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.