Are you still a walking dictionary?

The ESL teacher is usually a jack of all trades

If you’re an English teacher in Germany who is employed by a college of FE, you’d better be flexible….

For example, I completed teacher training at a college of economics. Then I went off to teach part-time at a college of mining for one and a half years. Jobs for English and German teachers were scarce, so I was really lucky to get a job teaching English for specific purposes full-time at a technical college.

I really worked hard to learn all the specialist lingo. I never knew  in which department I would be teaching until the end of term and so far in my ten years of teaching at the school I have taught English in the following classes:

mechatronics, electricians, chemical technicians, IT technicians, A-level students (technical English), metal engineers, skilled workers in the chemical industry, computer programmers, technical draftspeople, train the trainer…

Last term, for example, I was given a class of electricians and had to buy a few new books so that I could familiarise myself with the specialist vocabulary. This year I’m no longer in the class.

“What means this word?”

I don’t know if you also teach English in  a foreign country but one of the main problems I’ve experienced is the inability or unwillingness of students to use their dictionaries to find out the meanings of words. It almost seems as if they switch off their brains at the doorway and expect to be spoonfed by the teacher. It’s not that they don’t know how to use a dictionary, they don’t seem to be able to OPEN the blasted things.

Of course, I am partially to blame for the problem.

1) It’s kind of cool to know specialist vocabulary and impress others.

2) It reassures me that I am still cerebrally fit if I can blurt out the right word within 2 seconds.

3) I’m supposed to know every technical term that the students need, aren’t I? I am, after all, the all-round, all-knowing, all-singing-and-dancing-teacher.

After a few years (I think it was five), I got a little grumpy about having to know everything. Especially if a student asked me for a word like “Zerspanungsmechaniker” on a Monday morning and my typical reply of “Context?” (to give myself an extra 10 seconds to skim through the pages of the dictionary in my head) was becoming rather tiring.

I told the students I wouldn’t be their personal dictionary anymore. They didn’t believe I wouldn’t help and so they kept asking. I gave in.

The turnaround

“The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook” has a wonderfully apt quote on the first page of the book. In one book review by Dr. Barry Hymer, John West-Burnham’s suspicion is mentioned:  Children go to school in order to watch their teachers work.

Wednesday morning (today). 9.15: First lesson of the day in a class of 34 students studying full-time to become chemical technicians.

I quoted John West-Burnham’s suspicion about pupils’ motives for attending school and asked my students whether this was true. They nodded and laughed. I told them that they were now going to familiarise themselves with the first stage of becoming independent learners and they stopped laughing.

Today – thanks to Jim Smith – I finally rid myself of the title of “The Walking Dictionary.”

Here’s how it works.

If you have the book, the method is on page 55. I used it with a new text that the students read to each other and then paraphrased in English. There were quite a lot of new words so this method seemed appropriate.


I wrote the following four words in capital letters on the board under the heading 3B4ME:

BRAIN – think before you ask

BOOK /BOARD – look up the word at the back of the book in the dictionary or look at the board for help

BUDDY – ask a friend for help

Only when you have done this and still have no answer can you ask the

BOSS (i. e. me) for help.

The students started work, no complaints, no grumbling. And not one question relating to vocabulary. Not one. The students helped each other, used the vocabulary list and got on with working.

In the coffee break I talked to the deputy head and asked for a rail to be put up in the classroom so that I can hang up a few posters. One of them will show the 3B4ME steps.

It was so easy to implement. And very overdue.


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