ï»¿Adding pragmatics to training: Example lesson It's great that the field of pragmatics is getting so much attention in Business English at the moment. I see the Chua Suan Chong gave a presentation on the topic at IATEFL Manchester. And over the last several years, I have been talking with Ed Pegg from The London School of English about the issue, especially as it pertains to the soft-skills aspects of his training. We see it as an important aspect of the training and perhaps something which is either misunderstood or under-represented in training.
In fact, I am not completely clear about how to integrate the 'meaning derived from context' into my training. I am not educated as a linguist and my knowledge in pragmatics is less than expert to say the least. Luckily, I have access to the Journal of Pragmatics, but my general thinking comes from Steven Pinker.
But I decided to give it a try with a controlled scenario and topic... namely giving tasks to others and politeness. This is a good situation because the situation is easily identifiable and there are normally only two people involved. Second, forms of politeness are probably the simplest form of altering language to fit the relationship and situation; it can done at sentence level.
Participants: 2-6 Time: 60 minutes Level: B1 and above Training aids: whiteboard/flipchart
Training objectives: - be able to give clear tasks and instructions which include task, method and outcome - be able to encode the imperative based on the relationship/desired relationship with the audience - understand how language conveys both content and interpersonal information
Method: presentation with open questions/discussion, modelling and practice
Step 1 - The structure of giving tasks
Note: This structure is based on the military standard of task, condition, standard for giving tasks/orders.
With 60 minute lessons, we don't have a bunch of time for all that schema activation rigmarole so I tell them that we are going to look at the language for giving tasks.
I write the three steps on the board with space in between: 1. Clear task statement 2. Method (tools, resources, etch.) 3. Outcome (expected result, timeline)
We talked about the consequences for productivity if one of these items is missing. We all shared examples where one element was missing and how it could cause confusion or some mismatch between the expected outcome and the actual result.
My example: I work embedded in a team and we have worked out a standard method for giving component status updates during their weekly engineering steering meeting with the full development team. One week, a peripheral member of the team was asked to give an update on his component. It was a very nice presentation but it did not fit the group norm. The standard is 1-2 slides, both of which have agreed upon templates, content and style. The update should take 5-7 minutes with questions and discussions taking 5-10 minutes longer. His presentation was well done but didn't follow the template, went into too much detail and took over 20 minutes. He not only wasted the time of others but also his own by preparing such a long slide deck. He had been given the task, but not the method (the template) or the outcome (the group expectation). This caused a slightly embarrassing moment as the manager had to remind him at the end of the presentation to watch the video I created with guidance and ask the others for advice on how we do things.
This is the communication skills section of the lesson. But as a BE Trainer, my job is also to take it to the next step and break this down to sentence level.
Step 2 - Task and method verbs
The next step is to fill the steps with language. I focus on the verbs. I explain that some verbs make good task statements and others don't. We should use verbs with a clear outcome like present, report, test, make, create, design, etc. We should not confuse them with method verbs like consider, talk to, contact, think about, discuss, use, compare, etc. which do not have a clear outcome.
This learning point often generates a little discussion because it is common practice in the company for managers to confuse the two, especially the word discuss. Then they often wonder why there is no tangible outcome.
To close this section, I write a few example task and method sentences on the board for demonstration (in imperative form).
They practice this by giving me/their partner tasks from their work.
Step 3 - The communication model
With these established, I draw a simple sender-receiver model on the board. I use light bulbs and binary to represent message and encoding/decoding. I explain that in the best case the receiver's light bulb is the same size and color as the sender's light bulb. To do that we encode the message, which we have just done by giving it structure and words.
But then I change marker colors and explain that we also encode messages to deal with the relationship with person. This can be independent of the content. I draw a second set of binary (encoding/decoding) to show this second layer of communication.
In some groups the discussion moves into eliciting feedback or getting a backbrief from the receiver to ensure the meaning has been transferred accurately. This is a common question/problem, but it is only a secondary aim of this training session.
Step 4 - Changing politeness
Using the relationship color, we add phrases and formulations to change the imperative task and method sentences. I add them on a continuum from most polite to more direct. The usual suspects arrive on the board like "Would you please..." and "We would like you to...".
The board then looks like this:
This is when things get interesting because as we increase in politeness, the formulations move from command form into either requests or suggestions. It starts the longest part of the lesson as we discuss and debate situations in which to use these different formulations, how they can change even with the same person, etc.
One issue we discussed at length was whether the receiver would understand the request and suggestion forms as an order, or merely an option. In other words, would they work? Of course the answer to that depends on the situation and whether the relationship was dominance, reciprocity or communality.
Another that came up is how relationships can shift and change. For example, sometimes the participants and I have a reciprocal relationship, but that during this lesson, I was in a position of dominance because I was the content holder. They were the recipients and even the setup of the room gave me the dominant position (at the board, standing, all eyes on me, note taking). At that moment, it was perfectly acceptable for me to use the raw imperative to give them instructions.
A third issue was to discuss how the encoding is not just a product of the relationship and context, but also helps define the relationship. We brought out examples in which the relationship is unclear, such as when they communicate with the engineers in China. By using the imperative (or even the 'please version') we sending interpersonal information. It seems to create a subordinate role for the Chinese and what happens when we want to change that role? More importantly, how do they feel about that role?
One discussion went into learning pragmatic understanding. We all laughed at how children do not understand the request and suggestion forms as a command. They view it as license to do what they want. We talked about how we knowingly teach this to our kids. I used this as an example that we all have the ability to understand pragmatics from our native language.
Another point we discussed is dealing with low-level speakers. We agreed that in the case of low-levels, we can use a more direct form to assist comprehension, but that we should also plant these sentences in other words/body language to convey the desired relationship information.
A final topic we discussed was how switching occurs within formalized relationships types. For example, why do some managers encode orders to their assistance as requests even though both sides are fully aware of the dominant relationship? This corresponds to whether the request and suggestion forms would be understood as the commands they really are. A second example is what happens when a team member is promoted from within to lead the team. In that case, the new leader has to 'work down the ladder' because an immediate use of the straight imperative can cause awkwardness and animosity.
Throughout the lesson, whenever there was uncertainty or a debatable issue, we acted out the situation at hand and gathered group feedback on how it felt and whether it was appropriate. The task structure is very simple and requires little prep.
So as you can see, there is a lot to discuss here. I reminded every group that the best communicators are the ones who can adeptly switch encoding depending on the situation and the audience. Furthermore, learning these concepts helps open the door to future training in more complex situations. I can now link this with formality, genre and tone.
So far, I have used this lesson five times. Each one was slightly different, but I am extremely happy with the results. The participants were fully engaged, they included repetitive practice of the learning points and I believe they now have a basic understanding of how language affects relationships. Perhaps I have stumbled upon a nice method for bringing pragmatics into the classroom.
Life inside a virtual team: Communication, language and culture I have had the opportunity to work in or observe countless virtual teams over the past 15 years. From the military, an online degree program and my in-company work, it is clear that virtual team communication is a critical component of success in international organizations.
Over the past two years, I have largely specialized my training to deal with the unique challenges virtual teams face.
So let's look at a few of the key factors which support or hinder communication in virtual teams.
1. Technical Skills The members of a virtual team must master a range of technical applications to communicate effectively. Often this is taken for granted and the team members have only a superficial knowledge of communication tools. Additionally, team members tend to rely on communication methods they use to enhance face-to-face communication in the local workplace (dear email, I am talking about you).
Here are some examples of technical skills which can support better virtual communication. But of course, this is not all.
Use all the tools in virtual meeting software (and no, companies do not use Skype).
Create PowerPoint slides which are designed to be read and not presented. This includes things like inserting documents and objects into slides, drastically changing formatting, etc.
Create and manage an organized document library, including naming standards, types, searchability, etc.
Use graphics tools like MS Visio to create diagrams (preferably those linked to data).
Troubleshoot and diagnose technical issues like bandwidth limitations, audio and video problems, etc.
Create and maintain a team website/portal in applications like SharePoint or SalesForce
Use the complete functionality of Outlook
2. Communication Channels Understanding communication channels within organizations has always been an important part of collaboration and communication in teams, but it is especially important in virtual groups. I notice that virtual team members and managers do not completely understand the communication channels within their organization or how to change them.
Employees talk about long (or non-existent) feedback loops quite often without understanding the communication exact 'workflow'. Virtual team members typically complain about lack of information without seeing the number of stops between the origin of the information and their location in the social network.
A lack of understanding of how information flows through the team leads to unnecessary and unproductive meetings, massive communication overhead among network nodes, and a lack of information transparency among the team. The result is often redundant work and even unproductive affective conflicts between team members.
3. Stages of Team Development and Team Dynamics Many managers these days are trained in team building and educated in how teams change over time. But in reality I see a couple of things happening. First, virtual groups evolve into teams and aren't expressly formed. For example, a team in India begins as an 'internal supplier' for a team in the US. The Americans send clearly defined workpackages to the Indians, which are then completed and sent back as deliverables. But over time, the two groups start working more closely together and eventually collaborate on a new product innovation jointly. The result is a team. The manager and the team members likely didn't even feel the change because it happened gradually and we cannot point to specific formation.
Second, managers attempt to copy team development strategies from their co-located teams in the past. They organize kick-offs and team building activities. They create team rituals and talk a lot about values and mindset. This is valuable of course, but virtual team development faces some unique challenges the managers and members are unprepared for. Especially in building trust, the written word of email leaves a lot of space for misinterpretation and I see that virtual teams move a slower through Tuckman's stages than co-located colleagues.
4. Culture Everybody likes talking about culture these days and I can see why. After all, you can explain nearly any misunderstanding or awkward moment simply by saying, "It must be the culture." But let's take a step back here for a moment and look at this sentence for the cop out it really is. From my observation, nearly all misunderstanding and awkward moments are caused by something other than culture.
Okay, so he didn't respond to you email. - Not culture, he's busy and you're not a priority.
She always goes off on a tangent. - Guess what... she does that with everyone. Not culture.
They are always very direct. - Well, they are working in a second language and the meeting is only 30 minutes long. They are trying to avoid a misunderstanding and get things done. Not culture (well, okay some might say there is some culture here).
Now, I am not saying that culture does not play a role in virtual teams. I am sure it does, but let's not place the culture label on everything. One problem with culture is the national culture idea. Research like Hofstede and Trompenaars is based on huge sample sizes to draw conclusions about values, tendencies and behaviors. But in virtual teams we are talking about individuals with distinct backgrounds, goals and personalities.
My clients don't need to know how to convince 'Germans', they need to know how to convince Anja, Thomas and Hans. I'm not advocating the abolition of country-specific culture training, but it should certainly include a large warning label, "Some or all of this may not apply to the person you are talking to. If in doubt, get to know the person." Character assumptions are the fastest way to make someone not like you.
There is another aspect of culture which plays a role: company culture. Employees are sick of hearing about it because I think every company in the world is trying to refine it, change it or implement it. They are largely numb to the whole topic, but there is a certain 'way of doing things' in companies and departments. Organizations have values, methods and rituals. If you want to improve communication in a virtual team, it might be helpful to look at how it works in the local offices, not a generalization about the whole country. (I have been guilty of this in the past... lesson learned.)
5. Communication Norms Building on points 2, 3 and 4, we come to communication norms. Communication norms consist of agreements on channels, methods and formats. At the lowest level we are talking about terminology. At an organizational level we are talking about the project communication plan. Somewhere in between we look at things like slide templates, forms, collaborative document set up, standards for correspondence, meeting agendas, etc.
The local team members come into a virtual team with certain communication norms like how they report information, what meetings look like, etc.. Often, these norms are incompatible and virtual teams need to compromise their norms. At a low level, we may agree (explicitly or implicitly) on certain vocabulary and terms. At a larger level, the group may agree on norms for meeting presentations (e.g. no more than 10 minutes).
The point is that norms will emerge. The key is making sure they are appropriate for the group. One type of meeting agenda may work great in a face-to-face setting, but fall flat when we have a large virtual meeting. That report structure may be perfect for stimulating discussion at the home office, but might not include enough information to be shared to a distributed team.
I see that managers and employees take norms for granted and several things happen.
The team does not discuss the norms, which results in ambiguity (no meta-communication)
The team adopts norms from one location which are ineffective (e.g. bad meeting styles are copied into the virtual team)
The team adopts norms which do not fit the communication tools and methods
Team members and managers do not hold others accountable when they violate the norms (e.g. no one says anything when the presenter takes too long)
This is typically the default diagnosis (along with culture) for why many virtual teams are underperforming. And managers and team members are not completely wrong. Communication in a second language takes more time and effort than in a first language. Meetings are longer or cover less content. Proper understanding often takes more repetition (either synchronously or via follow up correspondence). Writing takes longer, including emails, reports, documentation, etc. But where there is the will and need to communicate an idea, there is a way. Teams make it work, but it is frustrating and puts pressure on their already busy schedule. After all, project schedules and team goals are set on the assumption that worker efficiency is constant.
The magic level seems to be around B1-B2. Team members who are lower than B1 cost the team efficiency and time. Due to poor comprehension, meetings have to be slower and the communication overhead is higher for repetition and follow up. On the other side, the team suffers from their inability to contribute effectively - costing time and energy. Notice, I am talking about the communication workload on the whole team, not just the low-level speaker.
At B1 or B2, the team is generally able to coordinate action effectively if the right norms, channels and strategies are used to accommodate the distributed team set up and language burden. Groups of workers at this level are able to achieve L1-like efficiency under the right conditions. Team members in the B2-C1 levels are instrumental in helping to set up these norms. These are the team members who are best suited for moderating discussions and chairing meetings.
If there are team members above C1 or native speakers in the group, the challenge changes. As many have mentioned, the ability of high-level/native speakers to adapt to ELF is crucial. In my experience, learners come with ELF and it is not something I train. Their English has been formed by their exposure prior to the training. My job then is so simply formalize ELF as a standard and get everyone speaking the same 'English'. If left 'untuned' to ELF, high-level speakers cause higher communication overhead and actually hurt the team's efficiency. With the natural belief among language learners that greater proficiency means greater communicative skill, the realization that they are actually causing problems can be a real eye-opener.
Conclusion I have highlighted six aspects to communication in the virtual team environment. Many Business English Trainers will be focused on the language aspect because they either do not have access to the inner workings of the organization or their mandate does not include broader communication issues. But I suspect that many trainers are willing to expand their 'English teacher' role if they see the opportunity to deliver added value or help solve the real communication barriers of the company.
My advice is that training experts enhance their skill set to stay one step ahead of clients in virtual team communication. This includes obtaining the technical know-how, matching reality with organizational theory, revisiting the field of communications and expanding their approach to language in the workplace. Clients will be extremely grateful for you ability to deliver greater efficiency and project success.
Six weeks ago I enrolled in a one-to-one class to brush up on my German. Like many C1 learners, I was troubled by several problems. 1) I was lacking confidence in my ability to communicate in clutch business situations. 2) I was convinced that my speech and writing were littered with little grammatical errors (bestätigt). 3) Because my comprehension is nearly perfect, I knew that my active vocabulary range was quite small.
The trainer is probably earning ?20-27 per 'teaching hour' or ?27-36 per normal hour. Quick caveat... Can you stop the 'teaching hour' pricing? Why do we make our customers use a calculator? Anyway, I am paying between ?45-60 per hour (I'd prefer not to give the price exactly). This means the school is keeping about 40% of the payment. This is reasonable to me considering the service it provides.
But as the customer, I am not really focused on the price per hour, I am focused on the overall results of the course. The price for my twelve lessons is ?950-1300 (including VAT). Will that price solve my three problems? No, it won't. I will hopefully solve two. After six lessons, I notice that my confidence has improved. I'm actively trying to use more German in more difficult situations and I have learned a few collocations. But what else could I do with that money? If I gave you ?1000 for professional development, what would you do?
Let's take this to the next level and assume I wanted to improve by two CEF levels. We'll stick with a one-to-one setting, I could probably achieve a CEF level in 70 hours. (Yes, I know not all levels take the same amount of time, but stay with me here). That would cost ?7000-8000. If I were a true beginner then I might expect to pay over ?15,000 to learn German, which is more than the price of a Bachelor's degree at a private university in Germany. Naturally, I would probably join a group course to effectively share the cost but I would still have to pay at least ?4000.
Learning a language takes a long time to achieve results and this puts pressure on prices.
But there is a positive here and it is one we should not forget. Our contracts are long, which makes planning much easier. It is not unusual for us to look at contracts which run for years. In comparison with soft skills trainers, this is huge advantage. Their contracts run only a few weeks - often numbered in a few hours. This means they spend considerably more time doing the 'unpaid' work of marketing and networking to try and land new clients.
On the other hand, the reason they are able to obtain higher hourly rates is because the return on investment is much faster. A two-day workshop on effective presentations or team building leads to a nearly instantaneous change in behavior, hopefully. This is something we simply cannot achieve.
Combining 'quick-return' services with longer-term language training is the way to higher rates. I am always delighted by conference presentations which ring-fence services, typically to protect their own rates or status. Have you ever been to a presentation about coaching in which the presenter sets out to define coaching and justify why coaches earn more? What about a presentation in which the provider talks about how they don't mix persuasive presentation training with language because it is 'over-delivering'?
This is complete nonsense. Combining all of this together is exactly the path to higher rates. These statements are simply an attempt to protect their own rates, markets, and/or sell some kind of additional qualification which is all but worthless. In fact, I would argue that refusing to include effective communication skills in Business English training is merely setting the client up for failure. It's basically saying, "Let's remove pragmatics from the training." Similarly, if you aren't using coaching techniques in one-to-one and small group training, you are probably not creating a customized development plan, effectively using the learner as a resource or helping to develop autonomous learners.
But I will admit, the protectionists have a point. Adding 'quick-return' services such as team-building or coaching requires a certain level of ability and experience. It requires learning theory in other fields such as educational and organizational psychology, applied linguistics and communication. We need to develop a greater understanding of workplace discourse and dive deeper into business studies and management theories. (Knowing business theory is a 'must' for me.) In short, if we are relying on ELT literature to provide knowledge about these areas, this is not good enough.
