Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Revisiting the Communicative Event

Another post-Cologne article...

During the workshop, we talked some about customizing training.  But following the discussions within some of the groups, there seemed to be some uncertainty over communicative events.  In general, I thought this idea had spread so far through conferences and blog posts that most trainers understood.  Or maybe it is just so ingrained in my training that I can't see training without it.

Let's look quickly at customization.  We can customize a course/lesson at several levels.

A slide I didn't use in Cologne, but probably should have.
At the top level is the skill (e.g. write a report, lead a meeting).  I don't really see this as customization.  Sure, we can give the skills various priorities and/or remove a skill completely, but this is still course book territory.

Below that is a skill to perform a certain function.  For presentations, that might be to persuade, introduce, report, etc.  Most course books have taken lessons to this level and include different sections for different types of meetings.  This is nice but we're really counting on the fact that the course book author hit the nail on the head.

My default level of customization is on the specific event, which includes contextual information (but is still largely content neutral).  For example, writing emails to request information, making a telephone call to confirm arrangements, etc.

Finally, I will customize to what I call the 'ESP' level which includes content.  This is usually accompanied by more corpus analysis.

If you look through the levels, the assessment criteria change considerably from one level to the next.  Moving to each level requires that the participants have more uniform needs.  My general rule is to customize to the lowest level, and approach the next level outside of the group.  If the client isn't willing to pay for the next level, I stop.

Defining performance objectives

This has a huge impact on defining performance objectives.  If you are designing a course, only write the can-do statements to the appropriate level.  For large groups (hundreds of participants), I typically stop at the second level.  For groups which share a job function or field, I can often get to high frequency events.

The difference between a communicative event and an English situation

I am guilty of often using the terms 'situation' and 'event' interchangeably, but they are decidedly different.  A situation includes one or more communicative events.

For example, a presentation may include several communicative events.

Slide 1 - Inform management on status of a project
Slide 2 - Report on research
Slide 3 - Compare alternatives
Slide 4 - Propose a solution

This presentation may be accompanied by...
- defending an idea
- asking questions of speculation
- responding to factual questions
- eliciting opinions
- adding additional comments to presented information
- summarize an agreed decision
- delegate tasks

These generally look like a classical list of functions from a course book.  The contextual information makes them communicative events.  How many people are in the meeting and who are they?  How much time do you have?  What types of interference (or 'noise') are present?  These factors affect communication style, register, etc.

The same is also true for things like emails.  In well written emails, each paragraph performs a different function.  How you organize those paragraphs and the wording you use depends on the context.

As you can see, we are starting to enter the world of communication skills here.

Does a description of the situation give you the communicative events?

Yes and no.  I still use the needs analysis form I mentioned at BESIG Stuttgart (blog post), but it takes some further questioning and analysis to get to the communicative events.  I typically do this by asking a series of questions to describe the 'steps' of the situation.  I may draw a diagram of the situation on the board and ask about the participants, objectives, etc.

Back to sourcing materials... this is where getting a look at artifacts can be really helpful.  Without question, some background in business really helps in 'visualizing' a situation and dissecting it into its various communicative events.

I have found that there is considerable overlap among communicative events.  This is true among different fields, job descriptions and channel (email, telephone, meeting, etc.).  The interlocutors are generally the same (i.e. the learner communicates with a certain group) and the purpose of the communication is often similar.  For example, adding a comment to a pdf report written by a colleague is often identical to adding a verbal comment in a meeting.  However, if the report/presentation is by a manager or someone external to the company, the language changes.

Is there a list of communicative events?

Not yet.  If there were, it would probably look like a matrix.


We can assume that there are a definite number of functions.  We can also assume that there are definite number of contextual combinations.  Theoretically then, there is a relatively fixed number of communicative events.  It may then be possible to somehow create a database which takes contextual information and matches it with the purpose of communication to spit out the best possible language.

But that is all theory... in my next post we'll look at "Training for the Real World".

Sourcing Materials

This past weekend, I held a workshop with ELTA Rhine on customizing training and materials lights lessons.  During and after the session, it was clear that sourcing materials was an issue for trainers looking to focus on relevance.  Let's dive a little deeper into the topic of materials and examine what we need, why we need them and where we can find them.

Assumption 1 - There is a difference between "talking about business" and "talking to do business".

This is Evan Frendo's concise and clear statement about not only materials, but also about the tasks we ask our learners to accomplish.  It is great for the learners to 'teach us their business', but this falls into the first category and will not accomplish all the training needs.  We have to balance both types of activities.

The problem for trainers is that materials "about" business are much easier to find.  The internet is full of them.  Let's take a simple example.

You are training a group in production and one of your can-do statements is that they can explain the production process.  You decide to use a YouTube video about how Lego blocks are made, mine the video for key language and have the participants give talks describing their production process (maybe even on the shop floor).  It's likely that this is a useful skill, but it does not fully simulate a meeting to discuss changes to refine the production process.  We are a step short of achieving full relevance.  Wouldn't it be nice to have an example of the real meeting?

Assumption 2 - Getting the "real thing" is nearly impossible.

We can hypothesize all we want about recording real meetings and presentations.  The simple fact is that we will probably never get the approval to do it.  Non-disclosure agreements are key part of doing business, but they are only a baseline for trust.  There is still a 'need-to-know' level of integration.

The main reason why recording real meetings is a no-go is because the learners are not lab rats.  They are trying to do business in these situations.  Politics, reputations and personal relationships all come into play in meetings.  It is generally best if we don't ask to record them for 'research purposes'.

Assumption 3 - Real meetings are much different than the recorded models in the course book.

Meetings are messy affairs.  I'm convinced that meetings are the most difficult skill.  Topics appear out of blue, there is so much interference (semantic, cultural, pronunciation, technical, etc.) that its a wonder they work at all.  But for the trainer, the most difficult part is that meetings contain highly detailed information exchange.  For an outsider, it is very difficult to 'script' a meeting and practice it.

Additionally, meetings can be very boring.  There are many books and websites about effective meetings for good reason.  Employees are often justified for hating them.  Even if I did have a recording, I probably wouldn't play it because everyone would be asleep.  Most participants and chairpersons will acknowledge that their meetings could be better, but they probably can't say exactly how they should improve.

Example dialog with a participant:

Me:  How could the meeting be better?
Them:  Some people are giving too much information about their topic and it is not interesting for the group.
Me:  Okay, where is the line?  How much information is too much?
Them:  Well, they should only talk about what has an impact on the others.
Me:  I agree, let's try it... in your area, where is the 'information line'?  What level of information is valuable for the others (including the manager), and what is too much?
Them:  Hmm... good question.  That's difficult to say.

Okay, so what can we do?

1.  Gather artifacts.  Emails and PowerPoint slides are relatively easy to get.  One main constraint is the group setting.  If you have learners from different companies and/or departments, the materials cannot usually be used in class verbatim.  They typically need to be altered to conceal the information.  I will often use emails and slides to create my own 'similar' materials - using the same language, but with different content.  Even if you can't get them digitally, just looking at them is helpful.

I call them artifacts because like a researcher, these are any item which reveals something about communication.  Artifacts fall into two categories - communication itself, and evidence of communication.

Communication itself:
- Emails
- Presentations (the written communication)
- How-to's
- Forms (e.g. change request forms)
- Reports
- Handbooks
- Contracts and other formal documents

Evidence of communication:
- Meeting minutes and agendas
- Presentations (evidence of the verbal part)
- Descriptions of meeting (like for a communicative event needs analysis)
- Diagrams and charts
- Excel spreadsheets
- Workflows and flow charts

While these artifacts cannot always be used to re-enact the exact situation, they will often get you much closer.

2.  Research English in use.  I generally use several sources for this.

First, if you haven't read Almut Koester's books on workplace discourse, now is the time.  I also recommend Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting and Five Dysfunctions of a Team because they are narratives with great dialog from meetings.

