Carrying over skills: ESL Teacher

Posted: January 11, 2012 in Technical Writing
Tags: , ,
My ESL class

My ESL class, 2002

Because the grad program that I’m in is intended for people who are already professional technical writers, and I’m a musician, I like to joke that I “talked my way into” the program.

In reality, I discussed my situation with the head of the program, Keith Grant-Davie, who informed me that, because technical writing covers so many different kinds of writing and involves so many varied skills, they were pretty liberal about what they considered “prior technical writing experience.” Maybe I hadn’t been writing user manuals, but many of my magazine articles (the ones about technology, and the how-to’s) counted.

Technical writing is a field people enter from all kinds of backgrounds– from obvious ones like engineering and journalism, to those that are a bit more of a stretch, like education and music.

I thought it would be interesting to explore what skills from my previous jobs, and those of others, carry over into the field of technical writing. This could be helpful to some who are considering changing careers, or adding technical writing to their skill sets, but not sure if they are qualified or not. In the future, I’ll cover skills from other jobs I’ve had, and maybe have guest bloggers who have their own conversion stories to share!

ESL Instructor

Pats Victory March

Students and me at the Pats victory march, 2002

Being an ESL instructor trained me to speak and write very simply, without talking down to the person I’m talking to. Actually, I think I always had this skill. I remember several international students in college telling me that I was “good at talking to international students.” I had no idea what they meant until I was one myself, in Paris. Many people, perhaps most, if you do not speak their language fluently, will treat you as if you are unintelligent, or a child. They can’t see that the person across from them is not only an adult with all their wits about them, but possibly more intelligent than they are.

I think this is important for technical communicators, especially those on the more technical end. We want to explain things in very simple terms, without being condescending.

Another skill I developed during my ESL years was editing non-native English writing. One of the main classes I taught was essay writing for the TOEFL exam. I had to correct students’ formal essays and make suggestions for rewrites.

One thing I’ve been hearing from technical writers is how much of their time they spend editing “Indian English” into standard English. So, basically exactly what I was doing. I love that kind of work!

Another thing that teaching ESL really emphasizes is formal, correct grammar. Much class time is devoted to explaining grammar, and that which is not largely spent policing it. As a result, it is difficult for ESL instructors not to become “grammar nazis,” and we are likely to be found barking at a cashier about how her sign should say “10 items or fewer” instead of “10 items or less.”

Not only do we tend to use better grammar, but when we’re not sure, we know where to look. I waffled a bit on whether the title of this series should be “Carrying over skills” or “Carrying skills over.” But because I know that it was a question of separable versus inseparable phrasal verbs, I was able to google it. Turns out “carry over” can be either. (Of course, if you’re dealing with a pronoun, then it needs to be separated. But you knew that intuitively, if you’re a native speaker.)

One thing you might not realize that ESL teachers do is rapidly assimilate and then explain new information. Most of us don’t go into teaching ESL because we are grammar whizzes. We go into it because we are native speakers who want to travel. We don’t start by knowing advanced grammar; we have to learn it as we go. The rule I was taught in my TEFL certificate program was, “Always make sure to read one chapter ahead in the textbook.” That’s it. Be just a little bit more informed on the technical aspects, and use your native ear to take care of the rest.

Sound familiar? Technical writers can’t be experts on everything we write about. We have to learn as we go, and learn just enough to understand and explain to a lay audience. Beyond that, our writing skills take the lead.

Well, I could probably think of a few more points, but I think this is enough to give you an idea.

Man, after writing this, I kind of miss teaching ESL! Wonder if I should look for a part-time gig…

Have you transferred to technical writing from another career? Would you like to write a guest post on what skills you carried over? Leave a comment!

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