Tuesday, November 12, 2013

BESIG Prague Presentation - Assessing Role-Plays and Simulations

To those who attended my workshop at the BESIG Annual Conference, I would like to say again how much I appreciate it.  My jaw dropped when I saw the names of the presenters in the other rooms and I was amazed at such a wonderful turnout.  Thank you.

As I mentioned, I have uploaded my slides from the presentation and there is a short explanation of the main points.  However, to support BESIG and the BESIG newsletter, I agreed to write a more comprehensive summary in the next newsletter.  I am normally open about sharing my ideas, as long as they are non-proprietary, but in this case I would like support the organization.  I am proud of the work BESIG has accomplished and thankful for the opportunities I have gained from membership.

Slide 3 - My assumptions about the audience and the industry.
Slide 4 - An example of a communicative event the participants wanted to improve and which I needed to assess. (Not a real picture of my students - but very close to reality)
Slide 5 - Defining good practice for the communicative event by mindmapping.  For the scrum event, this was completed using Post-It notes, but I forgot to take a picture (not thinking I would present it).
Slide 6 - An example of how I turn good practice into linguistic areas.
Slide 7 - The assessment rubric for the manager of a scrum meeting based on the students' idea of an effective scrum.
Slide 8 - 4 levels of listening by the trainer when monitoring the role-play/simulation.
Slide 9 - The 3 sources of feedback post task completion.
Slide 10 - Workshop portion - Audience must conduct a simulation.  The coffee break at a conference - meeting someone new.
Slide 11 - Helping the groups build their rubric .
Slide 12 - Task set up.
Slide 13 - Feedback.
Slide 14 - How this fits into a lesson plan/course plan.
Slide 15 - Another example of an assessment rubric but with weighted criteria.  Also very simple to implement.

Again, I am sorry I will not give you more details on the session.  Please read the next issue of Business Issues from BESIG for more.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where You Come From - An Inexhaustible Lesson Topic

I come from Kansas City, well better said I grew up in the suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.  When I meet most people in Europe, neither ring many bells.  Kansas City is one of the non-descript cities of a few million people which litter the middle two-thirds of the country.  In fact, if you landed in KC, Cincinatti, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Pittsburgh you could forget where you are because they are all the same.  This is 'fly-over' country which many people only see from 36,000 feet.

Of course, the residents of these place would deeply disagree with this statement and could talk at length about the unique features, culture, and legends of their hometown.  I distinctly remember a taxi ride in Springfield, Missouri in which the cabbie insisted on giving me 100 years of the city's history in 10 minutes.  He even stopped the meter to take me past the next performing arts center.  It would not be any different in Omaha or Louisville.  I found the same in Glasgow and Liverpool.

But with the invention of the internet and the flattening of the world, these places have generally lost their uniqueness and developed into carbon copy cities with nearly identical cultural traits.  I bring up this point because much the same has happened here in Germany as well.  Local variety has been diminished by global sameness.  But superstores and chain restaurants are boring.  Because they must attract the global masses, they avoid risks and anything which might offend the local consumers.

I find that local flavor, local traditions, and local culture make for highly interesting lessons.  I like discussing the exceptionalism of our region.  The students are proud of their perceived uniqueness.  I believe this also has a distinct business function.  Many business small talk conversations revolve around such topics.  They are useful in business.  It gives the parties the chance to talk about something they know and like.  But it also allows them to get a sense of the values, motives and background of the interlocutor.  These topics leave space for stories and humor, but also provide a certain distance from dangerous personal opinions.

It is interesting to see, for example, how foreign trips are arranged.  Guests are often hosted in a hotel or neighborhood which has retained traces of the local culture.  Guided tour events are arranged to give guests a short journey through the traditions and legends of the region.  There is always the desire to give the guest the 'authentic' experience.

With this in mind, here are a few discussion topics which I often use in training.

  • How did your hometown get its name?
  • Who is the most famous person from your hometown?
  • Is there anything from your home which is 'world famous'?
  • Tell me about the special food from your home region.
  • What unique traditions does it have?
  • Does your hometown have any 'rival' cities?  Why?
  • What are the most famous buildings in your town?  What happened there?
  • Tell me about a festival you have every year.  Why should I go?
Google maps and street view are great resources for this.  I also find that these topics can often be captured and turned into skills training.  The simplest is something around tourism but I try not to use this too often and instead look for something more creative.  For example, I once had a student from Herzogenauerach here in Germany.  The most famous story about this town is of Adolph and Rudolph Dassler who founded Adidas and Puma respectively.  The two brothers fell out and never spoke to each other again.  But this little town is still the headquarters of these two sportswear giants.  I took the story (which all are familiar with) and set the task of negotiating a merger between the two firms.  Their goal was to 'heal the wounds' of the past.  The students did some internet research (due diligence) to gather some financial data, worked in teams to prepare for the negotiation, and then held the meeting.

This is just one example of how these lessons can turn out.  I will be heading to Kansas City next week for a short trip to say hello to friends and family, but at the same time I will be sniffing the winds of cultural change in my hometown.  Perhaps I will find a few lesson ideas along the way.

So, I encourage you to look into where the students come from and capture these topics to develop engaging and personal lessons.  It works for me.  But sadly, we never did get Adidas and Puma back together... the loyalties simply run too deep.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Communicating Internationally - A Survey

Dear Readers,

I would like to ask for your support.  I am currently conducting a market research survey to complete a university project.  I would be very grateful if you participated or forwarded the survey link to others who might provide valuable insights.

First a little background.  My first attempt toward a Bachelor's degree at American University in Washington, D.C. ran aground due to the tuition.  I then spent seven years in the military.  One of the veterans' benefits is free tuition paid by the United States government after leaving the service.  I am now in my final two semesters at the University of Maryland University College pursuing a degree in Marketing.

For one of my final projects, I have decided to assess the market for English language awareness training among native speakers.  During my past four years of Business English training, I have often heard that native-speakers are more difficult to deal with than other language learners.  A survey by Business Spotlight in 2009 on conference calls seemed to confirm this.  A colleague and friend of mine, Matt Halsdorff, has even dedicated his whole blog to this subject.

I would like to get responses from native speakers with international contacts.  My goal is to find out how native speakers assess their international communication and how they are prepared for their task.  While not directed at ESL teachers and trainers, some may fit the desired sample for the survey.

The survey is strictly designed as an academic project and my tuition is paid from public funds.  Therefore, I will post a detailed summary of my findings here on my blog for everyone to review.  I do not intend to use the information as intellectual property or for competitive advantage.  I hope this will entice you to forward the link.

Link to survey:

Thank you very much for your help.

Charles Rei

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Terrain of Teacher Training

My background is military, specifically as a sergeant in the combat engineers.  I have mentioned before that much of what I have learned about training methods comes from the U.S. Army.  I find that many have misconceptions about the training and management style of the armed forces.  There is considerably less yelling, cursing and threatening than outsiders believe.  Not only are non-commissioned officers continuously trained on motivating, coaching and mentoring methods, but they are also used continuously in practice.

But the focus of this article is simply to draw connections between military training and ELT teacher training.  Originally, this was to be a comment on a recent post by Chia Suan Chong on the English Teaching Professional website.  But I quickly found that I had too much to say for a comment block.