Second, I have used transcripts from meetings to identify some key language.  If you enter "meeting transcripts" into Google, you will find many transcribed sessions from government meetings, hearings, presentations, etc.  I don't use them in class because they are horribly boring, but there are some great phrases.  The problem with these is that they are too organized.  Real meetings are generally more chaotic.  For emails, Evan Frendo has recommended the Enron corpus and it looks promising.  Sadly, I haven't had the chance to go through it.

Third, I use my own life.  I have meetings, write emails, make telephone calls, etc.  I have used my inbox several times in training as the basis for language work.  I collect phrases and vocabulary from meetings I have with other trainers, clients, etc (even if the meeting is in German).

A note about Listening: Collins English for Business by Ian Badger.  This book made quite a splash a few years ago for its recording of real people.  I use it and I like it.  Sadly, there are too few examples of dialog.

3.  Refine role-plays and simulations.  

It is a good idea to ask the participants how the rehearsed situation differs from the real thing.  Inevitably, they will give you a list of things you can't really change, such as accent.  However, they may also give you ideas for your next role-play.  For example, if I get the feedback that some people in the meeting speak too quickly with higher vocabulary, then I might participate in the next meeting and try to fulfill that role.

So, I admit that sourcing materials/resources for customized training is not easy.  But I guess that is the nature of the beast.  If sourcing materials were easy, it wouldn't be customized training, would it?

One final note - observing real meetings is really the best we can do.  I am lucky enough to have a project in which that is possible.  But I understand that this project is different.  It has strong management and participant support is limited to a specific team with in a department.  I have offered to observe meetings in other projects to no avail (after all, you have to get the buy-in from all the participants).  If you find the opportunity... take it.

Friday, August 8, 2014

ELTA Rhine Workshop - Solving Challenges

On Saturday, August 23rd, I will be leading a workshop with ELTA Rhine in Cologne to talk about some of the difficult aspects of teaching/training Business English.


When I completed my CELTA I was always uncomfortable with the idea that the method was hidden from the students.  I had the feeling that we should work as wizards behind the curtain, leading participants through a series of pedagogically sound activities.  Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with transparency in the classroom.  I feel it helps me build a better relationship with the participants, provides space for feedback, gives them more control over their learning and may even help them become more autonomous learners outside the class.

The same is true for workshops like the ELTA Rhine event in a few weeks.  I want the event to reflect how I train and I want the participants be involved in developing the content.

So, with two weeks to go before the event, let me outline what is going on behind the scenes.

Step 1 - Gather Information

This step is currently under way.  I am using several resources.  Questions I have sought to answer:

What topics and speakers has ELTA Rhine covered in the past or will cover in the future?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Website

Unquestionably, the answer to this question makes me a bit nervous.  The list of speakers reads like a who's who list of ELT authors.  These are the people at conferences I am trying to introduce myself to with the hope that they might remember my name.  As for the topics, I see that the events have covered a wide range of topics but that there is room for discussion where the rubber meets the road of Business English.  There is also a mix between the novel and the classic.

Decision:  I don't want to cover areas which have already been discussed.  I also don't want to cover something which someone else can do better.

What does the audience look like?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator and Participant Survey

Everyone knows that the key step in preparing a talk/workshop is to understand the audience.  To achieve relevance, we need to understand the audience's situation and expectations.  First, I spoke with the events coordinator to get an idea of attendees.  Are they mostly freelancers working in companies?  Do they work in schools or universities with prescribed curricula?

I decided to augment this information with a participant survey to get critical information about the audience.  The first question of the survey is designed to get 'demographic' information.  The second question is designed to gauge the emotional response to Business English.  The third question is set up as open response to get an idea of teaching styles and ideas for how they view Business English.

Decision:  I am speaking to an experienced group and we have much in common.  I will share the results of the survey in the workshop (they are anonymous).  A workshop in its true form (creating value/intellectual property) is the best fit because the collective knowledge is greater than mine alone.

What topics are most important to the participants?
Resource:  Participant Survey and Social Media Monitoring

A common pitfall is assuming that certain topics are important simply based on the audience profile.  For example, it may be tempting to think that if the audience is made up of freelancers then administration skills and tips are interesting.  Likewise, if the audience uses a coursebook, then maximizing published materials would be the best topic.  But when dealing with experts, they have probably already found the answers to these questions.  The same is true in my classes.  In a group of marketing people, talking about presentations for the 10,000th time is not really that helpful.

So, I wanted to do a mini 'needs analysis' to find out what topics are important to the audience.  What do they need/want?  For the survey, I created a ranking question for the participants to order which topics are most important.  The topics were a mix of topics I feel comfortable speaking about in front of experts and listening to social media/blogs.

Decision:  The results have been eye-opening for sure.  As of now, "Designing Customized Courses" is well in front, with "Leading Materials Light Lessons" in second place.  "Handling ESP Needs" and "Needs Analysis" are bringing up the rear.  This is not what I expected.  I'm very happy that I didn't choose a topic I wanted to talk about... I probably would have wasted everyone's time.  I won't divulge which topic it was. :)

What are the constraints?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator

There are constraints in every situation.  In particular I am looking at audience size, time and training aids.  First, we have 2.5 hours to discuss content.  The workshop is 3 hours but I will have to factor in a break and socializing.  Second, it appears that the event will be fairly intimate (less than 50 attendees).  This means that going into more detail will be possible.  Third, I am thinking about whiteboards, technology, table set up, etc.  I am still thinking about how to augment the training aids to reach the goal.

Step 2 - Creating 'Prepared Flexibility'

Once I have the information, it is time to starting creating a framework for the event.  I wrote a blog post a while back that "I Only Have One Lesson Plan" and that still holds true (I delete or revise my blog to reflect changes.).  I want to find the right balance between control and chaos.

So first, I am outlining the goal of the workshop.  In this case, the goal is to create a product which collects and organizes the collective knowledge of me and the audience.  I am still not sure what form this product should take.  Perhaps it is a handbook (Word document), perhaps it is a slide deck... maybe a video.  I am not sure yet.  But my goal is to hand ELTA Rhine a prepared product to deliver value to their members, first and foremost to the participants.

To do this, I am working on several things.  First, I am dissecting the needs/wants to figure out what I want to say.  Can I break this down into "Three Steps" or "5 Tips"?  For example, if customizing courses remains the main focus, I analyze the process into several topics areas:
- Recognizing decision points in class (where are the opportunities to improvise and customize?)
- Performance-based training (relating to test-teach-test for skills)
- Identifying language gaps and skills gaps in participant performance
- Avoiding the "hard Business English" trap and driving our students away (e.g. writing reports) - The making them eat their broccoli problem.
- Assessing resources for customization, taking far away content and adapting it to a customized need

This step includes creating slides, thinking about vignettes and documenting activities from the past.

Another step is to plan for contingencies.  Because I am giving up control to the audience, I want to be prepared for unexpected events.  I will start with known issues.  Some people have dominant personalities.  They might wish to dominate the session or a group.  What will I say to that person?  Someone will ask a fundamental question which brings my entire approach into question.  How will I deal with that?  Perhaps a participant will contribute the "TED Tip".  This is the activity, tip or resource which everyone already knows.  What will I say to help them save face but also move the discussion further?  Finally, how will I handle external issues like dry markers, a hot room, late attendees, etc.?

Finally, which activities will support the goal, deliver my message and promote productive discussion during the workshop?  This is where is all comes together.  I will devise a list of workshop activities.  I will think about what materials I need to reach the goal.  For example, right now I am designing an "Activity Description Sheet" for participants to fill out as the discussion evolves.  The sheet will be a simple form which documents successful activities.  This form will help me create the final product.

Step 3 - Refine and Rehearse

A common mistake is to take the list of activities and create a final plan.  I will not sit down and prescribe which activities will go where.  I will keep the entire list in mind and select the most appropriate during the workshop.  However, I will create a framework within the constraints.

