on 27 December 2014
Review: David Thornton 25 December 2014
Bonamy D  Technical English 3 [with Celia Bingham and Christopher Jacques] Harlow: Pearson Longman
The bottom line is that this is not an unsatisfactory text as long as would-be users are aware of its inherent limitations.
The Technical English series
Technical English is a revamped and expanded version [much more than a new edition] of a series of texts dating back to 1984. It is a four-level course that targets company employees in specific training at work as well as students more generally in technical or vocational education; however, it seems true to suggest that the text was produced more specifically with the latter groups in mind. It aims to cover the core language and skills that students need to communicate successfully in all technical and industrial specialisations; this is an ambitious and arguably unachievable target in that in effect seeks to satisfy all manner of users but runs the risk of satisfying far fewer providers of specific training solutions.
According to Pearson, Technical English 3 targets CEFR B1 plus intermediate learners [that is a good Threshold Level or the equivalent of a sustained IELTS 4.5 to IELTS 5.0]. Like many texts that claim equivalences to CEFR levels, these may be taken with a pinch of salt. This statistic, however, with a little extrapolation to an IELTS test benchmark helps illustrate one of the problems for many potential end-users of the Technical English course. These end-users are not mainstream teachers of English: they are technical trainers.
Many of the potential end-users are providers of specific vocational training courses that have an initial English Language component; quite simply, for their purposes, the target level of English Language performance represented by Technical English 3 is inadequate. They are providers of linguistically demanding training courses that typically demand a minimum JST entry level for English Language of CEFR Level C1: any levels of performance below this target are deemed unacceptable for training purposes. IELTS research has indicated that a C1 minimum threshold would fall between the 6.5 and 7 thresholds on the IELTS scale.
This means that for many target trainees, there is an implicit need to start with Technical English 1 and work through to Technical English 4 [this must be the case otherwise Pearson would not have published and marketed the four-stage series]. In a way, this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. This has led me to wonder whether the series has been mis-titled: perhaps it should be Preparation for Technical English or Getting Ready for Technical English or Working Towards Technical English. Certainly vocational trainees using this course cannot be expected to achieve the level of Technical English proficiency required to benefit from a course of vocational training until the full course has been completed up to CEFR C1.
The course sets out to cover the core language and skills needed for successful communication in all technical and industrial specialisations but as we shall see it only achieves this objective to a limited extent. The standard of presentation and production is high, as one might expect from a publisher such as Pearson. Each unit presents language functions related to a topic, grammatical items in the context of the topic, and lexical items relating to the topic. There is a useful website with relatively general industry-specific supplementary material, and the texts encourage self-study with extended practice in the supplementary workbook and with information online. However, my experience with these materials [with ESOL Arab trainees] is that the suggested timing is optimistic. The Teacher’s Book suggests that each level entails some 65 instructional hours or 260 IH to cover the four levels; I would not be surprised to see this figure at least doubled.
The course uses a multi-thread syllabus covering communicative functions, notions, grammar, vocabulary and the four skills. The materials are not arranged by topic or theme in an obviously sensible and logical sequence. Although the course includes core language common to a range of specialisations and although there is a strong lexical element these are only incidental; there is an emphasis on English sentence patterns and structures throughout and the deep organisation of the text appears to be predicated on these grammatical patterns and structures rather than on the accompanying communicative functions and notions. It is claimed that work-specific communicative functions and technology-specific notions were selected on the basis of relevance to a broad range of technical training and workplace contexts: the exponents of these functions and notions were apparently identified on the basis of frequency and relevance to needs [although exactly whose needs and how these were established are clear].
One thing that I appreciated was the fact that the course book allowed for different and varied teaching and preferred learning styles. A very clear strength of the Technical English texts is that the course methodology reflects a consistent and practical task-based approach with integrated skill tasks and activities predicated on shared meanings and contexts. It requires a high level of active learner involvement [although this may not initially match the target learners’ preferred learning styles and expectations as claimed].