In the article, Ms. Chong rightly states that teacher training methods fall along a continuum between prescriptive input/evaluation and a guidance-driven method based on exploration, critical thinking and creativity.  My position is that introductory teacher training should include both.  Fundamental and routine tasks should be taught and practiced to the point of 'muscle-memory'.  Then higher tasks should emphasize responding to the environment appropriately and decision-making.

As an example, let's look at how the military teaches land navigation.

Step 1 - Know Your Tools

During the first steps, the new privates are methodically taught how to use a compass and a map.  This includes testing their knowledge of marginal data on a map, symbols, colors, etc.  They are also taught to identify the ten major and minor terrain features like hill, ridge, valley, cliff, spur, etc.  They must also find accurate grid coordinates on a map.  This is very basic stuff, but also very important.  These simple skills are augmented by more advanced skills like intersection and resection to determine a point on the map from two other known points.  Finding accurate grid coordinates is the key to calling for air support, medical evacuation, sending reports and directing artillery.  These simple 'mini-tasks' of navigation are practiced repeatedly until the failure rate is near zero.

The tools of the trade.
Source: Quique251, Wiki Commons
Step 2 - Plotting a Route

This step again teaches fundamental navigation but adds in an element of critical thinking.  The privates are given a point A and point B to plot and told to draw a route on the map which will take them there.  When plotting a route there are right and wrong answers.  For example, sometimes the straight line route is the best method.  Sometimes 'hand-railing' (following a linear terrain feature like a river) is best.  Sometimes, the best route is a series of determined checkpoints which avoid impassable areas or keep the group on the best tactical ground.  The privates must be able to justify why the route is the best.  If they fail to see the problems with their route (it takes the group over a cliff, it goes through an open field, it takes too long, etc.), it is wrong.

Note, at this point no one has even stepped foot in the forest.

Source: FM 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation,
U.S. Dept of the Army, approved for public release

Step 3 - Following and Deviating from a Route

The final step is to go into the forest and actually move from point A to point B.  Using a planned route, the soldiers start moving.  At this point they are using the 'muscle memory' skills to ensure they are correctly following the route.  They are constantly checking to ensure they are on track.  In fact, during a movement, one soldier will continuously keep the pace count (how far) and another will repeatedly check the compass (direction).  But here's the thing...  The terrain is never identical to the map.

Most maps are drawn with 10 meter contour lines.  So, many small depressions, swamps and ridges do on appear on the map.  This is where the privates learn how to read micro-terrain.  They will need to go around small clearings, minor cliffs, etc.  They will also need to continually keep the group in a defensible position.  So the movement should always have places for cover (large rocks, small ditches, etc.)  The ability to read micro-terrain is life saving.  Foot patrols in Afghanistan are supreme experts at this skill.  But it is taught starting in basic training.

The key to deviating from the drawn route is to constantly know where you are... within 10 meters.  Once you have 'lost your grid' it can take quite some time to find it again and you can no longer call for help.  This is a very dangerous situation and causes the whole patrol to become nervous.

Reaching the destination is a combination of several key elements.  They properly conducted key prescribed tasks, they made a correct plan based on the terrain, they deviated from the designed route to respond effectively to unexpected ground, and they always knew where they were.

Can you spot the micro-terrain?
Source: Oliver Herold, Wiki Commons
Okay... back to English Teaching

I believe that beginning teachers should be taught how to 'navigate' a classroom.  At the beginning this includes several fundamental skills which can be repeated in a variety of situations.  They should understand various types of activities, what they are for, and how long they take.  They should be able to spot errors and lacks (finding grids).  They should also be able to identify needs at a larger level (terrain features).

Next, they should be able to make a lesson plan to navigate through the terrain.  Note, in the military we don't make a route for every footstep, that is handled in the basic compass/pace counting skills.  The teacher trainees should also learn that there are several ways to get from point A to point B but some are wrong.  The technique of hand-railing is useful in land navigation but is sometimes dangerous, just as using a linear terrain feature (a course book) is not always the correct answer in the classroom.

Finally, the live practice teaching sessions should be used to train and assess how the teacher responds to the micro-terrain of the class (emerging language, unexpected gaps, unexpected topics/wishes).  Teachers should be taught (just as soldiers are) that deviating from the route is necessary as long as they constantly know why they left their planned course and where they are.  Watching a teacher 'lose their grid' in the classroom is just as painful as watching a patrol lose their way in the forest.  They start going in all directions at once and charging up mountains to find their way.  At the end, everyone is exhausted, frustrated and confused.

So, let's teach new teachers the art of class navigation.  But here's a reminder for some... we never taught privates navigation by simply taking them to the forest and telling them to start walking.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Only Have One Lesson Plan

Over the past several years, I have been asked numerous times to share lesson plans with other trainers.  I have no problem with this and I think it is great.  I think Claire Hart's blog (please keep it up Claire) is simply magnificent, as well as the work of 'lesson plan gurus' like Phil Wade.  I would love to be able to produce such clear and structured ideas which support the students.  So, for the past several months I have been trying to write posts about lesson plans I use in class.

The problem is I don't have lesson plans.  Or better said, I only have one lesson plan.  I recently filled up a my teaching notebook (I use a traditional spiral notebook) and I began transferring the information I needed for continuity into my new one.  Since mid-July I have had many great lessons and some which were not so good, but they all started with the same plan.  The differences were the choices I made during the lesson.

This became readily apparent to me a few weeks ago.  In one training project, I run two technical English mini lessons (45 min each), one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.  Each lesson has the same plan but they never cover the same thing.  Sometimes both are great, sometimes one is disappointing.  For example, I wrote down "Examine the electrical system of my car" in my notes, but the only commonality between the lessons were the words fuse and circuit breaker (and the difference + collocations).

So, here is my lesson plan.

Click on the flow chart to enlarge.
Let me walk you through the steps.

Step 1 - The Students Start Talking

I don't use lots of scripted warm-up activities.  In most cases, my students have 60-90 minutes in class each week and they want to talk.  Sure, there are some confidence issues at first, but it doesn't normally take long for them to come in and start chatting.  Indeed, teacher input at the beginning or framework materials can direct the topic and in some cases, I have a specific pathway to follow.  Either I have announced (or we decided) the focus of the lesson beforehand, or I have certain needs which must be covered in a specific way.

If they do not start talking right out of blocks (or the class is consistently dominated by some) I may use targeted questioning to manage the discussion.  But mostly, I want the learners to talk about themselves and ask each other questions.  Usually it works easily, but I may need to provide structure (e.g. pair discussions) to assist.

Here are some simple examples of framework tasks or targeted questioning if the students don't start talking.

  • Draw a picture of your desk, workplace, apartment/house, etc.
  • What did you do yesterday evening when you got home from work?
  • Have you ever...?
  • What do you think about...?
  • I'm curious, why...?
  • Let's have a short update meeting, give us a one minute update on your current tasks/project.
Of course, the possibilities are endless.  In most cases, I consider this phase complete when the conversation moves from teacher driven to learner driven (either in topic or dynamic).

Step 2 - What is the topic?

At some point, I capture the topic and start to drive the conversation in a productive direction.  I have yet to find a topic which does not afford a variety of lessons.  Even something seemingly routine and mundane can be manipulated to achieve great results.  But some connections are clearer than others.  For example, sports leads quite easily into finance.  Depending on time, I will need to capture a topic quickly and work toward a focus.  Prescribed warmers, framework materials, and immediate input activities (like an article) will, of course, help drive a topic, but I prefer to let them express themselves freely.  I tend to remember that they have just left their desks and are looking forward to a few minutes of relaxation.  Constraints on the conversation may only cause negative feelings.  I am prepared to leave 15-30 minutes to finding a topic.