So far, I have divided the session into various time blocks. (Grammar note for teachers:  I originally wrote that sentence in the past simple, but I changed to the present perfect for British sensitivity.)  I have a general idea of how I will organize the participants.  I also have a pretty clear idea about how I will collect knowledge and transform it into useful information.  I am creating the slides to express my message.  I have a plan for topics which are not covered due to constraints.  I have a list of 'challenge questions' to push the audience.

Next, I will rehearse the workshop.  I will stand in my office and give the workshop... in real time (I will actually rehearse what I am doing during group work for the 3 hours).  I will rehearse the contingencies and I will make sure that the various possible activities are time neutral - meaning they can be replaced without affecting the constraint.  I will rehearse collecting ideas.  I will assess the rehearsal based on the audience profile and survey responses.  Additionally, I will focus on the instructions.  I will rehearse giving the instructions for each task.

This rehearsal will continue all the way up to the event... on the train to Cologne... in the taxi from the train station... in the few minutes before the event.  The goal of the rehearsal is to be completely comfortable with the chaos of giving up control.  Inevitably, the participants will surprise me... but hopefully I can rehearse 90% of the contingencies.

Yes, this is the same as my training.

Back to revealing the wizard behind the curtain... I have recently pulled it back even further in the context of socializing.  My participants often say they need small talk and socializing (I distinguish the two).  They are also amazed at how easy it is for me to conduct socializing and assume it is a native speaker thing.  I now deal with the fact that the language is not the constraint for socializing, it is cultural and personal.

I recently said to participants (in a group).

We have talked before that trust is built on competence and character.  We also know that building personal relationships is important for making communication work.  The same is true for us.  I want you to trust me and I think a personal relationship will make learning easier.

When I came here today, I thought about you.  I thought about your daughter because you said she was preparing for her A-Levels.  I thought about the small talk.  I said to myself, "I should ask about her daughter."  I thought of sentences to ask like "So, how did the A-Levels go?"

Joachim, you told me last time that you were planning your honeymoon.  I came prepared with questions about your honeymoon.

How did that feel for someone to remember what you told them and ask about it?

So, in the spirit of the workshop... how can you make this an activity?  Would you like to write a comment?

Planned flexibility... the method of the workshop and perhaps a few tips for trainers.  If you haven't registered and you'll be in the best city in Germany on August 23rd, please come.  I can't promise excellence, but I'll do my best.








Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Business English Training is like a Smart Phone

I had a discussion  recently with a fellow trainer about drafting and using performance objectives (can do statements).  In the discussion, I used the simile of a smart phone, but I did not really have my thoughts in order.  So here is a clearer discussion.

Anyone who works in marketing these days will tell you that we have moved from the era of mass production to the age of mass customization.  Product managers and marketers are continually trying to find ways to create products which support the individual needs or wishes of consumers while at the same time retain the benefits of serial production.

Few products demonstrate the power to mass customization more than the smart phone.  A smart phone by itself has relatively limited value and does not really differ functionally than its dumb phone ancestors.  It makes phone calls, it saves phone numbers, it can transmit and receive data (i.e. internet) and it hosts a range of utility functions like a calculator and alarm.  Perhaps the only significant addition is a GPS antenna.

Instead, the true power of the smart phone is ability to customize the functionality with apps.  "There's probably an app for that," is no small statement about the power of the device.  The apps on my phone are probably very different than yours and our phones likely reflect our priorities, lifestyles and needs.  We may have the same model phone, but we have completely unique products.

What can you tell about me from my suggestion list?
So let's take a closer look at smart phones and how they relate to training.  I tend to think of the CEF levels as the model of phone - the processor speed, the connectivity rate, the memory, the basic operating system, etc.  A lower performance phone will not run as many apps or runs them very slowly much like a level learner has very limited flexibility in communication.  By comparison, the latest iPhone will run pretty much anything on the market and perform multiple functions simultaneously, much like an advanced learner.

Naturally, there are some basic functions every learner must be able to perform in English just like a phone must have a calculator, an alarm, a calendar, an SMS function and so on.  These are universal utilities which come with the operating system.  There is no customization and they are standard.  I generally think of A1 and A2 as the operating system levels in which I try to install simple functions like introductions, writing a simple email, using basic vocabulary and grammar, etc.  But once we have installed the OS, we can start inserting contacts and appointments, as well downloading some apps.

There are now over 1 million apps on Google Play and even more on iTunes, so the possibilities are endless.  I see three levels of apps.  First are the mainstream apps like Facebook, Skype and Adobe Reader.  These reach a large audience and typically perform routine functions.  In business English there are similar language items which nearly all learners will need.  For example, writing emails for request, giving opinions in a meeting and some general business vocabulary are fairly standard.  These areas are typically covered in course book, but sometimes the books go too far.

The second group of apps contains 'conditional apps'.  These are only useful for people who meet certain criteria but they may also be very popular.  For example, the Sparkasse (a consumer bank) app has over 1 million downloads, but only by Sparkasse customers.    In business English, these 'conditional apps' are the industry or job field skills.  Sales representatives tend to need more socializing, greeting visitors, talking about products and making persuasive presentations.  Accountants need more finance vocabulary and reporting financial results.  Customer service reps need more troubleshooting, telephoning and giving instructions.

Finally, there are the highly individual apps which reflect your lifestyle, personality and priorities.  The Lady Pill Reminder app is probably only for women using birth control (I wonder how many boyfriends/husbands have it as well).  On my phone, I have the baby phone app so that I can still visit the hotel bar with my wife while on vacation.  I am one of only a few thousand with the 1.FC Nürnberg app for my favorite football team.  I have the pronunciation app for work and a time keeper app to record my hours per client.  Although they may not be among the top 1000 in downloads, these are extremely useful.  The same is true for business English, working on language to fit a very specific situation is often the most useful for the learners.

Useful for freelancers?
I draw a few lessons from this metaphor.  The key lesson for me is refining the role of the trainer.  First, a trainer needs to know the 'app store' inside and out.  They need to know what is available and what the different functions are.  The trainer not only helps install and run the software, they also serve as the "Recommended for you" function.

The second lesson is in course design.  The farther the developer is from the end-user, the more general the course should be.  Imagine buying a smart phone with a bunch of apps you do not want, do not need and cannot use.  The same is true for selling 'packaged can do statements'.  Minecraft may have more than 5 million downloads, but that does not mean I want it.  While packaging course objectives is easy, it is not mass customization.  Also, if the course is stuffed with required functions, the trainer will find that the student's memory is full and they can't install the truly useful stuff.

The third lesson is that general to specific is not always the best way.  Smart phone users often download highly specific apps before the general ones because of their priorities.  Do not be afraid to train communication and language non-linearly.

The final lesson is from programming.  App developers write code in functional blocks.  Each bit of code performs a specific function like initializing the data receiver.  When they write apps, they will often copy, paste and modify these blocks for compatibility.  The same is true for activity types and exercises.  Two very different lessons and courses can include copy and paste parts (with slight adjustments).  A good programmer always documents their functional blocks (nothing is more frustrating to a programmer than undocumented code), so a trainer should keep their activities neatly documented and organized.  But, they should also keep in mind that using the activity verbatim almost always results in a compatibility bug.

So, I will leave it to you to design your own software.  It is not an easy task.  But as I sit at this cafe watching everyone tapping away on their phones, I can see that customization is not only possible, but the new expectation.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pre-experienced and Experienced Learners - Thoughts from Graz

I have been giving presentations and writing blog posts about in-company training for the last several years.  Especially with the presentations, I often have problems trying to fit the content to the audience.  The problem is that I am facing two separate market segments... in-company trainers (often freelancers) who typically have much greater scope in determining needs, selecting/creating materials and delivering training.  But also in the audience are the Business English teachers and lecturers who have less control over the learning objectives, resources and methods.  Additionally, they face drastically different challenges concerning learner motivation, class size and assessment/reporting.  Not having experience operating in such a formal structure, I'd like to pass on some thoughts on what I see as those students enter the workforce and perhaps reflect on where I could see changes in institutional teaching.

