October 2017
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ARTICLES
RESPONDING TO THE UNIQUE NEEDS OF AVIATION ENGLISH STUDENTS
Jennifer Roberts, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, USA

Intensive English programs (IEPs) exist with the mission of preparing students for academic success in U.S. universities, generally encompassing students interested in a broad range of majors, from science and technology to business and the arts, and often send their graduates to pursue degrees at universities across the United States or even internationally. However, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), Daytona Beach campus, a relatively small institution of about 6,000 students, a great majority of IEP students remain at ERAU to study for careers in positions such as pilots, aerospace engineers, aviation maintenance technicians, or, increasingly, unmanned aircraft systems operators.

Additionally, a significant portion of ERAU’s IEP students enter directly into flight training programs without obtaining an academic degree. In 2003, the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted language proficiency requirements that regulated the speaking and listening demands in English of pilot and air traffic controller communication (both phraseology and plain language). However, these regulations were not created for other language demands, such as the need for pilots to communicate with flight instructors during training, other pilots both in the cockpit and in shared airspace, or maintenance technicians about aircraft issues. Furthermore, such language proficiency requirements do not exist for other jobs within aviation, for example, maintenance technicians who are expected to read manufacturing manuals written in English. Traditional aviation English training does not typically focus on these other registers, nor does it give attention to language skills such as reading, despite its importance not only for maintenance technicians but also for pilots when reading checklists or handbooks or when dealing with new technologies such as controller-pilot data link communications (a way for pilots and controllers to send text-based communications).

Course Goals and Objectives

Within ERAU’s IEP, therefore, a unique opportunity exists for a course geared specifically toward these students who are preparing to enter a specific domain (i.e., aerospace). For all of the aforementioned reasons, an integrated skills course using authentic aviation content was created to better prepare students bound for the aviation industry. The course, titled Aviation Topics, was designed to supplement normal IEP instruction with two additional goals in mind. The first was to increase students’ feelings of preparedness for studies at ERAU or for entrance into flight training, and the second was to improve students’ content knowledge of aviation. To accomplish these goals, a wide variety of content-based objectives were chosen related to various fields within aeronautics, such as components and functions of an aircraft, the four forces of flight, aerospace engineering challenges and innovations, and the looming personnel shortage in the aviation industry. To increase students’ perception of their preparedness, the program provided opportunities for students to go out into ERAU’s campus and the local airfield and invitations for ERAU professors to come into the IEP classroom.

Goal One: Develop Content Knowledge

As the course stands within an existing IEP, it was important to integrate all skills, including reading, writing, listening, and speaking, into the course. Activities were designed within each topical unit aimed to develop skills related to all modalities but through the acquisition of important aviation-related content knowledge from authentic sources. Following, an outline of an example topical unit is described.

Special VFR Productions, part of the Flight Department at ERAU, has created a free online Introduction to Aviation Course entitled Aviation 101, designed with the message to students, “proceed at your own pace to learn fundamentals that will give you a head start to your aviation career.” Aviation 101 comprises nine video lessons, coupled with a transcript of the video text and comprehension quizzes. The first module is on aircraft systems, and begins with a brief video (4 minutes, 22 seconds) about the parts of an airplane. From this authentic source of content, 5 days’ worth of lessons were created for the Aviation Topics class, providing practice with learning objectives in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and the acquisition of foundational aviation content knowledge.

Day 1

To activate students’ potential prior knowledge, a volunteer sketches an airplane and the class verbally identifies components and functions together. A class discussion on the importance of aviation professionals understanding these components helps focus and motivate students to learn more about this subject. The instructor provides a handout that contains a main idea chart and a skeletal outline of the video content. After a single play of the Aviation 101 video, students identify the five basic parts and their functions (main ideas). The instructor plays the video again, and students complete the outline, focusing on smaller details and key vocabulary. The instructor projects onto the board a large picture of a Cessna 172, the aircraft used in flight training at ERAU. The instructor then gives students strips of paper with components and functions, and tasks them to circulate around the room to find their component-function match, then to tape the pairs in the appropriate location on the projected aircraft. Students play other comprehension games, such as asking classmates for the function of an assigned component or quizzing each other on key vocabulary associated with a specific component.