Step 3 - Determine the focus of the lesson

Once the topic has been captured, I will select a focus of the lesson.  This is not a lottery.  I have genuine expectations for the learners to improve and I have a duty to the customer to provide effective training to improve job performance.  I will quickly weigh three factors in determining the focus of the lesson.  Part one are the needs (and/or lacks, as Jeremy Day calls them), part two are the expectations for the training and lesson, part three is lesson continuity.  Depending on the situation, I will balance these factors.

For example, if it is an unusually stressful time in the company/department, it may be best to limit the demands of the lesson and take what you can get.  If the company goals trump what the learners expect then the training will have a different focus.  But note, this does not mean changing the topic, simply driving the lesson toward a tangible goal.  So, I have seven types of lessons which also determine teacher talking time and the quantity of input.  I prefer to continuously change the focus of the lesson and I feel uncomfortable (as do the students) when the class repeatedly follows the same pathway.

Step 4 - Focus on Language

Once I have selected the focus of the lesson, I have taken control of class.  In other words, 'We are going somewhere, and I'm going to take you there.'  The question is then, how are we going to get there?  What is the method?  The method often depends on my calculation of resources.

Here is a summary mind map of the resources I consider.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Part of this is a complete understanding of what resources are available.  As we remove each resource from the equation, we constrain our ability to design effective exercises.  If you have everything mentioned above, the activities are endless.

This is also where methodology comes into play.  For example, I may use a TTT, PPP, or guided discovery method to teach grammar.  I may focus on collocations for vocabulary.  Sometimes I even switch to the Silent Way mid-lesson.  In some cases, I may even get the idea that we should just keep chatting and have a mainly conversation class punctuated by occasional feedback interludes.  But this is not the default setting of the lesson and I'll often clarify this with the learners, "I get the feeling everyone is a little tired from work, is it alright if we just keep talking and I'll give you some feedback?"

From this methodology and resources balance, we'll have role plays or listen to a recording and dissect the language.  It all depends on the three factors.  This is why no lesson is the same.  Note:  I almost always ask the learners to design their own role play.

Example Lesson

A 90 minute lesson with tax consultants (B1-B2).  They had talked about the need to understand contracts in the previous lessons.  The learners have different offices, some work in the consultancy offices and some have offices embedded with a major client.  These students travel to the consultancy offices for the lesson.  One of them arrives in class with a giant stack of papers (possible resource!).

I am curious about the stack of papers and she tells me that it is training material in German (damn!) about recent tax law changes (topic?) and she has to learn it.  I ask if she feels 'out of the loop' (boarded) because she's away from management.  After a few minutes the conversation centers around the 'milk issue'.  When you work at the consultancy, coffee (plus milk and sugar are provided), but they have conflicts when using the milk and sugar at the client (coffee is negotiated and paid by the consultancy).  I recognize a prime a topic here (free coffee and the office kitchen are perfect for a variety of lessons).

I capture the topic and set a focus.  "That is interesting.  Okay, today in the lesson we are going to write a contract for the use of the kitchen and the 'milk issue'."  I have several resources.  First, the learners have probably read more contracts than I have.  I know register.  We have the internet so template/example contracts are searchable but printing is difficult.  I have a whiteboard with five markers.  Four are dry, so I have one color.  One learner has paper but no pen (I have an extra).  There are four students so pair work is possible without an obtrusive trainer.  I don't have a private space so while a negotiation might be nice, there is no real place for the two pairs to prepare.

I elect for a scaffolded approach to the productive skill (well, it is actually a receptive skills lesson through producing the language).  I say, "Okay, before we write the contracts, I'd like to give you a little support because contracts use a specific language."  I have 60 minutes left so I am looking at a limited scope, mainly focusing on word choice when changing register.

Input Segment

I point out the word shall.  Shall has different meanings between everyday British English (which the learners had in school) and contracts.  Shall = should + will in everyday English, but must in contracts.  A big difference.  I bring up a template contract (actually my rental agreement for my condo in Washington DC) to show how shall is used in contracts.  This reinforces the point.

Discussion Segment

I point out that shall is a signal word in contracts and I rely on their experience in contracts to find more (and to gauge their ability).  I am looking for words like guarantee, continuous, unobstructed, etc.  They offer a few, I offer praise.  We clarify, with the learners explaining meaning, and move on.

Eliciting Segment

My estimation of their language is that they are fairly proficient in socializing and that they struggle when they have to increase their professionalism.  On my list of needs is switching register and tone to speak to clients.  If you have read my blog before about need analysis, I create a table of needs instead of a linear pathway.

This topic and focus creates a great opportunity for addressing word choice to affect register.  I pull up an old PowerPoint presentation (actually, I disconnected the computer and pasted the table into the client's template) which had everyday informal words on one side and a blank column for formal words on the other.  For example, give = provide (this approach was inspired by the The Business coursebook from MacMillan).  I wrote down in my notebook that we should look at the Open University video on French influence later.  I also wrote the word 'Leo' because Leo Selivan has covered the various lexical layers of English in his talks.  The students are tasked with giving formal words with similar meanings.  The pair compare results and I add a few missed words (e.g. get = obtain, acquire).

Production Segment

Okay, I have 30 minutes left and it's time to get writing.  The students write the contract in pairs, I check it over their shoulder for accuracy, they read it aloud to the group.  I board key words like aforementioned.  We rephrase a few sentences by comparing and contrasting.

Done... its all about milk (which costs €.52/L but has an immense emotional value).

Step 5 - Transfer Design

I have become convinced that it is important to explicitly highlight how the lessons can be applied to the job.  During my talk at the BESIG conference Stuttgart on need analysis I said, "The learners don't know what they don't know."  I similarly believe that "The learners don't know how to use the lessons unless you tell them."  I like to end the lesson with a short reflective session on how the vocabulary, skill, etc. can be used in their job.  This is tantamount to commitment and I often record this in my notebook.  I may check up on this transfer in a later lesson.  In other words, this is part of the continuity factors when deciding the focus of the lesson.

Step 6 - Check on Learning

I like to have a review session at the end of the lesson.  In general, I expect that if I teach it once, they learn it.  Of course, this is completely unrealistic and I did not start out this way.  But I found that the students themselves felt guilty if they could not give the learning objectives of the previous lessons and said "Ach Schei├če!" if I corrected them on a mistake we had covered.  So, I expect the highest of standards.  If it is written on the board or sent via email in a PowerPoint... it should be learned.  I am understanding, but I don't let them off the hook or justify their non-performance.  If it is something I have covered repeatedly with one learner I will put them on the spot in front of the class.  Granted, it is wrapped in humor and rapport.

But the last phase is to check that they learned.  They will often say that they will apply the lesson (response bias) but fail the quiz at the end.  My most common method is to remove all supports (erase whiteboard, turn off projector, put away notes) and ask them to summarize the lesson.