Despite being in-company, I actually receive many pre-experienced learners.  My training is often aligned with the company's on-boarding program and the majority of new participants are in their first days or weeks at the company.  It is also normal for me to get participants who do not use English in their jobs yet, but it is coming.  In these cases, I feel I can relate somewhat to the challenges teachers face with pre-experienced learners.

I can draw several conclusions from what I see as these participants enter my training.

1.  Learners who had an English course which was aligned with their field of study had great advantages over those who only had a general Business English class.

2.  Motivation was much higher for learners who clearly understood that a) English would certainly be a integral part of their job and b) being able to conduct their job in English would be a competitive advantage for career progression.  Those who lacked this awareness were surprised by the reality of a bilingual working environment and suffered lower self-confidence.  They often had negative feelings toward improving their language.

3.  If an institution taught English as a practical skill, their graduates were much better prepared.  If the school treated English as a theoretical concept, the graduates were largely unable to adequately perform their tasks in L2.  This mindset was often reflected by the teaching methods and content.  Practical teaching focused heavily on production activities throughout the teaching, not just at assessment.  Unsurprisingly, those who emerged from a more theoretical approach were often overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of the language.

Let me give you examples of things going wrong.  You might be surprised at how often I am faced with entry-level accountants who cannot recognize the basic vocabulary from a balance sheet (almost zero new graduates).  Likewise, I routinely meet fresh-faced employees in the mechanical engineering field who cannot understand even the simplest terms like bearing, dimensions, or bolt.  I see this across fields with the exception of software.  I suspect that is because software terms have been developed in conjunction with the spread of English, they have an advantage because they often do not have L1 equivalent words.  However, you can see how wholly unprepared some of these learners are for performing their job in English.

Of course, I do not want to lump all educational institutions together.  There are many very good programs which are producing excellent international employees.  But the results appear to be hit or miss.  The one area in Germany which seems to be particularly poor is the apprenticeship path.  And this leads to a few observations about the content-need mismatch.

First, students and apprentices need English at a tactical level.  If course books reflect the nature of educational teaching, the content is far too managerial and strategic.  Even university graduates are entering the work force at a low level in the organization structure.  Most English communication at this level is problem oriented.  Companies have automatic processes/workflows and IT systems to handle routine tasks.  If everything runs as it should, very little communication is needed.  However, when the system breaks down, communication is needed to get back on track.  For example, missed deliveries, higher costs, missing files, incomplete reports, etc. are at the heart of communication.  New employees are not generally making business plans, discussing how to foster entrepreneurship in the company, devising a market campaign, or discussing who to promote and why.  Even among high-flyers, the company will not hand this much responsibility to a new employee from day one.  They typically have a separate development path in the company, but still deal with tactical matters at the beginning.

Second, far more English communication occurs internally or semi-internally than with customers.  Evan Frendo is right on the money with this observation and I cannot stress this point enough.  Most companies have strict communication filters between themselves and the customer.  In many cases, all external communication must go through a very small team in the corporate communications, marketing or sales departments.  There are a few exceptions to this, but they are all highly specialized.  For example, the customer service department speaks with customers, as will the accounting department in case of wrong invoices.  By and large however, entry-level employees are kept at arms length from the customer.  More English communication occurs semi-internally.  In this case, the employee needs to work with long-term suppliers or distributors.  While the communication is often between two companies, they work together so often and so deeply that they could almost be regarded as colleagues.  But by far, the most communication is internal - from department to department.  It is generally the consequence of off-shoring and outsourcing which are also the main reasons why English is needed so badly at lower echelons in the company.  A typical situation might be an email between the quality auditor in the home country and the factory in Romania.  Another example is the software developer in India and the tester in Germany.

Third, communication is highly transactional, but... it is far more complex that "Could you please...?"  I hear all the time from new participants that they want to improve "small talk".  When I scratch beneath the surface however, I find that what they really want is the ability to build relationships with their international contacts to ease the transactional nature of business.  They want to build trust with their global colleagues and suppliers.  The second aspect of communicating in companies is that students enter a high-context culture.  Office discourse is so difficult because of the body of shared knowledge, differing objectives and the hierarchical structure of decision-making and information flow.  While the email may be a simple request for clarification on the surface, the context can quickly land the employee in hot water.  I'm not sure this second aspect can be dealt with in education, but the teacher may want to keep it in mind.

So, what do I recommend?

1.  Create a balanced English program - one-third general English, one-third general Business English, one-third field specific "ESP Lite".  General English is important and under represented in the secondary schools (at least in Germany).  From the ages of 12-16, English is taught resembling CLIL.  Looking through the state school books, there is a chapter on Australia, the Big Apple, and reading about Obama's election.  I can distinctly remember helping a friend's child try to learn the words, abolition, underground railroad, whip, and quilt.  Can you imagine the topic?  I don't want to exaggerate, nor do I wish to insult school teachers at all.  I merely want to point out that some of the content prior to entering university is of marginal value in business socializing.  Also, by the time they enter the workforce years later, they often lack the simplest vocabulary to discuss their weekend.  I think ongoing general English learning would be very helpful.  I also think that general Business English is helpful as a foundation up to the intermediate level.  The problem with higher levels is the content of the course book.  Course books are generally organized by field:  one chapter on HR, one on projects, one on marketing, etc.  This works up to B1-B2 but then they become overly specific in the fields.  I think "ESP Lite" would be extremely helpful.  This will help the students prepare for the next steps.

2.  Take a step back from standardization.  I understand that a certain level of standardization is needed in an institutional environment.  However, I also observe that university level Business English teachers are an incredibly talented and professional group.  When I present at BESIG conferences, this is the group which makes me the most nervous because of their knowledge, expertise and experience.  I periodically lead standardized training with larger classes, but I always work under a very general set of can do statements.  Within the statement is enough room for me to maneuver.  I am able to conduct a modified needs analysis to refine the training.  The more detailed the can do statement, the more we rely on the institution's needs analysis.  In others words, the can do statement (and thus the assessment) had better be relevant or else we are wasting everyone's time.  I'm just thinking out load, but do these expert university teachers really need a step-by-step lesson plan with page numbers and activity types?

3.  Fortify the feedback loop from practice to content.  I currently have the suspicion from my pre-experience learners that many need analysis are conducted in Oxford, Cambridge or in the halls of Pearson Education.  Instead, I recommend shortening the feedback loop by drawing on a few resources.  Most institutions have a career placement program to help students transition to careers.  Where are graduates going?  What are they doing?  If a job is unfamiliar, read example job descriptions or visit the US Department of Labor Occupational Handbook for more.  Another idea is to build a relationship with HR groups and/or in-company Business English trainers in the area to get feedback.  For example, did you know that presentations are often much different in technical fields?  First, PowerPoint slides need more text because they must be clear without a verbal presentation.  The slide decks can travel far in the company without any meeting or spoken communication at all.  Second, verbal presentations are typically less than 5 minutes long and the most common visual aid is an Excel spreadsheet.  A presentation given in 'ELT format' is completely irrelevant.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear that my observations about the challenges in Business English teaching cannot possibly reflect every institution and every teacher.  However, I have questions based on the number of participants I see entering the workforce without the ability to conduct even the most routine tasks in their field.  Their brains are full of valuable knowledge and ideas, but they are locked behind the bars of language and skills.  I hope that my thoughts add something to the pre-experienced vs. experience learner discussion and I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Three steps for improving ESP training

I've always been proud of my customer satisfaction figures.  Naturally, when I conduct my appraisals of Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels, I continue to see a slight decrease in results from response to results.  But, what has recently impressed me was how the whole satisfaction curve is starting to shift higher.  Greater engagement, faster application, higher results across the board.  On the emotional side, it is great to feel the customer mindset change from, "It's great training," to "It's absolutely vital training."  On the business side, referrals are up and sustainable success appears within reach.  It's inappropriate to boast, but I am genuinely proud that changes I made in training style and course design are starting to make a difference.  I'd like to describe a few of those changes.