Day 2

The transcript of the video is divided into segments that can later be jigsawed to create a group composed of members who were each responsible for a different segment. Initially, students meet with others assigned their same segment to paraphrase their portion of the transcript (paraphrasing is a major learning objective in higher level academic writing classes in ERAU’s IEP). Students are allowed to work together, but the instructor encourages them to write their own versions of the paraphrased transcript.

Days 3–4

After completing the paraphrase the previous day in class or for homework, students meet again and the instructor asks them to identify the main ideas and key points/vocabulary for their particular section. The instructor jigsaws the students to meet with classmates who have paraphrased the other parts of the transcript. Because Aviation 101 is freely available to the general public, students can easily access the original video on their personal laptops. The culminating task is to dub over the original video. Students quickly learn that simply memorizing their written paraphrase does not match with the progression of the video, so they are forced to innovatively revise their work to include all of the main points previously decided and to pace their delivery with the original video. Students negotiate timing together and practice repeatedly, listening to their teammates’ portions and offering suggestions for improvement.

Day 5

Students perform their video dubs for the class, with each listener using a checklist to verify that all important main ideas from the original are contained in the “paraphrased” video dub.

Goal Two: Increase Preparedness

IEP students sometimes report feelings of isolation and separation from the greater university community. Indeed, our programs do serve as the gatekeeper for matriculation in many instances. At ERAU, we have students enter who have dreamed of airplanes since they were young children and are eager to get into a cockpit. For this reason, Aviation Topics included many opportunities for students to experience the university and flight before actually matriculating. For example, students were given extra credit for and encouraged, though not required, to participate in observation flights with student pilots and flight instructors. Furthermore, three ERAU professors were invited to give lectures in their everyday fashion on the history of ERAU, aerospace engineering concentrations and innovations, and language as it relates to aviation safety. Tours of the Daytona Beach airfield and the Applied Aviation Sciences lab (containing air traffic control simulators and meteorology facilities) were also arranged for students.

To really expose students to the dynamics of a university classroom, professors were initially contacted by the course instructor to request permission for IEP students to observe their classes. Following, an explanation of the sequential tasks asked of students regarding this opportunity is provided. Students received a separate grade for each of the following tasks.

Task 1: Researching Classes

The instructor provides students with a list of potential classes to observe, as determined by professor agreement and logistical availability, which includes only the professor and the course’s name. By a certain date, students should research the classes on Campus Solutions, ERAU’s system for class registration, and on ERAU websites to determine the professor’s official title, college, and department, and the time and location of the class. Students turn in a report containing this information and an explanation of why they want to observe this particular class for their top three class choices. The instructor then assigns classes based on order of requests received, with the earliest submissions likely receiving their first choice.

Task 2: Emailing Professors

In class, the instructor provides students with a template for writing an email to a professor. As instructors of college students know, emails are not always composed in the politest or most professional manner, despite the students’ first language. Instruction for writing an email includes making sure to include an appropriate subject line, salutation, introduction, explanation of relationship and request, and sign off. Students practice writing emails in class and are required to copy (Cc) the Aviation Topics instructor when sending the final email to their assigned professor.

Task 3. Attending Classes

On the assigned dates, students are excused from normal classes and permitted to observe. They are required to take notes and provide a summary of those notes and their experiences 1 week after observation. The instructor encourages students to introduce themselves to the professors and thank them for the opportunity to observe. After observing the ERAU class, students showed mixed reactions of “I’m ready” and “I need more English.”

Conclusion

The activities described in this article are just a few components of the Aviation Topics class, which was designed for the specific purpose of preparing future aviation students for entrance into an aeronautical university or flight training. Assuredly, more aviation-focused courses are beneficial for students in pursuit of these types of careers, focusing on the development of content knowledge and a robust set of language skills which will be utilized in academic studies and in operational training. Aviation English should utilize content-based language teaching as a means of capitalizing on the intrinsic motivation of future aviation professionals, by teaching them English through the content that supplied the need for them to learn English in the first place.


Jennifer is a faculty member in the College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Worldwide, serving as the Aviation English Specialist to develop and implement aviation English programs. Her research interests include the pedagogical applications of corpus linguistics, language policy and planning, and curriculum development in English for specific purposes settings.

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