Engineers are a special breed – I should know, I live with one. But aside from my home life, I also spend a lot of my teaching time with engineers. Bristol, the small city in the south-west of England where I live, is home to a number of multinational engineering firms, employers of many of the students I teach. Having said that, there is no such thing as a typical engineer: their work may be domestic or international, design or technical, and it may involve civil, chemical, mechanical, digital and electrical processes.

Special skills

There’s no doubt, though, that there are certain skills that most professional engineers have to acquire. My partner claims that he is paid to be pessimistic, and indeed, a key skill for engineers is to notice the problems that the rest of us take for granted, and fix them. But there are other skills they require that we, as teachers, can tap into: the ability to be systematic and organised in project management, to be great at teamwork, to possess good reasoning skills and, of course, mathematical competency.

Through teaching general English to engineers, I have become interested not just in finding activities that provide the right target language to suit their work contexts, but ones that also play to their strengths (many of which are not mine and so, therefore, not necessarily reflected in my preferred teaching style).

The ten communicative activities described in this article could be adapted or used just as I have set them out, but, crucially, they might just give you a different way of approaching any typical ELT activity. Almost any topic can be re-engineered: just ask your students to explain how something works, how it might be improved, when it was invented. Moreover, there is no necessity that all your students should be aspiring engineers for them to enjoy these activities and learn from them; quite the opposite – you may find your students appreciate the change of focus. Best of all? None of these activities requires preparation ahead of time.

Reading and writing

1. Puzzling procedures

Target language: sequencers, imperatives

Give each pair of students a different procedure relevant to their work or life context, eg entering a nuclear power station, signing off a report for a client, purifying water, cooking a favourite dish. Each pair thinks of eight to ten different processes required to complete he procedure and writes these in a jumbled order. They then swap with another pair and try to put them in order. Put the pairs together in a group of four to discuss and justify any discrepancies.

2. Labelling

Target language: compound nouns, prepositions, materials

Ask the class to choose a complex object with which they are all familiar – for example, a ship, helicopter, block of flats, microwave or pipeline. Put the students in groups of three and ask them to draw the object. Then give the groups two minutes to label as many parts as possible – the more detailed the better. The winning group is the one with the most labels.

As a follow-up, ask the students to discuss the ideal material for each component and to explain why it is ideal.

3 One material, many products

Target language: for the main activity: compound nouns; for the follow-up: sequencers, the passive

Brainstorm raw materials on the board as a class, eg crude oil, aluminium, coal, chalk. Ask which one the students think forms the basis of the most products. They then have two minutes to write down as many products produced using that material as they can. Compare the lists and award points. The students only get a point if they write down something the others don’t have!

As a follow-up, ask the students to choose one product and write down the process of turning the raw material into the product. They should use the passive, but mustn’t include the name of the product. Get them to take turns reading out their processes, for the other students to guess the product.

4. Class survey

Target language: question forms, phrases for giving opinions, phrases for report writing, the passive, choosing the correct register

Report writing is a key skill for engineers, and this activity works well with big classes. Put the students in pairs and get them to think of one question they’d like to ask their classmates, with three multiple-choice answers. For example:

If you could speak another language, which would you choose?

a Latin

b German

c Chinese

Get the students to mingle and ask their questions, recording the results. Then tell them to return to their seats and work out which answer was most common and think about why, taking into account factors such as age, gender, profession, etc. Ask them to write a short paragraph describing their results. Display these paragraphs on the classroom wall, and allow the students to walk around to read them. Ask them to decide on the most interesting/surprising/predictable/funny results. Hold a whole-class feedback session.

5. Inventions timeline

Target language: language for ranking, past simple passive

This activity provides a short reading focus. Ask the students to brainstorm in small groups household inventions they couldn’t live without, eg lightbulb, battery, mobile phone. As a class, decide on a list of five or six. Then get the students, working in pairs, to predict the order in which they were discovered or invented. They can then use smartphones to research the items and check their answers.

Speaking and listening

6. A machine for my week

(thanks to Sarah Robbins at IH Coimbra for the original idea)

Target language: will for prediction, third conditional, the passive, language of selling/persuasion, sequencers

Put the students in pairs and ask them to design and label a Heath Robinson style machine that would have improved their week, eg an automatic toothbrusher/facewasher. (William Heath Robinson was a British artist, famous for his drawings of ridiculously complicated inventions for performing simple functions.) Get them to brainstorm language they can use to ‘sell’ the machine to their peers. Split the pairs into buyers and sellers. Sit the sellers in an outer circle and the buyers then move around an inner circle, spending two minutes listening to and asking questions of each seller. At the end, ask them to return to their first partner. The buyers then give feedback on what they have heard and, in pairs, they decide which is the best machine.

7. Personal graphs

Target language: describing trends, comparatives, time expressions

Describing trends on graphs is a useful skill for IELTS candidates, as well as engineers. If you can bring some graph paper to class, so much the better. Ask the students secretly to draw a personal graph of their week, eg showing something like their stress/tiredness levels, the number of cups of tea they have drunk, or the amount of TV they watched. Then they take turns to describe their graph (without showing it) to a partner, who tries to draw the same graph. When they have finished, ask them to compare and discuss the similarities and differences between their graphs.

8. Stuck in a lift

Target language: awareness of register, especially semi-formal language for the workplace

Give the students a scenario: the most senior person in the company and a new graduate get stuck in a lift together. Divide the class into two groups: one group brainstorms phrases that the senior person might use, and the other group, the new graduate. Ask them to justify why, explaining their register, tone and intonation. Now put them into pairs, one from each group, to roleplay the situation.

Ask them to do the same roleplay with different combinations: two young graduates; a senior engineer and a client. Ask them to explain what choices they made and how their body language might be different, depending on the relationship.

9. Engineers’ alibi

Target language: for the main activity: question forms, past tenses; for the follow-up: recommendations or suggestions with should, rules with must

This is a new twist on an old favourite. Tell the students there has unfortunately been a fire in the factory/refinery/power station. If you give lots of details, they might even believe you! Nominate two students to be the suspect arsonists, and ask them to leave the classroom to prepare a watertight alibi, which they must both remember in detail. Divide the rest of the class into two groups of inspectors, and ask each group to prepare a list of six questions to ask the suspects. The suspects return, and each is grilled by the groups of inspectors. After five minutes of interrogation by each set of inspectors, the inspectors compare notes together, while the suspects compare their experiences and think of explanations for any inconsistencies. They give these explanations to the inspectors, who then vote on whether or not they are guilty of the arson attack. This game can take up to 40 minutes, depending on your class size and enthusiasm.

As a follow-up, ask the class how they might prevent such a security breach occurring. Invite them to make a list of recommendations for the factory/refinery/power station.

10. Cross-section Pictionary

Target language: modal verbs of speculation and deduction, nouns, materials

Engineers typically use 2D drawings of equipment, shown in cross-sections. You can exploit this when you play Pictionary, the drawing game where students have to draw objects for their team to guess. Instead of asking them to draw the objects normally, the students draw the image you would see if you cut something through the middle.

As a follow-up, get the students to label the objects with their constituent parts or materials.

Nicola Yeeles is a teacher and writer with over ten years’ experience in education. She teaches on a freelance basis in Bristol, UK, and has previously taught students in China, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Sri Lanka. She has written on education for Education Technology, The Guardian Higher Education Network and University Business. Her website is