Anyone who has read this blog or met me will know how passionate I am about relevance in training and using performance-based training methods.  In practice, this often means using framework materials.  Taken to the next step, it means using only pens, paper, whiteboards and the internet.  The trouble with approaching training with such limited resources is that you are restricted to the collective memory of the learning team (me + the participants) and what we can immediately resource using the internet.  This poses a distinct challenge for handling ESP situations in which I am not an expert.  Google only handles ESP at a general level, and the participants doubt the ability of the trainer to understand the complexity of the topic.  So here are the simplified steps to ESP.

Step 1 - Get the critical mass of knowledge

Yes, that is right... research.  I know you have heard this before, but it actually takes less effort than you realize.  Here are few ideas for researching an ESP topic.

1.  The standard - have them present it to you in class.  No articles, no handouts, just a whiteboard and a marker.  "Explain this to me."  Check Evan Frendo's blog for an idea on how to do this.  Or simply draw this on the board.



2.  Have sticky fingers - someone brings up a concept or process in class, ask them to send you a diagram of it.  Visit them at their desk... collect artifacts posted around their cubical/office.  Can't take copies or get the information?  Contact your training coordinator to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  I've never had a client refuse... they want this level of relevance.  If a participant talks about a supplier/customer in class, bring it up on the internet and bookmark it.

3.  Text mining - Your chances of piercing the discourse community without text mining and corpus analysis are close to zero.  If you are relying on the ESL publishing industry for this, all I can say is good luck.  My dual language dictionary for engineering is twice as thick as my Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.  There isn't the time here to go into corpus analysis and finding key words or clusters, but it doesn't take that long.  I recently encountered the need for vocabulary around air-cooled systems.  It took me less than an hour to find 200 key words from 'fins' to 'obstruct'.  

Where can you get texts for mining?  Start general... wikipedia.  Then move to specifics by visiting suppliers/providers.  Copy and paste product descriptions into a concordancer for key terms (usually nouns) and scan the text for verbs.  But remember, the goal here isn't to immediately create materials... that step will come.

4.  Use professional associations - Nearly every specialty field has a professional association attached to it.  Want finance?  Go to IFRS.  Want software service?  Go to ITIL.  Want project management?  Go to PMI or search PRINCE2.  Read a bit.

Remember, you don't need to be an expert, just have enough knowledge for the next step.


Step 2 - Demonstrate your knowledge constantly

Okay, so you have some research and knowledge.  You know some key words, a few acronyms and you have a general idea of how theory works.  Now it's time for the next step, use your knowledge.

Situation:  I need to teach my participants in the software department the difference in meaning between will, going to and the present continuous.  For practice, I can:
a) bring in an illegal photocopy from Murphy with sentences like, "Mary ___________ (attend) the party on Friday."
b) bring in an illegal photocopy of a technical English coursebook with sentences like, "Hans ________ (investigate) the bearing failure next week."
c)  write "I _________ (finish) installing the new compiler version." on the whiteboard.
d)  create a two part controlled practice exercise in which participant A creates sentences, then a gap fill for participant B.
Which should I use?

You probably guessed it right, option C or D.  The materials-light approach allows us to continuously create our own example sentences and relevant exercises.  We picked up the key words from our text mining.  We have a pretty clear idea of functions (i.e. grammar) from our needs analysis, diagnostic test and 'explain it to me' activity.  The goal here is three-fold.  We need to teach them the material so they can notice it, test it and use it.  We need to provide them with clearly relevant language input.  And finally, we need to demonstrate that we understand their discourse community for the next step.


Step 3 - Keep pushing them into more detail

In the past I stopped at step 2.  That generated good results, but there was a limit.  It wasn't enough.  Then I accidentally learned that framework materials were the key.  One of my favorite frameworks was the fish bone diagram which is used to analyze the possible root causes of a problem.  In general, the head of the 'fish' is the resulting problem and then then you add possible causes and contributing factors (a term from text mining) into the diagram.  I typically used this framework for could have, might have, etc.  But, then I figured out that as we drove the diagram deeper, the participants lost the vocabulary.  Even more troubling, it wasn't vocabulary which would appear in text mining.

This diagram led to all kind of activities...
1.  Vocabulary, of course... you have internet right?  Don't forget to check the professional association for the right term.
2.  Functions... you can take the results and build them into whatever is relevant.
3.  Skills... most problems are larger than one person and emails for request work perfectly here, meetings, too.
4.  Materials development... check off the words they know from your key word list and make materials within their zone of proximal development.

So then I tried other types of diagrams, like mind maps.  With a financial/tax/legal English client, we now have a working mind map over 10 levels deep as part of a PBL task.  Just keep pushing them for more detail.  As my Germans say, "Ach... die Wörter fehlen."  (Oh... the words are missing.)  But this is exactly my point.  In their discourse community everything general is already understood.  We need to get to the detailed tit-for-tat of their community.  Without research and without demonstrating understanding, step 3 will never happen.

But pushing them into more detail is the difference between great training and training they can't work without.



Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Journey in Training Methods

I received some constructive criticism about my post on Business English in 2014 and it sent me into reflection.  One of the points was that we do have a working methodology for Business English training.  The author was promoting a BE certification course which I cannot currently endorse.  This is not to say certification courses (including the one the author promoted) are bad, just that I cannot clearly judge the value from the marketing material.  I am always a bit skeptical of business models which leverage the value chain (i.e. profit from teachers/trainers).  You can read more about this in my post about the value chain.

I continue to believe that existing methodologies of BE training are unsuitable to the realities of our clients.  It is helpful here to reflect on the methods I have tried and the results I have found.

Welcome to ESL!

I was politely indoctrinated in the communicative approach.  My CELTA course was at the Berlin School of English.  I had excellent teacher trainers and a wonderful education.  They taught me how to effectively survive a course.  There is no doubt in my mind that it was extremely helpful.  But, I took the good with the bad.  I learned that ESL lessons have a specific structure (generally according to Jeremy Harmer).  I learned how to manage time, select activities and how to create space for expression.  I also learned how to worship publishers and how to professionally photocopy.  Occasionally, I still find the citation strips of paper stuck in my library of course books, and I clearly remember how I broke the paper cutter at my first employer from overuse.

It was a valuable experience and I am thankful to have had it.  But it also became clear that it didn't work exactly as advertised.

I was immediately placed in Business English because of my background, my personality and I looked good in a tie.  But when I tried the methods from my CELTA, something was missing.  First, course books work on a grammar syllabus.  I haven't found one which doesn't (despite their claims).  If you know one... please let me know.  They work on a grammar syllabus because the CEFR is grammar based.  I'm sure that the authors of the CEFR would disagree but the words "routine" and "everyday" appear quite often in the lower levels.  In practice, books still take a grammar-based approach (typically under the cover of functions).

You're in the Army Again...

I realized that ESL wasn't working.  I was happy because I always knew what to teach - ESL told me.  But I wasn't really making a difference.  So, I made the transition to performance-based training.  I was well aware of tenants of PBT from my time in the army (see my post Lessons Learned from the Military).  Basically, we looked at the expected performance, broke it into concrete steps and then we trained and tested it until the performance met the standard.

This required a change in needs analysis and assessment (I have posted about this transition often).  I made the switch and things were good.  I could clearly identify the skills gap and train to fill it using ESL-structured blocks.  Performance and confidence improved dramatically.  My students reported exceptional improvement.  I was training to task using ESL-structured lessons.  But then things began to change.