On the implementation side, they are right that training and coaching methods differ from mainstream education techniques prevalent in ELT. But honestly, while they are different, they are also easily recognizable. I recommend jumping into the various fields of human resources and exchanging knowledge with other trainers/coaches (outside of BELT).
So, if you want higher rates, you will have to deliver more value per hour. For freelancers like me, it is much easier to make this shift. We generally define our own services scope and content. We are also fully conscious owners of our professional development. For teachers and trainers within organizations and institutions there is less chance for expanded services. But these environments can be great laboratories for testing techniques and theories in practice. And don't forget, the leadership in the organization has to demonstrate value, too. I see organizations pushing the practical nature of Business English. The logical development is for these organizations to mix communication skills and language more and more. In short, the lines of the ESL department/section are starting to blur. Increasing your knowledge now and enhancing your practitioners toolkit will help you succeed in this new type of organization.
Logic puzzle activity for summarizing and clarifying I regularly remind my learners to continuously summarize and ask clarification questions in L2. During my observations of meetings, I often see cases of miscommunication which could have been avoided by a simple timeout to summarize and check that everyone has the same understanding. In fact, if there is one communication skill needed to work effectively in L2, this is it.
But sadly, I have always had some trouble designing activities which forced the participants to use checking, clarifying and summarizing. Luckily, I found one in the The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games by Mary Scannell.
Basic procedure Find a logic puzzle with 15-20 clues. Cut up the clues and deal them to the participants. They have to solve the puzzle without showing the others their clues. Time: approx. 40 min for a group of four.
If you aren't sure what a logic puzzle is, it is a paper game in which you have to find certain combinations using clues. For example, 5 friends went to a restaurant, each person ate a different dish, drank a different drink and paid a different amount. One clue might be, "Janet did not have the cheeseburger and paid more than Frank."
What happens The group will probably first try to collect all the variables (the names, the dishes, etc.). Then they start reading the clues. In some groups each person reads all their clues in sequences, while in others (the more effective ones) they take turns reading clues that are relevant to the current discussion. They are continually asking to repeat, checking and summarizing. The trainer can collect and add phrases throughout the activity. Additionally, they use great language to keep the others on track in the discussion.
Training aids I don't allow my groups to use any visual aids... no shared notes, no whiteboard, no cards with the variables, nothing. Each person can use their notebook to make personal notes, but cannot share it with others. I find that this makes it more challenging and forces the participants to use verbal communication. I suspect that visual aids would make the puzzle easier to solve, but would require less language. Second, my engineers discuss complicated, interlocking problems all the time and I find that it more or less recreates this complexity.
The larger question of feedback... This brings me to the larger question of feedback and how to train it. After all, summarizing and checking are the purest forms of feedback, but depend on the listener. Surprisingly, while I find that summarizing and checking are the linguistic functions most often missing from discussions, the lack of feedback is the most common observation my participants make about their own discussions.
Here's why... asking for feedback is delicate and often ineffective.
I think we all know about open and closed questions. And I think we can all agree that closed questions for checking understanding are not as effective. In my experience, "Did you understand?" is pretty much worthless. Second, I think we can agree that while a backbrief ("Please tell me what I said.") is highly effective, it is only realistic in highly direct discourse communities. In the workplace, there is too much chance for a loss of face.
So, I prefer to help my participants draft a series of open checking questions for them to use in discussions. In essence, it is teaching them the same skill we use as trainers for comprehension questions. These are higher order questions which demonstrate understanding.
What have we forgotten to consider with this plan?
How do you think this will affect ______?
How does this compare to ________?
What kind of experience do you have with this?
What do you think are the next steps?
What problems do you think we might have?
For more structured practice, creating these types of questions for a presentation works nicely... then try to add them into spontaneous discussion.
So, I am happy with the results from the logic puzzle activity to generate a true need for clarification, checking and summarizing but it doesn't solve everything. The more difficult step is to train effective methods for requesting feedback. Once the participants have it though, they notice a clear difference in their discussions and meetings.
During the workshop, we talked some about customizing training. But following the discussions within some of the groups, there seemed to be some uncertainty over communicative events. In general, I thought this idea had spread so far through conferences and blog posts that most trainers understood. Or maybe it is just so ingrained in my training that I can't see training without it.
Let's look quickly at customization. We can customize a course/lesson at several levels.
A slide I didn't use in Cologne, but probably should have.
At the top level is the skill (e.g. write a report, lead a meeting). I don't really see this as customization. Sure, we can give the skills various priorities and/or remove a skill completely, but this is still course book territory.
Below that is a skill to perform a certain function. For presentations, that might be to persuade, introduce, report, etc. Most course books have taken lessons to this level and include different sections for different types of meetings. This is nice but we're really counting on the fact that the course book author hit the nail on the head.
My default level of customization is on the specific event, which includes contextual information (but is still largely content neutral). For example, writing emails to request information, making a telephone call to confirm arrangements, etc.
Finally, I will customize to what I call the 'ESP' level which includes content. This is usually accompanied by more corpus analysis.
If you look through the levels, the assessment criteria change considerably from one level to the next. Moving to each level requires that the participants have more uniform needs. My general rule is to customize to the lowest level, and approach the next level outside of the group. If the client isn't willing to pay for the next level, I stop.
Defining performance objectives This has a huge impact on defining performance objectives. If you are designing a course, only write the can-do statements to the appropriate level. For large groups (hundreds of participants), I typically stop at the second level. For groups which share a job function or field, I can often get to high frequency events.
The difference between a communicative event and an English situation I am guilty of often using the terms 'situation' and 'event' interchangeably, but they are decidedly different. A situation includes one or more communicative events.
For example, a presentation may include several communicative events.
Slide 1 - Inform management on status of a project Slide 2 - Report on research Slide 3 - Compare alternatives Slide 4 - Propose a solution
This presentation may be accompanied by... - defending an idea - asking questions of speculation - responding to factual questions - eliciting opinions - adding additional comments to presented information - summarize an agreed decision - delegate tasks
These generally look like a classical list of functions from a course book. The contextual information makes them communicative events. How many people are in the meeting and who are they? How much time do you have? What types of interference (or 'noise') are present? These factors affect communication style, register, etc.
The same is also true for things like emails. In well written emails, each paragraph performs a different function. How you organize those paragraphs and the wording you use depends on the context.
As you can see, we are starting to enter the world of communication skills here.
Does a description of the situation give you the communicative events? Yes and no. I still use the needs analysis form I mentioned at BESIG Stuttgart (blog post), but it takes some further questioning and analysis to get to the communicative events. I typically do this by asking a series of questions to describe the 'steps' of the situation. I may draw a diagram of the situation on the board and ask about the participants, objectives, etc.
Back to sourcing materials... this is where getting a look at artifacts can be really helpful. Without question, some background in business really helps in 'visualizing' a situation and dissecting it into its various communicative events.
I have found that there is considerable overlap among communicative events. This is true among different fields, job descriptions and channel (email, telephone, meeting, etc.). The interlocutors are generally the same (i.e. the learner communicates with a certain group) and the purpose of the communication is often similar. For example, adding a comment to a pdf report written by a colleague is often identical to adding a verbal comment in a meeting. However, if the report/presentation is by a manager or someone external to the company, the language changes.
Is there a list of communicative events? Not yet. If there were, it would probably look like a matrix.
We can assume that there are a definite number of functions. We can also assume that there are definite number of contextual combinations. Theoretically then, there is a relatively fixed number of communicative events. It may then be possible to somehow create a database which takes contextual information and matches it with the purpose of communication to spit out the best possible language.
But that is all theory... in my next post we'll look at "Training for the Real World".
Sourcing Materials This past weekend, I held a workshop with ELTA Rhine on customizing training and materials lights lessons. During and after the session, it was clear that sourcing materials was an issue for trainers looking to focus on relevance. Let's dive a little deeper into the topic of materials and examine what we need, why we need them and where we can find them.
Assumption 1 - There is a difference between "talking about business" and "talking to do business". This is Evan Frendo's concise and clear statement about not only materials, but also about the tasks we ask our learners to accomplish. It is great for the learners to 'teach us their business', but this falls into the first category and will not accomplish all the training needs. We have to balance both types of activities.
The problem for trainers is that materials "about" business are much easier to find. The internet is full of them. Let's take a simple example.
You are training a group in production and one of your can-do statements is that they can explain the production process. You decide to use a YouTube video about how Lego blocks are made, mine the video for key language and have the participants give talks describing their production process (maybe even on the shop floor). It's likely that this is a useful skill, but it does not fully simulate a meeting to discuss changes to refine the production process. We are a step short of achieving full relevance. Wouldn't it be nice to have an example of the real meeting?
Assumption 2 - Getting the "real thing" is nearly impossible. We can hypothesize all we want about recording real meetings and presentations. The simple fact is that we will probably never get the approval to do it. Non-disclosure agreements are key part of doing business, but they are only a baseline for trust. There is still a 'need-to-know' level of integration.
The main reason why recording real meetings is a no-go is because the learners are not lab rats. They are trying to do business in these situations. Politics, reputations and personal relationships all come into play in meetings. It is generally best if we don't ask to record them for 'research purposes'.
Assumption 3 - Real meetings are much different than the recorded models in the course book. Meetings are messy affairs. I'm convinced that meetings are the most difficult skill. Topics appear out of blue, there is so much interference (semantic, cultural, pronunciation, technical, etc.) that its a wonder they work at all. But for the trainer, the most difficult part is that meetings contain highly detailed information exchange. For an outsider, it is very difficult to 'script' a meeting and practice it.
Additionally, meetings can be very boring. There are many books and websites about effective meetings for good reason. Employees are often justified for hating them. Even if I did have a recording, I probably wouldn't play it because everyone would be asleep. Most participants and chairpersons will acknowledge that their meetings could be better, but they probably can't say exactly how they should improve.
Example dialog with a participant:
Me: How could the meeting be better? Them: Some people are giving too much information about their topic and it is not interesting for the group. Me: Okay, where is the line? How much information is too much? Them: Well, they should only talk about what has an impact on the others. Me: I agree, let's try it... in your area, where is the 'information line'? What level of information is valuable for the others (including the manager), and what is too much? Them: Hmm... good question. That's difficult to say.
Okay, so what can we do? 1. Gather artifacts. Emails and PowerPoint slides are relatively easy to get. One main constraint is the group setting. If you have learners from different companies and/or departments, the materials cannot usually be used in class verbatim. They typically need to be altered to conceal the information. I will often use emails and slides to create my own 'similar' materials - using the same language, but with different content. Even if you can't get them digitally, just looking at them is helpful.
I call them artifacts because like a researcher, these are any item which reveals something about communication. Artifacts fall into two categories - communication itself, and evidence of communication.
Communication itself: - Emails - Presentations (the written communication) - How-to's - Forms (e.g. change request forms) - Reports - Handbooks - Contracts and other formal documents
Evidence of communication: - Meeting minutes and agendas - Presentations (evidence of the verbal part) - Descriptions of meeting (like for a communicative event needs analysis) - Diagrams and charts - Excel spreadsheets - Workflows and flow charts
While these artifacts cannot always be used to re-enact the exact situation, they will often get you much closer.
2. Research English in use. I generally use several sources for this.
First, if you haven't read Almut Koester's books on workplace discourse, now is the time. I also recommend Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting and Five Dysfunctions of a Team because they are narratives with great dialog from meetings.
Second, I have used transcripts from meetings to identify some key language. If you enter "meeting transcripts" into Google, you will find many transcribed sessions from government meetings, hearings, presentations, etc. I don't use them in class because they are horribly boring, but there are some great phrases. The problem with these is that they are too organized. Real meetings are generally more chaotic. For emails, Evan Frendo has recommended the Enron corpus and it looks promising. Sadly, I haven't had the chance to go through it.
Third, I use my own life. I have meetings, write emails, make telephone calls, etc. I have used my inbox several times in training as the basis for language work. I collect phrases and vocabulary from meetings I have with other trainers, clients, etc (even if the meeting is in German).
A note about Listening: Collins English for Business by Ian Badger. This book made quite a splash a few years ago for its recording of real people. I use it and I like it. Sadly, there are too few examples of dialog.
3. Refine role-plays and simulations. It is a good idea to ask the participants how the rehearsed situation differs from the real thing. Inevitably, they will give you a list of things you can't really change, such as accent. However, they may also give you ideas for your next role-play. For example, if I get the feedback that some people in the meeting speak too quickly with higher vocabulary, then I might participate in the next meeting and try to fulfill that role.
So, I admit that sourcing materials/resources for customized training is not easy. But I guess that is the nature of the beast. If sourcing materials were easy, it wouldn't be customized training, would it?
One final note - observing real meetings is really the best we can do. I am lucky enough to have a project in which that is possible. But I understand that this project is different. It has strong management and participant support is limited to a specific team with in a department. I have offered to observe meetings in other projects to no avail (after all, you have to get the buy-in from all the participants). If you find the opportunity... take it. Author : firstname.lastname@example.org (Anonymous) Publ.Date : Tue, 26 Aug 2014 04:20:00 +0000
ELTA Rhine Workshop - Solving Challenges On Saturday, August 23rd, I will be leading a workshop with ELTA Rhine in Cologne to talk about some of the difficult aspects of teaching/training Business English.
When I completed my CELTA I was always uncomfortable with the idea that the method was hidden from the students. I had the feeling that we should work as wizards behind the curtain, leading participants through a series of pedagogically sound activities. Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with transparency in the classroom. I feel it helps me build a better relationship with the participants, provides space for feedback, gives them more control over their learning and may even help them become more autonomous learners outside the class.
The same is true for workshops like the ELTA Rhine event in a few weeks. I want the event to reflect how I train and I want the participants be involved in developing the content.
So, with two weeks to go before the event, let me outline what is going on behind the scenes.
Step 1 - Gather Information This step is currently under way. I am using several resources. Questions I have sought to answer:
What topics and speakers has ELTA Rhine covered in the past or will cover in the future? Resource: ELTA Rhine Website
Unquestionably, the answer to this question makes me a bit nervous. The list of speakers reads like a who's who list of ELT authors. These are the people at conferences I am trying to introduce myself to with the hope that they might remember my name. As for the topics, I see that the events have covered a wide range of topics but that there is room for discussion where the rubber meets the road of Business English. There is also a mix between the novel and the classic.
Decision: I don't want to cover areas which have already been discussed. I also don't want to cover something which someone else can do better.
What does the audience look like? Resource: ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator and Participant Survey
Everyone knows that the key step in preparing a talk/workshop is to understand the audience. To achieve relevance, we need to understand the audience's situation and expectations. First, I spoke with the events coordinator to get an idea of attendees. Are they mostly freelancers working in companies? Do they work in schools or universities with prescribed curricula?
I decided to augment this information with a participant survey to get critical information about the audience. The first question of the survey is designed to get 'demographic' information. The second question is designed to gauge the emotional response to Business English. The third question is set up as open response to get an idea of teaching styles and ideas for how they view Business English.
Decision: I am speaking to an experienced group and we have much in common. I will share the results of the survey in the workshop (they are anonymous). A workshop in its true form (creating value/intellectual property) is the best fit because the collective knowledge is greater than mine alone.
What topics are most important to the participants? Resource: Participant Survey and Social Media Monitoring
A common pitfall is assuming that certain topics are important simply based on the audience profile. For example, it may be tempting to think that if the audience is made up of freelancers then administration skills and tips are interesting. Likewise, if the audience uses a coursebook, then maximizing published materials would be the best topic. But when dealing with experts, they have probably already found the answers to these questions. The same is true in my classes. In a group of marketing people, talking about presentations for the 10,000th time is not really that helpful.
So, I wanted to do a mini 'needs analysis' to find out what topics are important to the audience. What do they need/want? For the survey, I created a ranking question for the participants to order which topics are most important. The topics were a mix of topics I feel comfortable speaking about in front of experts and listening to social media/blogs.
Decision: The results have been eye-opening for sure. As of now, "Designing Customized Courses" is well in front, with "Leading Materials Light Lessons" in second place. "Handling ESP Needs" and "Needs Analysis" are bringing up the rear. This is not what I expected. I'm very happy that I didn't choose a topic I wanted to talk about... I probably would have wasted everyone's time. I won't divulge which topic it was. :)
What are the constraints? Resource: ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator
There are constraints in every situation. In particular I am looking at audience size, time and training aids. First, we have 2.5 hours to discuss content. The workshop is 3 hours but I will have to factor in a break and socializing. Second, it appears that the event will be fairly intimate (less than 50 attendees). This means that going into more detail will be possible. Third, I am thinking about whiteboards, technology, table set up, etc. I am still thinking about how to augment the training aids to reach the goal.
Step 2 - Creating 'Prepared Flexibility' Once I have the information, it is time to starting creating a framework for the event. I wrote a blog post a while back that "I Only Have One Lesson Plan" and that still holds true (I delete or revise my blog to reflect changes.). I want to find the right balance between control and chaos.
So first, I am outlining the goal of the workshop. In this case, the goal is to create a product which collects and organizes the collective knowledge of me and the audience. I am still not sure what form this product should take. Perhaps it is a handbook (Word document), perhaps it is a slide deck... maybe a video. I am not sure yet. But my goal is to hand ELTA Rhine a prepared product to deliver value to their members, first and foremost to the participants.
To do this, I am working on several things. First, I am dissecting the needs/wants to figure out what I want to say. Can I break this down into "Three Steps" or "5 Tips"? For example, if customizing courses remains the main focus, I analyze the process into several topics areas: - Recognizing decision points in class (where are the opportunities to improvise and customize?) - Performance-based training (relating to test-teach-test for skills) - Identifying language gaps and skills gaps in participant performance - Avoiding the "hard Business English" trap and driving our students away (e.g. writing reports) - The making them eat their broccoli problem. - Assessing resources for customization, taking far away content and adapting it to a customized need
This step includes creating slides, thinking about vignettes and documenting activities from the past.
