Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pre-experienced and Experienced Learners - Thoughts from Graz

I have been giving presentations and writing blog posts about in-company training for the last several years.  Especially with the presentations, I often have problems trying to fit the content to the audience.  The problem is that I am facing two separate market segments... in-company trainers (often freelancers) who typically have much greater scope in determining needs, selecting/creating materials and delivering training.  But also in the audience are the Business English teachers and lecturers who have less control over the learning objectives, resources and methods.  Additionally, they face drastically different challenges concerning learner motivation, class size and assessment/reporting.  Not having experience operating in such a formal structure, I'd like to pass on some thoughts on what I see as those students enter the workforce and perhaps reflect on where I could see changes in institutional teaching.

Despite being in-company, I actually receive many pre-experienced learners.  My training is often aligned with the company's on-boarding program and the majority of new participants are in their first days or weeks at the company.  It is also normal for me to get participants who do not use English in their jobs yet, but it is coming.  In these cases, I feel I can relate somewhat to the challenges teachers face with pre-experienced learners.

I can draw several conclusions from what I see as these participants enter my training.

1.  Learners who had an English course which was aligned with their field of study had great advantages over those who only had a general Business English class.

2.  Motivation was much higher for learners who clearly understood that a) English would certainly be a integral part of their job and b) being able to conduct their job in English would be a competitive advantage for career progression.  Those who lacked this awareness were surprised by the reality of a bilingual working environment and suffered lower self-confidence.  They often had negative feelings toward improving their language.

3.  If an institution taught English as a practical skill, their graduates were much better prepared.  If the school treated English as a theoretical concept, the graduates were largely unable to adequately perform their tasks in L2.  This mindset was often reflected by the teaching methods and content.  Practical teaching focused heavily on production activities throughout the teaching, not just at assessment.  Unsurprisingly, those who emerged from a more theoretical approach were often overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of the language.

Let me give you examples of things going wrong.  You might be surprised at how often I am faced with entry-level accountants who cannot recognize the basic vocabulary from a balance sheet (almost zero new graduates).  Likewise, I routinely meet fresh-faced employees in the mechanical engineering field who cannot understand even the simplest terms like bearing, dimensions, or bolt.  I see this across fields with the exception of software.  I suspect that is because software terms have been developed in conjunction with the spread of English, they have an advantage because they often do not have L1 equivalent words.  However, you can see how wholly unprepared some of these learners are for performing their job in English.

Of course, I do not want to lump all educational institutions together.  There are many very good programs which are producing excellent international employees.  But the results appear to be hit or miss.  The one area in Germany which seems to be particularly poor is the apprenticeship path.  And this leads to a few observations about the content-need mismatch.

First, students and apprentices need English at a tactical level.  If course books reflect the nature of educational teaching, the content is far too managerial and strategic.  Even university graduates are entering the work force at a low level in the organization structure.  Most English communication at this level is problem oriented.  Companies have automatic processes/workflows and IT systems to handle routine tasks.  If everything runs as it should, very little communication is needed.  However, when the system breaks down, communication is needed to get back on track.  For example, missed deliveries, higher costs, missing files, incomplete reports, etc. are at the heart of communication.  New employees are not generally making business plans, discussing how to foster entrepreneurship in the company, devising a market campaign, or discussing who to promote and why.  Even among high-flyers, the company will not hand this much responsibility to a new employee from day one.  They typically have a separate development path in the company, but still deal with tactical matters at the beginning.

Second, far more English communication occurs internally or semi-internally than with customers.  Evan Frendo is right on the money with this observation and I cannot stress this point enough.  Most companies have strict communication filters between themselves and the customer.  In many cases, all external communication must go through a very small team in the corporate communications, marketing or sales departments.  There are a few exceptions to this, but they are all highly specialized.  For example, the customer service department speaks with customers, as will the accounting department in case of wrong invoices.  By and large however, entry-level employees are kept at arms length from the customer.  More English communication occurs semi-internally.  In this case, the employee needs to work with long-term suppliers or distributors.  While the communication is often between two companies, they work together so often and so deeply that they could almost be regarded as colleagues.  But by far, the most communication is internal - from department to department.  It is generally the consequence of off-shoring and outsourcing which are also the main reasons why English is needed so badly at lower echelons in the company.  A typical situation might be an email between the quality auditor in the home country and the factory in Romania.  Another example is the software developer in India and the tester in Germany.

Third, communication is highly transactional, but... it is far more complex that "Could you please...?"  I hear all the time from new participants that they want to improve "small talk".  When I scratch beneath the surface however, I find that what they really want is the ability to build relationships with their international contacts to ease the transactional nature of business.  They want to build trust with their global colleagues and suppliers.  The second aspect of communicating in companies is that students enter a high-context culture.  Office discourse is so difficult because of the body of shared knowledge, differing objectives and the hierarchical structure of decision-making and information flow.  While the email may be a simple request for clarification on the surface, the context can quickly land the employee in hot water.  I'm not sure this second aspect can be dealt with in education, but the teacher may want to keep it in mind.

