Friday, November 23, 2012

Two Easy Peer Feedback Methods

Peer feedback can be extremely valuable in the BE classroom, especially when it comes to communication skills.  There are two reasons for this.

First, my learners are typically all in the same company and/or department and have a better grasp of the conventions within the discourse community.  Second, the learners have years of experience and training in various areas which they can draw upon to give feedback.  For example, several of my learners include project managers who have taken part in many training sessions on relationship building and giving feedback.  It is great to spread that knowledge.

Of course there are many other great reasons for constructive peer feedback, but there are also dangers, too.  Without direction and some limits, peer feedback can be overly positive or only highlight shortcomings.

For example, here is some peer feedback I received on a proposal I wrote for a university class.

·         Your introduction is very wordy.  I would consider consolidating some of the paragraphs and cut back on so many words.  Once you write the Letter of Transmittal you will realize most of what you wrote in your introduction will also be in your Letter of Transmittal.  Your introduction should be concise and to the point. You use too much detail for the reader in the first two paragraphs, which led to repeating most in the body of your proposal.  
·         Your title page doesn’t include who you ultimately want to read your proposal.  In our textbook on page 289 the title page lists who it is prepared by and who it is prepared for.  The prepared for individual will also be the name you address your Letter of Transmittal to. 
·         I would also consider spelling out what R&D because readers may not understand the acronym. 
·         You are also missing table of contents, which is a requirement for the report.
·         When using visuals you should name them in the proposal i.e. Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. Also if you pulled your illustrations from somewhere else you need to cite those as well. 

Hardly motivating... did I do anything well?  By the way... I did fine on the final assignment.

A Simple 3-2-1

I like to use a simple 3-2-1 feedback format for peer feedback.  I simply write on the board prior to a presentation, meeting, email, etc.

3 things they did well.
2 things they can improve.
1 thing you want to take and use in your presentations, emails, etc.

Then after the simulation/role play, I give them time to fully write out their feedback for the person.  I do not read them and let the learner look at them without pressure after the lesson.  Typically, the learner will come back the next week and thank their classmates for the excellent responses.  Then when we are giving class presentations, all participants are more likely to give complete, honest, and constructive feedback because they will receive the same in return.

Email Workshops

A second method for extensive peer feedback is email workshops.  I will set up pair groups and give each pair the task to write an email.  Each situation will be similar.  Note:  I will change the emails based on the target function.

For example: (the learners are told to fill in details to fit their job/situation)

Group A
  • To introduce yourself to a new business contact.  You will be working together in the future.
Group B
  • To follow up on a conference.  You met the person for the first time and talked shortly, exchanged cards and agreed to stay in touch.
Group C
  • To get in touch with a former friend / colleague.  You were close before but lost touch after several years.  But now you may need some help from him / her.
Then, the pairs compare and contrast their emails based on subject line, greeting, opening, structure, opening for discussion/response, closing, formality, and length.

Then I will have someone run to the copy machine and make copies for everyone.  Note: I give them an email template on A4 paper with all the top fields and a writing area.

Then the members of the three different groups will read the other emails.  While they are reading, I will mark the emails for accuracy and vocabulary.

To conclude, the members of the groups will meet together and discuss dos and don'ts in there situations, good structure, appropriate phrases, etc.  We will bring all the information together on a powerpoint slide and that will go out to the participants.

The participants absolutely love it.

So, two ideas on how I use peer feedback in my classrooms.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Communicative Event... Session Recap

I heard my approach to needs analysis mentioned many times this past weekend at the BESIG conference and I am more than a little thrilled to have struck an issue which reached BE trainers.  As a relative new-comer to ELT I am always hesitant about saying how things should be done.  And at a place like BESIG, I am looking out at an audience which, in the case of the PCS, had well over a century of experience.

The purpose of this post is to recap my talk on Communicative Event Analysis, to add some background to the idea, and to reanswer some of the questions which were dealt with rather poorly in the session.

The Talk

During the talk I first outlined what I had learned from the needs analysis tools I see most often on the Internet, in trainer handbooks, or in course materials.  Unfortunately, due to a technical issue, the bullet points did not appear on-screen.  Please take a look at this version of the presentation for those items.


It appears that the term 'communicative event' is gaining acceptance among some readers (and even non-readers) of my previous post "Why Needs Analysis Isn't Working".  Let me provide a little context about how I use this term.

For me a communicative event is anytime the learner is either the sender or receiver in the S/R communication model.  This is different than "an English situation".  In some cases, such as reading a document on the company intranet, the event "understanding and interpreting the information" is the entire situation.  However in many cases, such as a longer meeting or a company visit, there are many events in one situation.