Here are some example questions:

  • "Joachim, give me one word you learned today."  Then go around the class... it becomes progressively harder.  Periodically challenge other factors of understanding (register, spelling, etc.)
  • Use higher cognitive levels of understanding (Bloom's Taxonomy of verbs will help you devise questions).  "Sophie, what is the difference between Thanks for calling and I appreciate your call?"
  • "Okay class... I've erased the board.  Andreas, please come take the marker.  The class will help you recreate everything on the board."  

So, that's it.  That my lesson plan.  I wish I could tell you that I control what happens in every lesson, but I am simply a guide to the language.  I can only selectively direct each session to meet a specific need or expectation.  I would hesitate to say my approach is dogme because my default setting it attain maximum value, which I question about totally free-form teaching.  I still follow traditional teaching methods like task-based learning, but within the context of learner content.

I cannot give you lesson plans... I can only give you lesson reports.  They are quite different.  Sorry.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Widening the Feedback Channel

Let's talk about feedback.  Without question, Business English Trainers are dedicated to feedback.  We understand it as a valuable part of the communication process.  We attempt to instill it in our learners by giving then useful phrases for obtaining/giving feedback as well as the benefits.  In many cases, our lessons are largely feedback driven.  We observe the language and interject to provide linguistic input for clarity, style, and meaning.  Giving effective feedback is one of the crucial elements of being an English Teacher.

Sometimes we distill this skill to 'error correction', but any trainer can tell you that feedback is much more than simply 'mistake hunting'.  I see that I have not blogged about the '4 Levels of Listening'; perhaps I can do it soon.  In the meantime, you can look at a professional development workshop I ran last year which mentions the topic.

Surprisingly, what I see is that trainers are quick to preach feedback and reluctant to take it.  This is understandable.  Easy to say, harder to do.  Negative feedback hurts.  After all, we have worked for hours to do our best only to find out that our effort was wasted.  What an insult!

But I follow the words, "Feedback is a gift."  As I move forward with a few long-term projects, widening the feedback channel is vital for helping me design and refine engaging and productive lessons.  I have learned to crave negative feedback and integrate it every step of the way.  Honestly, positive feedback is less important to me because I walk into most lessons thinking that the agenda is truly engaging, helpful, and worthwhile.

Here are a few methods for obtaining valuable feedback.

Feedback Trading

At the end of a lesson, say that you will give feedback on their performance if they give you the same.  Typically this is written and often involves a structure.  For example:

I will give you three focus areas for you to work on in English communication.  You give me three things I should do as a trainer to meet your expectations.

This takes about 15 minutes and with larger classes some preparation may be needed.

Flip chart - keep/change

Draw a t-line on the flip chart.  On the left side write "keep" and on the right "change".  Ask the learners to tell you what elements of the training we should keep and what elements we should change.

For example, in my recent classes I have found that they want to keep the variety of the lessons and the feedback-based instruction.  However, they would like to read more articles and play Taboo.  No problem... I introduced more reading/internet searching into the class and we play Taboo for 30 minutes once a month (I bought the real UK version on Amazon).  Attendance is higher than before.

Meet one-to-one

To be honest, this is most difficult method of feedback.  First, learners do not like to tell the trainer bad things.  Maybe they do not have the learning experience to even make a comment.  Second, it lacks the anonymity of written feedback.  Third, they are unaware of their peers' expectations of the course and hesitant to impose their demands on the group.

However, when handled properly, individual meetings can provide key insights into what is going right and wrong with a course.  These are particularly valuable after an extensive time with the group (when they know the group dynamics).  The key for the trainer is implementation with confidentiality.  In other words, when you change something, make it look like a pedagogical idea.

-  Learner desires a traditional and structured approach to learning
-  Trainer: "I know we don't normally do gap-fills, but research show that they are useful for remembering vocabulary.  Here is a gap-fill I created, you have five minutes to complete it."

Important:  When you receive negative feedback, do not attempt to justify your actions... just take it.  Stand there, nod your head, and take it.  It hurts sometimes.  You can direct the conversation to another person, "Jim, what do you think?" but you should not answer.  Write it down and think about it.

Colleague status

This is clearly limited to certain courses and special environments.  But this is the goal of every group I teach whether in one department or from diverse groups.  I want to build trust to the point that we can talk openly about every element of the training (and the business).  The colleague status is developed by combining the three in-class methods mentioned above plus regular communication, dedication, and common goals.

The hardest part of my job is convincing them that my satisfaction comes from watching them succeed (in fact, the most student I lose are those without goals).  I truly believe that if your inspiration is entirely self-serving, then you will never be able to deliver the service needed to maximize value added.  But this convincing takes time.  It is not an approach they are used to.

This means regular engagement with the learners to find out their problems, help them through them within the business constraints, provide accurate input at the time of need, etc.  In essence, value comes from being an integral part of their work life.  Running off copies and preaching about the Present Perfect Continuous does not normally do it.

Once feedback is constant in both directions, you will find the the glass doors to the person/business open wide and lead to immense value added.


While I have discussed three feedback techniques, the final element of colleague status is truly the pinnacle of excellent training and customer service.  The first step is that we seek, accept, and finally crave feedback from our learners in the same way they desire it from us.  It can change the entire dynamic of a class or project and considerably impact contract renewal and wages.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Jigsaw - Creating an Information Gap

I guess the two things that stick out most clearly from my teacher training course are 1) go out and learn English grammar/vocabulary as a non-native speaker, and 2) if you want to create speaking and communication in class you need to have an information gap.  The purpose of this post is to dive into that communication gap in in-company training.

The problem with in-company training is that the largest communication gap in the room is between the trainer and the learners.  The trainer possess the English language, and the participants have the business, the processes, the products, the suppliers, the genre, the conventions, the organizational structure, the goals... nearly everything.  Thus, it seems natural that many in-company courses would revert to an ongoing dialog between the trainer and the learners.  The learners explain the business and the trainer explains English (and in my case, why Americans have so many guns).  The learners actually seem to enjoy this communication gap.  They have safety in numbers, they do more listening than speaking, and they learn one or two things.  The curious trainer (like myself) also enjoys this dynamic because "when one person teaches, two people learn".

But I find myself increasingly annoyed by this classroom dynamic.  When I leave a class which devolves to this I chalk it up as a failed lesson and reflect on critical points where I could have guided it in another direction.  I recently performed an annual review of a project I am working on and it led me question why some groups had seen more progress than others.  I began testing hypotheses against groups outside the project.  Indeed, it appears that I see more progress and improvement when I am able to step back from the lesson and create information gaps between the participants themselves.  The survey responses say they have more progress when I am less involved (whether through teaching style or group dynamics).  No surprise, right... less teacher talking time, more functional language needed, etc.  So the answer must be to hand them role cards and sit back to take notes.

Unfortunately, the answer is not quite that simple.  Here a few things to consider when meaningful information gaps in class.

1.  Many people are information workers.  Their value to the company depends on their knowledge of processes and how to do things efficiently.  They are defensive about this.  I simple task such as "Teach the group how to file their travel expenses in SAP" can nearly eliminate their purpose of employment.  Once the group sees how simple the process is, the worker may feel they have to defend their value to company.  Of course, this does not merely apply to lower level workers.

'Silo thinking' can apply to many companies.  This means information can travel up and down in the hierarchy, but not across departments.  This may be the case when there are profit and cost centers for each department and internal pricing. In other words, department X charges department Y for services even though they are the same company.  Additionally, both have sales targets so they can give away too much information to others.