As indicated above, the course aims to cover the core language and skills that students need to communicate successfully in all technical and industrial specialisations: this is the key to understanding the limitations of the text. Within the Technical English texts, the publishers claim:
Technical concepts are clearly presented using motivating texts and clear illustrations.
This is true to some extent, although the layout of the pages is sometimes fairly crowded and illustrations or graphics are sometimes a little on the small side. The illustrations, however, are generally clear, simple and free of unnecessary details that might confuse; the writers/designers responsible for the production clearly recognise the importance of graphics and the use of colour in imparting technical language and data.
Broadly meaningful contexts certainly support understanding and assimilation of target items; however, this is arguably less than adequate in relation to the demands of the BAE training situation, which is predicated on highly specific target ESP items.
On the matter of texts, the reading tasks certainly develop a sufficient range of general comprehension skills and strategies for the target CEFR B1 to B2 learners but they do not necessarily develop a sufficient range of comprehension skills and strategies for trainees who may need to handle longer and more complex texts than those at the level of Technical English 3.
The extent to which the texts are <motivating> remains a matter of highly subjective judgement: it seems to me that motivation is the province of the classroom teacher rather than the international publisher.
Topics reflect the latest developments in technology and are relevant to students’ needs.
Any claim that topics are relevant to the target trainees’ needs in my experience demands significant hedging, perhaps <some topics are relevant to some of the trainees’ needs some of the time>.The text covers a range of topics appropriate to the general needs of the target learners only in that they provide a broad technical focus; however, this was not really what was sought by the end users. Relatively few of the topics relate directly to the specific OJT needs of the target trainees: it seems to me that this is a potential problem for many training providers considering these texts and that this is an inherent flaw with all published texts of this type aimed at a broad market. Given the exigencies of a technical training needs-driven course specific targets [including specific linguistic targets] have to be met within a fixed and restrictive time-scale: there is no time for off-target distractions. Moreover, the reference to students’ needs is ambiguous and possibly misleading; in many instances training needs are determined by the end-users [in this case the technical trainers].
On the latter point, I was not convinced that there were sufficient materials of genuine interest to the target learners but arguably, it did not matter whether or not the text covered a variety of topics appropriate to the interests of the learners. As I have suggested, these topics were largely determined by the technical trainers. Given the breadth of the topics I did not think that they really helped expand the learners’ awareness of the target world of work and I was not sure that the target learners could relate to many of the work contexts presented in the course book.
The text was published in 2011 [and inevitably much was written before that date]: claims of textbooks to <reflect the latest developments in technology> are prone to the criticism that the pace of technological development typically outstrips the pace of textbook publication. It would be truer to claim that topics reflect the latest developments in technology up to the year 2010 at best; inevitably, as every day passes, it becomes more difficult to claim that the content of the materials is generally accurate, relevant and up to date. That is one of the risks of publishing such texts.
The claim that topics are relevant to students’ needs demands significant hedging, perhaps <some topics are relevant to some of the students’ needs some of the time. As it stands, the claim is no more than publisher’s hyperbole and comes close to falling into the trap of assuming <one size fits all>; to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can cater for all trainees some of the time, and some trainees all the time, but you cannot cater for all trainees all the time.
Core language is presented that is common to a range of specialisations.
The problem with this is related to the previous point: users of Technical English are diverse. They may be engaged in fields such as oil and gas production, petro-chemicals and chemicals, civil construction and engineering, aviation and aerospace, the automotive industry, rail transportation, road transportation, marine and shipping industries, textiles, public utilities, telecommunications, information technology, medicine, pharmaceuticals, industrial agriculture and so on [the list is potentially open-ended]. They might be engaged in a wide variety of work tasks such as production, planning, maintenance, laboratory work, purchasing, testing, troubleshooting, customer service, logistics, and so on [and these work tasks may be carried out at a wide range of levels]. They might be high-grade technicians, scientists and engineers who are already employed in technical industries. They might be lower-grade production workers in the field. And they might be administrative and support staff working in technical industries. They might represent a wide range of language communities throughout the world, with great variations in both cultural background and educational background. There is only a relatively small and general core of Technical English that is common to a range of specialisations.