Example 1

I have learners who make customer visits (the situation).  In this case there may be several events.
  • Reporting to reception
  • The initial greeting when being welcomed
  • Relationship building through small talk while walking to the conference room (or other area)
  • Meeting the others for the meeting
  • Talking about the agenda or plan for the visit
  • Starting the meeting
  • Presentation phase
  • Question phase
  • Discussion phase
  • and so on...
The idea with the form is to find the situation and start to define the communicative events.  But different cultures, discourse communities, job functions, and conventions will change the events conducted, the duration, and importance of those events.  My goal from the forms and the follow-up questions is to the find the order and importance of these events.  Artifacts such as old meeting agendas, mintues, slide decks, and emails make this much easier.  In general, however, I will try to focus on those events which are high value.  Reporting to reception is generally not high value.  For a secretary the small talk while going to the conference room will be much higher value than some others to create a welcoming first impression on the guest.

Example 2

Sometimes the communicative event is not directly linked to the situation.  I had a learner who worked in a call center.  At first thought, we needed to be working on telephoning, troubleshooting, politeness, etc.  However, her needs were actually quite different.

She was receiving the calls from German customers about problems with their telephone service.  But the company also had call centers in India.  Therefore, all the troublshooting guides on the Intranet were in English and all the incident tickets had to be written in English.  But she was speaking German on the phone.

So for the training, we needed to focus on quickly searching, reading, and interpreting the troubleshooting guides, and on writing short incident reports in English... all while speaking German.


Recently, I stumbled upon some past work on the communicative event from 1978 by John Munby.  It just goes to show that there is rarely a truly new idea.  Sadly, I have not even scratched the surface on his research, but it appears he advocated this approach to syllabus design long ago.  My initial impression is that he takes it a bit further (down to sentence level) with "micro-functions".

My apologies to Mr. Munby if I have inadvertently plagiarised his theories.  This was completely new to me until only recently.

Expertise, Assumptions and Materials

The main message I would like to give is three fold.  First, we are the language and communication experts in the room.  Asking the learners to map their own way to success is simply not effective.  Of course, we need to accomodate their goals and expectations.  But they do not know what a function is, they cannot name the words they don't know, and they cannot identify what makes their language different than their target.

Second, we cannot make assumptions that we know meetings, presentations, negotiations, etc.  Course books do an excellent job of providing functional phrases, but often assume that all meetings are the same and all presentations are alike.

Third, we cannot limit the learners' needs to what we know how to teach.  Many times what we know how to teach is either of marginal importance (e.g. making arrangements on the phone) or will not help alleviate their communication difficulties.  Tailor made training means just that... going out and developing original lessons and materials which will help our learners.  Of course, some recycling happens, but trotting out a different permutation of the same stuff is not ideal.

Question and Answer

I'd like to apologize to the audience (both around the world and in the room) for my poor responses to your excellent questions.  I was a bit overwhelmed by the simulcast, the technology challenges, being filmed, the time limit, and staying on script.  Thank you to the gentleman who politely helped me deal with one question.  So here is my second attempt.

Identifying needs for pre-experience learners or 'just-in-case' training

Very valid question... this method is generally limited to learners who currently use English in their workplace and have the goal of improving their immediate performance.  However, after having conducted this type of needs analysis for over a year, I do see patterns which can assist pre-experience learners.  Please check out my post "What I Don't Teach and Why".

One general thing I see in my market is that most communication is internal and virtual.  This means lots of information exchange on progress, processes, and rules but less persuasion and general conversation.  Communication is often reading and writing messages to conduct some kind of transactional information exchange.

For external contacts, I see more voice communication, but typically also little face-to-face contact.  Also, these external contacts are typically long-standing customers and preferred suppliers.  These conversations are more like colleagues than the more traditional customer-provider relationship.

I will also use my gained knowledge of communicative events from other learners to extrapolate what pre-experience learners are likely to be doing.  Sometimes these tasks are similar to what they are already doing in L1, and sometimes we have to make a few assumption based on job function (e.g. accounting, project management, etc.)  One note here is that most course books written for business management schools are heavy on strategy and business theory.  Most daily workplace communication is not about these topics.

Specfic lesson ideas from communicative events

The first thing is that it gives me a clear idea of which functions, grammar, and vocabulary to practice in certain contexts.  I know precisely what kind of authentic materials I should be looking and asking for.  Then, I have a pretty good idea of what to do with them when I have them.