Lesson:  Be aware that information is power and internal pricing means that customers and salespeople may be in the same room.  When designing simulations, don't ask the students to give up more information than needed.

2.  Roles are not needs.  There are several cases in which I have given a student a role and they are simply a prop to the lesson.  The job is simply play the part so that the person next to them can practice specific needs.

This is a lack of creativity on the trainer's part.  I can do better by adapting the role-play or simulation to fit both needs.

Lesson:  Read the role cards critically.  If the overall role-play fits we may want to change "Student A".  This can be as simple as changing the word colleague to manager and vice versa.  The key is to look at the roles and imagine the conversation... does it fit the needs analysis?

3.  More than only jigsaw reading.  In the past we were constrained by the fact that content could only be delivered in written form.  If you are looking for the #1 education app... it is YouTube.  Give one group of students the tablet and watch a video on the laptop in the other room.  When accompanied by a supporting activity... bam!  An information gap.  Exploit it.

 4.  Simulations with different mindsets.  Six Thinking Hats was first written 13 years ago by Edward de Bono.   History has shown that it is largely false; people are simply not that consistent.  If you have not heard of it, he proclaims that lifestyle and values determine approaches to a problem.  Mr. de Bono defined six different thinking styles including speculative, creative, and emotional.

But while it may be useless as a determiner of personal values, it is helpful in training to create differences of opinion.  The lesson is quite simple... the trainer gives the learners a routine situation and assigns various roles based on the various mindsets.

An example of all combined:

You are tasked with assessing a bid for Russia Railways.  (This is a realistic role-play)

  • Give mindsets to various students and initiate a webquest. (Naturally, the roles are targeted.  But this lets the students hide a bit with plausible deniability.)
  • Due diligence:  What did you find?
  • Additional research:  Send groups to watch and report on various videos about the subject.
  • Agree on the overall need/benefits
  • Divide project tasks based on need.  This can go on for several lessons.


Creating an information gap within in-company courses is simple and easy to do.  But the even easier communication gap between trainer-students is a default setting of teachers.  The basic factors to a successful role-play is a data gap, a difference in purpose, and various approaches to a problem.  At the same time, we need to remember that the learners need a certain buffer or plausible deniability.  After all, their value to the company depends on how much they know.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Giving Learners Control of Skills Training

As I am sure everyone is aware, there are two types of grammar:  prescriptive and descriptive.  Prescriptive is a set of rules which standardize grammar and determine whether something is right or wrong.  Descriptive is a study of language as it actually is used to deduce a set of grammatical commonalities.

It looks like most teachers agree that teaching the descriptive grammar is more useful for the learners as communication trumps some arbitrary form of correctness.  Why, then, are we teaching prescriptive skills?

Prescriptive Skills

There is no one right way to lead a meeting, give a presentation, engage in a negotiation, write an email of request, and so on.  Research on discourse and the field of pragmatics help show something we already know... we change our language as we perceive the situation.  This goes way beyond register and whether something is formal or not.

Some have argued that language teaching should be more contextualized to ensure pragmatics are included and students gain the skills needed to alter their language to fit discourse.  This makes perfect sense.  But sometimes I see materials which have "Key Phrases for Meetings" or how to write a formal complaint.  This, however, adds a certain set of prescriptive rules for communication which may not always be appropriate.

A classic example of this are dialog structuring activities which allocate select phrases to students A and B to be used in a 'language flowchart'.  The context is provided through detailed role-plays and case studies.  But often I feel that these violate my "Train as you Fight" motto I picked up in the military.  In other words, the training context should be as close to real-world conditions as possible - modified only for ability.  This same approach is echoed repeatedly in other training fields when they discuss transfer design.

"Take this three times a day to cure bad meetings."
Descriptive Skills

So, if the intent of skills training is to introduce as much realism as possible, it is best that it includes contextual concerns.  This includes culture and relationship of the interlocutors, the communication conventions (e.g. structure, templates, etc.), intent, and desired perception.  When we add all of these together, it is clear that there is no one best way.

The problem is the complexity of all this.  How are we supposed to find resources for all of this information? How can we possibly create a list of phrases for meetings in every context?  This would be simply unworkable.  No doubt we as a profession have tried.  One day, I would like to compile all the useful phrases for small talk in my library and see how we are doing.

Hard to describe but it looks like art to me.
The answer is two-fold.  One, we have to accept complexity.  We have to understand that by describing something we inherently limit it.  By describing an effective presentation, we make all the other methods wrong.  So what happens if one week we do presentation training and the next week we watch a TED talk?

The second part of the answer is accept that we don't know everything.  The key to skills training is the students themselves. They can quickly offer all the contextual information we need and tell us what success looks like.

Elicited Rubrics

A key element of performance-based training is the assessment rubric.  I have written a bit about performance assessment in two earlier posts (lessons from the military and assessing quality).  Judith Mader has done extensive work on performance-based assessment in the field of pre-experience learners.  She's even written a book about it.  At the heart is designing a list of criteria and then evaluating whether the student met each of those criteria during the task.

For example, a very simple performance rubric might look something like this:

Note:  This is prescriptive...
So, my goal in skills training to develop a rubric which will not only assess the training event, but also give the learners a series of steps to successful fulfill the task.  It also provides ample room for teacher and peer feedback.  These rubrics can be extend to the right to include grading scales and exact performance measures.

Here is an example from a university for a written paper:

So, how do we create rubrics without assuming too much about context?  The answer is sitting right in front of us.  They know the interlocutors.  They know the context.  They know what they like and don't.  Let's ask  them.  By having an introductory conversation about the skill in context we can define the performance criteria together.  Furthermore, they have a stake in the process and are more likely to provide constructive feedback and transfer the skill to the workplace.

Lesson Idea 1 - Email to Request Information

With this B1-B2 class I had already conducted a needs analysis based on the communicative event, so I knew that requesting information from fairly distant colleagues was a common task.  The lesson was only 60 minutes so I needed to keep the frame fairly small.

I started the lesson with 10 minutes of small talk and catching up.  Then we came to the point.

Today we are going to write an email to request information.  You have just received an Outlook invitation for a meeting in Munich on May 29th (Munich is about 2 hours away).  You recognize the name of the organizer, but you don't know him.  We are going to write an email to find out more about the meeting and if we should accept.  I haven't included more information because I want you to fill in the details.

Then I created a mindmap on the board with "Request for information" in the middle.  Above it I wrote "Preferred" and below I wrote "To avoid".  We started by discussing things that should be included in the email (preferred).  We then added items which should be avoided.  As the moderator of the discussion, I made sure is encompassed linguistic as well as topical issues.

Then, they wrote the emails and I wrote one as well.  I ran to the copy machine and make copies for everyone.  While they were reading I marked the emails for corrections.  We then compiled phrases used by the various students to be used later.

This simple mindmap exercise can be done with any communicative event.  What makes a good meeting chairperson?  What should they avoid?  What is good when describing a presentation graphic?  What should we not do?  The teacher can help break it down to sentence level if needed.  But it is important that they provide the contextual information.

Lesson Idea 2 - Presentation Rubric

Above you have seen a prescriptive rubric for a presentation introduction.  I have also made such charts with the class.  Below is a lesson example from a tax consultancy.