So, what do I recommend?

1.  Create a balanced English program - one-third general English, one-third general Business English, one-third field specific "ESP Lite".  General English is important and under represented in the secondary schools (at least in Germany).  From the ages of 12-16, English is taught resembling CLIL.  Looking through the state school books, there is a chapter on Australia, the Big Apple, and reading about Obama's election.  I can distinctly remember helping a friend's child try to learn the words, abolition, underground railroad, whip, and quilt.  Can you imagine the topic?  I don't want to exaggerate, nor do I wish to insult school teachers at all.  I merely want to point out that some of the content prior to entering university is of marginal value in business socializing.  Also, by the time they enter the workforce years later, they often lack the simplest vocabulary to discuss their weekend.  I think ongoing general English learning would be very helpful.  I also think that general Business English is helpful as a foundation up to the intermediate level.  The problem with higher levels is the content of the course book.  Course books are generally organized by field:  one chapter on HR, one on projects, one on marketing, etc.  This works up to B1-B2 but then they become overly specific in the fields.  I think "ESP Lite" would be extremely helpful.  This will help the students prepare for the next steps.

2.  Take a step back from standardization.  I understand that a certain level of standardization is needed in an institutional environment.  However, I also observe that university level Business English teachers are an incredibly talented and professional group.  When I present at BESIG conferences, this is the group which makes me the most nervous because of their knowledge, expertise and experience.  I periodically lead standardized training with larger classes, but I always work under a very general set of can do statements.  Within the statement is enough room for me to maneuver.  I am able to conduct a modified needs analysis to refine the training.  The more detailed the can do statement, the more we rely on the institution's needs analysis.  In others words, the can do statement (and thus the assessment) had better be relevant or else we are wasting everyone's time.  I'm just thinking out load, but do these expert university teachers really need a step-by-step lesson plan with page numbers and activity types?

3.  Fortify the feedback loop from practice to content.  I currently have the suspicion from my pre-experience learners that many need analysis are conducted in Oxford, Cambridge or in the halls of Pearson Education.  Instead, I recommend shortening the feedback loop by drawing on a few resources.  Most institutions have a career placement program to help students transition to careers.  Where are graduates going?  What are they doing?  If a job is unfamiliar, read example job descriptions or visit the US Department of Labor Occupational Handbook for more.  Another idea is to build a relationship with HR groups and/or in-company Business English trainers in the area to get feedback.  For example, did you know that presentations are often much different in technical fields?  First, PowerPoint slides need more text because they must be clear without a verbal presentation.  The slide decks can travel far in the company without any meeting or spoken communication at all.  Second, verbal presentations are typically less than 5 minutes long and the most common visual aid is an Excel spreadsheet.  A presentation given in 'ELT format' is completely irrelevant.

In conclusion, I want to be very clear that my observations about the challenges in Business English teaching cannot possibly reflect every institution and every teacher.  However, I have questions based on the number of participants I see entering the workforce without the ability to conduct even the most routine tasks in their field.  Their brains are full of valuable knowledge and ideas, but they are locked behind the bars of language and skills.  I hope that my thoughts add something to the pre-experienced vs. experience learner discussion and I look forward to hearing your feedback.


  1. An interesting post as always, Charles, very much grounded in the real world!

    With regard to presentations, there does seem to be a need for a "non-standard ELT" approach in technical fields and maybe other situations such as team meetings as well. Could Slidedocs, as conceived by Nancy Duarte ( fit the bill? I'd be interested to know what you think given your experience of teaching in-service technical learners.

    Best wishes,


  2. Hi Philip,
    Thanks for the comment and the link... very nice. My reaction to the Slidedocs is mixed.

    - Duarte has an accurate idea of how PowerPoint is used in business (both for presentations and 'handbooks'/reports).
    - She/Her company is correct that the two purposes warrant two different document types or a hybrid type that is brief yet complete... designed to be read.
    - The overview is great for teachers and trainers to gain awareness for how presentations are actually used... highly recommended reading.
    - This topic is great for discussion in groups. My participants are all well aware of what makes an effective slide, but they are limited by company conventions.
    - The language and style advice is best practice.

    - The examples shown are too professional and time-consuming for most employees. We will need to find shortcuts. They don't have the time or technical skills to create this level of design.
    - Many employees are not 100% sure about the distribution/presentation method when they write the slides. My initial advice is to create the "slidedoc" first, then cut and delete for a verbal presentation. Send out the full version, present the 'visual' version. But, I'm not totally satisfied with this advice. (Most employees don't have time to create two documents from scratch.)
    - Whenever we train skills, we need to make sure they meet the company constraints/conventions. Company PowerPoint templates and style guides may not always support such documents. It is certainly a great method and wonderful advice, let's just make sure the learners can actually apply it.

    Again, thanks sooo much for the link. I will certainly use it and I recommend it. But I will have to think about which parts are applicable and which aren't.