During a role-play it gives a good idea of what roles to assign to whom, or how to change them to fit their real-world needs.  It also gives me an idea of how to design specific lessons.  For example, I have a group of secretaries and we recently rehearsed that long walk from reception to our conference room.  We made role cards for the 'visitors' like: 

You missed your connection in Amsterdam.  You are tired and hungry.  You want to be nice, but would rather not have small talk.  You are looking forward to the end of the meeting and you are dying for a cup of coffee and to know where the restroom is.

This is your first trip to Germany and you are really looking forward to it.  You want to do some sightseeing while you are here and pick up a few gifts.  You really hope the meetings can be short so you that you can look around on your own.

So, I hope that helps cover those two questions better than my spontaneous answers.

Sorry for the long post, below you can find the handout for the session and thanks to all who attended from around the world and in Stuttgart.

Handout - The Communicative Event

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Are We Fulfilling Our Promise?

I would first like to thank everyone who joined us for the PCS at the BESIG 2012 Annual Conference.  I know it was a financial and time committment on your part and I hope that the sessions were worthwhile.

For those who could not attend, I believe you missed a very valuble session and I hope you will be able to make the next one.  But I understand that distance, financial, and training constraints prevented you from joining the session.  So I will do my best here to recap my workshop on assessing and reporting training quality.

Here is the available video of the presentation.  Note, it starts when I am speaking about the benefits of a quality assessment with clients.

Let's start with the presentation and follow with some of the explanation.

Are In-Company Trainers Afraid of Assessment?

As expected at a BESIG conference many of the trainers came from the educational setting in which assessment is a part of life.  However, I see that in the in-company setting assessment is avoided.  As long as the learners leave with smiles and the manager seems satified then we carry on as though everything is hunky-dory.  But there are considerable benefits to a comprehensive assessment program.

Business terminology:
cost-plus pricing
value-based pricing

Kirkpatrick's Four Levels

This is nothing new.  Donald Kirkpatrick described these levels long ago, but they continue to be the gold standard in training assessment for corporate training.  I think we need to be able to accomodate these client expectations of results with quantitative and qualitative data.

Impressions from Workshop

First, I would like to commend Target Training (one of the key sponsors of the conference) for supporting their staff to achieve certification on the Kirkpatrick model.  During the workshop one mentioned that I was not presenting the most recent developments on this.  He is correct, for more info check some of the more recent references.  However, in the sense of ELT and assessing Business English training, I feel that the traditional framework is already a significant step in the right direction. 

To invert the model (as is currently being taught) or to add a fifth level of monetary ROI (as has been advocated) are simply not steps either our profession or our clients are ready to accept.  And unless we are going out and setting up massive training programs, maybe is it unnecessary.  Therefore, it is more practical to focus on the traditional four levels approach.  However, I find it outstanding that this company is not only taking this approach to corporate training, but also developing their people.  It is far too rare in our industry.

Horton's External Factors

The problem with adopting the four levels without consideration is that is can lead to distortions.  It tends to ignore external factors.  I believe the Holton's simple and effective organization resonates which the BE trainer because we can fully identify with these challenges.  Now, Holton actually does not think Kirkpatrick model is effective at all (and they have a personal dislike for each other).  But strangely, his own 'model' looks extremely similar.  So for the sake of simplicity I just super-imposed Holton ideas on the pyramid.


A quick note about surveys because we talked a lot about this in the sessions.  These are not the end-all-be-all of assessment.  They are certainly valuable and quite easy to administer, but do not generally tell the whole story.  On one of the first slides, I showed the menu of assessment tools I see being used.  All have their place and all are valid, we simply need to understand which level they are assessing and how external factors can influence them.  I went to the talk by Judith Mader on performance-based testing which reveal some of the challenges with setting criteria.  This is what I use to judge learning, albeit on a smaller scale than her university.

But in response to questions about how to operationalize this I have uploaded an example survey that I use.  This is by no means perfect and I customize certain sections depending on who, what and when I am conducting the assessment.

English Training Feedback Form (Email)

Putting it Into Practice

It would be impossible for me to understand each training situation of the audience and we saw from the feedback that some have never thought about this, some have taken on part of this in their work, and some are already using these methods daily.  Additionally, some have no control over the assessment methods used in their organization.  However, it was very nice to hear some trainers talking about how they planned to change the way they speak with the learners to either get information on the transfer environment or gain insights on behavior/results.

Some other ideas were to review their feedback form, conduct some sort of before and after assessment, and to use a simple method like the workshop notes page in the handout.  I was really happy to hear that suggestion because, of course, this is the way the workshop was designed.


This was not really discussed that much in the groups but I think it may be the most important step, especially for training companies running many classes with many trainers.  Because the information for the report will come from many sources it needs to be organized to help drive improvement.  I also think it is the best tool for initiating trainer cross-talk.