Bite the Dog

The problem with all of this was that it was taking too much time.  I wasn't profitable.  I could not sustain a fully needs-based course.  It took 45 minutes to think about and prepare an hour of training.  My blended approach of fully needs based (customized) training with ESL teaching techniques generated much higher progress and high customer satisfaction and progress, but was still unsustainable.  Then I discovered Dogme which essentially said that if I could spontaneously create pedagogical activities, I was good.

I embraced and switched my focus from planning to recording and reviewing what happened in the lessons.  My post I Only Have One Lesson Plan is the essence of that approach.  It works, no question for me.  I saw immense progress, validated by real world performance, and my clients were extremely happy.  I was now incorporating everything into my training... the communicative approach, performance-based training and Dogme.  But then it changed...

The Patient has Complications

With greater customer satisfaction, I began to get closer to the organization and the real needs of the learners.  Suddenly, I had jumped into a deeper pool than I had imagined.  The problems were glaring.  It wasn't the language which was holding things back, it was cultural and communication skills.  In other words, speaking better English was not equal to higher efficiency.  In some cases the bottleneck was the language, but often it was only a contributing factor.

I remember speaking with some BESIG members a few years ago that our clients often equated a communication problem with a language problem.  The simple fact is that in the mind of the client language = communication.  I feel my mandate is to solve communication problems with a focus on language.  But as I moved, the situation became more and more complex.

Everything is Nothing

So, here I was... faced with an universe of methods and ideas.  I needed to teach the English language through the communicative approach, clearly understand the performance gap, let the learners direct the training and understand the real barriers to communication.  The result was not good.


  • The ESL approach is long, boring and often useless.  Following a prescribed set of activities may be useful for mastering certain concepts, but we often don't have the time to fully complete the activities or the learning objective does not match the need.  The ESL approach is overly sterile and reflects a notional reality.  
  • The communicative approach is right in creating a communication gap, but what happens when communication is no longer a problem (higher levels)?  ESL doesn't really have an answer to the image needs of BE students other than restrictive language exercises.
  • Performance-based training works great with the communicative approach as long as there is a performance gap.  In other words, it is nice as long as there is a clear need.  It doesn't work when the need is reached or when the learner is striving for an intangible ability.  Then we have to revert to something like the CEFR.
  • The trainer cannot sustain Dogme for more than a 50 hours of training.  It works great in short-term courses.  Dogme relies on the immediate recognition of need and spontaneous input and task creation to fill the gap.  I have difficulty keeping such a variety of task contingencies in mind.  The result is repeat task types which nullify the entire approach.
  • Dogme kills vocabulary development.  The most critical piece of feedback from my learners is that I do not help them produce new vocabulary.  I have tried my best through review and in-lesson note taking to improve this aspect, but vocabulary retention is still less than 10% per lesson.  ESL methods and course books are better at this.  It is also a vital part of their needs.
  • Office communication is unbelievably complex.  I have had the chance to read countless authentic emails, documents, reports, etc. as well as observe meetings and telephone conferences.  There are pragmatic, semantic and cultural issues at every turn as well as linguistic.  I have no doubt that clients attempt to solve communication problems with language training.
Conclusions

First, I think the complexity of our mandate is higher than our clients realize.  I sincerely believe that we are hired to facilitate communication not just that someone masters the Past Perfect.

Second,  I do not think existing ESL methods (including existing ESL-derived BE teaching methods) fulfill this need.  ESL prescribes a certain learning plan which does not fit with the immediate or medium-term needs of the learners.

Third,  Dogme is too loose.  It fails to fulfill the steps of Bloom's Taxonomy (as I implemented it) because it relies too heavily on the learner's sense of dedication to complete self-study.

So, I have tried all of these and they are not the complete solution.  Parts of them are valuable and I recommend a teacher development package which presents new trainers with challenges, but the solution is not in the book or on the internet.  We need to take BE further.

I'll present my work in Graz at the BESIG Summer Symposium.  It will be the culmination of a year of training with an entirely new approach which better fits the realities of BE training.  So far, it solves these dilemmas and provides the balance my participants and I need.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Late Winter Doldrums - A Journal Entry

I hate routine.  I feel uncomfortable when I sense that things are becoming stale.  I like the creativity dial to be turned up to 11.  Yet over the last month, I have the feeling that I and my participants are just going through the motions of teaching and learning.  I feel the learning has stalled a bit and participants are leaving the training underwhelmed by the interaction, engagement, and challenge.  Like many trainers, my gut reaction is to simply blame myself for delivering poor training.

The main purpose of this blog is to help myself get out of situations like this, reflect on my training, set priorities, connect with others, and drive myself to do better.  So today I will give a report on yesterday's training and hopefully identify ways it could be better.

Context

On Tuesdays, I have a full day of training at the research and development department of a manufacturer.  The project is quickly approaching its two-year mark and has been extremely successful in terms of progress, value delivered, and participation among the employees.  The training day is built around 5 one-hour group sessions with similar language levels.  The overall ability of the department is very good and my groups range from B1 to C1.  Additionally, I have introduced special mixed-level 45 minute sessions for secretaries and technical English vocabulary.  Finally, the project includes some time for individual or small group coaching and general support for English communication.

After such a long time, I am so familiar with the business and internal processes that I often know more about the organization and current events than the individual participants.  The classes provide a knowledge sharing function (both among participants and between groups) as well as a tool for building communication competence.  I am treated much like a co-worker.  It has become very comfortable, but comfort also breeds laziness.

My day...

I started the morning at 6 am to brainstorm the lessons.  I read the class notes for the previous two weeks, looked back at the training report for the last quarter, and entered a few tentative topics for the day's sessions.

I arrived at the company at 7:30 and set up in my morning conference room.  Luckily, I was able to meet and talk to an American employee who handles documentation with American regulators.  I have been trying to pick his brain for the last few months about how the company communicates externally in English.  Because of regulation, there are many written and unwritten rules about drafting documentation.  For example, the company must make sure that it does not make unsubstantiated claims in brochures.  Specific wording is required and some words are taboo.  Finally, documents cannot bend the truth, and must not raise questions among regulators.  My goal is to ensure that I am training language correctly and not teaching vocabulary or phrases which might cause regulatory problems.  We had some small talk and arranged to meet another day so he could give me some resources and I could find out some of the issues the department faces in internal and external documentation.

I also stopped by the project sponsor's office to say good morning, find out how he was doing, and let him raise any issues about the training.  After a few minutes of small talk he asked me about my reservation for the conference room.  He had a supplier meeting and was having trouble finding a place.  I said I would talk to one of the admin assistants and see if my back-up room was available.  If so, he could use mine.  He told me not to worry about it and that he thought he had another solution.  Finally, he mentioned that one department wanted to add several employees to the project and that he might have to clarify the issue.  Then we talked shortly about how it is a good sign that people want to join the training because it means the employees are talking about how useful the training is (this is covert customer relations and feedback).

A cup of coffee later and it was 8:00 - time for a 45 minute session on technical English.  Recent sessions had been around software development and testing.  On this day, I brought my toolbox from home.  A very simple lesson with only one participant.  The session is open to all and optional.

  1. The participant pulls out a tool and we write the name on a note card.
  2. We talk about different versions of the tool and add them to the note card (internet helped here).
  3. We talk about the last time they used it and what it is used for.
  4. The realia causes questions about similar tools and related vocabulary.
  5. Repeat.
  6. We collect the note cards.  I read a card and the participant holds up the tool.
  7. I give the note cards to the participant, they read the cards and tell me if I hold up the correct tool (sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong).
Despite the high level of the ability in the department, they often lack such general vocabulary.  Several have asked for help in this area.  For example, hammer and nails are easy, but most do not know wrench, pliers, insulation tape, or drill bits.