Another step is to plan for contingencies. Because I am giving up control to the audience, I want to be prepared for unexpected events. I will start with known issues. Some people have dominant personalities. They might wish to dominate the session or a group. What will I say to that person? Someone will ask a fundamental question which brings my entire approach into question. How will I deal with that? Perhaps a participant will contribute the "TED Tip". This is the activity, tip or resource which everyone already knows. What will I say to help them save face but also move the discussion further? Finally, how will I handle external issues like dry markers, a hot room, late attendees, etc.?
Finally, which activities will support the goal, deliver my message and promote productive discussion during the workshop? This is where is all comes together. I will devise a list of workshop activities. I will think about what materials I need to reach the goal. For example, right now I am designing an "Activity Description Sheet" for participants to fill out as the discussion evolves. The sheet will be a simple form which documents successful activities. This form will help me create the final product.
Step 3 - Refine and Rehearse A common mistake is to take the list of activities and create a final plan. I will not sit down and prescribe which activities will go where. I will keep the entire list in mind and select the most appropriate during the workshop. However, I will create a framework within the constraints.
So far, I have divided the session into various time blocks. (Grammar note for teachers: I originally wrote that sentence in the past simple, but I changed to the present perfect for British sensitivity.) I have a general idea of how I will organize the participants. I also have a pretty clear idea about how I will collect knowledge and transform it into useful information. I am creating the slides to express my message. I have a plan for topics which are not covered due to constraints. I have a list of 'challenge questions' to push the audience.
Next, I will rehearse the workshop. I will stand in my office and give the workshop... in real time (I will actually rehearse what I am doing during group work for the 3 hours). I will rehearse the contingencies and I will make sure that the various possible activities are time neutral - meaning they can be replaced without affecting the constraint. I will rehearse collecting ideas. I will assess the rehearsal based on the audience profile and survey responses. Additionally, I will focus on the instructions. I will rehearse giving the instructions for each task.
This rehearsal will continue all the way up to the event... on the train to Cologne... in the taxi from the train station... in the few minutes before the event. The goal of the rehearsal is to be completely comfortable with the chaos of giving up control. Inevitably, the participants will surprise me... but hopefully I can rehearse 90% of the contingencies.
Yes, this is the same as my training. Back to revealing the wizard behind the curtain... I have recently pulled it back even further in the context of socializing. My participants often say they need small talk and socializing (I distinguish the two). They are also amazed at how easy it is for me to conduct socializing and assume it is a native speaker thing. I now deal with the fact that the language is not the constraint for socializing, it is cultural and personal.
I recently said to participants (in a group).
We have talked before that trust is built on competence and character. We also know that building personal relationships is important for making communication work. The same is true for us. I want you to trust me and I think a personal relationship will make learning easier. When I came here today, I thought about you. I thought about your daughter because you said she was preparing for her A-Levels. I thought about the small talk. I said to myself, "I should ask about her daughter." I thought of sentences to ask like "So, how did the A-Levels go?" Joachim, you told me last time that you were planning your honeymoon. I came prepared with questions about your honeymoon. How did that feel for someone to remember what you told them and ask about it? So, in the spirit of the workshop... how can you make this an activity? Would you like to write a comment?
Planned flexibility... the method of the workshop and perhaps a few tips for trainers. If you haven't registered and you'll be in the best city in Germany on August 23rd, please come. I can't promise excellence, but I'll do my best.
Why Business English Training is like a Smart Phone I had a discussion recently with a fellow trainer about drafting and using performance objectives (can do statements). In the discussion, I used the simile of a smart phone, but I did not really have my thoughts in order. So here is a clearer discussion.
Anyone who works in marketing these days will tell you that we have moved from the era of mass production to the age of mass customization. Product managers and marketers are continually trying to find ways to create products which support the individual needs or wishes of consumers while at the same time retain the benefits of serial production.
Few products demonstrate the power to mass customization more than the smart phone. A smart phone by itself has relatively limited value and does not really differ functionally than its dumb phone ancestors. It makes phone calls, it saves phone numbers, it can transmit and receive data (i.e. internet) and it hosts a range of utility functions like a calculator and alarm. Perhaps the only significant addition is a GPS antenna.
Instead, the true power of the smart phone is ability to customize the functionality with apps. "There's probably an app for that," is no small statement about the power of the device. The apps on my phone are probably very different than yours and our phones likely reflect our priorities, lifestyles and needs. We may have the same model phone, but we have completely unique products.
What can you tell about me from my suggestion list?
So let's take a closer look at smart phones and how they relate to training. I tend to think of the CEF levels as the model of phone - the processor speed, the connectivity rate, the memory, the basic operating system, etc. A lower performance phone will not run as many apps or runs them very slowly much like a level learner has very limited flexibility in communication. By comparison, the latest iPhone will run pretty much anything on the market and perform multiple functions simultaneously, much like an advanced learner.
Naturally, there are some basic functions every learner must be able to perform in English just like a phone must have a calculator, an alarm, a calendar, an SMS function and so on. These are universal utilities which come with the operating system. There is no customization and they are standard. I generally think of A1 and A2 as the operating system levels in which I try to install simple functions like introductions, writing a simple email, using basic vocabulary and grammar, etc. But once we have installed the OS, we can start inserting contacts and appointments, as well downloading some apps.
There are now over 1 million apps on Google Play and even more on iTunes, so the possibilities are endless. I see three levels of apps. First are the mainstream apps like Facebook, Skype and Adobe Reader. These reach a large audience and typically perform routine functions. In business English there are similar language items which nearly all learners will need. For example, writing emails for request, giving opinions in a meeting and some general business vocabulary are fairly standard. These areas are typically covered in course book, but sometimes the books go too far.
The second group of apps contains 'conditional apps'. These are only useful for people who meet certain criteria but they may also be very popular. For example, the Sparkasse (a consumer bank) app has over 1 million downloads, but only by Sparkasse customers. In business English, these 'conditional apps' are the industry or job field skills. Sales representatives tend to need more socializing, greeting visitors, talking about products and making persuasive presentations. Accountants need more finance vocabulary and reporting financial results. Customer service reps need more troubleshooting, telephoning and giving instructions.
Finally, there are the highly individual apps which reflect your lifestyle, personality and priorities. The Lady Pill Reminder app is probably only for women using birth control (I wonder how many boyfriends/husbands have it as well). On my phone, I have the baby phone app so that I can still visit the hotel bar with my wife while on vacation. I am one of only a few thousand with the 1.FC Nürnberg app for my favorite football team. I have the pronunciation app for work and a time keeper app to record my hours per client. Although they may not be among the top 1000 in downloads, these are extremely useful. The same is true for business English, working on language to fit a very specific situation is often the most useful for the learners.
Useful for freelancers?
I draw a few lessons from this metaphor. The key lesson for me is refining the role of the trainer. First, a trainer needs to know the 'app store' inside and out. They need to know what is available and what the different functions are. The trainer not only helps install and run the software, they also serve as the "Recommended for you" function.
The second lesson is in course design. The farther the developer is from the end-user, the more general the course should be. Imagine buying a smart phone with a bunch of apps you do not want, do not need and cannot use. The same is true for selling 'packaged can do statements'. Minecraft may have more than 5 million downloads, but that does not mean I want it. While packaging course objectives is easy, it is not mass customization. Also, if the course is stuffed with required functions, the trainer will find that the student's memory is full and they can't install the truly useful stuff.
The third lesson is that general to specific is not always the best way. Smart phone users often download highly specific apps before the general ones because of their priorities. Do not be afraid to train communication and language non-linearly.
The final lesson is from programming. App developers write code in functional blocks. Each bit of code performs a specific function like initializing the data receiver. When they write apps, they will often copy, paste and modify these blocks for compatibility. The same is true for activity types and exercises. Two very different lessons and courses can include copy and paste parts (with slight adjustments). A good programmer always documents their functional blocks (nothing is more frustrating to a programmer than undocumented code), so a trainer should keep their activities neatly documented and organized. But, they should also keep in mind that using the activity verbatim almost always results in a compatibility bug.
So, I will leave it to you to design your own software. It is not an easy task. But as I sit at this cafe watching everyone tapping away on their phones, I can see that customization is not only possible, but the new expectation.
Pre-experienced and Experienced Learners - Thoughts from Graz I have been giving presentations and writing blog posts about in-company training for the last several years. Especially with the presentations, I often have problems trying to fit the content to the audience. The problem is that I am facing two separate market segments... in-company trainers (often freelancers) who typically have much greater scope in determining needs, selecting/creating materials and delivering training. But also in the audience are the Business English teachers and lecturers who have less control over the learning objectives, resources and methods. Additionally, they face drastically different challenges concerning learner motivation, class size and assessment/reporting. Not having experience operating in such a formal structure, I'd like to pass on some thoughts on what I see as those students enter the workforce and perhaps reflect on where I could see changes in institutional teaching.
Despite being in-company, I actually receive many pre-experienced learners. My training is often aligned with the company's on-boarding program and the majority of new participants are in their first days or weeks at the company. It is also normal for me to get participants who do not use English in their jobs yet, but it is coming. In these cases, I feel I can relate somewhat to the challenges teachers face with pre-experienced learners.
I can draw several conclusions from what I see as these participants enter my training.
1. Learners who had an English course which was aligned with their field of study had great advantages over those who only had a general Business English class.
2. Motivation was much higher for learners who clearly understood that a) English would certainly be a integral part of their job and b) being able to conduct their job in English would be a competitive advantage for career progression. Those who lacked this awareness were surprised by the reality of a bilingual working environment and suffered lower self-confidence. They often had negative feelings toward improving their language.
3. If an institution taught English as a practical skill, their graduates were much better prepared. If the school treated English as a theoretical concept, the graduates were largely unable to adequately perform their tasks in L2. This mindset was often reflected by the teaching methods and content. Practical teaching focused heavily on production activities throughout the teaching, not just at assessment. Unsurprisingly, those who emerged from a more theoretical approach were often overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of the language.
Let me give you examples of things going wrong. You might be surprised at how often I am faced with entry-level accountants who cannot recognize the basic vocabulary from a balance sheet (almost zero new graduates). Likewise, I routinely meet fresh-faced employees in the mechanical engineering field who cannot understand even the simplest terms like bearing, dimensions, or bolt. I see this across fields with the exception of software. I suspect that is because software terms have been developed in conjunction with the spread of English, they have an advantage because they often do not have L1 equivalent words. However, you can see how wholly unprepared some of these learners are for performing their job in English.
Of course, I do not want to lump all educational institutions together. There are many very good programs which are producing excellent international employees. But the results appear to be hit or miss. The one area in Germany which seems to be particularly poor is the apprenticeship path. And this leads to a few observations about the content-need mismatch.
First, students and apprentices need English at a tactical level. If course books reflect the nature of educational teaching, the content is far too managerial and strategic. Even university graduates are entering the work force at a low level in the organization structure. Most English communication at this level is problem oriented. Companies have automatic processes/workflows and IT systems to handle routine tasks. If everything runs as it should, very little communication is needed. However, when the system breaks down, communication is needed to get back on track. For example, missed deliveries, higher costs, missing files, incomplete reports, etc. are at the heart of communication. New employees are not generally making business plans, discussing how to foster entrepreneurship in the company, devising a market campaign, or discussing who to promote and why. Even among high-flyers, the company will not hand this much responsibility to a new employee from day one. They typically have a separate development path in the company, but still deal with tactical matters at the beginning.
Second, far more English communication occurs internally or semi-internally than with customers. Evan Frendo is right on the money with this observation and I cannot stress this point enough. Most companies have strict communication filters between themselves and the customer. In many cases, all external communication must go through a very small team in the corporate communications, marketing or sales departments. There are a few exceptions to this, but they are all highly specialized. For example, the customer service department speaks with customers, as will the accounting department in case of wrong invoices. By and large however, entry-level employees are kept at arms length from the customer. More English communication occurs semi-internally. In this case, the employee needs to work with long-term suppliers or distributors. While the communication is often between two companies, they work together so often and so deeply that they could almost be regarded as colleagues. But by far, the most communication is internal - from department to department. It is generally the consequence of off-shoring and outsourcing which are also the main reasons why English is needed so badly at lower echelons in the company. A typical situation might be an email between the quality auditor in the home country and the factory in Romania. Another example is the software developer in India and the tester in Germany.
Third, communication is highly transactional, but...it is far more complex that "Could you please...?" I hear all the time from new participants that they want to improve "small talk". When I scratch beneath the surface however, I find that what they really want is the ability to build relationships with their international contacts to ease the transactional nature of business. They want to build trust with their global colleagues and suppliers. The second aspect of communicating in companies is that students enter a high-context culture. Office discourse is so difficult because of the body of shared knowledge, differing objectives and the hierarchical structure of decision-making and information flow. While the email may be a simple request for clarification on the surface, the context can quickly land the employee in hot water. I'm not sure this second aspect can be dealt with in education, but the teacher may want to keep it in mind.
So, what do I recommend? 1. Create a balanced English program - one-third general English, one-third general Business English, one-third field specific "ESP Lite". General English is important and under represented in the secondary schools (at least in Germany). From the ages of 12-16, English is taught resembling CLIL. Looking through the state school books, there is a chapter on Australia, the Big Apple, and reading about Obama's election. I can distinctly remember helping a friend's child try to learn the words, abolition, underground railroad, whip, and quilt. Can you imagine the topic? I don't want to exaggerate, nor do I wish to insult school teachers at all. I merely want to point out that some of the content prior to entering university is of marginal value in business socializing. Also, by the time they enter the workforce years later, they often lack the simplest vocabulary to discuss their weekend. I think ongoing general English learning would be very helpful. I also think that general Business English is helpful as a foundation up to the intermediate level. The problem with higher levels is the content of the course book. Course books are generally organized by field: one chapter on HR, one on projects, one on marketing, etc. This works up to B1-B2 but then they become overly specific in the fields. I think "ESP Lite" would be extremely helpful. This will help the students prepare for the next steps.
2. Take a step back from standardization. I understand that a certain level of standardization is needed in an institutional environment. However, I also observe that university level Business English teachers are an incredibly talented and professional group. When I present at BESIG conferences, this is the group which makes me the most nervous because of their knowledge, expertise and experience. I periodically lead standardized training with larger classes, but I always work under a very general set of can do statements. Within the statement is enough room for me to maneuver. I am able to conduct a modified needs analysis to refine the training. The more detailed the can do statement, the more we rely on the institution's needs analysis. In others words, the can do statement (and thus the assessment) had better be relevant or else we are wasting everyone's time. I'm just thinking out load, but do these expert university teachers really need a step-by-step lesson plan with page numbers and activity types?
3. Fortify the feedback loop from practice to content. I currently have the suspicion from my pre-experience learners that many need analysis are conducted in Oxford, Cambridge or in the halls of Pearson Education. Instead, I recommend shortening the feedback loop by drawing on a few resources. Most institutions have a career placement program to help students transition to careers. Where are graduates going? What are they doing? If a job is unfamiliar, read example job descriptions or visit the US Department of Labor Occupational Handbook for more. Another idea is to build a relationship with HR groups and/or in-company Business English trainers in the area to get feedback. For example, did you know that presentations are often much different in technical fields? First, PowerPoint slides need more text because they must be clear without a verbal presentation. The slide decks can travel far in the company without any meeting or spoken communication at all. Second, verbal presentations are typically less than 5 minutes long and the most common visual aid is an Excel spreadsheet. A presentation given in 'ELT format' is completely irrelevant.
In conclusion, I want to be very clear that my observations about the challenges in Business English teaching cannot possibly reflect every institution and every teacher. However, I have questions based on the number of participants I see entering the workforce without the ability to conduct even the most routine tasks in their field. Their brains are full of valuable knowledge and ideas, but they are locked behind the bars of language and skills. I hope that my thoughts add something to the pre-experienced vs. experience learner discussion and I look forward to hearing your feedback. Author : email@example.com (Anonymous) Publ.Date : Sun, 15 Jun 2014 13:25:00 +0000
Three steps for improving ESP training I've always been proud of my customer satisfaction figures. Naturally, when I conduct my appraisals of Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels, I continue to see a slight decrease in results from response to results. But, what has recently impressed me was how the whole satisfaction curve is starting to shift higher. Greater engagement, faster application, higher results across the board. On the emotional side, it is great to feel the customer mindset change from, "It's great training," to "It's absolutely vital training." On the business side, referrals are up and sustainable success appears within reach. It's inappropriate to boast, but I am genuinely proud that changes I made in training style and course design are starting to make a difference. I'd like to describe a few of those changes.
Anyone who has read this blog or met me will know how passionate I am about relevance in training and using performance-based training methods. In practice, this often means using framework materials. Taken to the next step, it means using only pens, paper, whiteboards and the internet. The trouble with approaching training with such limited resources is that you are restricted to the collective memory of the learning team (me + the participants) and what we can immediately resource using the internet. This poses a distinct challenge for handling ESP situations in which I am not an expert. Google only handles ESP at a general level, and the participants doubt the ability of the trainer to understand the complexity of the topic. So here are the simplified steps to ESP.
Step 1 - Get the critical mass of knowledge Yes, that is right... research. I know you have heard this before, but it actually takes less effort than you realize. Here are few ideas for researching an ESP topic.
1. The standard - have them present it to you in class. No articles, no handouts, just a whiteboard and a marker. "Explain this to me." Check Evan Frendo's blog for an idea on how to do this. Or simply draw this on the board.
2. Have sticky fingers - someone brings up a concept or process in class, ask them to send you a diagram of it. Visit them at their desk... collect artifacts posted around their cubical/office. Can't take copies or get the information? Contact your training coordinator to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I've never had a client refuse... they want this level of relevance. If a participant talks about a supplier/customer in class, bring it up on the internet and bookmark it.