For example, Trainer A consistently gets great feedback on reaction.  The learners love her, she plays games and there are lots of laughs.  On the other side, Trainer B scores great on learning and preparing people for meetings.  Sit the two down together and Trainer A gives a few lesson ideas for more fun and relaxation in the classroom, and Trainer B shares how she builds simulations to help for meetings.

I know that reporting sounds like tons of work and a boring admin task.  It is if there is no point, it is actually very motivating if everyone knows that this report will generate suggestions and action points to improve.

So... thanks to all who came!

Handout - Are We Fulfilling Our Promise

Monday, November 5, 2012

Making an Impact by Understanding the Learner's Goal

I am about to share a lesson I taught this morning in a one-to-one lesson.  This lesson flies in the face of many of the 'tenants' of ESL and learning in general.  The intent is to show how teaching Business English in-company can be markedly different from other environments.

Learner profile

The one-to-one lesson takes place once a week for one hour.  It was not set up as an individual training, but the woman is level A1 and there were no other employees with such a low level.  She works in the accounting department for a multi-national and handles a range of international tax issues, mostly around withholding tax.  The learner is in her mid- to late- fifties and generally doubts her ability to learn English.

More importantly, however, is the fact that she doesn't really want to 'speak' English, she only wants to handle her international tasks until she retires.  I repeat this often, but it is definitely true in this case; she does not have a language problem, she has a communication problem.  We have done a communicative events analysis and found that emails to inform others about processes are the most routine situations.  She must also receive and understand emails asking questions about payment status and how to apply for withholding tax exemptions.


I had planned to start looking at the passive in the lesson to help her explain a process.  We had just finished looking at adjectives as a method toward the past participle because it fits nicely into L1 German.  However, I started the lesson by asking, "Is there anything specific you want to talk about this week."

She told me that she had to write an email to a supplier about why an invoice has not yet been paid.  Okay... let's do it.  She explained the situation in German and I did a little graphic representation on the flip chart in English to confirm my understanding.  She agreed that I had.


I wanted to give her a template for this type of email.  I boarded a template I use for writing emails of bad news.

1.  Unfortunately / I'm afraid / Sadly...
2.  Why
3.  Give options
4.  Offer help
5.  Apologize for the situation

I clarified that we did not want to take responsibility for the situation because it is not our fault.  She dutifully noted the template.

Then I filled it by writing her email (while eliciting things she should know from our training).  To check her understanding of the sentences, I asked her to translate them into German.

Dear _____,

Thank you for your email.  (Her sentence.  We have worked on emails before)

Unfortunately, we are still waiting for the withholding tax exemption from the central tax office.  We forwarded all your information to the government on/in _________.  But it takes some time for processing.  I cannot say when it will be confirmed.

We can either wait for the confirmation or we can pay the invoice now.  But I must withhold the 15.8%.

I can try to call the tax authority but sadly, I cannot speed up the process.

I apologize for the situation, and I will do everything on my side to complete the transaction.

If you have any questions, please contact me. (Again, her sentence.)

Best regards,

I wrote the email for her on the flipchart (filling the template) and she copied it.  I then asked her to read it aloud for me to check her dictation and to drill a few words.

We then discussed a few elements from the email.

1.  Performatives - We honed in on "I apologize" as this was a new word for her.  Then we looked at other performatives like suggest, propose, invite, request.

2.  either... or... - We will see this construction as we continue looking at processes.  She wrote 5 sentences using either... or....

3.  Forward - This was also a new word for her, although I'm sure we've covered it before.  We made a quick mind map of email words:  forward, reply, attach, confirm, sign.  Okay, they're not all email words, but they fit together for her.


To close the lesson, we took a look at the email again and I elicited ways she could use the email as a model for other situations.  In the end, she decided that she would save it in Word and use it whenever she had to give bad news about the withholding tax process.  In fact, she writes this type of email about twice a month.

To conclude, I doubt she can speak anymore English that she could before she came in.  She is undoubtly confused about most of the grammar in her example.  But she does understand exactly what each sentence says.  It will be much easier for us to cover this later.  In fact, we can dissect our example even further in future lessons.

But most importantly, she has a communication tool.  Remember, she doesn't need the English... she only wants to communicate the idea.  I consider this a successful way to spend 1 hour.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What I Don't Teach and Why

There are several things I have all but removed from my training.  I am not unprepared to teach them nor do I inherently disagree with these points, but they consistently fall into the low frequency/low value part of my training plan based on the learners' need.

Whether it is part of a lesson plan, encountered in the lesson, or part of feedback, I typically evaluate the relative importance of the language item.  This includes lexis, grammar, functions and skills.

