Tuesday, November 12, 2013

BESIG Prague Presentation - Assessing Role-Plays and Simulations

To those who attended my workshop at the BESIG Annual Conference, I would like to say again how much I appreciate it.  My jaw dropped when I saw the names of the presenters in the other rooms and I was amazed at such a wonderful turnout.  Thank you.

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.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Communicating Internationally - A Survey

Dear Readers,

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.

Link to survey:

Thank you very much for your help.

Charles Rei

Friday, September 13, 2013

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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

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.


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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Value Chain of Business English Training - Chapter One

There are several parallel conversations going on in Business English training at the moment.  The first is about money.  The second is about qualifications.  The third is materials.  There are certainly other issues, but I’ll limit it to these today.

The purpose of this article is to link these three threads and to give a few signposts out of the circular debate.  The link to all of these lies in business theory.  As Business English trainers, I hope this is familiar, but perhaps the application to our own field is new.

Porter’s Value Chain

Perhaps the most well-known name in business theory is Michael Porter.  In 1985, he presented the value chain, which explains the difference in price between the inputs and output of a business.  I think the clearest graphic of this process is from Wikipedia which shows a notional value chain for a manufacturer.

The business functions in blue are the primary functions of the business in transforming the raw materials into a product and selling that product to generate profits.  The functions labeled in brown support those primary activities and generally do not add value in themselves.  These are also typically the first business functions to be outsourced.  The difference between the cost of running these activities and the final price is the profit margin.  Each firm will have a different value chain, but all will resemble this model.

The Value Chain for Business English Training

Now, let’s take this model and apply it to Business English training.

The raw material of BE is the English language, which is a common good.  It belongs to no one and if you grew up in a native-speaking country you have it free-of-charge.  Indeed, there are enough resources and materials on the Internet that the language is available at no charge around the world.  Therefore, the main value of the trainer is to determine which parts of this massive body of knowledge are needed, organize that information, then transform it into a useful format for learning, mastery, and performance.

Overall, the first three activities are determining what to train, and the last two are how to train.  These primary activities include everything in training from using discourse analysis to determine key functions to elearning.  Additionally, materials development includes more than simply course books and handouts, but also the activities a trainer uses to instill knowledge, mastery, and performance. 

Note: It can be argued that marketing actually adds value but I doubt few trainers will be able to develop a brand with enough mass to considerably change what a client is willing to pay.  For simplicity I have left it as a supporting activity.

Why wages are so low...

Jenny has a CELTA and works at a private language school.  She is given Business English courses and travels to an accountancy for a 90 minute lesson every week.  The school and the client have decided to use a course book for the training.  Jenny supplements the material with some of her own activities and modifies some of the exercises in the book to better fit the needs of the group.  She conducted a short needs assessment at the beginning to find out which parts of the book are more important for the learners.  She is not that familiar with the company but she has read the company’s website and remembers some accounting from a university class she took several years ago.  She is very active reading blogs and articles to find creative lesson plans and activities to improve her teaching.

In the case above, Jenny is only one very small part of the value chain (marked in red).  The other primary activities were done by the course book writers/publisher (they were paid when the book was bought) and the brown support activities were done by the school.

Let's imagine the market price for this type of training is €60 per hour.  If Jenny gets a third of that, she is lucky.  Her limited needs assessment is added value and her addition of supplementary materials helps.  Most likely, she will receive a bit more than her peers at the school who do not do this.  But her professional development is limited to improving her training delivery.  This is admirable, but does nothing to increase her wages.  She is already receiving this portion of the value chain.

Susan has a CELTA and is a freelance trainer.  She started with general Business English courses but then started focusing on finance.  Every two weeks, she attends a local networking event for business leaders in the area.  At one event she meets a partner of one of the local accounting firms.  She talks about her business a little and how she has worked with other firms in the field and has seen good results.  She has developed a corpus of financial English and writes her own materials based on common functions and skills.  Prior to the training, she researches the firm and meets with a few of the partners to conduct a top-down needs assessment.  Then she conducts a bottom-up needs analysis with the participants.  She designs a course proposal and negotiates with the accountancy.  She then develops the materials and conducts the training.  Every month she invoices the firm and sends a progress report to the partners every quarter.

