Bridging the Gap Through Exploration

by David Mann

An approach to teaching English to Japanese students from highly specialised fields.

I’ve been involved in English for Specific Purposes (ESP), particularly with technically-minded students, for the last 18 years in Japan. I quickly began to notice a yawning chasm between the English teacher’s world and the world of the technical specialist. This article is an attempt to explain this gap and how I have tried to bridge it over the years.

Wide Range of Subjects

I have spent countless hours listening to students and trying to decipher the difficult technical ideas they struggle with. This was often done unconsciously following the minimalist approach suggested by Dogme ELT with just the whiteboard and the students’ own input. In this way, I came to understand a wide range of technical problems. Here’s a sample:

  1. Maintaining tension without breaking long rolls of fragile paper in the manufacture of such paper products as toilet paper or nappies
  2. Predicting and controlling the exact changes in shape and volume caused by sintering a complex engine component
  3. Determining the exact cause of lubricant leak from an aircraft’s undercarriage and the precise contribution of the relevant O-ring.

I could go on, because I’ve had exposure to a very wide range of highly specialised technical fields. I’d like to explain how a non-specialist like myself coped with this mind-boggling range, and why I think this is the right approach.

Dogme-like Features and Similarities with Wilberg’s Ideas

My approach is reminiscent of Dogme ELT (Thornbury, S. 2000 and 2001), but I would claim that my influences go back further to Peter Wilberg’s One to One (Wilberg, 1989).  In my career I have tended to follow his core principles, providing my students with opportunities for (in Wilberg’s terms) Formatting, Auditing and Reformulating. I almost exclusively teach on-site at my students’ places of work or at least a training area that is attached to their company. They very rarely come into my territory. So, they very often arrive with their minds full of their current problem, be it an upstream research puzzle or a very urgent production issue. I have found that I can help students bring their minds round to the problems of the English language best if I simply take a serious interest in their work. They are all aware that at some time in the future this is exactly what they may be called on to do with some foreign customer or supplier. You can think of this as following the Dogme principle of “using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom”, though equally, using Wilberg’s terminology, I’m formatting to create space for authentic student input.


Over the years, I kept feeling the pull of the text book and the pull of the “syllabus” in the sense of a systematic set of language and communication skill areas that I ought to be teaching in some kind of ordered way. When I brought what I thought of as a “standard” lesson or course book unit, there was often an uncomfortable gap between what the lesson covered and what the students had demonstrated they needed.

Then, after trying to systematise the language points that were emerging, it became clearer that there was a huge divide, in terms of complexity, between what they needed to say and what standard materials addressed. KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) dogma is popular, but I increasingly found that what was needed was Better Control of Complex Forms to handle the complex ideas they were trying to express.

Bridging the Gap

Imposing a rigid syllabus of key language points that seemed important from my point of view led to a rather deadened atmosphere and also meant I wasn’t learning about their jobs and situations. Exploring their research and technical issues led to a somewhat chaotic and directionless course, but the students were often very deeply absorbed in the class and the atmosphere was much livelier.


A certain mental attitude is necessary: I am stubborn, tenacious and keen to get my hands dirty. I have a fondness for DIY and have managed some quite difficult repairs on my car and some quite complex programming and database design. So, I do have a rather technical turn of mind. However, for English teachers who may find this all a bit daunting, I would like to try to set out some useful guidelines that might be helpful.

Generating Questions

When your student starts going into the minutiae of generating enough latch torque on a voice coil motor, you may find your eyes crossing and your mind going blank. This is where you have to repeat the simple mantra “confusion is my friend”. This is hard for a teacher used to maintaining control of a class. This power structure is covered thoroughly by Peter Wilberg (Wilberg, 1987).

Vivid pictures

In Technical Writing and Professional Communication (Huckin and Nelson, 1991), the authors explain that good Technical Writing involves the creation of vivid pictures in the mind of the reader. This is a useful starting point when listening to a technical description from your student. Take notes, but while doing so, attempt to paint a picture in your mind of what the speaker is trying to say.

You will fail miserably sometimes, but pay attention to the gaps in your picture. They are fruitful places where you can generate a question to help fill the gap.

Here’s an example: my research student was trying to explain his research into tool scoring. As I listened to his confusing explanation I built up a picture of scoring occurring on the product (the wrong picture). At some point he said something that didn’t fit with my picture. I asked a question like “Where does the scoring occur?” and when I got the answer “on the tool”, I revised my mental picture and finally started to understand what he was talking about. His research involves lengthening the life cycle of a tool used in the machining of some important component.

