In a recent issue of the Economist, one of the ways the reporter suggested that the cost of higher education could be cut in the US would be to reduce the 4 year degree to 3 as it is in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. But on a recent visit to Hong Kong, I saw the opposite happening! The 3 year degree which the British introduced decades ago is being extended to a 4 year degree.
One reason for adding a 4th year is that all courses will soon be offered only in English! Teaching new content in English to students who have had only part of their earlier education in English is a huge challenge not only in Hong Kong but in places such as the United Arab Emirates which are adopting a similar policy.
Not only do most who teach architecture, IT, business, and other content not have any preparation in teaching their subjects. They have little idea of ways to make new content understandable to non-native speakers of English.
During my recent visit, I made these suggestions to both English and Content teachers. They are based on my experience in New Zealand where my main responsibility was providing professional development for English and Content teachers since we had the same challenge: teaching areas new to the students in a language they were far from competent in, no matter what their TOEFL or IALTS score might be. 1. Have students record classes. Assign pairs of students consequtive minutes to transcribe outside of class. Pair 1 does minute 1 to 3, pair 2 does minute 4 to 6, etc.
2. In the next class show the transcriptions on an overhead or have them scanned and show on power point. Point out differences between what you said and students thought you said and wrote.
3. Discuss reasons for transcribing. One is for teachers to realize how little students hear. Once they discover this, many are open to trying teaching activities other than lecturing to students. Lectures in beginning classes tragically focus on the definitions of words which students could learn more efficiently by using bilingual dictionaries.
4. Some parts of lectures contain anecdotes and examples of problems and solutions. When the students transcribe these, they have a chance to read them over and over. Hearing them once in class, even for native speakers is the same as not hearing them. Our minds cannot process so much spoken language much less remember any of it. Listening for more than 5 minutes is continuing to understand and remember is almost impossible.
5. When teachers ask questions I suggest they have students write the questions. As the teacher circulates, the teacher can point out the differences between what was said and what students wrote. The common practice is for teachers to ask a question. If no one raises their hands, the teacher rephrases the question. Many students think the rephrased question is a different question.

When most students have written the questions correctly, ask them to write 2 answers to the question. They can use notes, transcriptions from previous classes or their textbooks.

Ask students to cover their answers and say one of them to the class. Ask the other students to write the answer they heard if it is different from their own answers. In this way, students realize that they can learn from listening to each other. They understand more questions than they did before they were asked to write the questions. And those who have never answered a question in class begin to.

The main point is that we are all language teachers. English is an area of content just as environmental studies is. There are new words in both. But the core problem is not only the new words and so focusing on defining so called key words is not going to enable students to develop either their understanding and application of content or English. They have to practice seeing words like have to, and so, so called, is not going to–the glue of the language and the word order are what they cannot learn from bilingual dictionaries. They can learn many of the words like carbon tax, half life of various types of nuclear fuels from reading in their first language or using bilingual dictionaries. But they have to learn the glue words–all of which can be printed on one sheet of paper but have hundreds of different meanings as we use them to put the other words together.

So try these couple of small changes and discuss the reasons for them with your students and colleagues. The teachers I have seen try them are less and less frustrated and begin to think that in fact their students can learn more than they had thought.

Enjoy.