Today we are going to practice starting a presentation.  You have been asked by the company to give a presentation to your client about new regulations on value-added taxes in Germany.  You will have to inform them about the changes so that you can file the VAT returns quickly and correctly.  Today we will practice only the introduction of the presentation... what you will say at the start.  So, let's start by talking about what is important to have in this introduction.

After the conversation, the rubric looked like this.

So, as a trainer, I knew what to listen for.  In this case, I actually put this rubric on the projector (I had a flipchart to brainstorm and projector to record) so that the small groups could give peer feedback.


At the end of both of these lessons, I left ample time for feedback and a chance to discuss what had happened during the training.  These rubrics can also be used for review or building to a larger task.

Prescribing a most effective way is not always bad.  Indeed, I use it often for certain groups.  For pre-experience learners there is little alternative.  For wide ranging need sets, it is sometimes acceptable.  And I will also use it for remote training (e.g. eLearning and email coaching) where feedback is not possible.  But this type of training is the lowest common denominator.  It should be better.

The point is, if we profess to know the best way to perform a business skills, we place our learners at a disadvantage.  Just like a prescriptive grammar teacher creates students who cannot operate in the real world, we can do the same with skills.  We need to accept the complexity of our learners' world, acknowledge that neither we nor our resources know everything, and let our students define the context.  Using the communicative event analysis provides us the tool for developing the framework materials, but it is up to the learners to take that step further to outline the rubric.  Naturally, the trainer is contributing every step of the way, but leading by questions... not by prescription.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

IATEFL Liverpool - What Business English Can Teach the Rest of ELT

Over the past several days I been listening to interesting ideas from around the world from the General English community (I haven’t attended any BE talks).  The larger world of ELT is full of amazing people.  But I also see areas where common practice in Business English training might help our colleagues.  So, here they are...

Lessons should matter to the students.  I am still fairly fresh to this profession, but apparently this idea of relevance is quite new in the theoretical approaches.  Surprisingly, this focus on making lessons engaging, unique, and useful to the learners in the class appears to be a wave in ELT.  In fact, it is so intuitive that I hear some BE trainers talking about how they have been doing this on their own for years just by feeling but without ELT recognition.  Suddenly, research appears to be validating what has been going on for a long time.

In other words, many Business English Trainers are developing methods and lessons which go far beyond anything being presented at IATEFL.  When it comes to focusing on the learners I see hesitation in the larger ELT community.  Dogme is the perfect example. 

I went to a popular talk yesterday by Luke Meddings and Burcu Akyol on the areas of overlap between unplugged and connected teaching.  Mr. Meddings started by saying that Dogme was now 13 years old, but then felt the need to (re)outline its principles at length.  Dogme’s principles can be distilled into one word... relevance.  He seemed to be answering critics of the approach through his talk.  I was asking myself why... hadn’t Dogme arrived? Wasn’t it accepted as a valid method of the teaching, at least by some communities?  But I guess not.  So apparently relevance of teaching is doubted by many.  On the other hand, when I met a BE Trainer from Berlin in the next session he said, “Well, [Dogme] is really a non-debate, isn’t it?”

Just to clarify the concept of relevance.  I am using this in many ways to include...
  • Content should relate to the learners’ lives in a meaningful way.
  • The language should be brought to where they are and integrated into their lives.  In BE we are often in-company, dealing with real world events.  For school age learners this means taking the language into their social network spaces, for example. 
  • Learners are the center of the lessons, discussing their thoughts, expressing their real selves through English.    
  • Teachers should focus on skills and language the learner needs, both now in and in the future.

Finally, BE trainers take it for granted that no publisher could ever write a fully relevant course book.  This is why we so rarely use them unless standardization is required.  But I think we can help share our experiences in designing and guiding relevant training. 

Customer Service

The idea of stakeholders and customers seems to be lost.  Overall, I tend to hear phrases like “get your students to...” and “make/have your students do...”  But I have yet to hear anything like, “If your students want/need/lack, do...”

But the latter is the everyday reality of Business English Trainers.  In conversations with other trainers here we speak about flexibility and accommodation all the time.  We are so focused on the customer that we are a chameleon of approaches and methods.  But the talks here in Liverpool show that categorized teaching persists.

The second part of this is many teachers fail to realize the customer / stakeholder relationship of their profession.  While we speak about satisfying the needs of the learner, manager, HR, and procurement all the time, I never hear parents, children, ministries, and school administration being mentioned (when they are, it is merely as a barrier to something the teacher wants to do).  These concepts are actually so closely related we need to have an expert step up and compare this.  Overall, I feel we have been successful at balancing these interest groups but many of the complaints in General English show substantial conflict exists in their field.  We can help.

(Section below added April 12)

On this point, I attended a talk from the British Council on a project to help public school teachers in former East Germany improve their English.  The project director gave the audience a set of lessons learned from the challenges they faced dealing with the education ministry, the teacher training institute, the teachers themselves, and the trainers.  While the project was and continues to be successful, there were several contractual and coordination issues which caused strain on the various relationships.

I believe that someone working with companies to design and implement Business English training would have been a great addition to the BC team.  Many in the field are adept at conducting stakeholder analysis and identifying the tensions between expectations.  I had the impression that BC was picking up some of these lessons by trial and error.  Without question, the organization has a depth of talent in teacher training, but many BE trainers know that managing stakeholder expectations is a key ingredient.  In essence, because we work with businesses, as businesses, and talking about business, we think more like businesses.


I have been attending various talks from the SIGs this week.  One was from Sandy Millin.  She is a popular blogger, recently finished a DELTA (or is close to finishing), and one of the inspirational people I follow online.  She presented a very useful overview of International House Newcastle’s Personal Study Programme.  I was interested because it was part of the Learner Autonomy SIG day.  The guided self-study program IH has set up is great but it is still a work in progress.  I think BE trainers may even have larger issues with learner autonomy than General English self-funded (or parent-funded) learners.  I think we can add our experiences to the Lerner Autonomy discussion.

Ms. Millin did a great job.  In fact, she displayed the best presentation skills I have seen at the conference so far (well-rehearsed, clear message, calm in voice and manner).  Her intent was to share and spread.  Her audience, however, was clearly expecting more.  She faced a series of challenge and opinion questions at the end (prefaced by politeness of course).  As I was leaving the room I heard two conversations about how her ideas would not work.  The best of these was how the teachers in the self-study room had not received the proper training as tutors.  The participant’s school had instituted something similar and they had received “loads of training” on tutoring.  I still can’t quite understand.  If a qualified English teacher (at DELTA level in this case) is not suitable as a tutor, who is?

The point is... many in ELT do not understand innovation.  Innovation is the formulation of an idea which is feasible, desirable, and adds value.  IH Newcastle has a profitable and feasible idea which helps learner autonomy.  The desirability from the learner’s side was left somewhat unanswered (the price/time was bundled into overall order), but Ms. Millin was clear that motivation is a work in progress.  This is innovation in a simple form.  It is a small, but useful, step toward learner autonomy.

Private language schools (like IH) are businesses and their product is education.  Therefore, they need to consider new ideas with a business mindset.  Even public schools and universities are pseudo-businesses.  They provide education and must demonstrate value.  In Business English we think about this all the time.  How can I differentiate myself through approach and methods?  Will my clients find this blended learning tool useful and desirable... and how should I charge for the time to run it?  And so on.  But in the larger world of English teaching, the thinking is different.  New ideas are prodded and poked and we dismiss them on the backs of completely frivolous concerns.  Instead, let’s change our perspective on innovation.