3. Text mining - Your chances of piercing the discourse community without text mining and corpus analysis are close to zero. If you are relying on the ESL publishing industry for this, all I can say is good luck. My dual language dictionary for engineering is twice as thick as my Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. There isn't the time here to go into corpus analysis and finding key words or clusters, but it doesn't take that long. I recently encountered the need for vocabulary around air-cooled systems. It took me less than an hour to find 200 key words from 'fins' to 'obstruct'.
Where can you get texts for mining? Start general... wikipedia. Then move to specifics by visiting suppliers/providers. Copy and paste product descriptions into a concordancer for key terms (usually nouns) and scan the text for verbs. But remember, the goal here isn't to immediately create materials... that step will come.
4. Use professional associations - Nearly every specialty field has a professional association attached to it. Want finance? Go to IFRS. Want software service? Go to ITIL. Want project management? Go to PMI or search PRINCE2. Read a bit.
Remember, you don't need to be an expert, just have enough knowledge for the next step.
Step 2 - Demonstrate your knowledge constantly Okay, so you have some research and knowledge. You know some key words, a few acronyms and you have a general idea of how theory works. Now it's time for the next step, use your knowledge.
Situation: I need to teach my participants in the software department the difference in meaning between will, going to and the present continuous. For practice, I can: a) bring in an illegal photocopy from Murphy with sentences like, "Mary ___________ (attend) the party on Friday." b) bring in an illegal photocopy of a technical English coursebook with sentences like, "Hans ________ (investigate) the bearing failure next week." c) write "I _________ (finish) installing the new compiler version." on the whiteboard. d) create a two part controlled practice exercise in which participant A creates sentences, then a gap fill for participant B. Which should I use?
You probably guessed it right, option C or D. The materials-light approach allows us to continuously create our own example sentences and relevant exercises. We picked up the key words from our text mining. We have a pretty clear idea of functions (i.e. grammar) from our needs analysis, diagnostic test and 'explain it to me' activity. The goal here is three-fold. We need to teach them the material so they can notice it, test it and use it. We need to provide them with clearly relevant language input. And finally, we need to demonstrate that we understand their discourse community for the next step. Step 3 - Keep pushing them into more detail In the past I stopped at step 2. That generated good results, but there was a limit. It wasn't enough. Then I accidentally learned that framework materials were the key. One of my favorite frameworks was the fish bone diagram which is used to analyze the possible root causes of a problem. In general, the head of the 'fish' is the resulting problem and then then you add possible causes and contributing factors (a term from text mining) into the diagram. I typically used this framework for could have, might have, etc. But, then I figured out that as we drove the diagram deeper, the participants lost the vocabulary. Even more troubling, it wasn't vocabulary which would appear in text mining.
This diagram led to all kind of activities... 1. Vocabulary, of course... you have internet right? Don't forget to check the professional association for the right term. 2. Functions... you can take the results and build them into whatever is relevant. 3. Skills... most problems are larger than one person and emails for request work perfectly here, meetings, too. 4. Materials development... check off the words they know from your key word list and make materials within their zone of proximal development.
So then I tried other types of diagrams, like mind maps. With a financial/tax/legal English client, we now have a working mind map over 10 levels deep as part of a PBL task. Just keep pushing them for more detail. As my Germans say, "Ach... die Wörter fehlen." (Oh... the words are missing.) But this is exactly my point. In their discourse community everything general is already understood. We need to get to the detailed tit-for-tat of their community. Without research and without demonstrating understanding, step 3 will never happen.
But pushing them into more detail is the difference between great training and training they can't work without.
My Journey in Training Methods I received some constructive criticism about my post on Business English in 2014 and it sent me into reflection. One of the points was that we do have a working methodology for Business English training. The author was promoting a BE certification course which I cannot currently endorse. This is not to say certification courses (including the one the author promoted) are bad, just that I cannot clearly judge the value from the marketing material. I am always a bit skeptical of business models which leverage the value chain (i.e. profit from teachers/trainers). You can read more about this in my post about the value chain.
I continue to believe that existing methodologies of BE training are unsuitable to the realities of our clients. It is helpful here to reflect on the methods I have tried and the results I have found.
Welcome to ESL! I was politely indoctrinated in the communicative approach. My CELTA course was at the Berlin School of English. I had excellent teacher trainers and a wonderful education. They taught me how to effectively survive a course. There is no doubt in my mind that it was extremely helpful. But, I took the good with the bad. I learned that ESL lessons have a specific structure (generally according to Jeremy Harmer). I learned how to manage time, select activities and how to create space for expression. I also learned how to worship publishers and how to professionally photocopy. Occasionally, I still find the citation strips of paper stuck in my library of course books, and I clearly remember how I broke the paper cutter at my first employer from overuse.
It was a valuable experience and I am thankful to have had it. But it also became clear that it didn't work exactly as advertised.
I was immediately placed in Business English because of my background, my personality and I looked good in a tie. But when I tried the methods from my CELTA, something was missing. First, course books work on a grammar syllabus. I haven't found one which doesn't (despite their claims). If you know one... please let me know. They work on a grammar syllabus because the CEFR is grammar based. I'm sure that the authors of the CEFR would disagree but the words "routine" and "everyday" appear quite often in the lower levels. In practice, books still take a grammar-based approach (typically under the cover of functions).
You're in the Army Again... I realized that ESL wasn't working. I was happy because I always knew what to teach - ESL told me. But I wasn't really making a difference. So, I made the transition to performance-based training. I was well aware of tenants of PBT from my time in the army (see my post Lessons Learned from the Military). Basically, we looked at the expected performance, broke it into concrete steps and then we trained and tested it until the performance met the standard.
This required a change in needs analysis and assessment (I have posted about this transition often). I made the switch and things were good. I could clearly identify the skills gap and train to fill it using ESL-structured blocks. Performance and confidence improved dramatically. My students reported exceptional improvement. I was training to task using ESL-structured lessons. But then things began to change.
Bite the Dog The problem with all of this was that it was taking too much time. I wasn't profitable. I could not sustain a fully needs-based course. It took 45 minutes to think about and prepare an hour of training. My blended approach of fully needs based (customized) training with ESL teaching techniques generated much higher progress and high customer satisfaction and progress, but was still unsustainable. Then I discovered Dogme which essentially said that if I could spontaneously create pedagogical activities, I was good.
I embraced and switched my focus from planning to recording and reviewing what happened in the lessons. My post I Only Have One Lesson Plan is the essence of that approach. It works, no question for me. I saw immense progress, validated by real world performance, and my clients were extremely happy. I was now incorporating everything into my training... the communicative approach, performance-based training and Dogme. But then it changed...
The Patient has Complications With greater customer satisfaction, I began to get closer to the organization and the real needs of the learners. Suddenly, I had jumped into a deeper pool than I had imagined. The problems were glaring. It wasn't the language which was holding things back, it was cultural and communication skills. In other words, speaking better English was not equal to higher efficiency. In some cases the bottleneck was the language, but often it was only a contributing factor.
I remember speaking with some BESIG members a few years ago that our clients often equated a communication problem with a language problem. The simple fact is that in the mind of the client language = communication. I feel my mandate is to solve communication problems with a focus on language. But as I moved, the situation became more and more complex.
Everything is Nothing
So, here I was... faced with an universe of methods and ideas. I needed to teach the English language through the communicative approach, clearly understand the performance gap, let the learners direct the training and understand the real barriers to communication. The result was not good.
The ESL approach is long, boring and often useless. Following a prescribed set of activities may be useful for mastering certain concepts, but we often don't have the time to fully complete the activities or the learning objective does not match the need. The ESL approach is overly sterile and reflects a notional reality.
The communicative approach is right in creating a communication gap, but what happens when communication is no longer a problem (higher levels)? ESL doesn't really have an answer to the image needs of BE students other than restrictive language exercises.
Performance-based training works great with the communicative approach as long as there is a performance gap. In other words, it is nice as long as there is a clear need. It doesn't work when the need is reached or when the learner is striving for an intangible ability. Then we have to revert to something like the CEFR.
The trainer cannot sustain Dogme for more than a 50 hours of training. It works great in short-term courses. Dogme relies on the immediate recognition of need and spontaneous input and task creation to fill the gap. I have difficulty keeping such a variety of task contingencies in mind. The result is repeat task types which nullify the entire approach.
Dogme kills vocabulary development. The most critical piece of feedback from my learners is that I do not help them produce new vocabulary. I have tried my best through review and in-lesson note taking to improve this aspect, but vocabulary retention is still less than 10% per lesson. ESL methods and course books are better at this. It is also a vital part of their needs.
Office communication is unbelievably complex. I have had the chance to read countless authentic emails, documents, reports, etc. as well as observe meetings and telephone conferences. There are pragmatic, semantic and cultural issues at every turn as well as linguistic. I have no doubt that clients attempt to solve communication problems with language training.
First, I think the complexity of our mandate is higher than our clients realize. I sincerely believe that we are hired to facilitate communication not just that someone masters the Past Perfect.
Second, I do not think existing ESL methods (including existing ESL-derived BE teaching methods) fulfill this need. ESL prescribes a certain learning plan which does not fit with the immediate or medium-term needs of the learners.
Third, Dogme is too loose. It fails to fulfill the steps of Bloom's Taxonomy (as I implemented it) because it relies too heavily on the learner's sense of dedication to complete self-study.
So, I have tried all of these and they are not the complete solution. Parts of them are valuable and I recommend a teacher development package which presents new trainers with challenges, but the solution is not in the book or on the internet. We need to take BE further.
I'll present my work in Graz at the BESIG Summer Symposium. It will be the culmination of a year of training with an entirely new approach which better fits the realities of BE training. So far, it solves these dilemmas and provides the balance my participants and I need.
The Late Winter Doldrums - A Journal Entry I hate routine. I feel uncomfortable when I sense that things are becoming stale. I like the creativity dial to be turned up to 11. Yet over the last month, I have the feeling that I and my participants are just going through the motions of teaching and learning. I feel the learning has stalled a bit and participants are leaving the training underwhelmed by the interaction, engagement, and challenge. Like many trainers, my gut reaction is to simply blame myself for delivering poor training.
The main purpose of this blog is to help myself get out of situations like this, reflect on my training, set priorities, connect with others, and drive myself to do better. So today I will give a report on yesterday's training and hopefully identify ways it could be better.
Context On Tuesdays, I have a full day of training at the research and development department of a manufacturer. The project is quickly approaching its two-year mark and has been extremely successful in terms of progress, value delivered, and participation among the employees. The training day is built around 5 one-hour group sessions with similar language levels. The overall ability of the department is very good and my groups range from B1 to C1. Additionally, I have introduced special mixed-level 45 minute sessions for secretaries and technical English vocabulary. Finally, the project includes some time for individual or small group coaching and general support for English communication.
After such a long time, I am so familiar with the business and internal processes that I often know more about the organization and current events than the individual participants. The classes provide a knowledge sharing function (both among participants and between groups) as well as a tool for building communication competence. I am treated much like a co-worker. It has become very comfortable, but comfort also breeds laziness.
My day... I started the morning at 6 am to brainstorm the lessons. I read the class notes for the previous two weeks, looked back at the training report for the last quarter, and entered a few tentative topics for the day's sessions.
I arrived at the company at 7:30 and set up in my morning conference room. Luckily, I was able to meet and talk to an American employee who handles documentation with American regulators. I have been trying to pick his brain for the last few months about how the company communicates externally in English. Because of regulation, there are many written and unwritten rules about drafting documentation. For example, the company must make sure that it does not make unsubstantiated claims in brochures. Specific wording is required and some words are taboo. Finally, documents cannot bend the truth, and must not raise questions among regulators. My goal is to ensure that I am training language correctly and not teaching vocabulary or phrases which might cause regulatory problems. We had some small talk and arranged to meet another day so he could give me some resources and I could find out some of the issues the department faces in internal and external documentation.
I also stopped by the project sponsor's office to say good morning, find out how he was doing, and let him raise any issues about the training. After a few minutes of small talk he asked me about my reservation for the conference room. He had a supplier meeting and was having trouble finding a place. I said I would talk to one of the admin assistants and see if my back-up room was available. If so, he could use mine. He told me not to worry about it and that he thought he had another solution. Finally, he mentioned that one department wanted to add several employees to the project and that he might have to clarify the issue. Then we talked shortly about how it is a good sign that people want to join the training because it means the employees are talking about how useful the training is (this is covert customer relations and feedback).
A cup of coffee later and it was 8:00 - time for a 45 minute session on technical English. Recent sessions had been around software development and testing. On this day, I brought my toolbox from home. A very simple lesson with only one participant. The session is open to all and optional.
The participant pulls out a tool and we write the name on a note card.
We talk about different versions of the tool and add them to the note card (internet helped here).
We talk about the last time they used it and what it is used for.
The realia causes questions about similar tools and related vocabulary.
We collect the note cards. I read a card and the participant holds up the tool.
I give the note cards to the participant, they read the cards and tell me if I hold up the correct tool (sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong).
Despite the high level of the ability in the department, they often lack such general vocabulary. Several have asked for help in this area. For example, hammer and nails are easy, but most do not know wrench, pliers, insulation tape, or drill bits.
At 8:45 the first level class began and there was a quick good-bye and hello. The B1-B2 participants took their normal seats in the classroom. This is by far the class I am most proud of. Five of the six participants came to the lesson and attendance is always excellent. They are unbelievably smart and inquisitive people (this goes for the whole research and development department). Over the last two years they have made so much progress that I am left in awe at far they have come. The lesson time is great, they all use English in their jobs, and I think the training has been quite good.
This lesson, however, was a complete failure. They have a coursebook (Business Result Intermediate) which we almost never use and by now is too easy for them. But I decided to use it for a lesson on presentations. We did the opening exercise about a company mission statement, listened to the model presentation, did the comprehension activity, and then finished the key phrases activity. By that point, eyes were glazed over and I had lost them. This was Charles going through the motions. Everything about the lesson was too easy and I could see it going south the whole way. I could feel the groan when I said, "Turn to page 78." The intro activity failed to generate any comments, and by the time they heard my computer say, "Audio fifty-one," they were barely listening.
Here's my problem with this lesson and this group. First, this was the third lesson of the last five which has included listening (or watching). They want to speak and if my computer speakers fill the space, there is not any for them. Second, the time is so short that if I try to use a typical teaching workflow, I do not really have time for much small group or pair work. Thus, the speaking becomes teacher to learner. I assume too much of a dominant presence in the room. Third, they asked to work on presentations but I am constrained. The lesson does not really offer enough time to prepare and deliver a presentation in the same lesson. Self-study is near zero so I cannot expect them to prepare something outside the class. I tried that last year, they discussed and decided on the topics, but it never materialized. They just felt guilty and I needed to change tactics. A few weeks ago they gave a spontaneous talk to introduce themselves, describe their department, and finally to explain their experience. These went well, but they were too short and I want something more complex.
This book lesson included adjectives to describe a company. To try to save the lesson, I asked them to find adjectives which described companies like Ikea and McDonalds. I then set them the task of creating one slide with adjectives for a company and presenting it to us next week. Let's see what happens. I need to do better.
At 10:00 it was time for the next group, a C1 group of three participants. As a side note, I have problems with level binning under the CEFR and I cannot really tell where C1 stops and C2 begins. Let me put it this way, these participants are so good that I have a very difficult time figuring out what to teach them. The easy way out would be to focus more on communication skills but they are also such expert international communicators with immense emotional intelligence that perhaps they should be teaching me (and often they do).
On this day, two of the three attended with one woman on vacation. We are currently in the middle of a project to deliver a workshop. The group consists of one mechanical engineer, one software engineer, and one project coordinator. Thus, we devised a simple project in which the project coordinator would lead the planning and organization of a workshop with the two engineers giving presentations on new technologies in mechanical and software/hardware engineering. The 'audience' of the workshop is a group of doctor candidates at university and their goal is to collect ideas from these researchers on how the company can use breakthrough technologies to drive innovative solutions and products (we are assuming the naivete of PhD candidates). We have a hard deadline for the workshop because the project coordinator is pregnant and we want to finish before she goes on maternity leave.
Unfortunately, the software engineer could not bring his laptop to lesson so we could not discuss and finish writing his presentation. So instead, we started talking about his upcoming business trip to Paris to a customer and the difficulty of meeting customer expectations for high-end products. During the discussion, I picked up on the response, "I fully agree," which did not sound natural. Many of our lessons feature collocations and phrases to help them sound more like native speakers.
In this case, I pulled up Just the Word on the projector (we do this often) and identified several collocations with agree including entirely, generally, and reluctantly. Next, I turned the conversation to performative verbs.
Another tangent... For me, the debate about English as a Lingua Franca is largely settled. It clearly exists and I am quite certain of what it is. For me, the question was closed after watching Mark Powell talk about Lean Language. In fact, this video helped make me the trainer I am (good or bad). I still have not found a more valuable and worthwhile resource for teaching.
Here is Part 1... you should really watch all five parts.
Second, Chia Suan Chong interviewed Vicki Hollett a couple of years ago on ELF in which she mentioned performatives between NNSs. Sadly, I have since lost my other sources on this element of NNS interaction. But my observations of written and spoken international communication have always confirmed that using words like suggest,apologize, agree, propose, and invite are valuable to international communication. They can often be a short cut to developing functional language.
So, I told the participants that these verbs can be very useful when speaking with other countries, but they may be used less often among native speakers. We pulled up a teaching website (nicely British) for phrases to agree and disagree and compared the use of functional phrases. At this level, they should be able to use to both and adapt their language to the ability of the audience.
One participant then asked me if I could tell the difference between a NS and NNS author when reading a text. I told them that I could nearly always distinguish a German author because I knew the language, but that their level was so good that sometimes I could not tell from their writing. They had recently written presentation abstracts and 75-word bios for their project (with NS models) and I could not tell they came from NNSs.
We then discussed some of the ways I could identify a German translation or author. We discussed the prominent use of nouns in German and reformulated a few example sentences (we had done this before). We also looked at the use of the passive (also common in German). Finally, I wrote a few example sentences with endless relative clauses and broke them down into smaller sentences using the subjects this, that, and it.
