Monday, April 27, 2015

10 Things you should learn when starting Business English training

Just doing a little Sunday blog catch up when I came across Rachel Dew's report from week two of her CELTA training in Berlin. It was interesting for me because she is attending the same program I finished six years ago. I thought it was (and I see it still is) a well-run program. Of course looking back, some things are more useful and some less so, but it is not a training course for Business English trainers. It is a preparation course for the more educational side of the ELT industry.

With that in mind, here are 10 things you should learn when starting work in Business English.

1. How to complete a proper needs analysis

This is the starting point with every client. There are many examples of poor needs analysis from the ELT industry. They fit into two categories: 1) those that assess the big four language skills of the reading, writing, speaking and listening; and 2) those that focus solely on the big skills of meetings, telephoning, emails, presentations and negotiations without digging deeper.  Neither will give you much information about what content to bring to the training.

International Business English communication is either event driven (often problem-related) or time driven (routine). Each time the learner needs to communicate in English, there is a clear purpose and desired outcome. The method is secondary (written, in a presentation, etc.).  I recommend either using my analysis of the communicative events or using business processes as Even Frendo has shown. They approach the same problem (why someone is communicating) from two perspectives.

2. How to teach one-to-one

Teaching one-to-one is much different than training a group. The skills for teaching one-to-one are much more closely related to coaching. The training materials needed are different, the methods are different, etc. You will also likely find yourself in very small groups (2-3) which is closer to one-to-one teaching than some of the group methods taught in teacher-training courses. Onestop English has some useful starter tips about managing the one-to-one environment.

As a further step, you may want to learn some methods coaches use to help their clients meet their goals.

3. How to design a training plan assuming fluctuating attendance

Assuming you are working with 'in-service' learners (I hate that term :)) you will most likely face wildly fluctuating attendance. The best you can expect in an in-company course is 80%, but 50-60% is more realistic if there is no training certificate. Do not take attendance personally, it is not completely connected to enjoyment and usefulness. It is often simply a result of the participants' busy lives.

Because of that, you should learn how to be flexible in your course design. In general, each lesson should complete the learning objective for the session - stand-alone. Course plans need to have a more modular structure. It is generally not a good idea to assume the same people will attend next week and they will have prepared thoroughly for the training. This is one reason coursebooks are a bad idea. Books are only slightly modular by lesson (some more than others). I suspect this is to thwart photocopying.

4. How to effectively monitor and give feedback

You will quickly find that speaking is the most desired and most important language skill. Without question, people read and write a lot in their work. But they get by with dictionaries and clarification. It's not the most efficient method, but most learners are focused on speaking.

This means you need to learn how to take effective monitoring notes. Understand the difference between fluency and accuracy speaking activities. I write my notes/monitor on different levels.

  1. Content - What are they saying? What are they talking about?
  2. Errors - Are they making mistakes they shouldn't? Will they lead to misunderstandings or distract the purpose of communication?
  3. Gaps - What are they avoiding? Are they explaining around missing vocabulary or grammar?
  4. Emergence - Are they taking risks? What are they creating which we should share with everyone?

Giving feedback is also a skill to learn. It's a good idea for you to process your feedback before throwing it back at the learners. It's also nice to explain the effect of the performance (e.g. how it could cause a misunderstanding). And don't forget the praise - put yourself in their shoes.

5. How to be flexible in the training room

Current teacher training courses stress planning on the assumption of linear course plans. Business English courses (outside of educational institutions) are rarely linear. You will find yourself helping the learners to be highly proficient at one communicative event while largely ignoring others. You will also have to respond quickly to requests or 'just-in-time' learning needs.

As a first step, you should develop and perfect materials-free mini-lessons for common grammar points. Grammar is by far the easiest subset to train because there are a limited number of learning points and they generally have rules. Plus, mistakes are easier to identify than gaps. The greater flexibility you have in the training room to create off-the-cuff activities, the better you can respond to needs and feedback.

