you going to make changes on the server side? Are you planning to implement a new functionality next week? – this time practicing future forms). To stay up-to-date, I read online magazines, signed up to a couple of interesting blogs, watch IT news on BBC and Financial Times, and keep an eye on relevant podcasts.

    Finishing with the challenges, I would like to give some tips which might come in handy to the teachers in the same boat as me.

Some Advice How to Deal with the Challenges

  1. 1

    Start with the essentials.

    I was really surprised that even higher-level students didn’t know how to say that you didn’t understand something, how to politely agree and disagree, finish your email in an appropriate way. Most of them knew formal phrases, but didn’t know such popular, colloquial ones as ‘I’ll get back to you on that one’, ‘Please keep me posted’, ‘I’m not sure that …’, ‘Sorry I didn’t catch it.’ Some of them didn’t know how to spell their emails correctly and always wrote their last name before the first name. It would be great to clarify these essentials at one of the first lessons.

  2. 2

    Logically structure your lesson.

    I personally prefer to break my lessons down into three parts: vocabulary, grammar and functional language. First, we usually watch a video or breaking news related to the IT industry or the topic of the class that day, work out the vocabulary and have a discussion. Later I make a connection with grammar (following the traditional pattern of guided discovery, restricted and freer practice) and wrap it all up with functional language (e.g. negotiation skills, writing reports, describing charts and graphs, etc). By no means do I claim that this is the only scheme possible, it just proved to work pretty well.

  3. 3

    Stick to authentic materials.

    Articles and blogs can be used for reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar tasks, and as discussion starters. There are lots of TED talks on technology, and it doesn’t take too much time to create a worksheet for one. The Financial Times publishes short (3-5 minutes) daily videos in its Video section. Every second or third video fits my needs – recently we have watched one about the start-ups in the Silicon Valley. Authentic materials bring the real world into the class.

  4. 4

    Focus on speaking skills.

    Most software developers talk with the overseas customers or fellow team members over Skype. Some of them have daily scrums or go on business trips abroad. So a range of speaking activities (role-plays, interviews, discussions, Skype calls) are a must. I also try to review the vocabulary in speaking (e.g. playing a taboo game, doing definition crosswords, and so on).

  5. 5

    Tweak your home task.

    It’s not an easy task to make sure that working adults do their home assignment. They claim that they either had no time for that, or something important came up and prevented them from doing it. Programmers are no exception. They don’t really feel like doing grammar or vocabulary exercises at home. So usually I do the following: I send the links to the articles connected with the topic we discussed. The student has to read the article, pick out five-ten unfamiliar words which they might need most in their work and either send me a feedback via email or share their comments in the beginning of the next class. I also send the podcasts with the scripts and links to videos, so that students could practice listening skills more. Online grammar quizzes always work well, too. If we practice writing skills, students should write me an email, send a report or specification, according to the task I send them. Sometimes students get a small project as a home assignment. For example, one programmer who was preparing for a job interview got several links to the job boards. He had to look through the job offers, read the requirements and send a cover letter along with his CV in response to one of the listings.

Unfortunately, so far I haven’t found a textbook suitable for teaching English in IT outsourcing environment. There are a couple of books on technical English, but they teach a lot of vocabulary, which programmers already know (the paradox is that the terminology is the thing they know best; even an A1 student already knows the terms ‘to implement’ or ‘functionality’ but has no clue how to construct a basic sentence). The selection of texts also leaves much to be desired – there is no use for such students to discuss the structure of a personal computer, for example.

Business English textbooks, on the other hand, seem more appropriate. However, half of the topics are going to be left out, and most of the tasks have to be tweaked to your needs. The way I see it, a good IT outsourcing textbook will be a combination of technical and business English set in the IT context, with a focus on real-life skills and tasks.

Finally, the time has come to explain the second part of the title.

Why I love teaching programmers? Because despite the fact that it is a challenge, and preparation for the lessons consumes loads of time, it gives you a chance to be creative, make unique teaching materials, and become a better teacher who values the students’ needs above all.

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