Once you have a foundation of ESP principles, you can apply them to whatever content area you encounter.
The world of software engineering is unfamiliar to most English language professionals, so when English Language Specialist Jennifer Rice was selected for a virtual teacher training project with the Jalasoft software company in Bolivia, she knew her background in the field of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) would be crucial. The project involved partnering with a team of three English trainers employed by Jalasoft to create a curriculum for and then teach an ESP course to pre-service computer software trainees at the company.
Rice worked with these trainers to develop a 20-week syllabus for handling the specific English language demands that accompany work in an international software company. She reflects that many factors in the project would have been familiar to someone working in ESP contexts. “When I started working with Jalasoft, I didn’t know anything about working with computer engineers or software, really. I learned everything I needed from the English trainers and content area experts, and they helped me see what it’s like to work there, even though this was a virtual assignment,” she says of the project.
Rice’s career in ESP began at the University of Oregon when colleague and English Language Specialist Kay Westerfield noted Rice’s undergraduate degree in biology and environmental science and suggested she take over the American English Institute’s online ESP course, knowing this background would be an asset. Westerfield, a leader in the ESP field, also shared the wealth of her own experience. “Things just built from there,” Rice recalls, and eventually she was publishing, presenting, and working in ESP. Considering the versatility of the skillset ESP instructors acquire, she adds that “once you have a foundation of ESP principles, you can apply them to whatever content area you encounter.”
Learning From the Experts
I was able to bring an outside perspective to everyone about what changes were needed, and then presented ways we could create a great program together.
The team of English trainers, with their direct access to content area experts, was critical to the project’s success. The experts shared crucial professional knowledge with the language trainers, who in turn shared it with Rice. “I got to learn how the Jalasoft employees do what they do, and then I had to think about how their English trainers could go about tailoring the English program more specifically to what the trainees actually needed to do,” she says.
The project really took off once the English trainers understood the fundamental principles of ESP. “The trainers brainstormed great ideas about how things could change to make the English more specific for the workplace, and I worked as a bridge to get those ideas across to the company administration and the content area experts,” she says. “I was able to bring an outside perspective to everyone about what changes were needed, and then presented ways we could create a great program together.”
Among the first steps Rice took was requesting copies of the current assessment tools and also having the trainers send recordings of actual sessions with the trainees so Rice could get a sense of the digital classroom conditions. Rice also created a WhatsApp group for easy communication between meetings.
True to her role as a project bridge, Rice was able to negotiate with the Jalasoft administrators for release time so the trainers could meet with her twice weekly on Zoom for six weeks. The entire process was highly collaborative, with everyone contributing in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Between meetings, the trainers added comments to drafts shared via Google docs, and these were then revised as a team during the Zoom calls. “Doing everything together, synchronously, would not have resulted in having much of a product at the end,” Rice says.
The Benefits of a 6-week Virtual Project
Everyone – both Rice and the trainers – benefited from the project length and modality. “In this case — working with English trainers and content area experts who are actually in the workplace and have to balance their jobs with our meetings and project work — spreading this out over six weeks allowed us to accomplish much more than we would have in a two-week period,” says Rice, referring to the length of many in-country projects. The trainers had room to process their sessions and ask questions of the content area experts, and Rice similarly had more time for reviewing what the trainers were sending her between meetings.
Rice also identifies the ability to connect with the company’s administration virtually as a huge benefit. “Our interactions were very meaningful in virtual sessions because we could get right to the task at hand,” she recalls. “I felt like I was able to go back and forth with the administration at the company.”
Remembering the Roadshow
Prior to the Jalasoft project, Rice worked in person in Bolivia in 2018 on a project she fondly refers to as “The ESP Roadshow.” It was during that project that she met Gonzalo Fortun, the U.S. Embassy’s point of contact; three years later their connection was a major asset when engaging with the trainers at Jalasoft. “Gonzalo already knew me and trusted me with my work, so I could hit the ground running,” she says. During that trip, which included a series of general ESP workshops, Rice learned about the language levels of Bolivian teachers and learners, saw workplace norms first hand, and enjoyed her introduction to Bolivian culture.
Advice and Aspirations
Opening doors for people feels good; I want to keep doing that.
Thinking back to her early days with Kay Westerfield, Rice has some advice for prospective applicants to the Specialist Program. “The opportunities that open up for you are amazing, and the experiences and the people you encounter are awesome. So just do it. Just say yes. This is my fourth time being a Specialist in the past 10 years—I’ve been to Bolivia, Russia, and Costa Rica face-to-face, and now I’m getting to make an impact virtually. It’s been rewarding on many levels every time.”
Rice’s Jalasoft project epitomizes what the Specialist Program offers, both for the target audiences and the Specialists themselves. “It felt rewarding to use all of my skills to build up the ESP capacity of the Jalasoft English trainers, who would then build up the English capacity of their learners. Opening doors for people feels good; I want to keep doing that,” she adds.
Jennifer Rice (she, her) has been an instructor at the University of Oregon for over 13 years where she focuses on teaching academic reading and speaking skills to university English language learners and designing evidence-based, student-centered online classes. She also teaches online for the U.S. Department of State’s Online Professional English Network (OPEN). For several years, she lived and taught at universities in South Korea and Japan. She has traveled to over 15 countries all over the world to explore different cultures and to present information to other teachers of English through international conferences and as an English Language Specialist with the U.S. Department of State. She lives with her husband and young daughter in the countryside surrounding Eugene, Oregon, where she enjoys hiking, backpacking, canoeing, playing volleyball, cooking, and learning how to live off of the land.