So, this post does include some sweeping generalization about both ELT and Business English.  I know the reality is much more complex.  But looking down at Liverpool from the top of the Ferris wheel next to the center... this is what I see.  I learn every day from talented teachers in the ELT field like Mr. Meddings and Ms. Millin.  But I think as BE Trainers, we can and should give something back.  I think next year I’ll submit a presentation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

IATEFL Liverpool - Three People to Follow

During my first 36 hours in Liverpool there have been three people truly worth following and using their expertise for use in the Business English classroom.  In no particular order...

Sacha Euler

Based in Trier, Germany, Mr. Euler is the scholarship winner from the new Pronunciation SIG for this year’s conference.  His presentation on the implementation of connected speech phonology was simply outstanding.  While those unfamiliar with phonology and its terminology might have been a bit lost by the jargon and pace of the presentation, his research and thoughts are fantastic.  He bridges the gap between research and application in materials and lessons.

As virtual meetings become the international communication method of choice, pronunciation and listening comprehension play a vital role in effective communication.  His research and application in materials is groundbreaking, yet simple to adopt.  His methods, while presented as a tool to understand native speakers, could also help our learners with difficult accents and self-regulation when speaking with other non-native speakers.  I can only hope that Mr. Euler will present again, or at least spread his knowledge on the Internet.  I wish I could provide links... in the meantime we can use authentic listening resources (and semi-authentic like Collins English for Business:  Listening) combined with connected speech resources to help develop this training.

Leo Selivan

Mr. Selivan is a General English Teacher in Israel with the British Council.  At first glance, this may not appear to be the profile of someone with much to say on Business English.  But his work on the Lexical Approach is so useful it would be irresponsible to neglect his ideas when encountering vocabulary during our lessons.  Since I focused on how I am dealing with lexis in my lessons I have seen significant improvement in noticing, recognition, retention, and production.

I highly recommend following him on Twitter, reading his blog and archive, as well as this post from Carolyn Kerr based on his similar talk at the TESOL France conference last year.  Although I think all teaching approaches should be handled in moderation and with a pinch of skepticism, I am looking forward to reading the treatises on the Lexical Approach (book 1/book 2) by Michael Lewis.

Jeremy Day

For me, Mr. Day was simply a name I commonly saw on the bottom of ESP books.  I thought he was merely a subject matter expert in two or three niche markets.  It was not until recently that I discovered his blog (notice related posts at bottom) which appeared to be abandoned since 2011.  But when I started reading the blog (I tend to read blogs in their entirety, like books) I saw how really flexible and trailblazing he is in Business English.  Here in Liverpool I just had the chance to see him present in person.  His presentation on ESP course design is excellent.

His talk on two approaches to course design was spot on and echoed (and predates) much of what we as BE trainers are doing... teach to the communicative event, do not treat linguistic competency as a linear process.  Mr. Day expressly stated that both teaching approaches are valid, but it is clear for me that in in-company situations the targeted training is often the way to go.

Since 2010, he has been working with English 360.  But this is recent news to me and caused me to go back and take a look at their product.  I still think it is the best blending learning site for BE trainers on the market.  The concept of plug-and-play resources to design your own blended learning course is great.  I also like the activity variety and interface.  Finding appropriate resources is a bit clunky and takes a considerable amount of search and clicks, but it is definitely worth a look.  They continue to host a wide range of CUP materials and I see that the user-generated and non-publisher materials are growing.  This is great news.

In total, these three men (coincidentally all male) have made my first two days at the conference completely worthwhile.  They may consider their ideas only a drop in an ELT ocean (this conference has that effect), but they can have a real impact on our BE training.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Linguistics Theory and Real World Training

I am not a linguist.  Most of what I have learned about the field comes from the Wikipedia Linguistics section and observation both in class and in the real world.  I'm always impressed by trainers and academics who work in the various subfields like Pragmatics or Phonology.  Without question, I owe much to their research and effort.  The depth of their analysis is simply breathtaking.

Nor am I an expert in Second Language Acquisition.  My initial education in SLA was simply by critically reading course books and asking, "Why did they write it this way?"  Now, I rely on Scott Thornbury for this, as I suspect many front-line teachers do.  My initial goal was to simply understand what he was talking about.  The real gold mine of knowledge is not his A-Z blog, but rather his list of written works.

All too often, it takes considerable trailblazing to link these theories to the reality of my learners.  The enhanced analysis produced by academia is often so detailed we can miss the forest for the trees.  We are now mapping collocations across two centuries (BYU/Google Books) and assessing the pragmatic meaning of utterances with conceptual nouns at such a minute level it leaves the trainer lost for clear guidance.  We are even left trying to define methodologies across a spectrum of distant names like Krashen and Lozanov.  Lives are spent specializing in these fields.

But as Business English trainers we cannot turn our backs on this range of knowledge.  The other extreme is just as fruitless.  There is a pull on our community to become experts in the "skills" such as negotiations, intercultural communication, and presentations.  This is a louder and more public group of experts.  There is a shine to these practitioners and perhaps more money.  But this is not my role either.  I believe our purpose is to link these two fields.

Furthermore, our knowledge base needs to be broad enough in both areas to identify the correct communication tool.  Sometimes it is skills, sometimes it is linguistic.  One thing is for sure, we cannot expect linguistic experts (e.g. published course books) to give us everything we need to know about skills and we should not trust skills experts to provide linguistic expertise.

Here are two examples of how this works...

Skills Problem

A participant in one of my courses recently asked me to help him with a problem with an American colleague.  He wanted a sentence he could say to show that he was offering help.  The colleague in the US always reacted unexpectedly.  Defensive would be too strong of a word, but he always seemed uncomfortable with the offer and rejected it immediately.  The learner here in Germany thought he had said something wrong and he had somehow offended his colleague.  The American would never accept his assistance and he wanted me to give him a sentence to make it better.

But this was not a linguistic problem.  The problem was instead with the team dynamic and the difference in organizational culture between the German and US departments (notice here it was not national culture). I sent the following email and we had a meeting to discuss the issue.  By the end of the meeting we had worked down to sentence level.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’ for this type of reaction.  Instead, it appears that the relationship is not the best.  His response to offering help is only a symptom of the real problem.  The question is then... what is the real problem?

To start, I would need more information to help define the issue.  Then we can formulate a strategy for dealing with this person and identify language which would resonate with him.

So here are some questions and feedback:

Trust is built on character and competence.  Do you believe he is competent?  If not, why?  What do you think about his character?  What does he think about his own competence?  Is he new in his position or field?  Is he stressed from the expectations of the job?  What does he think of your competence and character?  How can you tell that he feels that way?  Do you trust him?  Does he know you trust him?

Team building is not easy and goes through phases.  How long have you worked together?  Do the team members really know each other?  Does the team have a common purpose and result?  Does everyone know it?  Are the members committed to the team or are there other priorities?  What are they?  What is the definition for success for your team?  Does your team have a track record of successes?  Is there a reward for success?  Does your team accept and use conflict as creative/critical thinking?  How do you and your colleague fit into this team?  Do you have roles?  Did the boss give you those roles or did they evolve?

Everyone has goals and motivation.  What are his goals?  (e.g. Is he trying to prove himself to the team?  Does he want a promotion?)  What does he think your goals are?  Why?