Overall, I think this was very good lesson. I felt like a language guide and I feel they left with a better ability to change their language depending on the audience, which is a key skill for them to master.
At 11:00 it was time for the B2 group but my inbox showed that only one person would be able to join the lesson. This group is particularly difficult to plan for. The test engineer who came would likely pick up on the fact that I ended the previous sentence with a preposition and ask whether it was allowed. In fact, many of our lessons focus on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (thanks Scott Thornbury and Michael McCarthy!). He is a language lover and generally believes that proper grammar is the primary measure of language ability. He studies Mandarin in his free time and often sends me clarification questions when he senses non-standard forms of English. Unfortunately, most of his language learning has come from critically reading formal texts and his spoken English lacks staccato sentence rhythm. It can be difficult for listeners to patiently wait for the end of a thought or sentence. Another participant in the group has similar difficulty in spoken fluency. The group is rounded out by a Spanish woman with great speaking skills but tons of L2 interference and a new participant looking to gain speaking practice and refining feedback.
With only one participant, I took a tried-and-tested lesson plan... "What are you currently working on?"
He told me that he is working on software testing documentation and I questioned him in detail about the purpose of the document. With another learner I might have seized this topic and looked at improving his writing. But with this man, whose grammar is flawless and writing puts NSs to shame, clear explanations and spoken communication are the focus. I asked him to change places in the room and for him to take the whiteboard. I asked him to please draw and explain the process of the document. What is the trigger for writing it? What is the approval process? Who reads it and why?
This placed him completely out of his communication comfort zone. First, he is less aware of the non-linguistic aspects of communication such as visual aids and body language. He is not used to creating a visual representation of thought and would prefer to simply rely on words to convey his message. Twice I had to ask him to draw what he meant because I couldn't understand (keep in mind here that I have been working with the department for years and I am very familiar with internal processes and documentation). Second, he is not adept at eliciting or reading feedback. He does not include feedback questions and generally has trouble reformulating explanations.
My feedback was much less on the language (only a few lexical gaps) and much more on structuring messages and making things tangible. I told him about the importance of examples, but left the visual representation topic for another day.
However, he expects language input and as a Business English Trainer, I am focused on giving it. During his spontaneous talk he continually used the passive. At lower levels I would praise this usage when describing a process. But for him, he is simply overusing the passive and the sentences lack meaning.
Below is my 'board' which was in MS Word on the projector screen. I wrote his passive sentences and the italics show his reformulations. The reformulations might not be perfect, but the lesson is to reduce the passive voice.
At 12:00 I began my one-hour lunch break. My wife and I are inching toward buying a house and we are seriously considering moving to a town in which one of my participants lives. But not only the town, but also the same street. So, I personally wanted to find out what it is like to live there. I visited her desk and we had a half-hour conversation about the town (in English of course). She is a B1 level and she likes to talk about her new house and her hometown. We talked about land prices, lots for sale, directions, advantages and disadvantages, etc. It would be nice to categorize this as a lesson, but let's be honest... it was just us talking (I was happy she asked many questions). She did get speaking practice and the chance to use some functional language, but I was really just curious about the environment (I am also hesitant about giving feedback when colleagues can hear). She loved it, I was very happy to get the information, and it is great to have such chances. I ran to the canteen for a quick lunch and starting thinking about the afternoon sessions.
1:00 - It was time for the lowest level group of the day, B1. Like the morning group, these participants have made great progress over the years. I must remind readers that although two years seem like a long time, we are only talking about 60-70 total class hours over that period. This group, like the B1+ group in the morning, has a bit more structure than the higher levels. I generally approach things more systematically, but I am also very flexible to participants' just-in-time needs and communication issues.
I had planned a class to have a status update meeting. We had had a listening lesson with phrases a few weeks before and I wanted to encourage them to apply what we had learned. But the rule of thumb is that when I plan something, the participants bring something else. If I don't plan, they bring nothing... go figure.
One of the weaker members of the group came in the lesson talking about a discussion with a German supplier which was frustrating. I let them discuss the issue in German for a few minutes (she started in English but quickly changed to L1 because she was so wound up about the issue). When I am teaching, I am always looking for topics like this because they are real and known. If you have read my post "I Only Have One Lesson Plan", you will know that I am always seeking moments when I can capture the topic and turn it into relevant training.
But let's analyze a bit what was happening in the classroom at that moment. First, I think she was quite concerned with her image to colleagues, suppliers, and even her trainer. Her written English is well above her level and she knows it (plus, I've told her). She does not like my visits to her desk or speaking in class because (I think) she feels mistakes might embarrass her in front of others. In the group, she is the only person who is still unwilling to take risks and make mistakes in the search of learning. Second, she came into class with something on her mind and she wanted to tell her colleagues about it. She was proud of how she had handled the situation. Third, she had attached emotions to the story and she really wanted to communicate what happened.
My thinking was to let her finish, let her tell her story in German. Let her shine and get praise from her colleagues. Cutting her off or forcing her to speak English would only have caused frustration. I need her to feel accepted and comfortable in the group. I need her to speak! Listening to her story I realized that she had all the grammar to tell this story in English and about 75% of the vocabulary. But she needed scaffolding and time to tell it.
Here is where I made the wrong decision. Instead of giving her the opportunity and structure to formulate this story in English, I took another route. First, I told her that I did not understand everything she had said (a lie) and I asked her clarification questions about the story. Specifically, I asked questions which targeted specific lexis, "What does the supplier make?" [looking for the word cabinet]. This is simply bad training. It is completely unfair to ask participants to produce words I know they do not have with the hope that they will somehow emerge with some Pavlovian bell. I have watched other trainers do this and reminded myself not to fall into this trap.
During the story, she raised a common topic within the group - people who do not respond to emails in a timely manner. This was my second mistake. I decided to focus on this subject and work toward phrases for making suggestions. This was TEFL pure, I pulled out a function from my portfolio and not what they immediately needed. This is not to say that making suggestions is not useful, but taking the lesson toward simple negotiations would have been better.
Why did I choose this topic? Because I am horrible at responding to emails. I have been working on it for years but I do not seem to be getting any better. I made the lesson about me and that was a mistake. It should always be about them. In fact, I am wondering whether all the lessons for this day were more about me and what I want than about the participants and what they want. I need to listen more carefully.
So, we discussed as a group our frustrations about people who do not answer emails. We discussed how often it happened and why. It was generally a good discussion and I was writing their thoughts on the board (adding vocabulary). Then, I revealed that I am horrible at writing back and I feel really bad about it (again about me... arg). Next, I asked them to give me tips on time management and handling correspondence.
Each person talked a little about how they handle emails and we stumbled across some lexical gaps like out of office reply, respond, and immediately. They used several phrases we had seen to make suggestions and I put a few more on the board. Time was running and I considered having them write an email to follow up when someone does not write back, but it would have taken too long. We shared ideas on how we use email, telephone, and the chat tool within the company. The participants were able to vent a little and discuss the issue, but I am generally dissatisfied with the lesson. The topic has great potential and I did not use it. Now I have lost it. The discussion was dominated by the confident speakers. The dynamic reverted to teacher-student and not student-student freedom. I could have done better.
At 2:15, I was looking to rebound from two poor lessons and two average ones. I needed to refocus and salvage my day. But I was also battling thoughts far away from the training and was having trouble focusing on the next lesson (I'd been watching my inbox fill up all day among other concerns). Also, the last group lesson is a B2+ group with the most inconsistent attendance. These lessons are always a one-off and it is nearly impossible to link them because the people change so often. Finally, I am never as focused in the afternoon as the morning.
Two participants from six appeared and I was happy to see the weakest member of the group in attendance. He is a software testing engineer and has been working on an individual project for quite some time to develop a software requirement. The requirement is highly political and costly and he is generally fighting a losing battle of mixed department interests. The company works on a product development cycle and the two participants find themselves on the extreme ends of the process. One defines the requirements for the product, the other tests the completed system at the end. I do not need to introduce a notional information gap (like a role-play) because there is enough of a gap already.
The tester started by talking (without prompting) about how his project is going and his latest successes and challenges. He brought up the document management process and I asked them to map the document management system over the product development process. Specifically, this was about how the company organizes product requirements both at the macro and micro level. This may seem like Greek to you, but I'm sure you would get the hang of it after some time around software project management.
Within a few minutes, all three of us were standing at the whiteboard with markers in our hands drawing diagrams, explaining processes and folder trees, using examples, discussing constraints and problems with the system, etc. The two participants were sharing their perspectives from their ends of the system. We were having a meeting.
I noted a few comments for feedback but the 'meeting' took so long that I only had time to look at collocations with suffer, cause, and face. I corrected their usage, added a few more collocations and we transformed the collocations into different tenses.
It was not really the home-run lesson I had been looking for but I felt good about the discussion. I was able to give some on-the-spot corrections and some delayed language feedback. The participants were able to compare notes on a real business process and produce language they need in work. The weaker student highlighted a few words he remembered from the stronger student.
Finally at 3:15 I had my final session of the day, a repeat of the technical English vocabulary lesson. Two engineers came who I'd seen earlier in the day. I pulled out the tool box and we repeated the same lesson as above. The 45 minute session was fun (they are both women in their thirties and we laughed about men and tools, "better to have it than to need it") and I believe they picked up on the vocabulary (we'll see). Again they were quite surprised that they did not know the words for such everyday tools.
At 4:00, I packed up... exhausted... and went home. Typically, I would have stayed longer and visited the participants who could not come to their lesson. But I am increasingly getting requests for support via email or chat, I needed to save a few hours.
In a quiet apartment I had the chance to catch up on the emails I had received that day including a few urgent coaching requests. I created Quizlet flash cards for the adjectives and antonyms from the 8:45 lesson. I sent out 'board work' photos or documents from the lessons. I responded to all the outstanding issues and I felt good. It was an average day of training and was not quite good enough, but I was happy.
Not so good... So overall, the day was okay but I feel like it lacked creativity. The participants and I are all in the February doldrums, a long way from vacation and the winter keeps dragging on. We are not at our best and that is frustrating. We are all stressed and tired.
If you have managed to read this long, I'll ask you... What do you think about my training on this day? How do you shake yourself awake when projects are for a long time or things become stale? How do you reinvigorate yourself?
Business English in 2014 Like many of you I assume, I have finally emerged from a tunnel of work (and reentered another). After a few weeks of vacation, I am already looking forward to a great 2014. I will be doing a bit more travelling and hopefully will pick up on a few more ideas to explore, test, and evaluate in my training.
Here are a few topics I see for arising in Business English training for 2014. This is my professional development guide (and blogging) agenda for the new year.
1. One of the big topics from the BESIG conference in Prague was the mix between skills training and language training. Here are my initial observations.
Naturally, we like to think of ourselves as more than simply English teachers. The career conjures up memories of Mrs. Friedhof standing at the chalk board hammering away at the past perfect. Our pride and ego which drive us to self-development are vulnerable to such misrepresentations and we work hard to fight this image. So, it makes sense that we not only integrate skills training into our service, but also market these abilities.
The skills training we are talking about has a broad scope. I have been asked by students to help them with technical skills and working with software. They have also asked me to help them with other areas of digital literacy. Of course, there is great scope for business communication skills like presentations, effective meetings, and negotiations. Most trainers I meet are already incorporating intercultural communication aspects in the training. Finally, I meet trainers who are cognitively incorporating team-building, management, and creative-thinking skills in the BE classroom. Which skills are within our mandate and which are not?
Finally, there is the price issue. Scott Levey of Target Training touched upon the pricing issue and over-delivering services in his pre-conference session in Prague. He is right that pricing this offer is certainly a concern. At what point have we accomplished what the customer is paying for without "giving away the farm"?
2. Like all industries we are facing creative destruction from external factors. Businesses and organizations are quickly eating away our ability to find customers and offer significant value. Here are some external factors I have identified.
Public education systems are improving and Business English proficiency upon graduation is increasing. Secondary and tertiary teachers and lecturers are becoming more adept at the communicative approach. Mandatory study abroad programs are increasing English exposure and mastery. This is causing three effects. 1) Learners are demanding more specialized training (more ESP). 2) Doubting that a trainer can deliver such training, prospective customers are convinced that their English "is good enough". 3) Proficiency is increasingly a mandatory hiring requirement and companies are less likely to invest in training. This attitude filters down to the education system and students/parents are more likely to take the learning seriously and as life skill.
English is diminishing as a differentiating skill. As globalization progresses, the well of learners in proficient countries like Germany is drying up. Currently, we are benefiting because the companies have globalized their operations down to a technical/operational level without considering the employees' skills. But we are reaching the bottom of the organizational hierarchy and the market is drying up. In short, English ability is a given and no longer a decisive factor in reaching personal career goals. Instead, other qualifications and training are more important and more valuable for both companies and individuals.
Technology and the low barrier for entry is allowing virtual training to eat away at revenues. One example is Colingo, a company which offers online English teaching. Check out it's YouTube channel for more about their operations. I once saw a recruiting video (from another company) for native-speaker teachers online at $9 per hour - perfect for college students! When the customer cannot differentiate the offers, where does that leave us?
Combined with the virtual training factor is that e-learning software is becoming more effective. In the past, language learning software was limited to lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Next, it was able to evaluate a specific user response. Now it can evaluate a range of user responses. The technology will continue to improve to a point at which the difference between face-to-face or virtual training can be replaced by software. Luckily, humans require relationships and interaction. But this continues to be a price threat.
Finally, automatic translation tools are becoming more accurate. I foresee a day in which my German students speak German into a microphone during a virtual meeting and nearly flawless English is heard on the other side. The other participants respond and German comes through on the other side. This development is being helped by specialist translation memories. I use SDL Studio for my German/English translations and the opportunity for creating specialist glossaries and context specific translation is amazing. I give Google about 5 years before they have mastered the world's top languages.
3. We are still stuck in the materials dilemma. My estimation of the problem:
Published materials are pedagogically sound and effectively work through Bloom to achieve proficiency and even mastery.
They offer continuity and repetition.
They reduce the burden on the teacher/trainer to conduct research and writing.
But, we are now all aware of copyright infringement and if we preach ethical behavior we must also follow it.
Self-written materials take so much time that they are unprofitable. It takes so long to write gap-fills and other lower learning level exercises that we cannot possibly keep up such a workload over time. The steps takes hours we cannot afford:
Step 1 - Research desired linguistic area (create word list, examples of grammatical structures, phrase list)
Step 4 - Use in practice (scaffolding still needed)
Step 5 - Master
We have found a compromise with framework materials. But are we really using them to their fullest extent?
We do not have time to write material. I found out recently that I am in class much less than many of my comrades (only about 17 hours a week). I have more out-of-class time, but that does not mean I have more time. The basic fact is that we cannot be expected to write a new course book for every class.
Finally, considering the aspects above, we have to value trainee-trainer interaction time as the highest value activity. How do we maximize our interpersonal time? What focus do we need to have when we are talking with students? To what extent are we 'material' and a which point do they need other material to succeed (basic learning, usage, reference, etc.)
4. We still do not have a workable methodology for Business English Training. It is clear from the recent presentations I have seen (sadly, Business English blogs are extremely rare) that we have not yet found our own identity in either English as a Second Language or in corporate training. We are either working through frameworks in the ELT world or from corporate training like coaching, sales training, etc. We need an approach which is unique. We need a benchmark for evaluation. We need a methodology and network which provides consistent and measurable development structures to extend the field.
Certainly, some approaches are ubiquitous and represent good practice. We are doing needs analysis and using the basics of performance-based training. We have incorporated technology along with the rest of the world. We have introduced goal-setting and reflection. We are working on the business case for English training through evaluation. Also, the Dogme movement has awakened responsiveness as a key skill in training design. The learner is the focus again juxtaposed against traditional academic teaching where the teacher is the primary focus. In short, we are on the right path.
The final element for Business English training in 2014 is to design a methodology for this specific market. It must draw upon ELT and corporate training. It must declare certain principles and concepts as most important. Consequently, it must be applicable in practice down to the lesson plan level. It must also be communicable to customers to generate value. Finally, it must be adaptable to fit new paradigms of technology and market development.
I am convinced that this methodology exists in other domains; areas where complex systems are an everyday occurrence. Our industry is not alone in 2014. Others are also facing questions of specialization, creative destruction, and resources. But I am convinced that by looking at similar industries we will find the solutions to improving training effectiveness and the leads/sales ratio.
I am looking forward to 2014... I think this will be a great year for Business English Training. I wish you the best of luck in your classes, feedback, and sales negotiations.
As I mentioned, I have uploaded my slides from the presentation and there is a short explanation of the main points. However, to support BESIG and the BESIG newsletter, I agreed to write a more comprehensive summary in the next newsletter. I am normally open about sharing my ideas, as long as they are non-proprietary, but in this case I would like support the organization. I am proud of the work BESIG has accomplished and thankful for the opportunities I have gained from membership.
Slide 3 - My assumptions about the audience and the industry. Slide 4 - An example of a communicative event the participants wanted to improve and which I needed to assess. (Not a real picture of my students - but very close to reality) Slide 5 - Defining good practice for the communicative event by mindmapping. For the scrum event, this was completed using Post-It notes, but I forgot to take a picture (not thinking I would present it). Slide 6 - An example of how I turn good practice into linguistic areas. Slide 7 - The assessment rubric for the manager of a scrum meeting based on the students' idea of an effective scrum. Slide 8 - 4 levels of listening by the trainer when monitoring the role-play/simulation. Slide 9 - The 3 sources of feedback post task completion. Slide 10 - Workshop portion - Audience must conduct a simulation. The coffee break at a conference - meeting someone new. Slide 11 - Helping the groups build their rubric . Slide 12 - Task set up. Slide 13 - Feedback. Slide 14 - How this fits into a lesson plan/course plan. Slide 15 - Another example of an assessment rubric but with weighted criteria. Also very simple to implement.