Frequency is how often they will use/see the language in their work tasks and international communication situations.  Value represents the impact of the item on a range of categories including possibility for miscommunication, impact of miscommunication, typical audience, effect on respect and reputation, impact on the situation intent (persuade, inform, build relationships, etc.).

From this I notice several topics which consistently drop in importance and do not warrant spending our limited training time on the subject.


While certain functions within the negotiation dance such as suggesting and bargaining (really just a disguise for the II Conditional in a grammatical syllabus) are useful, my learners almost never face this context.  For my German learners, there are few employees who have this responsibility without the pre-requisite of proficient English.  I will cover suggesting and the II Conditional in other contexts, but my general rule is, "If we can't create a simulation for it from the class, don't have a role play about it."


Sorry, but they are all but gone.  This is based on several factors.  My learners normally have limited NS contact.  Of those they do work with, there are fewer exchanges with 'novice' international communicators.  In my observations, these Americans and Brits are experienced enough to monitor idiom usage.  They may add great color to language and provide for a quick laugh in class, but we can find humor in other ways, and giving the idioms a trainer 'stamp of approval' will only increase the chances for miscommunication when they use them with other NNSs.


I understand that telling good stories is important in building relationships.  But I also know many NSs (myself included) who can tell some really horrible stories.  In general, I find that when they want to tell a story... they get it out.  For the grammar, the narrative tenses only seem to increase doubt in my learners.  For the vocabulary, we simply don't have time to cover enough topical areas to fill the gaps.  Other elements (like linking phrases and adverbs of commentary) can be placed into other areas as well.  We do cover adjectives to describe emotions and other ways to express interest, surprise, stress, etc... but storytelling is not a key aspect of the training.

The Present Perfect for Past Events that Have Present Importance

This is always the element of the present perfect that confuses my learners the most.  As an American, I also see it as a nice element of British English.  So, I typically only teach the present perfect in two ways:  1)  life experience, 2)  giving current facts and states context.  I don't really see much wrong with saying, "If it is a finished action, put it in the past."  After all, my German learners typically make the opposite error and put everything in the present perfect.

Phrasal Verbs

This follows much of the idioms line of thinking.  We will look at the overall meaning of 'get' (get back, get up, get + adj) and few key phrasal verbs we see often in BE like 'pick up' and 'drop off'.  But when I see list of 500 Phrasal Verbs, I move on.  Remember, my learners are primarily communicating with other NNSs where proficiency levels are often lower.  Setting the idea of 'one word - one meaning' may sound sterile and cold, but ultimately much more effective in their high frequency situations.

Telephoning to Make Arrangements

How this became the standard for telephoning 101 in course books I'll never quite understand.  My leaners don't make arrangements by telephone... they make them with Outlook (or at least email).  My suspicion is that this lesson just mixes so nicely with the grammatical syllabus which states we need to learn the present continuous for the future.  By the way, this grammar is often not so important with my learners either.  By the time they are ready to learn, I typically already hear it emerge from on-the-job exposure.

Report Writing

Nope... don't do it.  I have a few questions about this.  Who has time to write and read prolonged reports?  My learners don't.  Some do write reports, but they are typically under 200 words in total with a wide range of images and graphics.  Who read these reports?  In most cases I have seen, the report travels at a maximum of two level horizontally or vertically.  Presumibly at that level, relationships, trust, and respect have already been developed.

Writing a Letter of Complaint

When was the last time you or someone you knew wrote a letter to a hotel to complain about the accomdation or service?  I have two types of learners, complainers and non-complainers.  The complainers already know how to do it (in any language, I think), and it feels unnatural for the non-complainers.  Yes, there are situations that are 'unacceptable' in daily business and conflicts do erupt between suppliers, customers, and colleagues.  Through my coaching I get to see them regularly.  Expressing disappointment or frustration may be a better way to describe this.  This is easily covered by teaching common uses of 'still', the 'present perfect continuous', and 'not...enough'/'too'.  Needless to say, I haven't seen a letter in a long, long, time.


While these items are rarely part of my training, I would never refuse to work with learners to develop them.  For some job functions, these items may be more important (e.g. secretaries, intense work with NSs, specific department functions) and will be included in the performance objectives.  Furthermore, as they begin to master their current tasks, we will shift our importance to focus on future skills.

