Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review lesson and tax lesson using authentic materials

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


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

Lesson One - Review

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

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

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

Lesson Two - Double Taxation Agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lessons learned from the military to BE

Back from vacation and ready to work :)

As some of you may know, I was in the US Army before I was an English trainer.  As a Sapper (combat engineer) my life was consumed by the neverending cycle of training-execution-training.  During my seven years in the military and three years in combat, I rose to the position of platoon sergeant, including designing several company training programs in insurgent tactics and dealing with improvised explosive devices.  I was passionate about training and adopted the military's models and processes whole-heartedly.

Your author doing a little training... note, I had to swim back, too.

However, after my CELTA and beginning in the BE field, I seemed to forget much of what I had learned and practiced during my previous career.  It wasn't until about a year ago that I sat down and took stock of my military experience and how it applied to my new passion.  In the end, I distilled five points which apply to in-company training.

1.  The Mission Essential Task List (METL)

A METL is a list of key tasks a unit must be able to successfully accomplish in order to fulfill their mission.  For example, when I entered the Army in 2002, we were still trained in the 1980-90s conventional warfare skills.  In that situation, a combat engineer platoon must be able to emplace a standard NATO minefield.  This essential task supported the company's METL to emplace a battional defense.  Below platoon, a squad had a list of essential supporting tasks for the minefield.  Below that, each individual soldier had to master a list of key tasks (such as arm a mine) for the whole unit to be successful.

As an English trainer, this shows us two things.  First, our learners do not exist in communication isolation.  They belong to teams, departments, and business units.  The individual skills we teach them are part of a larger goal.  It is helpful for us to consider how we are supporting these goals.  Second, the key skills needed by the learners are mostly determined by their position within the structure.  In English training, the most generic METL is the ALTE can do statements.  These are particularly valuable for pre-experienced learners just as the individual soldier task list drives the basic training program in the Army.  However, once we are in-company, a key part of pertinent training is defining the essential skills for the learners, their teams, and their departments.

2.  Task, Condition, Standard (TCS)

To evaulate performance, every task needed is outlined using the task, condition, standard format.  Basically, the task is restating what the learner should be able to do.  The condition outlines the environment in which they are expected to perform the task.  And finally the standard is a 'checklist' of performance steps for them to correctly execute.

For example, here are the standards for throwing a hand grenade:
FM 3-23.30 Grenades and Pyrotechnic Signals, Dept. of the Army, approved for public release 

Back to English teaching, this sounds like something we should be doing with our skills training.  Yet measuring can do statements in this way is not universal.  Oxford University Press and John Hughes have taken a step in this direction with their skills assessment criteria in the Teacher Book from Business Result.  However, I would like to see more of this in 'opening a meeting', 'making arrangements on the telephone', etc.  For myself, I have set the task of writing out some of these performance steps and the conditions under which they must be performed (e.g. in a conference room with projector and presentation).  Perhaps we need to borrow something from our academic colleagues on this one... they are the experts at assessment.

Writing a letter home in 2003 near Hit, Iraq

3.  Crawl-Walk-Run

Once each needed skill is defined in the METL and the TCSs are set, the military trains to proficiency using the crawl, walk, run approach.  Under this approach, the task and the standards are kept the same, but the conditions are changed.  This means increasing speed, spontaneity, complexity, and realism.

From FM 7-1 Battle Focused Training, Dept. of the Army, approved for public release

Note, the performance steps remain the same, only the situation becomes more difficult.  For example, in a presentation setting, this could mean that questions from the audience become more difficult, speakers could have non-native accents, etc.

In general, I try to incorporate this into my training.  So, when the learners become confident that they can participate in a meeting, I start adding more challenging elements.  For example, I will add in listening with Asian accents, add the element of interruptions and unclear vocabulary, place the meeting under pressure constraints such as time or consensus, reduce/remove prep time, add an additional skill like note taking, etc.  This helps build the difficulty.

4.  Train as you fight, fight as you train

This all adds up to the next lesson.  In the military the goal (especially in the run phase) is to make the training as realistic as possible.  In the Army this means using live ammunition, throwing in surprises, and generally making the situation as confusing as possible.

I believe once our learners in the BE classroom have mastered the basics in the supportive environment of the classroom, it is time to make the training reflect the real world.  In group classes, here is where the participants themselves really add to the course.  They can ask the tough questions and play the role of difficult people.  They can give the pointed criticism needed to make the situation more realistic.  As Claire Hart pointed out on her blog, getting the learners out of the class on the factory floor adds needed realism.

In short, we need to prepare them for the battlefield.

5.  The After Action Review (AAR)

The final lesson distilled was the importance of the After Action Review.  Basically, this was a post training meeting to take stock of our performance and formally acknowledges strengths, areas for improvement, and lessons learned.  In the military, we had formal drawn out AARs with written summaries but perhaps more effective were the 5 minutes 'hot wash' AARs.  In these short meetings we sat down as a team and discussed the training event with the following agenda.
  • Review the training objective
  • What was supposed to happen?
  • Relavent training resources we used
  • What happened?  Why?
    • What did we do well?
    • What do we need better?
    • What lessons did we learn?
  • Make a plan to improve shortcomings and build upon strengths
Overall, AARs were direct and candid, but never personal.  I am still amazed at how the participants were able to criticism.  But the key factor here was that everyone had the same goal... make the team better.

In an in-company training environment we need to use AAR like breaks to critically assess our performance.  In some courses, this can be done after every lesson.  But not all of our participants are going to have such thick skins.  As trainers, our job is to effectively observe their performance and offer feedback without hurting any feelings or damaging reputations.  This is certainly not easy, but the AAR was the key link between our current skills and future improvement.


I am certainly not advocating that we systematically formalize all of our training and execute it lock-step as we did in the military.  Much is to be said for the holistic approach, and such formalized training does not always align with the learners' expectations and desires.  Additionally, implementing these methods requires a significant amount of planning and admin time which can eat away at choosing and designing the best activities.  However, I feel that as professional in-company trainers, such an approach toward training helps us to ensure that the time spent in class is actually making a positive impact on their job performance.