6. How to write simple materials quickly

Simple materials are things like vocabulary worksheets and role-plays. You don't need to write an entire coursebook, but you should be able to pound out a worksheet in under a half-hour. In fact, a real skill is to be able to make the worksheet in class with the participants.

Vocabulary is the main issue here. Few available materials can correctly identify the vocabulary your students need. Business communication is content high and quite specific. Publisher have to approach things from a much higher level. You will find yourself collecting dozens of words and terms (don't forget to bring the internet) and you need to do something with them.

You will get better at writing and organizing your simple materials so that they are re-usable and easy to locate at the spur of the moment.

7. How to be a 'model' for skills training

Coursebook audio files are often abysmal. Many are good for listening comprehension because they bring another voice in the training room, but the modelling is often so far from reality that they border on humor. In many cases it is up to the trainer to model certain communicative events.

You will often be the chair of meetings, the presenter, the negotiating partner. You should learn how to do these things well and in the context of the their needs. If you are teaching language for leading a workshop... lead a workshop. Monitor yourself and highlight key strategies and language. And finally, make the model authentic.

8. How to find 'target language' from authentic materials

Authenticity and relevance are key words in Business English and they support something called transfer design, which means to design training so that it is clear and easy to transfer the skill into the workplace. The short cut for transfer is using authentic materials. Be aware that there are two types of authentic materials, those which talk about work (e.g. articles) and those which perform work (e.g. slide decks and emails). In my jargon, I use 'authentic' only for the latter.

If you are working in the company, it's slightly easier to come by authentic materials than sitting in a language school. There are fewer concerns about confidentiality and it's just logistically simpler. When mining authentic materials, it is a good idea to focus more on vocabulary (especially high frequency lexis) than on grammar. You are starting to tap the discourse community, this is only the first step on a long road. :)

9. How to walk and talk like someone on the same level as the participants

You will likely hear at some point that "we bring the language and they bring the business". In other words, we don't need to know their field (or even that it is impossible). Don't fall into this trap. Naturally, it is not possible to be an expert in the field of the learners, but it is possible to become an 'informed interlocutor'. This is someone who can carry on a meaningful conversation about the field and understand the concepts (and even many details) about the work. This takes time and research.

The value of becoming an informed interlocutor is that you can drive the learners into greater detail and create more realistic training. Everyday business communication is extremely content heavy and detail focused. Whenever starting work in a new field (e.g. finance or engineering), do some research about the company, processes and concepts in the industry. Seek to drive learners into greater and greater detail.

Finally, your whole presence and appearance should emulate their discourse community.

10. How to take from coursebooks without breaking copyright

Content will be one of your main concerns when starting out in Business English. Published materials are most people's starting point. Keep in mind that while coursebooks are pedagogically sound, they are not designed with your specific participants in mind. It is also unethical (and illegal) to break copyrights. But coursebooks are extremely helpful.

First, they provide great ideas for activities, especially role-plays. One trick is to read the role-play and think about how you can perform the intent of the activity without the content, or alter the situation to better fit your participants. Plus, nearly every activity type in coursebooks can be replaced with a materials light alternative using the whiteboard, note cards, flip chart paper, etc. Deconstruct coursebook activities to find the core process and insert your own content.

Second, they are a useful resource for determining learning objectives. The table of contents is perhaps the most useful section and I like to consult several books of the same level when laying out course plans. Caution however, most books cover much more grammar than is needed by your participants. For example, if you find yourself inserting the Past Perfect into an intermediate-level course plan, make sure that is really the best use of everyone's time for reaching their communication goals. Also, double-check the communicative events of your learners before embarking on that phrasal verb and idioms module. You can probably find something more valuable.

So, those are my top ten things to learn (and master) during your first view years in Business English.  Also, these are basically the starting points for every trend in BE including coaching, English as a Lingua Franca, materials and learner motivation. I wish you the best of luck and don't forget to have fun.

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