One massive problem lies in determining whether these users have anything in common that can be catered for in a single Technical English text without the text becoming as bland as to lose its validity in any single circumstance. I repeat that you can cater for all trainees some of the time, and some of trainees all the time, but you cannot suit all trainees all the time … and there is a risk that by trying to cater for an optimum range of potential users you end up catering adequately for none.
Grammar is regularly practised and there is a comprehensive grammar summary section.
There is certainly some emphasis on grammar throughout [and less attention is paid to the development of lexical strategies]. The length and complexity of sentences are appropriate for the target CEFR B1 to B2 learners but this does not necessarily match the length and complexity of sentences they will encounter in their OJT where they will be expected to handle authentic [unmodified] texts of significant difficulty.
The problem is that grammar is not at the heart of technical English: lexis is. Technical English encompasses some highly specialised and specific lexical items and terms that would not be part of a lay person’s vocabulary, and it is this feature that basically characterizes it, although it does not fix the nature of these highly specialized and specific lexical items and terms. Lexicons of Technical English can certainly be delineated but they remain diverse and vary significantly in terms of vocational setting and needs. From an end-user point of view, I cannot see how the Technical English texts address this problem.
Consider the implications of Sinclair’s assertion [at IATEFL, 1996]: A lexical mistake often causes misunderstanding, while a grammar mistake rarely does. This, in my view, points to the heart of Technical English but its importance is sublimated in these texts.
From the point of view of vocational training, the lexis entailed by this type of vocationally oriented text can be seen as part of a continuum that ranges from General English lexical items and discourse-organising vocabulary through sub-technical vocabulary and semi-technical items to specialist vocabulary and fully technical items. The latter cover a range of items that range from technical lexis shared with several disciplines through to esoteric items peculiar to a single discipline or sub-discipline. It seems difficult for any single Technical English text to advance far along this pole of the lexical continuum.
In my view, the lexical input was insufficient in both quantity and quality for the target learners. Technical English consists of specialised and specific lexical items and terms that would not be part of any General English vocabulary, and it is this feature that characterizes Technical English. The text covers some useful sub-technical vocabulary and semi-technical items but falls short with specialist vocabulary and technical items. There is some coverage of technical lexis that is shared across several disciplines but the text does not cater for the crucial need for items peculiar to the target training discipline. Nor does the text offer systematic strategies for learning this vocabulary; for example, it touches on affixation but this is treated fairly superficially. There is no systematic treatment of crucial aspects such as collocation, poly-words, or fixed and semi-fixed multi-word expressions. Nor is there any systematic treatment of contextual inference of meaning or the use of imagery to mediate meaning. In my view the materials are less than adequate in terms of the emphasis placed on vocabulary development, on the quantity and range of vocabulary, and on the strategies for individual learning.
Up to a point, there is a systematic progression from simple to complex lexical items but this never reaches the crucial point of dealing with the highly complex lexical items relevant to the specific training needs of the target group of trainees
The problem here quite obviously is another version of Lincoln’s aphorism: you can focus on appropriate technical lexis for all trainees some of the time, and some of trainees all the time, but you cannot present the technical lexis suit all trainees all the time … and there is a risk that by trying to cater for an optimum range of potential users you end up catering adequately for none.
In our case Technical English was adopted as the main textbook for the training course to support the ad hoc technical English materials produced to meet the target language functions identified by the end users: basic vocabulary [measurements]; basic vocabulary [materials]; basic vocabulary [common tools; developing technical vocabulary [industry specific terminology]; and reading and understanding technical manuals/instructions. To that extent the text worked successfully and its contents touched on all the above language functions albeit generally.
Caveat emptor …
David Thornton [27 December 2014]