At 8:45 the first level class began and there was a quick good-bye and hello.  The B1-B2 participants took their normal seats in the classroom.  This is by far the class I am most proud of.  Five of the six participants came to the lesson and attendance is always excellent.  They are unbelievably smart and inquisitive people (this goes for the whole research and development department).  Over the last two years they have made so much progress that I am left in awe at far they have come.  The lesson time is great, they all use English in their jobs, and I think the training has been quite good.

This lesson, however, was a complete failure.  They have a coursebook (Business Result Intermediate) which we almost never use and by now is too easy for them.  But I decided to use it for a lesson on presentations.  We did the opening exercise about a company mission statement, listened to the model presentation, did the comprehension activity, and then finished the key phrases activity.  By that point, eyes were glazed over and I had lost them.  This was Charles going through the motions.  Everything about the lesson was too easy and I could see it going south the whole way.  I could feel the groan when I said, "Turn to page 78."  The intro activity failed to generate any comments, and by the time they heard my computer say, "Audio fifty-one," they were barely listening.

Here's my problem with this lesson and this group.  First, this was the third lesson of the last five which has included listening (or watching).  They want to speak and if my computer speakers fill the space, there is not any for them.  Second, the time is so short that if I try to use a typical teaching workflow, I do not really have time for much small group or pair work.  Thus, the speaking becomes teacher to learner.  I assume too much of a dominant presence in the room.  Third, they asked to work on presentations but I am constrained.  The lesson does not really offer enough time to prepare and deliver a presentation in the same lesson.  Self-study is near zero so I cannot expect them to prepare something outside the class.  I tried that last year, they discussed and decided on the topics, but it never materialized.  They just felt guilty and I needed to change tactics.  A few weeks ago they gave a spontaneous talk to introduce themselves, describe their department, and finally to explain their experience.  These went well, but they were too short and I want something more complex.

This book lesson included adjectives to describe a company.  To try to save the lesson, I asked them to find adjectives which described companies like Ikea and McDonalds.  I then set them the task of creating one slide with adjectives for a company and presenting it to us next week.  Let's see what happens.  I need to do better.

At 10:00 it was time for the next group, a C1 group of three participants.  As a side note, I have problems with level binning under the CEFR and I cannot really tell where C1 stops and C2 begins.  Let me put it this way, these participants are so good that I have a very difficult time figuring out what to teach them.  The easy way out would be to focus more on communication skills but they are also such expert international communicators with immense emotional intelligence that perhaps they should be teaching me (and often they do).

On this day, two of the three attended with one woman on vacation.  We are currently in the middle of a project to deliver a workshop.  The group consists of one mechanical engineer, one software engineer, and one project coordinator.  Thus, we devised a simple project in which the project coordinator would lead the planning and organization of a workshop with the two engineers giving presentations on new technologies in mechanical and software/hardware engineering.  The 'audience' of the workshop is a group of doctor candidates at university and their goal is to collect ideas from these researchers on how the company can use breakthrough technologies to drive innovative solutions and products (we are assuming the naivete of PhD candidates).  We have a hard deadline for the workshop because the project coordinator is pregnant and we want to finish before she goes on maternity leave.

Unfortunately, the software engineer could not bring his laptop to lesson so we could not discuss and finish writing his presentation.  So instead, we started talking about his upcoming business trip to Paris to a customer and the difficulty of meeting customer expectations for high-end products.  During the discussion, I picked up on the response, "I fully agree," which did not sound natural.  Many of our lessons feature collocations and phrases to help them sound more like native speakers.

In this case, I pulled up Just the Word on the projector (we do this often) and identified several collocations with agree including entirely, generally, and reluctantly.  Next, I turned the conversation to performative verbs.

Another tangent... For me, the debate about English as a Lingua Franca is largely settled.  It clearly exists and I am quite certain of what it is.  For me, the question was closed after watching Mark Powell talk about Lean Language.  In fact, this video helped make me the trainer I am (good or bad).  I still have not found a more valuable and worthwhile resource for teaching.

Here is Part 1... you should really watch all five parts.




Second, Chia Suan Chong interviewed Vicki Hollett a couple of years ago on ELF in which she mentioned performatives between NNSs.  Sadly, I have since lost my other sources on this element of NNS interaction.  But my observations of written and spoken international communication have always confirmed that using words like suggest, apologize, agree, propose, and invite are valuable to international communication.  They can often be a short cut to developing functional language.

So, I told the participants that these verbs can be very useful when speaking with other countries, but they may be used less often among native speakers.  We pulled up a teaching website (nicely British) for phrases to agree and disagree and compared the use of functional phrases.  At this level, they should be able to use to both and adapt their language to the ability of the audience.

One participant then asked me if I could tell the difference between a NS and NNS author when reading a text.  I told them that I could nearly always distinguish a German author because I knew the language, but that their level was so good that sometimes I could not tell from their writing.  They had recently written presentation abstracts and 75-word bios for their project (with NS models) and I could not tell they came from NNSs.

We then discussed some of the ways I could identify a German translation or author.  We discussed the prominent use of nouns in German and reformulated a few example sentences (we had done this before).  We also looked at the use of the passive (also common in German).  Finally, I wrote a few example sentences with endless relative clauses and broke them down into smaller sentences using the subjects this, that, and it.

Overall, I think this was very good lesson.  I felt like a language guide and I feel they left with a better ability to change their language depending on the audience, which is a key skill for them to master.

At 11:00 it was time for the B2 group but my inbox showed that only one person would be able to join the lesson.  This group is particularly difficult to plan for.  The test engineer who came would likely pick up on the fact that I ended the previous sentence with a preposition and ask whether it was allowed.  In fact, many of our lessons focus on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (thanks Scott Thornbury and Michael McCarthy!).  He is a language lover and generally believes that proper grammar is the primary measure of language ability.  He studies Mandarin in his free time and often sends me clarification questions when he senses non-standard forms of English.  Unfortunately, most of his language learning has come from critically reading formal texts and his spoken English lacks staccato sentence rhythm. It can be difficult for listeners to patiently wait for the end of a thought or sentence.  Another participant in the group has similar difficulty in spoken fluency.  The group is rounded out by a Spanish woman with great speaking skills but tons of L2 interference and a new participant looking to gain speaking practice and refining feedback.

With only one participant, I took a tried-and-tested lesson plan... "What are you currently working on?"

He told me that he is working on software testing documentation and I questioned him in detail about the purpose of the document.  With another learner I might have seized this topic and looked at improving his writing.  But with this man, whose grammar is flawless and writing puts NSs to shame, clear explanations and spoken communication are the focus.  I asked him to change places in the room and for him to take the whiteboard.  I asked him to please draw and explain the process of the document.  What is the trigger for writing it?  What is the approval process?  Who reads it and why?

This placed him completely out of his communication comfort zone.  First, he is less aware of the non-linguistic aspects of communication such as visual aids and body language.  He is not used to creating a visual representation of thought and would prefer to simply rely on words to convey his message.  Twice I had to ask him to draw what he meant because I couldn't understand (keep in mind here that I have been working with the department for years and I am very familiar with internal processes and documentation).  Second, he is not adept at eliciting or reading feedback.  He does not include feedback questions and generally has trouble reformulating explanations.

My feedback was much less on the language (only a few lexical gaps) and much more on structuring messages and making things tangible.  I told him about the importance of examples, but left the visual representation topic for another day.

However, he expects language input and as a Business English Trainer, I am focused on giving it.  During his spontaneous talk he continually used the passive.  At lower levels I would praise this usage when describing a process.  But for him, he is simply overusing the passive and the sentences lack meaning.

Below is my 'board' which was in MS Word on the projector screen.  I wrote his passive sentences and the italics show his reformulations.  The reformulations might not be perfect, but the lesson is to reduce the passive voice.