The point is, no materials writer knows my learners as well as I do.  What the ESL profession thinks they should learn is often not that important.  When planning lessons and dealing with emergent language, we need to pick and choose how we spend our time and their effort.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The High-Low Dilemma: Recommendation for Presenting Culture

Assumed knowledge:
  • The difference between high and low context cultures
  • How this difference can impact communication

The difference between high and low context is a theoretical concept that is difficult to translate into activities for training.  The trainer can either present the theory and use examples to illustrate the difference, or they can show 'model' communication to mitigate the risk of misunderstanding.  Furthermore, because high and low context is not exclusive to national culture, the learners must be able to identify different communication styles in various situations.  This effectively eliminates the value of trainer generated models because they may not be appropriate to the situation.  Therefore, it would be best to give the learners a more solid understanding of how cultural context affects communication and let them apply the lesson to their needs.


There are many points of view on the topic, but I will highlight just two.  Going back to 2010, Evan Frendo offered an outstanding menu of comparing and contrasting activities.  They were all based on input from the trainer on the theory.  The learners are then ask to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the differences.  The weakness in the approach is in the presentation phase.  I feel that presenting Edward Hall's theory as an academic topic is not a guarantee for comprehension.

Another approach is that from authors Bovèe and Thill from Business Communication Essentials (Pearson, 2012), a fairly standard university text book.  The book echoes a wide range of business communication material when it states, "The different expectations of low- and high-context cultures can create friction and misunderstanding when people try to communicate across cultural boundaries."  While certainly sound, this doesn't give the trainer or participant much to work with.  The authors then provide a model of effective intercultural communication with some basic tips.  Sadly, the model consists of a sterilized business letter.  While extremely clear it does little to support Bob Dignan's ideas of building relationships, influencing people, or building trust.  Effective for the immediate event, it does little for the long-term business relationship.


So, to compliment Frendo's activities, a better method of presentation is needed.  From this, the learners can create their own trainer supported models to fit their communication needs.  One method is to link lesson plans we are already using to illustrate the difference between high and low cultures.  After all, the employees are already living in a high-context company culture.  Also, they all remember starting at the company and trying to understand 'the way things are done'.

1.  The Unwritten Rules of the Company

A good model for this lesson can be found in Vicki Hollet's series Lifestyle (Intermediate by Iwonna Dubicka and Margaret O’Keeffe).  This will help define the company culture.  In the lesson, the learners discuss and formulate the unwritten rules of the company. Language point - modals of obligation

2.  Your First Day

Learners tell stories about the challenges they faced during their first day/month at work.  Language point - past tenses and past obligation

Some guiding questions can help the lesson:
  • What company/school did you come from?  How was it different?
  • Did anyone help you understand the unwritten rules?
  • Did you come in and give lots of recommendations or sit back and listen?  Why?
  • Do you remember any mistakes you made?  How did your colleagues handle them?
  • What were the most important lessons you learned?  How did you learn them?
  • Did you understand what everyone was talking about (terms, projects, people, etc.)?
  • What did you think about your new colleagues?  How did they treat you?
  • Did you ever hear...
    • That won't work here.
    • We don't do it that way.
    • Trust me, this is the best.
    • We already tried that xx years ago.
3.  The New Hire's First Day

From here the lesson moves to giving advice for an employee's first day.  Using the previous lessons, the learners must 'sponsor' a new employee.  This could be done as a role-play, a written list supported by instruction, etc.  The new hires should prepare a list of questions for their sponsors to help make the transition faster.  Language point - giving advice, modal question forms

4.  Reveal the Learning Point

It is at this point that the trainer reveals that their company is a high-context culture.  It has its own traditions, conventions, symbols, etc., everything that makes a culture.  The trainer can also show the difference between the way they talk to each other in class (high-context) and the way they explain things to the trainer (low-context).  Because the difference is already illustrated using a personal situation, it is much clearer for them to understand.  One visual way to reveal this is to board the advice under the title "Company", then replace with "China"

5.  Replace Company with Culture

Now that the learners comprehend the difference, it will be much more fruitful for them to do activities like Evan Frendo's or create models for their communicative situations.  Now they can better analyze their communication.  Furthermore, the tips they gave to the new hires and the questions they wrote for the sponsor are great resources.  They will mirror the advice given by Dignan, Bovèe, Thrill, and others.  The questions are very useful when working with their foreign contacts when they need help navigating the confusion.

Question for the reader:
This post uses a specific communication style.  Did it feel strange to read such a blog post?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why Grammar is Still Important

The chorus among my colleagues seems to be reaching a nice harmonious tone about grammar.  All the voices seem to say that it's no longer important.  It's all about communication they say, and has simply no place in the Business English course... well, okay with lower levels, sure we need it.  And if it causes a misunderstanding, certainly.

I started listening to this siren song some time ago and began to all but remove grammar from my lesson plans.  I gave some feedback, but gone was the 90 minute lesson on getting all our 'if's and 'would's in the right place.  But over time, I feel the pull of grammar bringing me back and while I'm still not running entire lessons focused on a certain element, grammar is tangible in nearly every lesson.  So, I thought I would spell out a few reasons why it's still okay to teach grammar (even to higher levels) and why we can even learn to love it again.