Again, I am sorry I will not give you more details on the session. Please read the next issue of Business Issues from BESIG for more. Author : firstname.lastname@example.org (Anonymous) Publ.Date : Tue, 12 Nov 2013 11:06:00 +0000
Where You Come From - An Inexhaustible Lesson Topic I come from Kansas City, well better said I grew up in the suburb of Overland Park, Kansas. When I meet most people in Europe, neither ring many bells. Kansas City is one of the non-descript cities of a few million people which litter the middle two-thirds of the country. In fact, if you landed in KC, Cincinatti, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Pittsburgh you could forget where you are because they are all the same. This is 'fly-over' country which many people only see from 36,000 feet.
Of course, the residents of these place would deeply disagree with this statement and could talk at length about the unique features, culture, and legends of their hometown. I distinctly remember a taxi ride in Springfield, Missouri in which the cabbie insisted on giving me 100 years of the city's history in 10 minutes. He even stopped the meter to take me past the next performing arts center. It would not be any different in Omaha or Louisville. I found the same in Glasgow and Liverpool.
But with the invention of the internet and the flattening of the world, these places have generally lost their uniqueness and developed into carbon copy cities with nearly identical cultural traits. I bring up this point because much the same has happened here in Germany as well. Local variety has been diminished by global sameness. But superstores and chain restaurants are boring. Because they must attract the global masses, they avoid risks and anything which might offend the local consumers.
I find that local flavor, local traditions, and local culture make for highly interesting lessons. I like discussing the exceptionalism of our region. The students are proud of their perceived uniqueness. I believe this also has a distinct business function. Many business small talk conversations revolve around such topics. They are useful in business. It gives the parties the chance to talk about something they know and like. But it also allows them to get a sense of the values, motives and background of the interlocutor. These topics leave space for stories and humor, but also provide a certain distance from dangerous personal opinions.
It is interesting to see, for example, how foreign trips are arranged. Guests are often hosted in a hotel or neighborhood which has retained traces of the local culture. Guided tour events are arranged to give guests a short journey through the traditions and legends of the region. There is always the desire to give the guest the 'authentic' experience.
With this in mind, here are a few discussion topics which I often use in training.
How did your hometown get its name?
Who is the most famous person from your hometown?
Is there anything from your home which is 'world famous'?
Tell me about the special food from your home region.
What unique traditions does it have?
Does your hometown have any 'rival' cities? Why?
What are the most famous buildings in your town? What happened there?
Tell me about a festival you have every year. Why should I go?
Google maps and street view are great resources for this. I also find that these topics can often be captured and turned into skills training. The simplest is something around tourism but I try not to use this too often and instead look for something more creative. For example, I once had a student from Herzogenauerach here in Germany. The most famous story about this town is of Adolph and Rudolph Dassler who founded Adidas and Puma respectively. The two brothers fell out and never spoke to each other again. But this little town is still the headquarters of these two sportswear giants. I took the story (which all are familiar with) and set the task of negotiating a merger between the two firms. Their goal was to 'heal the wounds' of the past. The students did some internet research (due diligence) to gather some financial data, worked in teams to prepare for the negotiation, and then held the meeting.
This is just one example of how these lessons can turn out. I will be heading to Kansas City next week for a short trip to say hello to friends and family, but at the same time I will be sniffing the winds of cultural change in my hometown. Perhaps I will find a few lesson ideas along the way.
So, I encourage you to look into where the students come from and capture these topics to develop engaging and personal lessons. It works for me. But sadly, we never did get Adidas and Puma back together... the loyalties simply run too deep.
I would like to ask for your support. I am currently conducting a market research survey to complete a university project. I would be very grateful if you participated or forwarded the survey link to others who might provide valuable insights.
First a little background. My first attempt toward a Bachelor's degree at American University in Washington, D.C. ran aground due to the tuition. I then spent seven years in the military. One of the veterans' benefits is free tuition paid by the United States government after leaving the service. I am now in my final two semesters at the University of Maryland University College pursuing a degree in Marketing.
For one of my final projects, I have decided to assess the market for English language awareness training among native speakers. During my past four years of Business English training, I have often heard that native-speakers are more difficult to deal with than other language learners. A survey by Business Spotlight in 2009 on conference calls seemed to confirm this. A colleague and friend of mine, Matt Halsdorff, has even dedicated his whole blog to this subject.
I would like to get responses from native speakers with international contacts. My goal is to find out how native speakers assess their international communication and how they are prepared for their task. While not directed at ESL teachers and trainers, some may fit the desired sample for the survey.
The survey is strictly designed as an academic project and my tuition is paid from public funds. Therefore, I will post a detailed summary of my findings here on my blog for everyone to review. I do not intend to use the information as intellectual property or for competitive advantage. I hope this will entice you to forward the link.
The Terrain of Teacher Training My background is military, specifically as a sergeant in the combat engineers. I have mentioned before that much of what I have learned about training methods comes from the U.S. Army. I find that many have misconceptions about the training and management style of the armed forces. There is considerably less yelling, cursing and threatening than outsiders believe. Not only are non-commissioned officers continuously trained on motivating, coaching and mentoring methods, but they are also used continuously in practice.
But the focus of this article is simply to draw connections between military training and ELT teacher training. Originally, this was to be a comment on a recent post by Chia Suan Chong on the English Teaching Professional website. But I quickly found that I had too much to say for a comment block.
In the article, Ms. Chong rightly states that teacher training methods fall along a continuum between prescriptive input/evaluation and a guidance-driven method based on exploration, critical thinking and creativity. My position is that introductory teacher training should include both. Fundamental and routine tasks should be taught and practiced to the point of 'muscle-memory'. Then higher tasks should emphasize responding to the environment appropriately and decision-making.
As an example, let's look at how the military teaches land navigation.
Step 1 - Know Your Tools During the first steps, the new privates are methodically taught how to use a compass and a map. This includes testing their knowledge of marginal data on a map, symbols, colors, etc. They are also taught to identify the ten major and minor terrain features like hill, ridge, valley, cliff, spur, etc. They must also find accurate grid coordinates on a map. This is very basic stuff, but also very important. These simple skills are augmented by more advanced skills like intersection and resection to determine a point on the map from two other known points. Finding accurate grid coordinates is the key to calling for air support, medical evacuation, sending reports and directing artillery. These simple 'mini-tasks' of navigation are practiced repeatedly until the failure rate is near zero.
The tools of the trade. Source: Quique251, Wiki Commons
Step 2 - Plotting a Route This step again teaches fundamental navigation but adds in an element of critical thinking. The privates are given a point A and point B to plot and told to draw a route on the map which will take them there. When plotting a route there are right and wrong answers. For example, sometimes the straight line route is the best method. Sometimes 'hand-railing' (following a linear terrain feature like a river) is best. Sometimes, the best route is a series of determined checkpoints which avoid impassable areas or keep the group on the best tactical ground. The privates must be able to justify why the route is the best. If they fail to see the problems with their route (it takes the group over a cliff, it goes through an open field, it takes too long, etc.), it is wrong.
Note, at this point no one has even stepped foot in the forest.
Source: FM 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation, U.S. Dept of the Army, approved for public release
Step 3 - Following and Deviating from a Route The final step is to go into the forest and actually move from point A to point B. Using a planned route, the soldiers start moving. At this point they are using the 'muscle memory' skills to ensure they are correctly following the route. They are constantly checking to ensure they are on track. In fact, during a movement, one soldier will continuously keep the pace count (how far) and another will repeatedly check the compass (direction). But here's the thing... The terrain is never identical to the map.
Most maps are drawn with 10 meter contour lines. So, many small depressions, swamps and ridges do on appear on the map. This is where the privates learn how to read micro-terrain. They will need to go around small clearings, minor cliffs, etc. They will also need to continually keep the group in a defensible position. So the movement should always have places for cover (large rocks, small ditches, etc.) The ability to read micro-terrain is life saving. Foot patrols in Afghanistan are supreme experts at this skill. But it is taught starting in basic training.
The key to deviating from the drawn route is to constantly know where you are... within 10 meters. Once you have 'lost your grid' it can take quite some time to find it again and you can no longer call for help. This is a very dangerous situation and causes the whole patrol to become nervous.
Reaching the destination is a combination of several key elements. They properly conducted key prescribed tasks, they made a correct plan based on the terrain, they deviated from the designed route to respond effectively to unexpected ground, and they always knew where they were.
Can you spot the micro-terrain? Source: Oliver Herold, Wiki Commons
Okay... back to English Teaching I believe that beginning teachers should be taught how to 'navigate' a classroom. At the beginning this includes several fundamental skills which can be repeated in a variety of situations. They should understand various types of activities, what they are for, and how long they take. They should be able to spot errors and lacks (finding grids). They should also be able to identify needs at a larger level (terrain features).
Next, they should be able to make a lesson plan to navigate through the terrain. Note, in the military we don't make a route for every footstep, that is handled in the basic compass/pace counting skills. The teacher trainees should also learn that there are several ways to get from point A to point B but some are wrong. The technique of hand-railing is useful in land navigation but is sometimes dangerous, just as using a linear terrain feature (a course book) is not always the correct answer in the classroom.
Finally, the live practice teaching sessions should be used to train and assess how the teacher responds to the micro-terrain of the class (emerging language, unexpected gaps, unexpected topics/wishes). Teachers should be taught (just as soldiers are) that deviating from the route is necessary as long as they constantly know why they left their planned course and where they are. Watching a teacher 'lose their grid' in the classroom is just as painful as watching a patrol lose their way in the forest. They start going in all directions at once and charging up mountains to find their way. At the end, everyone is exhausted, frustrated and confused.
So, let's teach new teachers the art of class navigation. But here's a reminder for some... we never taught privates navigation by simply taking them to the forest and telling them to start walking.
I Only Have One Lesson Plan Over the past several years, I have been asked numerous times to share lesson plans with other trainers. I have no problem with this and I think it is great. I think Claire Hart's blog (please keep it up Claire) is simply magnificent, as well as the work of 'lesson plan gurus' like Phil Wade. I would love to be able to produce such clear and structured ideas which support the students. So, for the past several months I have been trying to write posts about lesson plans I use in class.
The problem is I don't have lesson plans. Or better said, I only have one lesson plan. I recently filled up a my teaching notebook (I use a traditional spiral notebook) and I began transferring the information I needed for continuity into my new one. Since mid-July I have had many great lessons and some which were not so good, but they all started with the same plan. The differences were the choices I made during the lesson.
This became readily apparent to me a few weeks ago. In one training project, I run two technical English mini lessons (45 min each), one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. Each lesson has the same plan but they never cover the same thing. Sometimes both are great, sometimes one is disappointing. For example, I wrote down "Examine the electrical system of my car" in my notes, but the only commonality between the lessons were the words fuse and circuit breaker (and the difference + collocations).
So, here is my lesson plan.
Click on the flow chart to enlarge.
Let me walk you through the steps.
Step 1 - The Students Start Talking I don't use lots of scripted warm-up activities. In most cases, my students have 60-90 minutes in class each week and they want to talk. Sure, there are some confidence issues at first, but it doesn't normally take long for them to come in and start chatting. Indeed, teacher input at the beginning or framework materials can direct the topic and in some cases, I have a specific pathway to follow. Either I have announced (or we decided) the focus of the lesson beforehand, or I have certain needs which must be covered in a specific way.
If they do not start talking right out of blocks (or the class is consistently dominated by some) I may use targeted questioning to manage the discussion. But mostly, I want the learners to talk about themselves and ask each other questions. Usually it works easily, but I may need to provide structure (e.g. pair discussions) to assist.
Here are some simple examples of framework tasks or targeted questioning if the students don't start talking.
Draw a picture of your desk, workplace, apartment/house, etc.
What did you do yesterday evening when you got home from work?
Have you ever...?
What do you think about...?
I'm curious, why...?
Let's have a short update meeting, give us a one minute update on your current tasks/project.
Of course, the possibilities are endless. In most cases, I consider this phase complete when the conversation moves from teacher driven to learner driven (either in topic or dynamic).
Step 2 - What is the topic?
At some point, I capture the topic and start to drive the conversation in a productive direction. I have yet to find a topic which does not afford a variety of lessons. Even something seemingly routine and mundane can be manipulated to achieve great results. But some connections are clearer than others. For example, sports leads quite easily into finance. Depending on time, I will need to capture a topic quickly and work toward a focus. Prescribed warmers, framework materials, and immediate input activities (like an article) will, of course, help drive a topic, but I prefer to let them express themselves freely. I tend to remember that they have just left their desks and are looking forward to a few minutes of relaxation. Constraints on the conversation may only cause negative feelings. I am prepared to leave 15-30 minutes to finding a topic.
Step 3 - Determine the focus of the lesson
Once the topic has been captured, I will select a focus of the lesson. This is not a lottery. I have genuine expectations for the learners to improve and I have a duty to the customer to provide effective training to improve job performance. I will quickly weigh three factors in determining the focus of the lesson. Part one are the needs (and/or lacks, as Jeremy Day calls them), part two are the expectations for the training and lesson, part three is lesson continuity. Depending on the situation, I will balance these factors.
For example, if it is an unusually stressful time in the company/department, it may be best to limit the demands of the lesson and take what you can get. If the company goals trump what the learners expect then the training will have a different focus. But note, this does not mean changing the topic, simply driving the lesson toward a tangible goal. So, I have seven types of lessons which also determine teacher talking time and the quantity of input. I prefer to continuously change the focus of the lesson and I feel uncomfortable (as do the students) when the class repeatedly follows the same pathway.
Step 4 - Focus on Language
Once I have selected the focus of the lesson, I have taken control of class. In other words, 'We are going somewhere, and I'm going to take you there.' The question is then, how are we going to get there? What is the method? The method often depends on my calculation of resources.
Here is a summary mind map of the resources I consider.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Part of this is a complete understanding of what resources are available. As we remove each resource from the equation, we constrain our ability to design effective exercises. If you have everything mentioned above, the activities are endless.
This is also where methodology comes into play. For example, I may use a TTT, PPP, or guided discovery method to teach grammar. I may focus on collocations for vocabulary. Sometimes I even switch to the Silent Way mid-lesson. In some cases, I may even get the idea that we should just keep chatting and have a mainly conversation class punctuated by occasional feedback interludes. But this is not the default setting of the lesson and I'll often clarify this with the learners, "I get the feeling everyone is a little tired from work, is it alright if we just keep talking and I'll give you some feedback?"
From this methodology and resources balance, we'll have role plays or listen to a recording and dissect the language. It all depends on the three factors. This is why no lesson is the same. Note: I almost always ask the learners to design their own role play.
Example Lesson A 90 minute lesson with tax consultants (B1-B2). They had talked about the need to understand contracts in the previous lessons. The learners have different offices, some work in the consultancy offices and some have offices embedded with a major client. These students travel to the consultancy offices for the lesson. One of them arrives in class with a giant stack of papers (possible resource!).
I am curious about the stack of papers and she tells me that it is training material in German (damn!) about recent tax law changes (topic?) and she has to learn it. I ask if she feels 'out of the loop' (boarded) because she's away from management. After a few minutes the conversation centers around the 'milk issue'. When you work at the consultancy, coffee (plus milk and sugar are provided), but they have conflicts when using the milk and sugar at the client (coffee is negotiated and paid by the consultancy). I recognize a prime a topic here (free coffee and the office kitchen are perfect for a variety of lessons).
I capture the topic and set a focus. "That is interesting. Okay, today in the lesson we are going to write a contract for the use of the kitchen and the 'milk issue'." I have several resources. First, the learners have probably read more contracts than I have. I know register. We have the internet so template/example contracts are searchable but printing is difficult. I have a whiteboard with five markers. Four are dry, so I have one color. One learner has paper but no pen (I have an extra). There are four students so pair work is possible without an obtrusive trainer. I don't have a private space so while a negotiation might be nice, there is no real place for the two pairs to prepare.
I elect for a scaffolded approach to the productive skill (well, it is actually a receptive skills lesson through producing the language). I say, "Okay, before we write the contracts, I'd like to give you a little support because contracts use a specific language." I have 60 minutes left so I am looking at a limited scope, mainly focusing on word choice when changing register.
Input Segment I point out the word shall. Shall has different meanings between everyday British English (which the learners had in school) and contracts. Shall = should + will in everyday English, but must in contracts. A big difference. I bring up a template contract (actually my rental agreement for my condo in Washington DC) to show how shall is used in contracts. This reinforces the point.
Discussion Segment I point out that shall is a signal word in contracts and I rely on their experience in contracts to find more (and to gauge their ability). I am looking for words like guarantee, continuous, unobstructed, etc. They offer a few, I offer praise. We clarify, with the learners explaining meaning, and move on.
Eliciting Segment My estimation of their language is that they are fairly proficient in socializing and that they struggle when they have to increase their professionalism. On my list of needs is switching register and tone to speak to clients. If you have read my blog before about need analysis, I create a table of needs instead of a linear pathway.
This topic and focus creates a great opportunity for addressing word choice to affect register. I pull up an old PowerPoint presentation (actually, I disconnected the computer and pasted the table into the client's template) which had everyday informal words on one side and a blank column for formal words on the other. For example, give = provide (this approach was inspired by the The Business coursebook from MacMillan). I wrote down in my notebook that we should look at the Open University video on French influence later. I also wrote the word 'Leo' because Leo Selivan has covered the various lexical layers of English in his talks. The students are tasked with giving formal words with similar meanings. The pair compare results and I add a few missed words (e.g. get = obtain, acquire).
Production Segment Okay, I have 30 minutes left and it's time to get writing. The students write the contract in pairs, I check it over their shoulder for accuracy, they read it aloud to the group. I board key words like aforementioned. We rephrase a few sentences by comparing and contrasting.
Done... its all about milk (which costs ?.52/L but has an immense emotional value).