At 12:00 I began my one-hour lunch break.  My wife and I are inching toward buying a house and we are seriously considering moving to a town in which one of my participants lives.  But not only the town, but also the same street.  So, I personally wanted to find out what it is like to live there.  I visited her desk and we had a half-hour conversation about the town (in English of course).  She is a B1 level and she likes to talk about her new house and her hometown.  We talked about land prices, lots for sale, directions, advantages and disadvantages, etc.  It would be nice to categorize this as a lesson, but let's be honest... it was just us talking (I was happy she asked many questions).  She did get speaking practice and the chance to use some functional language, but I was really just curious about the environment (I am also hesitant about giving feedback when colleagues can hear).  She loved it, I was very happy to get the information, and it is great to have such chances.  I ran to the canteen for a quick lunch and starting thinking about the afternoon sessions.

1:00 - It was time for the lowest level group of the day, B1.  Like the morning group, these participants have made great progress over the years.  I must remind readers that although two years seem like a long time, we are only talking about 60-70 total class hours over that period.  This group, like the B1+ group in the morning, has a bit more structure than the higher levels.  I generally approach things more systematically, but I am also very flexible to participants' just-in-time needs and communication issues.

I had planned a class to have a status update meeting.  We had had a listening lesson with phrases a few weeks before and I wanted to encourage them to apply what we had learned.  But the rule of thumb is that when I plan something, the participants bring something else.  If I don't plan, they bring nothing... go figure.

One of the weaker members of the group came in the lesson talking about a discussion with a German supplier which was frustrating.  I let them discuss the issue in German for a few minutes (she started in English but quickly changed to L1 because she was so wound up about the issue).  When I am teaching, I am always looking for topics like this because they are real and known.  If you have read my post "I Only Have One Lesson Plan", you will know that I am always seeking moments when I can capture the topic and turn it into relevant training.

But let's analyze a bit what was happening in the classroom at that moment.  First, I think she was quite concerned with her image to colleagues, suppliers, and even her trainer.  Her written English is well above her level and she knows it (plus, I've told her).  She does not like my visits to her desk or speaking in class because (I think) she feels mistakes might embarrass her in front of others.  In the group, she is the only person who is still unwilling to take risks and make mistakes in the search of learning.  Second, she came into class with something on her mind and she wanted to tell her colleagues about it.  She was proud of how she had handled the situation.  Third, she had attached emotions to the story and she really wanted to communicate what happened.

My thinking was to let her finish, let her tell her story in German.  Let her shine and get praise from her colleagues.  Cutting her off or forcing her to speak English would only have caused frustration.  I need her to feel accepted and comfortable in the group.  I need her to speak!  Listening to her story I realized that she had all the grammar to tell this story in English and about 75% of the vocabulary.  But she needed scaffolding and time to tell it.

Here is where I made the wrong decision.  Instead of giving her the opportunity and structure to formulate this story in English, I took another route.  First, I told her that I did not understand everything she had said (a lie) and I asked her clarification questions about the story.  Specifically, I asked questions which targeted specific lexis, "What does the supplier make?" [looking for the word cabinet].  This is simply bad training.  It is completely unfair to ask participants to produce words I know they do not have with the hope that they will somehow emerge with some Pavlovian bell.  I have watched other trainers do this and reminded myself not to fall into this trap.

During the story, she raised a common topic within the group - people who do not respond to emails in a timely manner.  This was my second mistake.  I decided to focus on this subject and work toward phrases for making suggestions.  This was TEFL pure, I pulled out a function from my portfolio and not what they immediately needed.  This is not to say that making suggestions is not useful, but taking the lesson toward simple negotiations would have been better.

Why did I choose this topic?  Because I am horrible at responding to emails.  I have been working on it for years but I do not seem to be getting any better.  I made the lesson about me and that was a mistake.  It should always be about them.  In fact, I am wondering whether all the lessons for this day were more about me and what I want than about the participants and what they want.  I need to listen more carefully.

So, we discussed as a group our frustrations about people who do not answer emails.  We discussed how often it happened and why.  It was generally a good discussion and I was writing their thoughts on the board (adding vocabulary).  Then, I revealed that I am horrible at writing back and I feel really bad about it (again about me... arg).  Next, I asked them to give me tips on time management and handling correspondence.

Each person talked a little about how they handle emails and we stumbled across some lexical gaps like out of office reply, respond, and immediately.  They used several phrases we had seen to make suggestions and I put a few more on the board.  Time was running and I considered having them write an email to follow up when someone does not write back, but it would have taken too long.  We shared ideas on how we use email, telephone, and the chat tool within the company.  The participants were able to vent a little and discuss the issue, but I am generally dissatisfied with the lesson.  The topic has great potential and I did not use it.  Now I have lost it.  The discussion was dominated by the confident speakers.  The dynamic reverted to teacher-student and not student-student freedom.  I could have done better.

At 2:15, I was looking to rebound from two poor lessons and two average ones.  I needed to refocus and salvage my day.  But I was also battling thoughts far away from the training and was having trouble focusing on the next lesson (I'd been watching my inbox fill up all day among other concerns).  Also, the last group lesson is a B2+ group with the most inconsistent attendance.  These lessons are always a one-off and it is nearly impossible to link them because the people change so often.  Finally, I am never as focused in the afternoon as the morning.

Two participants from six appeared and I was happy to see the weakest member of the group in attendance.  He is a software testing engineer and has been working on an individual project for quite some time to develop a software requirement.  The requirement is highly political and costly and he is generally fighting a losing battle of mixed department interests.  The company works on a product development cycle and the two participants find themselves on the extreme ends of the process.  One defines the requirements for the product, the other tests the completed system at the end.  I do not need to introduce a notional information gap (like a role-play) because there is enough of a gap already.

The tester started by talking (without prompting) about how his project is going and his latest successes and challenges.  He brought up the document management process and I asked them to map the document management system over the product development process.  Specifically, this was about how the company organizes product requirements both at the macro and micro level.  This may seem like Greek to you, but I'm sure you would get the hang of it after some time around software project management.

Within a few minutes, all three of us were standing at the whiteboard with markers in our hands drawing diagrams, explaining processes and folder trees, using examples, discussing constraints and problems with the system, etc.  The two participants were sharing their perspectives from their ends of the system.  We were having a meeting.

I noted a few comments for feedback but the 'meeting' took so long that I only had time to look at collocations with suffer, cause, and face.  I corrected their usage, added a few more collocations and we transformed the collocations into different tenses.

It was not really the home-run lesson I had been looking for but I felt good about the discussion.  I was able to give some on-the-spot corrections and some delayed language feedback.  The participants were able to compare notes on a real business process and produce language they need in work.  The weaker student highlighted a few words he remembered from the stronger student.

Finally at 3:15 I had my final session of the day, a repeat of the technical English vocabulary lesson.  Two engineers came who I'd seen earlier in the day.  I pulled out the tool box and we repeated the same lesson as above.  The 45 minute session was fun (they are both women in their thirties and we laughed about men and tools, "better to have it than to need it") and I believe they picked up on the vocabulary (we'll see).  Again they were quite surprised that they did not know the words for such everyday tools.

At 4:00, I packed up... exhausted... and went home.  Typically, I would have stayed longer and visited the participants who could not come to their lesson.  But I am increasingly getting requests for support via email or chat, I needed to save a few hours.

In a quiet apartment I had the chance to catch up on the emails I had received that day including a few urgent coaching requests.  I created Quizlet flash cards for the adjectives and antonyms from the 8:45 lesson.  I sent out 'board work' photos or documents from the lessons.  I responded to all the outstanding issues and I felt good.  It was an average day of training and was not quite good enough, but I was happy.

Not so good...

So overall, the day was okay but I feel like it lacked creativity.  The participants and I are all in the February doldrums, a long way from vacation and the winter keeps dragging on.  We are not at our best and that is frustrating.  We are all stressed and tired.

If you have managed to read this long, I'll ask you... What do you think about my training on this day?  How do you shake yourself awake when projects are for a long time or things become stale?  How do you reinvigorate yourself?