1.  Grammar is image

We have been watching Cars a lot in my house lately.  Cars and Cars 2 are films from Disney/Pixar about a race car, Lightning McQueen, and his best friend, Tow Mater, a lovable redneck tow truck.  In the second movie they introduce Finn McMissile, a soave British secret agent.

Michael Caine and Larry the Cable Guy. 
Photo of Michael Caine: Harry Wad, both from

Here's a quiz based on these two pictures:
  1. Which man is the voice of the lovable redneck tow truck?
  2. Which man is the voice of the soave British secret agent?
  3. Who uses the sentence... "My apologies, I haven't properly introduced myself."
  4. Who uses the sentence, "Ah!  I knowed you wasn't gonna leave without sayin' goodbye!"
  5. Which image would your learners most like to portray?
My point is that grammar is somewhat like a set of clothes.  Do we want to send our learners into a meeting dressed like Larry the Cable Guy?  This type of appearance probably isn't going to help them persuade others or defend their ideas.  Sure, other NNSs may give them allowances, but having good grammar shows qualities useful in business, namely persistence, hard work, mastery, and attention to detail. 

2.  Without grammar it's not language teaching

The basic truth is that our learners expect teaching in grammar.  It is one of the core aspects they expect in our classes.  Sure they may not want to spend a lot of time listening to the teacher drone on about when to use the past perfect, but grammar is one of the ways they measure their own progress.  Unlike vocabulary, which they may or may not see again in their daily lives, they will recognize grammar.  It also helps the learners battle ambiguity.  Especially in writing, they have fewer doubts, "Is this right or not?"  That is a big confidence boost.

In fact, grammar serves as the key to unlock meaning.  We often ask our learners to try to define unknown words in context.  We ask them to find collocations and lexical chunks.  Without understanding the grammar, they cannot perform these tasks.  For more difficult texts, it can be very difficult for them to even distinguish the core sentence from the accompanying clauses.  Giving them a set of keys to unlock meaning will give them more freedom to understand outside the class room.  Without it, they are limited to the set phrases and functional sentences we give them.  If they aren't used, the learners will struggle.

3.  Grammar is relatively easy to teach

Let's be honest, we can't walk into every classroom every week and be 100% engaged.  Setting up and evaluating skills training can be hard work.  Listening for lexical gaps and absent functional phrases takes immense concentration.  Sometimes we are tired, distracted, or just plain having a rough day.  Identifying and filling grammar deficiencies is much easier to do.  We should certainly try to do more when monitoring, but it's not always possible.

Grammar provides a great way for the teacher to relax a little bit.  We all have a bank of grammar based activities and ideas to draw upon at a moment's notice.  We all have our standard way of teaching the present perfect continuous and passive modals.  Sometimes it does us good to dust those off and have a nice standard grammar lesson.  The learners will get something and the teacher can live to fight another day.

4.  Grammar teaching supports awareness of language

By dissecting the language, the learners are practicing the skill of analyzing what they say and how they say it.  This supports our other training areas.  It shows them that small things can make a huge difference.  It then becomes easier to show them how word choice can change the tone of a sentence.  We can then show them why formal language is different than informal language.  It better enables us to show how discourse markers help the listener to understand.  Etc., etc.

My approach

I continue to listen politely to my colleagues about grammar.  And I will give them one concession,  we need to prioritize which grammatical elements to include.  There are many steps between Finn McMissile and Tow Mater.  We need to think about which elements will help them fit the image they want to portray.

I now include a grammar element in nearly every lesson I have.  Sometimes it is planned based on the text/listening, sometimes it is feedback driven, but it is always there.  It worries me when dismissing grammar in Business English training becomes so common that we take it for granted.  In meetings with other trainers it seems as though we compete at who teaches it the least.  This is not the right approach and is not helping our learners.  But I suspect many of them are secretly teaching it anyway :)

So, learn to embrace it and love it... just don't let it get too passionate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review lesson and tax lesson using authentic materials

The two lessons I taught this morning... both received high praise.


The client is an international tax consultancy.  The lessons are held on-site and the minimalistic luxurious conference room is equipped with a large flatscreen intended for videoconferencing, but accomodates my computer hook up as well.  There are two groups, 90 min once a week.  The first group is lower level (A2-B1) of mostly clerks who conduct more straightforward tax declartions for international clients and then a higher group (B1-B2) which consists mostly of advisors who guide their clients through international tax regulation.  The lesson today for the first group was to review what we had learned.  The follow lesson to the higher group was based on the Germany-US Double Taxation Agreement.