Step 5 - Transfer Design I have become convinced that it is important to explicitly highlight how the lessons can be applied to the job. During my talk at the BESIG conference Stuttgart on need analysis I said, "The learners don't know what they don't know." I similarly believe that "The learners don't know how to use the lessons unless you tell them." I like to end the lesson with a short reflective session on how the vocabulary, skill, etc. can be used in their job. This is tantamount to commitment and I often record this in my notebook. I may check up on this transfer in a later lesson. In other words, this is part of the continuity factors when deciding the focus of the lesson.
Step 6 - Check on Learning I like to have a review session at the end of the lesson. In general, I expect that if I teach it once, they learn it. Of course, this is completely unrealistic and I did not start out this way. But I found that the students themselves felt guilty if they could not give the learning objectives of the previous lessons and said "Ach Scheiße!" if I corrected them on a mistake we had covered. So, I expect the highest of standards. If it is written on the board or sent via email in a PowerPoint... it should be learned. I am understanding, but I don't let them off the hook or justify their non-performance. If it is something I have covered repeatedly with one learner I will put them on the spot in front of the class. Granted, it is wrapped in humor and rapport.
But the last phase is to check that they learned. They will often say that they will apply the lesson (response bias) but fail the quiz at the end. My most common method is to remove all supports (erase whiteboard, turn off projector, put away notes) and ask them to summarize the lesson.
Here are some example questions:
"Joachim, give me one word you learned today." Then go around the class... it becomes progressively harder. Periodically challenge other factors of understanding (register, spelling, etc.)
Use higher cognitive levels of understanding (Bloom's Taxonomy of verbs will help you devise questions). "Sophie, what is the difference between Thanks for calling and I appreciate your call?"
"Okay class... I've erased the board. Andreas, please come take the marker. The class will help you recreate everything on the board."
So, that's it. That my lesson plan. I wish I could tell you that I control what happens in every lesson, but I am simply a guide to the language. I can only selectively direct each session to meet a specific need or expectation. I would hesitate to say my approach is dogme because my default setting it attain maximum value, which I question about totally free-form teaching. I still follow traditional teaching methods like task-based learning, but within the context of learner content.
I cannot give you lesson plans... I can only give you lesson reports. They are quite different. Sorry.
Widening the Feedback Channel Let's talk about feedback. Without question, Business English Trainers are dedicated to feedback. We understand it as a valuable part of the communication process. We attempt to instill it in our learners by giving then useful phrases for obtaining/giving feedback as well as the benefits. In many cases, our lessons are largely feedback driven. We observe the language and interject to provide linguistic input for clarity, style, and meaning. Giving effective feedback is one of the crucial elements of being an English Teacher.
Sometimes we distill this skill to 'error correction', but any trainer can tell you that feedback is much more than simply 'mistake hunting'. I see that I have not blogged about the '4 Levels of Listening'; perhaps I can do it soon. In the meantime, you can look at a professional development workshop I ran last year which mentions the topic.
Surprisingly, what I see is that trainers are quick to preach feedback and reluctant to take it. This is understandable. Easy to say, harder to do. Negative feedback hurts. After all, we have worked for hours to do our best only to find out that our effort was wasted. What an insult!
But I follow the words, "Feedback is a gift." As I move forward with a few long-term projects, widening the feedback channel is vital for helping me design and refine engaging and productive lessons. I have learned to crave negative feedback and integrate it every step of the way. Honestly, positive feedback is less important to me because I walk into most lessons thinking that the agenda is truly engaging, helpful, and worthwhile.
Here are a few methods for obtaining valuable feedback.
Feedback Trading At the end of a lesson, say that you will give feedback on their performance if they give you the same. Typically this is written and often involves a structure. For example:
I will give you three focus areas for you to work on in English communication. You give me three things I should do as a trainer to meet your expectations. This takes about 15 minutes and with larger classes some preparation may be needed.
Flip chart - keep/change Draw a t-line on the flip chart. On the left side write "keep" and on the right "change". Ask the learners to tell you what elements of the training we should keep and what elements we should change.
For example, in my recent classes I have found that they want to keep the variety of the lessons and the feedback-based instruction. However, they would like to read more articles and play Taboo. No problem... I introduced more reading/internet searching into the class and we play Taboo for 30 minutes once a month (I bought the real UK version on Amazon). Attendance is higher than before.
Meet one-to-one To be honest, this is most difficult method of feedback. First, learners do not like to tell the trainer bad things. Maybe they do not have the learning experience to even make a comment. Second, it lacks the anonymity of written feedback. Third, they are unaware of their peers' expectations of the course and hesitant to impose their demands on the group.
However, when handled properly, individual meetings can provide key insights into what is going right and wrong with a course. These are particularly valuable after an extensive time with the group (when they know the group dynamics). The key for the trainer is implementation with confidentiality. In other words, when you change something, make it look like a pedagogical idea.
- Learner desires a traditional and structured approach to learning - Trainer: "I know we don't normally do gap-fills, but research show that they are useful for remembering vocabulary. Here is a gap-fill I created, you have five minutes to complete it."
Important: When you receive negative feedback, do not attempt to justify your actions... just take it. Stand there, nod your head, and take it. It hurts sometimes. You can direct the conversation to another person, "Jim, what do you think?" but you should not answer. Write it down and think about it.
Colleague status This is clearly limited to certain courses and special environments. But this is the goal of every group I teach whether in one department or from diverse groups. I want to build trust to the point that we can talk openly about every element of the training (and the business). The colleague status is developed by combining the three in-class methods mentioned above plus regular communication, dedication, and common goals.
The hardest part of my job is convincing them that my satisfaction comes from watching them succeed (in fact, the most student I lose are those without goals). I truly believe that if your inspiration is entirely self-serving, then you will never be able to deliver the service needed to maximize value added. But this convincing takes time. It is not an approach they are used to.
This means regular engagement with the learners to find out their problems, help them through them within the business constraints, provide accurate input at the time of need, etc. In essence, value comes from being an integral part of their work life. Running off copies and preaching about the Present Perfect Continuous does not normally do it.
Once feedback is constant in both directions, you will find the the glass doors to the person/business open wide and lead to immense value added.
Conclusion While I have discussed three feedback techniques, the final element of colleague status is truly the pinnacle of excellent training and customer service. The first step is that we seek, accept, and finally crave feedback from our learners in the same way they desire it from us. It can change the entire dynamic of a class or project and considerably impact contract renewal and wages.
The Jigsaw - Creating an Information Gap I guess the two things that stick out most clearly from my teacher training course are 1) go out and learn English grammar/vocabulary as a non-native speaker, and 2) if you want to create speaking and communication in class you need to have an information gap. The purpose of this post is to dive into that communication gap in in-company training.
The problem with in-company training is that the largest communication gap in the room is between the trainer and the learners. The trainer possess the English language, and the participants have the business, the processes, the products, the suppliers, the genre, the conventions, the organizational structure, the goals... nearly everything. Thus, it seems natural that many in-company courses would revert to an ongoing dialog between the trainer and the learners. The learners explain the business and the trainer explains English (and in my case, why Americans have so many guns). The learners actually seem to enjoy this communication gap. They have safety in numbers, they do more listening than speaking, and they learn one or two things. The curious trainer (like myself) also enjoys this dynamic because "when one person teaches, two people learn".
But I find myself increasingly annoyed by this classroom dynamic. When I leave a class which devolves to this I chalk it up as a failed lesson and reflect on critical points where I could have guided it in another direction. I recently performed an annual review of a project I am working on and it led me question why some groups had seen more progress than others. I began testing hypotheses against groups outside the project. Indeed, it appears that I see more progress and improvement when I am able to step back from the lesson and create information gaps between the participants themselves. The survey responses say they have more progress when I am less involved (whether through teaching style or group dynamics). No surprise, right... less teacher talking time, more functional language needed, etc. So the answer must be to hand them role cards and sit back to take notes.
Unfortunately, the answer is not quite that simple. Here a few things to consider when meaningful information gaps in class.
1. Many people are information workers. Their value to the company depends on their knowledge of processes and how to do things efficiently. They are defensive about this. I simple task such as "Teach the group how to file their travel expenses in SAP" can nearly eliminate their purpose of employment. Once the group sees how simple the process is, the worker may feel they have to defend their value to company. Of course, this does not merely apply to lower level workers.
'Silo thinking' can apply to many companies. This means information can travel up and down in the hierarchy, but not across departments. This may be the case when there are profit and cost centers for each department and internal pricing. In other words, department X charges department Y for services even though they are the same company. Additionally, both have sales targets so they can give away too much information to others.
Lesson: Be aware that information is power and internal pricing means that customers and salespeople may be in the same room. When designing simulations, don't ask the students to give up more information than needed.
2. Roles are not needs. There are several cases in which I have given a student a role and they are simply a prop to the lesson. The job is simply play the part so that the person next to them can practice specific needs.
This is a lack of creativity on the trainer's part. I can do better by adapting the role-play or simulation to fit both needs.
Lesson: Read the role cards critically. If the overall role-play fits we may want to change "Student A". This can be as simple as changing the word colleague to manager and vice versa. The key is to look at the roles and imagine the conversation... does it fit the needs analysis?
3. More than only jigsaw reading. In the past we were constrained by the fact that content could only be delivered in written form. If you are looking for the #1 education app... it is YouTube. Give one group of students the tablet and watch a video on the laptop in the other room. When accompanied by a supporting activity... bam! An information gap. Exploit it.
4. Simulations with different mindsets.Six Thinking Hats was first written 13 years ago by Edward de Bono. History has shown that it is largely false; people are simply not that consistent. If you have not heard of it, he proclaims that lifestyle and values determine approaches to a problem. Mr. de Bono defined six different thinking styles including speculative, creative, and emotional.
But while it may be useless as a determiner of personal values, it is helpful in training to create differences of opinion. The lesson is quite simple... the trainer gives the learners a routine situation and assigns various roles based on the various mindsets.
An example of all combined:
You are tasked with assessing a bid for Russia Railways. (This is a realistic role-play)
Give mindsets to various students and initiate a webquest. (Naturally, the roles are targeted. But this lets the students hide a bit with plausible deniability.)
Due diligence: What did you find?
Additional research: Send groups to watch and report on various videos about the subject.
Agree on the overall need/benefits
Divide project tasks based on need. This can go on for several lessons.
Creating an information gap within in-company courses is simple and easy to do. But the even easier communication gap between trainer-students is a default setting of teachers. The basic factors to a successful role-play is a data gap, a difference in purpose, and various approaches to a problem. At the same time, we need to remember that the learners need a certain buffer or plausible deniability. After all, their value to the company depends on how much they know.
As I am sure everyone is aware, there are two types of grammar: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive is a set of rules which standardize grammar and determine whether something is right or wrong. Descriptive is a study of language as it actually is used to deduce a set of grammatical commonalities.
It looks like most teachers agree that teaching the descriptive grammar is more useful for the learners as communication trumps some arbitrary form of correctness. Why, then, are we teaching prescriptive skills?
Prescriptive Skills There is no one right way to lead a meeting, give a presentation, engage in a negotiation, write an email of request, and so on. Research on discourse and the field of pragmatics help show something we already know... we change our language as we perceive the situation. This goes way beyond register and whether something is formal or not.
Some have argued that language teaching should be more contextualized to ensure pragmatics are included and students gain the skills needed to alter their language to fit discourse. This makes perfect sense. But sometimes I see materials which have "Key Phrases for Meetings" or how to write a formal complaint. This, however, adds a certain set of prescriptive rules for communication which may not always be appropriate.
A classic example of this are dialog structuring activities which allocate select phrases to students A and B to be used in a 'language flowchart'. The context is provided through detailed role-plays and case studies. But often I feel that these violate my "Train as you Fight" motto I picked up in the military. In other words, the training context should be as close to real-world conditions as possible - modified only for ability. This same approach is echoed repeatedly in other training fields when they discuss transfer design.
"Take this three times a day to cure bad meetings."
Descriptive Skills So, if the intent of skills training is to introduce as much realism as possible, it is best that it includes contextual concerns. This includes culture and relationship of the interlocutors, the communication conventions (e.g. structure, templates, etc.), intent, and desired perception. When we add all of these together, it is clear that there is no one best way.
The problem is the complexity of all this. How are we supposed to find resources for all of this information? How can we possibly create a list of phrases for meetings in every context? This would be simply unworkable. No doubt we as a profession have tried. One day, I would like to compile all the useful phrases for small talk in my library and see how we are doing.
Hard to describe but it looks like art to me.
The answer is two-fold. One, we have to accept complexity. We have to understand that by describing something we inherently limit it. By describing an effective presentation, we make all the other methods wrong. So what happens if one week we do presentation training and the next week we watch a TED talk?
The second part of the answer is accept that we don't know everything. The key to skills training is the students themselves. They can quickly offer all the contextual information we need and tell us what success looks like.
A key element of performance-based training is the assessment rubric. I have written a bit about performance assessment in two earlier posts (lessons from the military and assessing quality). Judith Mader has done extensive work on performance-based assessment in the field of pre-experience learners. She's even written a book about it. At the heart is designing a list of criteria and then evaluating whether the student met each of those criteria during the task.
For example, a very simple performance rubric might look something like this:
Note: This is prescriptive...
So, my goal in skills training to develop a rubric which will not only assess the training event, but also give the learners a series of steps to successful fulfill the task. It also provides ample room for teacher and peer feedback. These rubrics can be extend to the right to include grading scales and exact performance measures.
Here is an example from a university for a written paper:
So, how do we create rubrics without assuming too much about context? The answer is sitting right in front of us. They know the interlocutors. They know the context. They know what they like and don't. Let's ask them. By having an introductory conversation about the skill in context we can define the performance criteria together. Furthermore, they have a stake in the process and are more likely to provide constructive feedback and transfer the skill to the workplace.
Lesson Idea 1 - Email to Request Information
With this B1-B2 class I had already conducted a needs analysis based on the communicative event, so I knew that requesting information from fairly distant colleagues was a common task. The lesson was only 60 minutes so I needed to keep the frame fairly small.
I started the lesson with 10 minutes of small talk and catching up. Then we came to the point.
Today we are going to write an email to request information. You have just received an Outlook invitation for a meeting in Munich on May 29th (Munich is about 2 hours away). You recognize the name of the organizer, but you don't know him. We are going to write an email to find out more about the meeting and if we should accept. I haven't included more information because I want you to fill in the details.
Then I created a mindmap on the board with "Request for information" in the middle. Above it I wrote "Preferred" and below I wrote "To avoid". We started by discussing things that should be included in the email (preferred). We then added items which should be avoided. As the moderator of the discussion, I made sure is encompassed linguistic as well as topical issues.
Then, they wrote the emails and I wrote one as well. I ran to the copy machine and make copies for everyone. While they were reading I marked the emails for corrections. We then compiled phrases used by the various students to be used later.
This simple mindmap exercise can be done with any communicative event. What makes a good meeting chairperson? What should they avoid? What is good when describing a presentation graphic? What should we not do? The teacher can help break it down to sentence level if needed. But it is important that they provide the contextual information.
Lesson Idea 2 - Presentation Rubric
Above you have seen a prescriptive rubric for a presentation introduction. I have also made such charts with the class. Below is a lesson example from a tax consultancy.
Today we are going to practice starting a presentation. You have been asked by the company to give a presentation to your client about new regulations on value-added taxes in Germany. You will have to inform them about the changes so that you can file the VAT returns quickly and correctly. Today we will practice only the introduction of the presentation... what you will say at the start. So, let's start by talking about what is important to have in this introduction.
After the conversation, the rubric looked like this.
So, as a trainer, I knew what to listen for. In this case, I actually put this rubric on the projector (I had a flipchart to brainstorm and projector to record) so that the small groups could give peer feedback.
At the end of both of these lessons, I left ample time for feedback and a chance to discuss what had happened during the training. These rubrics can also be used for review or building to a larger task.
Prescribing a most effective way is not always bad. Indeed, I use it often for certain groups. For pre-experience learners there is little alternative. For wide ranging need sets, it is sometimes acceptable. And I will also use it for remote training (e.g. eLearning and email coaching) where feedback is not possible. But this type of training is the lowest common denominator. It should be better.
The point is, if we profess to know the best way to perform a business skills, we place our learners at a disadvantage. Just like a prescriptive grammar teacher creates students who cannot operate in the real world, we can do the same with skills. We need to accept the complexity of our learners' world, acknowledge that neither we nor our resources know everything, and let our students define the context. Using the communicative event analysis provides us the tool for developing the framework materials, but it is up to the learners to take that step further to outline the rubric. Naturally, the trainer is contributing every step of the way, but leading by questions... not by prescription.
Over the past several days I been listening to interesting ideas from around the world from the General English community (I haven?t attended any BE talks). The larger world of ELT is full of amazing people. But I also see areas where common practice in Business English training might help our colleagues. So, here they are...
Lessons should matter to the students. I am still fairly fresh to this profession, but apparently this idea of relevance is quite new in the theoretical approaches. Surprisingly, this focus on making lessons engaging, unique, and useful to the learners in the class appears to be a wave in ELT. In fact, it is so intuitive that I hear some BE trainers talking about how they have been doing this on their own for years just by feeling but without ELT recognition. Suddenly, research appears to be validating what has been going on for a long time.
In other words, many Business English Trainers are developing methods and lessons which go far beyond anything being presented at IATEFL. When it comes to focusing on the learners I see hesitation in the larger ELT community. Dogme is the perfect example.
I went to a popular talk yesterday by Luke Meddings and Burcu Akyol on the areas of overlap between unplugged and connected teaching. Mr. Meddings started by saying that Dogme was now 13 years old, but then felt the need to (re)outline its principles at length. Dogme?s principles can be distilled into one word... relevance. He seemed to be answering critics of the approach through his talk. I was asking myself why... hadn?t Dogme arrived? Wasn?t it accepted as a valid method of the teaching, at least by some communities? But I guess not. So apparently relevance of teaching is doubted by many. On the other hand, when I met a BE Trainer from Berlin in the next session he said, ?Well, [Dogme] is really a non-debate, isn?t it??