Again for simplicity, let’s assume that Susan is also subject to the same market rate for Business English training at €60 per hour.  But in this case, Susan collects every cent of the value chain.  Additionally, she is developing skills and tools which enhance her ability in other activities.  Over time, she becomes more proficient at billing, reporting, marketing and sales.  She checks on activities and methodology but is more interested in workplace discourse, specific needs in the field of finance, etc.  So, she does not ignore how she teaches, but spends an equal amount of time on what she teaches.

The end result is that Jenny spends three times the amount of time in the training room as Susan.  That does not mean Susan works less, but she is doing different things.  Additionally, Susan is developing skills which will help her earn even more money in the future, whereas Jenny is continually improving an activity she has already tapped (training delivery).

In the next chapter we will discuss the relationship between qualifications and the value chain to see how hitting the books will help increase wages.

The Value Chain of Business English Training - Chapter Two: Qualifications

How qualifications add value...

The ELT community and Business English in particular has rightly made the link between qualifications and earnings, but in the wrong way.  It is useful look at a few qualifications and what they really mean.  

First, the basic qualification to be a teacher is possess more knowledge about something than the learners.  This means that every English speaker in the world is qualified.  There is no way to create a barrier for entry.  In fact, there is probably no other field with a lower barrier of entry.  Providers will always hire from this pool and provide them with everything they need to conduct training.

A qualification demonstrates to clients a certain level of expertise in certain parts of the value chain.

The basic qualifications are a TESOL certificate or CELTA.  This shows a certain ability to conduct training.  In Jenny’s case (see previous post), she able to work for the private language school because of this certificate, probably earns a bit more, and has some more freedom in designing materials and activities.  But in essence, the certificate now really belongs to the school.  They will be able to gain a slightly higher price from the client because they offer a certified trainer.

Now, if we talk about university degrees in (Applied) Linguistics, this demonstrates a deeper knowledge of the subject matter.  The corresponding assumption is that these qualifications improve the ability to determine what part of language to train.  This is certainly valuable as fields like pragmatics emerge within Business English.  But to say that they will immediately translate into higher training rates is a bit exaggerated.  They will only allow the trainer to better identify certain skills needed, divide those skills into sub-skills, and prioritize them.  For example, within the main skill relationship building we have the communication skill of small talk.  One linguistic sub-task of small talk is showing empathy.  A trainer with a degree in Applied Linguistics will be better able to identify this sub-skill and develop linguistic strategies for performing this sub-skill.

If we turn to Education as a field for certification, this demonstrates a deeper knowledge of the how to teach.  This will show that the trainer is an expert in creating learning materials and delivering the training in a way that is easily absorbed.  A degree can be very useful, but it is important to remember that it supports only certain elements of the value chain.  The trainer may design and conduct outstanding training, with high learning and performance results, but which is also only marginally relevant.

The DELTA and MA TESOL could be considered a blend of these two fields in the context of ELT.  They appear to do a better job of improving all aspects of the value chain to a certain degree.

The final qualification would be a degree or certification in a special field, such as law, engineering, or finance.  This will typically help when defining the skills needed.  These degrees solely support the what side of the value chain.  But it is unclear which qualification would be most useful.

When in doubt, ask the customer...

I had a meeting with one of my clients a few months ago and we talked about an ongoing training project I am working on.  He is a manager in procurement and pays my bills.  If he is not happy (either with me or because the participants complain) I will lose my job.

During the meeting I started talking about my approach to training (materials light, maximum feedback, skills focused) and he cut me off. 

“I don’t need to hear about how you do things.  You are the trainer and you know the best way.  I am interested in making sure we are training them things that will help them do their job better.  We aren’t here to teach them ‘English’.  They should bring that with them when they are hired.”

Translation:  I see that you are an experienced and qualified trainer.  I’m assuming you know what you are doing and I have not heard anything to make me doubt that.  For me, the main value is the focus of the training.  Are you training them in skills which are applicable to their daily work, or are you sitting in there talking about grammar?  I’m not interested in how you train, rather what you train.

This client is not alone.  Most of my clients are more worried about the content than the approach.  From the client’s side, the methodology debate is a non-starter.  They do not care if you know Dogme, task-based learning, or the like.  What they really care about is whether you are training them things they can do in their job.  The method is only important in that is achieves results and satisfied learners.