Lesson One - Review

I had just returned from vacation so we when through my selection of photos and discussed what makes a good beach.

Then we began the real lesson...
  • I gave them an envelope filled with the vocabulary words we had seen over the past few lessons.  I keep a running excel list of vocab which I send to them post lesson.  The spreadsheet is open during the lesson and instead of a whiteboard I fill the columns.  To create the cards, I simply paste to word, change the size of the cells, print, and cut out.
  • Then, I asked them to choose 4 colors from a selection of color cards I collected from the hardware store.
  • Next, I asked them to group the words by color.  In order to do this, the learners had to understand the word and explain to their group why it should fit with the color.  In the process they were explaining the meanings of the unknown words.  I stepped in for troublesome words they were avoiding and asked for the pronunciation of other (like exaggerate).  But the rationale was their own.  For example, one group put 'to order' with the caramel color because he envisioned ordering dessert.  Because their office phones have a green button to make a call, both groups placed all the telephone words with green.  The next time we do telephoning, I will probably print the exercises on green paper.  Words from the email lesson tended to be in blue.... hmmm.
  • They then changed groups and had to explain to others how they had grouped the words.  I filled in gaps and answered questions.  By the end, I was confident that we had reviewed and could use most of the words, especially the business specific lexis.
  • We then moved onto a jeopardy game to assess our learning.  I used a free jeopardy game for this and two teams.  It was effective and students like it.  I recommend the site.  Note:  You will have to download the application and the game text file to make sure it works on your computer.  I did not use the online version because I am never 100% certain about connection and I don't like the ads.

    You can find the online game version of the game we played here.
  • To conclude the lesson we reviewed our course plan and expectations and discussed what was working, what they had used in their jobs, and what could be improved.

Lesson Two - Double Taxation Agreements

The second lesson began as the first, with my vacation pictures... but they wanted to chat a bit more comparing Italy and Croatia.  No problem... let them play with the English a bit.

Then the lesson began...
  • Warmer - what is a Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) and why do we need them?
    Here are the discussion questions... this allowed those with more experience to clarify what we are talking about (actually all the participants work with regulations like this).

    Why do taxation agreements exist?
    What flaws are in these agreements?  Give examples.
    Are there any loopholes which can be exploited?  Give examples.
  • Next, I gave them a word cloud from the US-Germany DTA.  The document was available from the IRS website in the US.  I cut and pasted it into wordle and printed to pdf.  I handed out copies of the cloud.  The task was like Taboo.  They had to describe words and their partner had to say which word from the cloud they meant.  This was a risky deep-ending activity and I wasn't sure, but their command of lexis in this discourse community was quite good.  I only jumped in to challenge them a bit and make sure some of the key words were covered.  By the end of the activity their minds were ready for the text.

  • They did not receive the whole text, only the cases included in the treaty (starting page 7).
    Germany US DTA
  • Luckily for me the US-Germany DTA included specific examples for how to apply the treaty.  When I use contracts and formal legal documents in the future, I will search for these examples.  One example reads...
A third-country resident establishes a German company for the purpose of acquiring a large U.S. manufacturing company. The sole business activity of the German company (other than holding the stock of the U.S. company) is the operation of a small retailing outlet which sells products manufactured by the U.S. company. Is the German company entitled to treaty benefits under paragraph 1(c) with respect to dividends it receives from the U.S. manufacturer?

The task was to read the case and check understanding with a partner.

  • Next, the learners were to describe their situation to their 'tax advisor' and find out if they could use the DTA and why.  The 'tax advisors' were given the answers from the DTA.  For example the answer to the case above reads...


The dividends would not be entitled to benefits. Although there is, arguably, a business connection between the U.S. and the German businesses, the "substantiality" test described in the preceding examples is not met.

  • They were having trouble with this task and understanding was not 100% so I gave them a follow-up task.   Explain the case using graphic representation.  Show the investors, subsidiaries, dividend flow, etc.  This produced the outcome I was looking for.  They were better able to explain the situation and why the DTA did or did not apply in this case.  One woman stated during the lesson, "These are exactly like the cases we deal with on a daily basis.  Where did you get these examples?"
  • The surrounding discussion was amazing.  The learners were activating vocabulary.  I was able to make corrections on functional language.  We had reached flow.  In addition, they were linking all this to their previous knowledge and questioning if the US-Germany DTA was really so.  They were learning more than just English.

So... two great lessons this morning.  One a simple review lesson, the second shows the benefits of a good communicative event analysis ("I have to explain the impacts of double taxation") and tapping the discourse community.