Monday, November 19, 2012

The Communicative Event... Session Recap

I heard my approach to needs analysis mentioned many times this past weekend at the BESIG conference and I am more than a little thrilled to have struck an issue which reached BE trainers.  As a relative new-comer to ELT I am always hesitant about saying how things should be done.  And at a place like BESIG, I am looking out at an audience which, in the case of the PCS, had well over a century of experience.

The purpose of this post is to recap my talk on Communicative Event Analysis, to add some background to the idea, and to reanswer some of the questions which were dealt with rather poorly in the session.

The Talk

During the talk I first outlined what I had learned from the needs analysis tools I see most often on the Internet, in trainer handbooks, or in course materials.  Unfortunately, due to a technical issue, the bullet points did not appear on-screen.  Please take a look at this version of the presentation for those items.




Context

It appears that the term 'communicative event' is gaining acceptance among some readers (and even non-readers) of my previous post "Why Needs Analysis Isn't Working".  Let me provide a little context about how I use this term.

For me a communicative event is anytime the learner is either the sender or receiver in the S/R communication model.  This is different than "an English situation".  In some cases, such as reading a document on the company intranet, the event "understanding and interpreting the information" is the entire situation.  However in many cases, such as a longer meeting or a company visit, there are many events in one situation.

Example 1

I have learners who make customer visits (the situation).  In this case there may be several events.
  • Reporting to reception
  • The initial greeting when being welcomed
  • Relationship building through small talk while walking to the conference room (or other area)
  • Meeting the others for the meeting
  • Talking about the agenda or plan for the visit
  • Starting the meeting
  • Presentation phase
  • Question phase
  • Discussion phase
  • and so on...
The idea with the form is to find the situation and start to define the communicative events.  But different cultures, discourse communities, job functions, and conventions will change the events conducted, the duration, and importance of those events.  My goal from the forms and the follow-up questions is to the find the order and importance of these events.  Artifacts such as old meeting agendas, mintues, slide decks, and emails make this much easier.  In general, however, I will try to focus on those events which are high value.  Reporting to reception is generally not high value.  For a secretary the small talk while going to the conference room will be much higher value than some others to create a welcoming first impression on the guest.

Example 2

Sometimes the communicative event is not directly linked to the situation.  I had a learner who worked in a call center.  At first thought, we needed to be working on telephoning, troubleshooting, politeness, etc.  However, her needs were actually quite different.

She was receiving the calls from German customers about problems with their telephone service.  But the company also had call centers in India.  Therefore, all the troublshooting guides on the Intranet were in English and all the incident tickets had to be written in English.  But she was speaking German on the phone.

So for the training, we needed to focus on quickly searching, reading, and interpreting the troubleshooting guides, and on writing short incident reports in English... all while speaking German.

Munby

Recently, I stumbled upon some past work on the communicative event from 1978 by John Munby.  It just goes to show that there is rarely a truly new idea.  Sadly, I have not even scratched the surface on his research, but it appears he advocated this approach to syllabus design long ago.  My initial impression is that he takes it a bit further (down to sentence level) with "micro-functions".

My apologies to Mr. Munby if I have inadvertently plagiarised his theories.  This was completely new to me until only recently.

Expertise, Assumptions and Materials

The main message I would like to give is three fold.  First, we are the language and communication experts in the room.  Asking the learners to map their own way to success is simply not effective.  Of course, we need to accomodate their goals and expectations.  But they do not know what a function is, they cannot name the words they don't know, and they cannot identify what makes their language different than their target.

Second, we cannot make assumptions that we know meetings, presentations, negotiations, etc.  Course books do an excellent job of providing functional phrases, but often assume that all meetings are the same and all presentations are alike.

Third, we cannot limit the learners' needs to what we know how to teach.  Many times what we know how to teach is either of marginal importance (e.g. making arrangements on the phone) or will not help alleviate their communication difficulties.  Tailor made training means just that... going out and developing original lessons and materials which will help our learners.  Of course, some recycling happens, but trotting out a different permutation of the same stuff is not ideal.

Question and Answer

I'd like to apologize to the audience (both around the world and in the room) for my poor responses to your excellent questions.  I was a bit overwhelmed by the simulcast, the technology challenges, being filmed, the time limit, and staying on script.  Thank you to the gentleman who politely helped me deal with one question.  So here is my second attempt.

Identifying needs for pre-experience learners or 'just-in-case' training

Very valid question... this method is generally limited to learners who currently use English in their workplace and have the goal of improving their immediate performance.  However, after having conducted this type of needs analysis for over a year, I do see patterns which can assist pre-experience learners.  Please check out my post "What I Don't Teach and Why".

One general thing I see in my market is that most communication is internal and virtual.  This means lots of information exchange on progress, processes, and rules but less persuasion and general conversation.  Communication is often reading and writing messages to conduct some kind of transactional information exchange.

For external contacts, I see more voice communication, but typically also little face-to-face contact.  Also, these external contacts are typically long-standing customers and preferred suppliers.  These conversations are more like colleagues than the more traditional customer-provider relationship.

I will also use my gained knowledge of communicative events from other learners to extrapolate what pre-experience learners are likely to be doing.  Sometimes these tasks are similar to what they are already doing in L1, and sometimes we have to make a few assumption based on job function (e.g. accounting, project management, etc.)  One note here is that most course books written for business management schools are heavy on strategy and business theory.  Most daily workplace communication is not about these topics.

Specfic lesson ideas from communicative events

The first thing is that it gives me a clear idea of which functions, grammar, and vocabulary to practice in certain contexts.  I know precisely what kind of authentic materials I should be looking and asking for.  Then, I have a pretty good idea of what to do with them when I have them.

During a role-play it gives a good idea of what roles to assign to whom, or how to change them to fit their real-world needs.  It also gives me an idea of how to design specific lessons.  For example, I have a group of secretaries and we recently rehearsed that long walk from reception to our conference room.  We made role cards for the 'visitors' like: 

You missed your connection in Amsterdam.  You are tired and hungry.  You want to be nice, but would rather not have small talk.  You are looking forward to the end of the meeting and you are dying for a cup of coffee and to know where the restroom is.

This is your first trip to Germany and you are really looking forward to it.  You want to do some sightseeing while you are here and pick up a few gifts.  You really hope the meetings can be short so you that you can look around on your own.

So, I hope that helps cover those two questions better than my spontaneous answers.

Sorry for the long post, below you can find the handout for the session and thanks to all who attended from around the world and in Stuttgart.

Handout - The Communicative Event

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