Everyone has assumptions.  What does he think about the department in Germany?  What does he think about working with Germans?  Why?  Based on those assumptions, is he positive, negative, or neutral about working with your team?  What are his assumptions about you?  Why?  What are your assumptions about him?  Does he feel them?

Everyone has pride.  Clearly, you are proud of your children.  You talked about them on the first day we met.  You are also proud of your intelligence (and you should be).  You seem to enjoy the mentor role.  Do you want to mentor him?  What is he proud of?  Why?

You don’t have to answer these questions in an email, we can discuss it.  But I would like you to think about these questions.  When we have an answer to these questions then we can work down to sentence level.

So, I hope we can work together on this and develop a solution.

By the end of the meeting we had identified several team and trust issues and dealt with ways to handle them.  We also discussed the word "just" with the continuous form to show intent.  To give this type of training we need to know about trust, team building, working in virtual teams, and the effect of personal goals on communication.

Linguistic Problem

Most of my learners are using English in virtual meetings with native speakers, India, and China.  Their biggest concern is comprehension.  In this case the problem has less to do with the set phrases in the meeting or even running effective meetings.  The answer here is in pronunciation and phonology.  To help ease the communication problem I laid out a plan to tackle accents and connected speech.  The group is B1 and they are within a comfortable discourse community and lexical set.

Step one was to introduce sentence stress and reduction in connected speech among native speakers.  Then I could approach syllable-timed and stress-timed languages.  Additionally, I could dive into Learner English to identify certain phonemes which might be causing problems.  Mixed with a healthy dose of authentic listening, we might just be able to crack this nut.

The plan got off to a rocky start.  I started with reviewing the pronunciation of weak auxiliaries and short forms.  This was okay, but when I took it a step further and showed them "h" dropping, they were resistant.  In fact, there was nearly outright revolt in the class as suddenly they believed that I was teaching them some laughable dialect of American English.  One woman went so far to say, "No, no... this is not right.  My British supplier speaks a very good English.  He does not do this."  But I know this exists!  Mark Hancock and Sylvie Donna said so!  And I have heard it often first hand.

Clearly more research on my part was necessary.  In the end I found the answer by digging deep into the linguistic research world.  It turns out that the answer is in German, not English.  In Modern German Pronunciation, Christoper Hall points out that reduction and assimilation is common in everyday German (which I knew from my own problems in my second language) but that it is also rarely used in formal contexts.  He states,

"English weak forms are dictated entirely by the stress and rhythm of the sentence and are completely unconnected with differences in style, in other words, weak forms in English are used even in very formal speech. ... The use of German weak forms, on the other hand, depends decisively on the pronunciation style... The general rule is that in formal pronunciation weak forms are less frequent..." (p 154)

So, here was the key to unlocking the comprehension issues in the virtual meetings.  First, I had to show them that weak forms do not affect image as in German.  Then we could deal with sentence stress.  Then the plan could continue.

These two examples show how our profession is not a one-or-the-other field.  Instead it is a balance between the two.  To fulfill our role and expectations, we must be able to balance these two influences.  If we feel ourselves uncomfortable within the skills area or relying too heavily on course book 'expertise' we need to improve our business communication competence and relevance.  On the other hand, if we find ourselves drifting too far into the flashy world of TED talks and intercultural negotiations, we need to pull back and rediscover our linguistic roots.  Striking the right balance is not easy for me, but my learners benefit greatly when I get it right.   

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

BE Trainer goes to Liverpool

This will be only my second IATEFL conference, and only my third English teaching conference in total, but I think I am starting to find my way around these things.  So here are my plans for Liverpool 2013...

1.  Approach the Program with a Strategy

Last year, my general approach was benchmarking.  I wanted to find out if I was doing the right thing in my lessons and training design.  The goal was to walk away with an action plan for improvement.  In other words... I was an idea thief.

But the conference did not really live up to my expectations.  Or maybe I had surpassed my own expectations.  What I learned was that I am actually quite good at this training thing.  I enjoy it, I have an approach which blends best practice from various sources, plus it fits my context, my personality, and most importantly, my learners' expectations and needs.

It would be a shame, however, to spend all of the money on travel and accommodation only to hear things I already know.  So this year, I have worked out several "needs improvement" categories.  When viewing the program, I will focus on those talks which can help shed some light on how to improve.  In short, the plan is not to steal ideas, rather use the talks as a spark to generate my own.

For me, the areas of focus this year are:

  • Writing better materials (especially for other trainers)
  • E-learning (from design to implementation to learner acceptance)
  • Broadening my cultural horizons - I teach in a monolingual/monocultural context.  I would like to be more flexible.
2.  Vet the speakers and remain critical of the descriptions

Sadly, last year I attended several talks which only vaguely resembled the printed descriptions in the program.  In some cases, the presenters failed to reach the "ah ha!" moment.  It appeared as though they were holding back.  I divided these talks into three groups:

  1. The crucial information the audience wanted was proprietary.  "This topic is very useful and important, but if you want to know what it is, buy the book, take the course, etc."
  2. The speaker was unsure of their own expertise.  "I think this is a really effective approach to the topic, but there are a lot of really smart people here and I don't want to say anything wrong so I will just allude to it."
  3. The speaker tried to accomplish too much in the time slot.  "So that is the extensive background to this topic...  Oh, I see we are running out of time and I wanted to save some for questions.  So, here very quickly is the main point... okay, thanks for coming."
So, what I am looking for are names I have seen on Twitter and in other conferences, but who are not promoting a book/website/course.  I am also looking for unknown speakers who are dealing with a very specific issue which might support one of my three goals.

3.  Take Time Off and Find a Comfortable Chair

Last year, I came back from Glasgow exhausted.  I attended an unbelievable number of sessions, I ate very little, drank too much, stayed up too late, and was generally uncomfortable much of the time.  My cheeks hurt from smiling and my ears hurt from intensive listening.  I do not want to repeat this performance.

But on the other hand, I will pay a sizable sum to attend the conference and I want to make sure I do not miss something which might repay the cost.  In Glasgow, I picked up a few ideas which I then developed and sold, thus recouping the expenditure.  However, I plan to take it a little easier this year and come home a bit more refreshed.

4.  It's All about the People

For those of us who are active and passionate about professional development, the ideas presented during the sessions are largely available online.  Instead of taking copious notes, I will simply keep a Evernote page for the entire conference with topics for later research, links, and people.  There is simply too much information during the week to really learn.  Instead, I can take my list home and prioritize it while half-watching a reality show on my couch.  Most of the presentations, handouts, and the like will be hosted anyway.

This will save my brain cells for getting to know people I have only met online, speaking with the friends I have made (and failed to keep in touch with), and asking lots of questions to lots of really talented and intelligent people.  It has been mentioned elsewhere, but the most interesting parts of conferences are truly the short conversations with diverse opinions.  In fact, I'm thinking about submitting a proposal for a BESIG workshop in Prague which has no topic.  Think of it as conference Dogme... just get a bunch of super-smart people in a room and see what emerges.  I wonder if that would be accepted?  But perhaps there is someone better to host it...


If you are coming to Liverpool, I would love to meet you.  It would be great to grab a drink as well, but we all know how schedules are at conferences.  I hope you have a great trip and I'll see you next week.