This leads me to believe that qualifications which support needs assessment and skill analysis are more profitable.  There are several examples of this.  Some trainers are doing quite well with a law degree.  Evan Frendo is an engineer and mentioned how useful this has been in a recent interview in Business Spotlight.  On the other hand, ELT specific degrees and qualifications seem to only marginally pay off because they do not necessarily resonate with the client.

This what worries me somewhat about the planned teacher qualification scale being drafted by organizations such as British Council and Göthe Institute.  These scales will be designed based on their business model of teacher, DOS, and  director or on the university system.  In my experience at a private language school, the client was not willing to pay significantly more for a DELTA trainer than a CELTA trainer.  On the other hand, they easily handed over a premium from a trainer with a field specific qualification like a project management certificate or business degree.

In chapter three we will discuss ways we 'give away' parts of the value chain and limit our income.

The Value Chain of Business English Training - Chapter Three: Outsourcing

Outsourcing value...

In the first chapter of this epic post, we discussed the value chain of Business English training.  In the second, we looked at how qualifications can add to that chain.  In this chapter, we will look at how we outsource various elements.  In essence, this is the ‘follow-the-money’ of ELT.

A few years ago, one of the companies I work for decided to outsource their IT services.  As a support activity, it was not directed related to generating value for the company’s customers.  The provider who took over the services basically said, “Look, this isn’t your core business, you aren’t experts in it, and if you let us take it over, we will do it cheaper and faster.”  The company agreed and suddenly all the IT services came from a different company... for a fee.

We do the same thing with our support activities.  I hire a tax consultant to support my operations.  Sure, I could file the monthly VAT returns myself and produce all the financial statements, but that is not my core business and they can do it cheaper and faster.  I hire a part-time secretary to do all my invoicing and billing.  I have outsourced my administration.

We can take this a step further and outsource our marketing, sales, and infrastructure as well.  By working for a language school, we are sacrificing a certain amount of the income.  They control that side of the value chain.


But the real outsourcing comes from using published materials.  For this post, we will ignore the “how to teach” books and instead focus on the learner-centered materials.  Just like the IT example, course book writers and publishers basically say, “We know which skills the learners need, we can break them down into sub-skills, and we can present this knowledge in a useful way.”  In many cases, they are right.  Published materials work, I have no doubt.

However, I have certain reservations about outsourcing my primary value added activities.  I can see that others feel the same way.  Often this comes in the form of half steps.  For example, a trainer may conduct a needs assessment and even go so far as to analyze those needs into sub-skills.  Then they will photocopy a range a published materials to fulfill those sub-tasks.  This effectively cuts the publisher out of the value chain and leaves more for the trainer.  In reality, the school may encourage this behavior because they are actually pocketing the difference.  They are telling the company that they create customized courses (which are sold at a slight premium) but are only paying the trainer for the value added of training delivery.

This is one of the most delightful ironies of the ELT field (Business English included).  Many of the same school directors, directors of study, and teacher trainers who are developing their career to write for a publisher are encouraging or ignoring ubiquitous copyright infringement at their institutions.  But it all makes sense from a business point of view.

The key to this system is the assumption that the client and the learners do not know the difference.  And in many cases they don’t.  However, as someone who writes all of his own material I can say that there is a HUGE difference in value to the customer when you say, “I did a corpus analysis of your field and I wrote this exercise booklet on 40 verbs that are common in your field.”  As long as the materials I write are pedagogically sound and support the sub-skills I am looking to train, they add considerably more value than photocopying published materials.

This weekend the BESIG is hosting a free online conference all around materials.  The talks they have lined up appear to address this issue head on.  I believe that writing materials for clients is one of the greatest values I provide.

The key to outsourcing the value chain is knowing what to leave to others and when.  In general, most companies do not outsource their primary activities.  In Business English training, however, sometimes we may need to focus only on the things we are paid to do.  If I am only allocated the training delivery step, I will expect the school to provide me with a needs analysis, an assessment tool, and materials for the training.

But in reality, there are many trainers taking less pay than the effort they are putting in.  In thenext chapter we will look at how to gain more control of the value chain.

The Value Chain of Business English Training - Chapter 4: Getting Paid

Building your share of the value chain...

