Lego: a training resource for learners of technical English

Seminar Review: Gabrielle Hirthe

By Robert Nisbet

I teach quite a few lessons which involve using technical English and talking about spatial relationships, and so the prospect of learning to use Lego as a teaching tool sounded attractive, though I also wondered if this was a bit of a gimmick. Thankfully Gabrielle Hirthe’s workshop quickly dispelled that thought as she explained the approach she has developed through teaching technical English to a number of clients in the design and engineering world.

The great thing about Gabrielle’s approach is that it’s accessible to virtually anybody, as you certainly don’t need to be an architect, mechanic or engineer to play with Lego. It allows the language of giving instructions and talking about spatial relationships to be practised, tested and improved in a single lesson. Like English itself, Lego is both apparently simple and capable of great variety and complexity. There is something about having a box of Lego to play with that fires up the imagination and can turn language learning into a type of play. It’s colourful, tactile, easy to manipulate and for most people I think it conjures up positive childhood memories.

The 9 teachers who attended Gabrielle’s seminar all wanted to get stuck in but we found ourselves immediately debating whether we were playing with bricks, blocks or pieces!

Gabrielle suggested letting the students decide that for themselves but as we then got into talk of overlapping studs, ‘2 by 4’s, flat bits, round bits and tall bits we also realised how all pieces of Lego need to be given a name, from the simplest to the most complex. In addition we realised how context was important, e.g. telling your colleague that they were building something which had a name and identifying the front, back, top and bottom.

Once through this key first step we built small models, photographed and dismantled them and then attempted to explain to our colleagues how to re-build them using the same 10 pieces. The next step was building a 15 piece model in a team, writing down the instructions and passing said words and pieces on to another team to see if they could repeat our masterpieces without verbal intervention. These short exercises quickly showed us how precise and well sequenced our instructions needed to be.

In the 3 hours we covered just a few of the different approaches which Gabrielle suggests, which include inventing models, building models from the Lego instructions, planning production lines or other sites that your students may wish to model and discuss.

The last point showed how Lego could be used not just for talking about assembling things, but for modelling places or environments which your students can then talk about, amend, re-arrange, make suggestions about or give opinions on.

Overall I thought it was a great workshop which opened everyone’s eyes to some new ideas and a useful teaching tool.