Monday, November 5, 2012

Making an Impact by Understanding the Learner's Goal

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

Learner profile

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Dear _____,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards,

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

We then discussed a few elements from the email.

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

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

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


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

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

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

1 comment:

  1. nice description of a class.

    if i understand your distinction of language vs a communication problem, i recall a fairly recent class where this occured.

    the student at A2/B1 level had difficulties with emails from a new Russian colleague from headoffice. often she had to write a number of follow up emails to what turned out in the end to be quite simple requests.

    the student realised that her new colleague did not really understand what she wanted to know maybe due to her novice status? so we spent pat of the class looking at way to pre-empt her colleagues thinking in as few emails as possible.

    i suppose this analysis of communication with our students is what makes business english very different and more interesting than general english!