We all want to get paid for what we are worth.  In chapter one, we saw how the trainer Jenny had nearly maximized her wages because she was adding only limited value to the training.  In fact, there is a cap on each step in the value chain.  For example, you might do the very best needs assessment ever, but a customer will only pay so much for that step.  You might also be the best materials writer in the world, but there is still a cap.

If we combine this with qualifications, it shows that they are subject to diminishing returns.  In other words, a Master’s in Education will not change my income that much as a trainer because I may have already reached the limit of what customers are willing to pay for materials development (including activities) and training delivery.

So the key is to take over more elements of the value chain, not to continually develop and market one step.  This means the trainer will have to do more work.  But before we look at four ways to increase value added we need to examine a fact about the consulting/training business.

Customers always remember the first price you charged them.
- Joe Rei, Management Consultant

Rates are sticky.  It is extremely difficult to go to a customer and ask for higher rates.  But we can never stop developing our product.  Furthermore, a training product needs testing, review, and improvement before it can be sold.  That leads to the first value building method.

1.  Test something with customer A and sell it customer B

Jenny is running her weekly business course at the accountancy, but she is unhappy with the pay.  She decides to use corpus tools to make her own materials about accounting and the needs she has identified.  She goes out and learns how to use the software and collects the texts.  It takes her many hours of work, but she eventually writes three vocabulary exercises and a role-play based on her data.  She uses the materials in class and sees that there are a few problems.  She corrects them and writes a few more.  She is not being paid for any of this effort.

When the class ends, she gets great feedback and the school wants to use her for another course focusing on financial English.  Jenny speaks with the director and says, “I can develop my own materials for the course.  I’d be happy to show them to you prior to the training.  But this takes considerable effort and I would need to be paid for it.  I believe the customer would be willing to pay for materials if they knew that they were specific to their company.  I think it would be fair to receive the materials budget for this course.”

2.  Take on the responsibility... go freelance

Mike Hogan has talked about going freelance at conferences a few times and he is right on that it is more difficult, more rewarding, and can pay more than using the support of an institution.  This is the path I chose and I love it, but it is not for all.  I also had certain abilities in every step of the value chain before I started out on my own.  I am not a success story yet, but I believe I am on the right track.

When it comes to assuming responsibility for marketing, sales, and product development, a freelancer must be patient and have a certain confidence that sales will come.  I have been turned down for many more proposals and offers than have been accepted.  I have been rejected by far more prospective customers than I have won.  In general, I believe that it will be another 3 to 5 years before I am really able to maximize my value.

3.  Take a share of value from others

This is the traditional money making model in ELT.  Course book writers take a certain portion of the value for every student who uses their book.  Elearning sites charge a fee for their material and delivery.
I know some trainers who have won a customer and then hire other trainers to perform some of the training.  They keep a portion of the income for the sales work and admin side.  They may even keep a larger portion if they conducted the needs assessment and designed the training program.  Private language schools who hire freelance trainers generally follow this model.

This method is simply not for me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

4.  Use synergy gains to increase value

Synergy gains are a business concept for when two companies working together will produce greater value than the sum of working individually.  In this case, I am talking about working with other trainers to ‘bundle’ services which has a higher price than individually.  For example, I worked in the past with a human resources development consultant here in Germany.  She was an expert in outplacement to help employees find a new job when they were laid off.  Her services were typically paid by the company the employees were let go from.  We worked together in special cases to combine her training and support with my English training.  Together we were both able to charge higher rates.

For me, this is the ideal situation.  I am always looking for talented partners who have complementary skills.  By utilizing our various talents, we can approach customers with a larger added value.


At the end of the day, there is little we can do about the business model of Business English training.  The barriers for entry will always be exceptionally low.  And there will always be a place for under-qualified trainers in the marketplace.  I believe the best qualification to differentiate a trainer is something beyond the ELT field (assuming they have at least the minimum teaching certificates).  I also think writing materials is key to adding value to the training and makes a significant impact on clients.  Finally, there are several ways to increase rates within the field, but these methods must follow business principles.  I don't think following an academic career model attracts customer.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Giving Learners Control of Skills Training

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.

Elicited Rubrics

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.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

IATEFL Liverpool - What Business English Can Teach the Rest of ELT

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. 

Customer Service

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.