Six things about teaching aviation English


In my business English teaching days, I used to think that it was pretty cool to be teaching in a motorcycle factory. Actually that was about as exciting as my ESP (English for Specific Purposes) lessons got. Nothing compared to Henry Emery, who teaches pilots and air-traffic controllers and is a co-author of the course Aviation English (Macmillan 2008). I caught up with him at the British Council Innovations Awards Ceremony this year…and asked him six things about it.

Since I began to specialise in language teaching for aviation personnel some years ago, I’ve found that it’s a very infectious area of ESP – once you’re in, it’s difficult to get out. I met Lindsay at the British Council ELTons awards ceremony earlier this month, and when he invited me to jot down six things about what I do, I asked myself ‘what do I enjoy so much about this field?’ The following is an attempt to explain. 

1. The students

Aviation personnel are a professional, bright and driven bunch. Take airline pilots. So many of the pilots I meet describe their work as their hobby – they would rather be at 36’000 feet than anywhere else. With the industry language proficiency requirements in place, pilots have just two years to reach an ‘operational’ level of English. Consequently, the motivation to maintain their license is extremely high. It is a pleasure to support such learners as they work towards these very concrete language learning goals.

2. Safety 

It is difficult to think of a domain of language use more safety critical than air -ground communication. When things go wrong on the flight deck, pilots and air traffic controllers have to get their messages to one another quickly and effectively – in these situations, there is no time to lose. As a teacher, you have to be constantly aware that every lesson you give may have a direct impact on flight safety. This is a good reality check as you trudge into the classroom for the last lesson of the week.

3. Radiotelephony

 The majority of air ground communication is conducted in standard radio-telephony phraseology, a specialised and very restricted code relating to routine aircraft movements and procedures. It’s pretty easy to learn – there are some very good CD ROMs available  (Try or click here) and you can listen to live radio communication on the net (see here, or this site or this site). However, teaching phraseology is not the job of language teachers – this is the domain of subject matter experts. Beyond getting familiar with the discourse, radiotelephony does present a unique set of parameters for the language teacher. It means taking extreme care with the way language is taught and practised in the classroom, and it means working closely with operational subject matter experts in delivering language lessons and courses.

 4. The subject matter

Aviation is not just air-ground communications – it is a huge field of ESP and there is simply so much to learn. Whether you are working with cabin crew, maintenance engineers, managers, ground staff or flight dispatchers, there’s always something new and you never get tired. Working with pilots and controllers, the subject matter can be very complex and technical, and this certainly requires quite a lot of effort on the part of the teacher. But learning more about the way the industry works improves your classroom performance and makes being an airline passenger so much more enjoyable too!

5. Teacher development

There are plenty of very exciting opportunities for teacher development in the aviation field. Consider, for example, watching a maintenance engineer disassemble a jet engine on a workbench in a hangar. Or watching a radar controller line up half a dozen heavy jets for landing. Or experiencing takeoff in the jump seat of a 737. Not your typical day at the office! Rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck into the aviation domain is the best way to whet your appetite for the classroom.

6. The challenge

English teaching for the aviation industry has been around for years, but the new language proficiency requirements for pilots and ATC have created a new climate for English language education and assessment. There is very little published teaching material available and very few quality language testing systems. Frankly speaking, the ELT and aviation industries do not know very much about ‘plain English’ for radio communications; there is not yet an established corpus, and there is much research to be done. For any teacher wishing to dive into an exciting and relatively unexplored area of language teaching, the aviation sector would be a very good place to start.

henry1About the author

Henry Emery is co-author of Macmillan Education’s Aviation English, an award-winning language course for pilots and ATC. He is also co-director of emery-roberts,  an aviation language training company working in partnership with Oxford Aviation Academy,  the world’s largest independent flight training organisation, providing specialist language teaching and testing programmes.

Click here  for information on the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Language Proficiency Requirements



Published in: on March 22, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,