Confusion is your Friend

Let me expand on the idea of living with confusion. Instead of feeling embarrassed or a bit of an idiot, embrace your confusion. Really useful questions can come from this honesty. Practise becoming more aware of exactly what confused you or exactly what you don’t know after listening to your student. You are not the expert here – the speaker is. A bit of healthy humility really does help.

Mind the Gap

Listen really hard and try to catch the ideas surrounding a gap in your understanding. You can then try to fill in that gap with a question or prompt. Here are a couple of examples:

  • “[*garbled*] liquids are a new type of solvent”. Your question could be: “What kinds of liquids are a new type of solvent?
  • “If this alloy is [*garbled*] by in-line QT, the capacity of off-line heat-treatment would increase.” Your question could be: “You talked about what happens to this alloy with in-line QT. Could you explain that again? I couldn’t understand what happened.”

Draw a Tree

A good presentation should have a key message supported by several key points which in turn are linked to supporting details. That’s a hierarchy and can be represented by an upside down tree with the root at the top. Draw a tree as the explanation progresses and generate a question from the parts of the tree that you couldn’t fill in or understand clearly. Or generate questions to clarify the connections between the key message and the supporting details.


Encourage your students to get up and use the whiteboard to draw diagrams. During a lull in the proceedings, scan a graph, say, from left to right or top to bottom, and ask yourself if you honestly understand:

  • the meaning of the legend
  • the labels on the axes
  • the units
  • the relationship, if any, between the variable on the x-axis and the variable on the y-axis.
  • the region that is most significant in the graph, e.g. there may be a linear relationship between x and y but only within certain limits

In the case of a diagram of part of a machine, say, ask yourself if you fully grasp:

  • what each part is called and what it does
  • how the parts are connected together
  • exactly where your student’s difficulties lie, what causes them and what effects they have
  • how this diagram fits into the overall machine, process, experiment, test procedure, etc.

Use the gaps in your knowledge to ask searching questions. I have found that my students appreciate the interest and if you do it carefully enough you genuinely do start to understand their work to some extent.

Further Ways of Generating Questions and Exploring your Students’ Work

The following are some example questions for how to go deeper into your students’ work.

  • Clarification questions like “What do you mean by X?”
  • Information questions, particularly with “How”, like “How big…, How often… etc.
  • “Why” questions can be suitably challenging for the right level of student, e.g. in a graph that shows a sudden clear jump or drop (e.g. a titration curve) you can ask “Why does the pH suddenly drop there?”
  • Other ‘wh’ questions, such as “Where can we use this new device?”, “How can we apply this research?” “What is the potential application of this research?”
  • Advantages and disadvantages style questions, e.g. “What are the advantages of using X over other alternatives?

You could challenge your students with questions like:

  • Wouldn’t it have been better to use silver? It provides better conductivity than copper.
  • Why did you choose to work with rabbits? Why not monkeys? Surely they’re closer to humans.

Or ask the students to speculate:

  • What would have happened if you had chosen a different catalyst / lower pH / higher temperature, etc.?
  • What do you think might have caused the deformation of the bubble in these conditions?
  • Could this research help to save lives in the medical field?
  • Could this research really help to reduce global warming / decrease pollution / clean up the rivers, etc.?

Final Word

I’m talking about getting comfortable with the risk of going into a class and depending on your students to provide the content, but I subscribe to Judi Dench’s approach to performance (Dench, 2002), as she explained to Michael Parkinson:

“…it’s real fright. It’s being pushed out of the plane… I like to feel real fear. The more you [prepare for a script/role], the more is expected of you and the more frightened you get. And the fear, like any emotion you feel, is what generates you.”

This is one of the factors that brings that special magic to her performance. I’ve become so used to risk that it no longer seems like chaos. And, yes, I always have a textbook or spare material to fall back on so do have a parachute.

Why not give it a try?

Author’s Bio: David Mann was a DOS at various ARELS schools in the UK before moving to Japan 18 years ago, where he has been teaching ESP to mostly engineers at hi-tech companies and universities. He is interested in bridging the gap between the engineer’s world and the world of the English teacher.


Dench, J.(2002). Press Releases & Press Packs TV Entertainment. BBC Press Office. Retrieved from interview is still available on YouTube and can be accessed here).

Huckin, T. N and Nelson, L. O. (1991). Technical Writing and Professional Communication. The USA, New York: McGraw Hill Custom Publishing.

Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues, 153.

Thornbury, S. (2001). Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E). Retrieved from

Wilberg, P (1987). One to One: A Teacher’s Handbook. England, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.