Monday, February 23, 2015

Logic puzzle activity for summarizing and clarifying

I regularly remind my learners to continuously summarize and ask clarification questions in L2.  During my observations of meetings, I often see cases of miscommunication which could have been avoided by a simple timeout to summarize and check that everyone has the same understanding.  In fact, if there is one communication skill needed to work effectively in L2, this is it.

But sadly, I have always had some trouble designing activities which forced the participants to use checking, clarifying and summarizing.  Luckily, I found one in the The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games by Mary Scannell.

Basic procedure

Find a logic puzzle with 15-20 clues.  Cut up the clues and deal them to the participants.  They have to solve the puzzle without showing the others their clues.  Time: approx. 40 min for a group of four.

If you aren't sure what a logic puzzle is, it is a paper game in which you have to find certain combinations using clues.  For example, 5 friends went to a restaurant, each person ate a different dish, drank a different drink and paid a different amount.  One clue might be, "Janet did not have the cheeseburger and paid more than Frank."

What happens

The group will probably first try to collect all the variables (the names, the dishes, etc.).  Then they start reading the clues.  In some groups each person reads all their clues in sequences, while in others (the more effective ones) they take turns reading clues that are relevant to the current discussion.  They are continually asking to repeat, checking and summarizing.  The trainer can collect and add phrases throughout the activity.  Additionally, they use great language to keep the others on track in the discussion.

Training aids

I don't allow my groups to use any visual aids... no shared notes, no whiteboard, no cards with the variables, nothing.  Each person can use their notebook to make personal notes, but cannot share it with others.  I find that this makes it more challenging and forces the participants to use verbal communication.  I suspect that visual aids would make the puzzle easier to solve, but would require less language.  Second, my engineers discuss complicated, interlocking problems all the time and I find that it more or less recreates this complexity.

The larger question of feedback...

This brings me to the larger question of feedback and how to train it.  After all, summarizing and checking are the purest forms of feedback, but depend on the listener.  Surprisingly, while I find that summarizing and checking are the linguistic functions most often missing from discussions, the lack of feedback is the most common observation my participants make about their own discussions.

Here's why... asking for feedback is delicate and often ineffective.

I think we all know about open and closed questions.  And I think we can all agree that closed questions for checking understanding are not as effective.  In my experience, "Did you understand?" is pretty much worthless.  Second, I think we can agree that while a backbrief ("Please tell me what I said.") is highly effective, it is only realistic in highly direct discourse communities.  In the workplace, there is too much chance for a loss of face.

So, I prefer to help my participants draft a series of open checking questions for them to use in discussions.  In essence, it is teaching them the same skill we use as trainers for comprehension questions.  These are higher order questions which demonstrate understanding.


  • What have we forgotten to consider with this plan?
  • How do you think this will affect ______?
  • How does this compare to ________?
  • What kind of experience do you have with this?
  • What do you think are the next steps?
  • What problems do you think we might have?

For more structured practice, creating these types of questions for a presentation works nicely... then try to add them into spontaneous discussion.

So, I am happy with the results from the logic puzzle activity to generate a true need for clarification, checking and summarizing but it doesn't solve everything.  The more difficult step is to train effective methods for requesting feedback.  Once the participants have it though, they notice a clear difference in their discussions and meetings.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Where did Charles Rei go...?

That is a question I have been asking myself for about a year now as I have largely stepped back from the international teaching/training network.  No Twitter, close to zero blog posts, no conferences... nothing.

The answer has both personal and professional reasons.  On the personal side, my family and I built a house last year.  I underestimated the effort completely.  Also my sons are at the wonderful ages of six and four... a period I want to take advantage of.

The professional side is more complex.  I have taken on too much work and have been running at over-capacity since May last year.  I broke my own rule for workload and I haven't been able to reduce it.  A quick look at my calendar for next week shows 32 hours of meetings.  That is a lot of 'face-time'.  Hopefully, I will be able to shed some workload sometime this spring.

The second issue is that I am entering many new areas of training and development.  There are so many lines of thought and I am trying to sort them all out.  In short, there are more questions than answers.

This may be a good chance, however, to show what the career development path of a Business English Trainer looks like as it is happening.

Here are my current development projects:

  • Customized language training courses for a tax consultancy
    • ~15 participants in two groups
    • Started in 2011 with rotating participation (new people come, old ones leave)
    • Focus on financial and legal English
    • Supports on-boarding program for new employees (some might call this CLIL-lite)
  • Semi-embedded in an R&D department
    • ~20 participants in two organized groups and one 'pool' of advanced learners
    • Started in 2012 with stable participation
    • 'Communication skills to sentence level' training
    • Special sessions for technical English
    • Small coaching aspect - 'trainer-on-demand'
  • Fully-embedded in an R&D team (a different one)
    • ~15 participants in Germany, ~20 participants in China, 8 groups total
    • Started 2014
    • 40% training, 60% coaching/support including reserved sessions for management
    • Group sessions for language and communication skills to sentence level
    • Observation of / participation in real-world team meetings
    • Support overall development team communication (norms & standards, IT tools, communication planning, intercultural considerations, formal & informal communication channels, team dynamics and conflict resolution, running workshops, documentation review, etc.)
  • Outplacement coaching and training program (not language training)
    • In conjunction with coaches from the HR field - designed to help employees transition after layoffs
    • Application document reviews and interview skills
    • Career coaching - goal setting, personal development, etc.
  • 'Standard' virtual training (the closest thing to regular language training I have)
    • one group - based on CEF level B1
  • 5 individual clients
    • various focal points - some need more language, some need more communication skills to sentence level
  • Materials writing
    • Corpus-derived word lists and activities (most technical and financial)
    • English for Sales course
    • Company-specific C1 course
You will likely read "communication skills to sentence level" quite often from me in the future as this has really become my new mindset.  Over the last year, I have been able to smash through the glass walls of language training and into language in use while communicating internationally.  When that happened, the methods and content I drew up became so fuzzy it is hard for me to say what exactly they are.  Hopefully, over the next few months I will be able to use this blog to help solidify my ideas.  I remember my Cert IBET course and how it helped me bring many ideas 'into orbit'.  I'm hoping some reflection will let me do that now.

By the way, if you contacted me last year and I didn't respond... I'm really sorry, I hope you understand.  It was certainly not personal.