Just to clarify the concept of relevance. I am using this in many ways to include...
Content should relate to the learners? lives in a meaningful way.
The language should be brought to where they are and integrated into their lives.In BE we are often in-company, dealing with real world events.For school age learners this means taking the language into their social network spaces, for example.
Learners are the center of the lessons, discussing their thoughts, expressing their real selves through English.
Teachers should focus on skills and language the learner needs, both now in and in the future.
Finally, BE trainers take it for granted that no publisher could ever write a fully relevant course book. This is why we so rarely use them unless standardization is required. But I think we can help share our experiences in designing and guiding relevant training.
The idea of stakeholders and customers seems to be lost. Overall, I tend to hear phrases like ?get your students to...? and ?make/have your students do...? But I have yet to hear anything like, ?If your students want/need/lack, do...?
But the latter is the everyday reality of Business English Trainers. In conversations with other trainers here we speak about flexibility and accommodation all the time. We are so focused on the customer that we are a chameleon of approaches and methods. But the talks here in Liverpool show that categorized teaching persists.
The second part of this is many teachers fail to realize the customer / stakeholder relationship of their profession. While we speak about satisfying the needs of the learner, manager, HR, and procurement all the time, I never hear parents, children, ministries, and school administration being mentioned (when they are, it is merely as a barrier to something the teacher wants to do). These concepts are actually so closely related we need to have an expert step up and compare this. Overall, I feel we have been successful at balancing these interest groups but many of the complaints in General English show substantial conflict exists in their field. We can help.
(Section below added April 12)
On this point, I attended a talk from the British Council on a project to help public school teachers in former East Germany improve their English. The project director gave the audience a set of lessons learned from the challenges they faced dealing with the education ministry, the teacher training institute, the teachers themselves, and the trainers. While the project was and continues to be successful, there were several contractual and coordination issues which caused strain on the various relationships.
I believe that someone working with companies to design and implement Business English training would have been a great addition to the BC team. Many in the field are adept at conducting stakeholder analysis and identifying the tensions between expectations. I had the impression that BC was picking up some of these lessons by trial and error. Without question, the organization has a depth of talent in teacher training, but many BE trainers know that managing stakeholder expectations is a key ingredient. In essence, because we work with businesses, as businesses, and talking about business, we think more like businesses.
I have been attending various talks from the SIGs this week. One was from Sandy Millin. She is a popular blogger, recently finished a DELTA (or is close to finishing), and one of the inspirational people I follow online. She presented a very useful overview of International House Newcastle?s Personal Study Programme. I was interested because it was part of the Learner Autonomy SIG day. The guided self-study program IH has set up is great but it is still a work in progress. I think BE trainers may even have larger issues with learner autonomy than General English self-funded (or parent-funded) learners. I think we can add our experiences to the Lerner Autonomy discussion.
Ms. Millin did a great job. In fact, she displayed the best presentation skills I have seen at the conference so far (well-rehearsed, clear message, calm in voice and manner). Her intent was to share and spread. Her audience, however, was clearly expecting more. She faced a series of challenge and opinion questions at the end (prefaced by politeness of course). As I was leaving the room I heard two conversations about how her ideas would not work. The best of these was how the teachers in the self-study room had not received the proper training as tutors. The participant?s school had instituted something similar and they had received ?loads of training? on tutoring. I still can?t quite understand. If a qualified English teacher (at DELTA level in this case) is not suitable as a tutor, who is?
The point is... many in ELT do not understand innovation. Innovation is the formulation of an idea which is feasible, desirable, and adds value. IH Newcastle has a profitable and feasible idea which helps learner autonomy. The desirability from the learner?s side was left somewhat unanswered (the price/time was bundled into overall order), but Ms. Millin was clear that motivation is a work in progress. This is innovation in a simple form. It is a small, but useful, step toward learner autonomy.
Private language schools (like IH) are businesses and their product is education. Therefore, they need to consider new ideas with a business mindset. Even public schools and universities are pseudo-businesses. They provide education and must demonstrate value. In Business English we think about this all the time. How can I differentiate myself through approach and methods? Will my clients find this blended learning tool useful and desirable... and how should I charge for the time to run it? And so on. But in the larger world of English teaching, the thinking is different. New ideas are prodded and poked and we dismiss them on the backs of completely frivolous concerns. Instead, let?s change our perspective on innovation.
So, this post does include some sweeping generalization about both ELT and Business English. I know the reality is much more complex. But looking down at Liverpool from the top of the Ferris wheel next to the center... this is what I see. I learn every day from talented teachers in the ELT field like Mr. Meddings and Ms. Millin. But I think as BE Trainers, we can and should give something back. I think next year I?ll submit a presentation.
During my first 36 hours in Liverpool there have been three people truly worth following and using their expertise for use in the Business English classroom. In no particular order...
Based in Trier, Germany, Mr. Euler is the scholarship winner from the new Pronunciation SIG for this year?s conference. His presentation on the implementation of connected speech phonology was simply outstanding. While those unfamiliar with phonology and its terminology might have been a bit lost by the jargon and pace of the presentation, his research and thoughts are fantastic. He bridges the gap between research and application in materials and lessons.
As virtual meetings become the international communication method of choice, pronunciation and listening comprehension play a vital role in effective communication. His research and application in materials is groundbreaking, yet simple to adopt. His methods, while presented as a tool to understand native speakers, could also help our learners with difficult accents and self-regulation when speaking with other non-native speakers. I can only hope that Mr. Euler will present again, or at least spread his knowledge on the Internet. I wish I could provide links... in the meantime we can use authentic listening resources (and semi-authentic like Collins English for Business: Listening) combined with connected speech resources to help develop this training.
Mr. Selivan is a General English Teacher in Israel with the British Council. At first glance, this may not appear to be the profile of someone with much to say on Business English. But his work on the Lexical Approach is so useful it would be irresponsible to neglect his ideas when encountering vocabulary during our lessons. Since I focused on how I am dealing with lexis in my lessons I have seen significant improvement in noticing, recognition, retention, and production.
I highly recommend following him on Twitter, reading his blog and archive, as well as this post from Carolyn Kerr based on his similar talk at the TESOL France conference last year. Although I think all teaching approaches should be handled in moderation and with a pinch of skepticism, I am looking forward to reading the treatises on the Lexical Approach (book 1/book 2) by Michael Lewis.
For me, Mr. Day was simply a name I commonly saw on the bottom of ESP books. I thought he was merely a subject matter expert in two or three niche markets. It was not until recently that I discovered his blog (notice related posts at bottom) which appeared to be abandoned since 2011. But when I started reading the blog (I tend to read blogs in their entirety, like books) I saw how really flexible and trailblazing he is in Business English. Here in Liverpool I just had the chance to see him present in person. His presentation on ESP course design is excellent.
His talk on two approaches to course design was spot on and echoed (and predates) much of what we as BE trainers are doing... teach to the communicative event, do not treat linguistic competency as a linear process. Mr. Day expressly stated that both teaching approaches are valid, but it is clear for me that in in-company situations the targeted training is often the way to go.
Since 2010, he has been working with English 360. But this is recent news to me and caused me to go back and take a look at their product. I still think it is the best blending learning site for BE trainers on the market. The concept of plug-and-play resources to design your own blended learning course is great. I also like the activity variety and interface. Finding appropriate resources is a bit clunky and takes a considerable amount of search and clicks, but it is definitely worth a look. They continue to host a wide range of CUP materials and I see that the user-generated and non-publisher materials are growing. This is great news.
In total, these three men (coincidentally all male) have made my first two days at the conference completely worthwhile. They may consider their ideas only a drop in an ELT ocean (this conference has that effect), but they can have a real impact on our BE training.
Linguistics Theory and Real World Training I am not a linguist. Most of what I have learned about the field comes from the Wikipedia Linguistics section and observation both in class and in the real world. I'm always impressed by trainers and academics who work in the various subfields like Pragmatics or Phonology. Without question, I owe much to their research and effort. The depth of their analysis is simply breathtaking.
Nor am I an expert in Second Language Acquisition. My initial education in SLA was simply by critically reading course books and asking, "Why did they write it this way?" Now, I rely on Scott Thornbury for this, as I suspect many front-line teachers do. My initial goal was to simply understand what he was talking about. The real gold mine of knowledge is not his A-Z blog, but rather his list of written works.
All too often, it takes considerable trailblazing to link these theories to the reality of my learners. The enhanced analysis produced by academia is often so detailed we can miss the forest for the trees. We are now mapping collocations across two centuries (BYU/Google Books) and assessing the pragmatic meaning of utterances with conceptual nouns at such a minute level it leaves the trainer lost for clear guidance. We are even left trying to define methodologies across a spectrum of distant names like Krashen and Lozanov. Lives are spent specializing in these fields.
But as Business English trainers we cannot turn our backs on this range of knowledge. The other extreme is just as fruitless. There is a pull on our community to become experts in the "skills" such as negotiations, intercultural communication, and presentations. This is a louder and more public group of experts. There is a shine to these practitioners and perhaps more money. But this is not my role either. I believe our purpose is to link these two fields.
Furthermore, our knowledge base needs to be broad enough in both areas to identify the correct communication tool. Sometimes it is skills, sometimes it is linguistic. One thing is for sure, we cannot expect linguistic experts (e.g. published course books) to give us everything we need to know about skills and we should not trust skills experts to provide linguistic expertise.
Here are two examples of how this works...
Skills Problem A participant in one of my courses recently asked me to help him with a problem with an American colleague. He wanted a sentence he could say to show that he was offering help. The colleague in the US always reacted unexpectedly. Defensive would be too strong of a word, but he always seemed uncomfortable with the offer and rejected it immediately. The learner here in Germany thought he had said something wrong and he had somehow offended his colleague. The American would never accept his assistance and he wanted me to give him a sentence to make it better.
But this was not a linguistic problem. The problem was instead with the team dynamic and the difference in organizational culture between the German and US departments (notice here it was not national culture). I sent the following email and we had a meeting to discuss the issue. By the end of the meeting we had worked down to sentence level.
Unfortunately, there is no ?silver bullet? for this type of reaction. Instead, it appears that the relationship is not the best. His response to offering help is only a symptom of the real problem. The question is then... what is the real problem?
To start, I would need more information to help define the issue. Then we can formulate a strategy for dealing with this person and identify language which would resonate with him.
So here are some questions and feedback:
Trust is built on character and competence. Do you believe he is competent? If not, why? What do you think about his character? What does he think about his own competence? Is he new in his position or field? Is he stressed from the expectations of the job? What does he think of your competence and character? How can you tell that he feels that way? Do you trust him? Does he know you trust him?
Team building is not easy and goes through phases. How long have you worked together? Do the team members really know each other? Does the team have a common purpose and result? Does everyone know it? Are the members committed to the team or are there other priorities? What are they? What is the definition for success for your team? Does your team have a track record of successes? Is there a reward for success? Does your team accept and use conflict as creative/critical thinking? How do you and your colleague fit into this team? Do you have roles? Did the boss give you those roles or did they evolve?
Everyone has goals and motivation. What are his goals? (e.g. Is he trying to prove himself to the team? Does he want a promotion?) What does he think your goals are? Why?
Everyone has assumptions. What does he think about the department in Germany? What does he think about working with Germans? Why? Based on those assumptions, is he positive, negative, or neutral about working with your team? What are his assumptions about you? Why? What are your assumptions about him? Does he feel them?
Everyone has pride. Clearly, you are proud of your children. You talked about them on the first day we met. You are also proud of your intelligence (and you should be). You seem to enjoy the mentor role. Do you want to mentor him? What is he proud of? Why?
You don?t have to answer these questions in an email, we can discuss it. But I would like you to think about these questions. When we have an answer to these questions then we can work down to sentence level.
So, I hope we can work together on this and develop a solution.
By the end of the meeting we had identified several team and trust issues and dealt with ways to handle them. We also discussed the word "just" with the continuous form to show intent. To give this type of training we need to know about trust, team building, working in virtual teams, and the effect of personal goals on communication.
Most of my learners are using English in virtual meetings with native speakers, India, and China. Their biggest concern is comprehension. In this case the problem has less to do with the set phrases in the meeting or even running effective meetings. The answer here is in pronunciation and phonology. To help ease the communication problem I laid out a plan to tackle accents and connected speech. The group is B1 and they are within a comfortable discourse community and lexical set.
Step one was to introduce sentence stress and reduction in connected speech among native speakers. Then I could approach syllable-timed and stress-timed languages. Additionally, I could dive into Learner English to identify certain phonemes which might be causing problems. Mixed with a healthy dose of authentic listening, we might just be able to crack this nut.
The plan got off to a rocky start. I started with reviewing the pronunciation of weak auxiliaries and short forms. This was okay, but when I took it a step further and showed them "h" dropping, they were resistant. In fact, there was nearly outright revolt in the class as suddenly they believed that I was teaching them some laughable dialect of American English. One woman went so far to say, "No, no... this is not right. My British supplier speaks a very good English. He does not do this." But I know this exists! Mark Hancock and Sylvie Donna said so! And I have heard it often first hand.
Clearly more research on my part was necessary. In the end I found the answer by digging deep into the linguistic research world. It turns out that the answer is in German, not English. In Modern German Pronunciation, Christoper Hall points out that reduction and assimilation is common in everyday German (which I knew from my own problems in my second language) but that it is also rarely used in formal contexts. He states,
"English weak forms are dictated entirely by the stress and rhythm of the sentence and are completely unconnected with differences in style, in other words, weak forms in English are used even in very formal speech. ... The use of German weak forms, on the other hand, depends decisively on the pronunciation style... The general rule is that in formal pronunciation weak forms are less frequent..." (p 154)
So, here was the key to unlocking the comprehension issues in the virtual meetings. First, I had to show them that weak forms do not affect image as in German. Then we could deal with sentence stress. Then the plan could continue.
These two examples show how our profession is not a one-or-the-other field. Instead it is a balance between the two. To fulfill our role and expectations, we must be able to balance these two influences. If we feel ourselves uncomfortable within the skills area or relying too heavily on course book 'expertise' we need to improve our business communication competence and relevance. On the other hand, if we find ourselves drifting too far into the flashy world of TED talks and intercultural negotiations, we need to pull back and rediscover our linguistic roots. Striking the right balance is not easy for me, but my learners benefit greatly when I get it right.
BE Trainer goes to Liverpool This will be only my second IATEFL conference, and only my third English teaching conference in total, but I think I am starting to find my way around these things. So here are my plans for Liverpool 2013...
1. Approach the Program with a Strategy
Last year, my general approach was benchmarking. I wanted to find out if I was doing the right thing in my lessons and training design. The goal was to walk away with an action plan for improvement. In other words... I was an idea thief.
But the conference did not really live up to my expectations. Or maybe I had surpassed my own expectations. What I learned was that I am actually quite good at this training thing. I enjoy it, I have an approach which blends best practice from various sources, plus it fits my context, my personality, and most importantly, my learners' expectations and needs.
It would be a shame, however, to spend all of the money on travel and accommodation only to hear things I already know. So this year, I have worked out several "needs improvement" categories. When viewing the program, I will focus on those talks which can help shed some light on how to improve. In short, the plan is not to steal ideas, rather use the talks as a spark to generate my own.
For me, the areas of focus this year are:
Writing better materials (especially for other trainers)
E-learning (from design to implementation to learner acceptance)
Broadening my cultural horizons - I teach in a monolingual/monocultural context. I would like to be more flexible.
2. Vet the speakers and remain critical of the descriptions
Sadly, last year I attended several talks which only vaguely resembled the printed descriptions in the program. In some cases, the presenters failed to reach the "ah ha!" moment. It appeared as though they were holding back. I divided these talks into three groups:
The crucial information the audience wanted was proprietary. "This topic is very useful and important, but if you want to know what it is, buy the book, take the course, etc."
The speaker was unsure of their own expertise. "I think this is a really effective approach to the topic, but there are a lot of really smart people here and I don't want to say anything wrong so I will just allude to it."
The speaker tried to accomplish too much in the time slot. "So that is the extensive background to this topic... Oh, I see we are running out of time and I wanted to save some for questions. So, here very quickly is the main point... okay, thanks for coming."
So, what I am looking for are names I have seen on Twitter and in other conferences, but who are not promoting a book/website/course. I am also looking for unknown speakers who are dealing with a very specific issue which might support one of my three goals.
3. Take Time Off and Find a Comfortable Chair
Last year, I came back from Glasgow exhausted. I attended an unbelievable number of sessions, I ate very little, drank too much, stayed up too late, and was generally uncomfortable much of the time. My cheeks hurt from smiling and my ears hurt from intensive listening. I do not want to repeat this performance.
But on the other hand, I will pay a sizable sum to attend the conference and I want to make sure I do not miss something which might repay the cost. In Glasgow, I picked up a few ideas which I then developed and sold, thus recouping the expenditure. However, I plan to take it a little easier this year and come home a bit more refreshed.
4. It's All about the People
For those of us who are active and passionate about professional development, the ideas presented during the sessions are largely available online. Instead of taking copious notes, I will simply keep a Evernote page for the entire conference with topics for later research, links, and people. There is simply too much information during the week to really learn. Instead, I can take my list home and prioritize it while half-watching a reality show on my couch. Most of the presentations, handouts, and the like will be hosted anyway.
This will save my brain cells for getting to know people I have only met online, speaking with the friends I have made (and failed to keep in touch with), and asking lots of questions to lots of really talented and intelligent people. It has been mentioned elsewhere, but the most interesting parts of conferences are truly the short conversations with diverse opinions. In fact, I'm thinking about submitting a proposal for a BESIG workshop in Prague which has no topic. Think of it as conference Dogme... just get a bunch of super-smart people in a room and see what emerges. I wonder if that would be accepted? But perhaps there is someone better to host it...
If you are coming to Liverpool, I would love to meet you. It would be great to grab a drink as well, but we all know how schedules are at conferences. I hope you have a great trip and I'll see you next week.