Reflective practice and the business English teacher

Business English teachers are a bit of an unusual species in the ELT jungle you might say. They don´t spend their time with four year olds singing songs about what they like to eat nor do they usually have to prepare teenagers for rigorous Cambridge exams, instead they teach adults, often in the companies where they work, and these adults are often stressed out, short on time and frequently on the move. This is often also true of your typical business teacher as well. We are under pressure to look as professional as the CEOs we might teach, deliver just in time and just right training, while making the lessons sufficiently “fun” that the students will actually want to continue having lessons with us. How should we then react to those who tell us that what we need is some reflective practice?

What should we understand by reflective practice? What can it mean to us? Is it a stealthy foe or a welcome ally? For me the most helpful definition is Clarke´s interpretation of reflection as a “process of internal dialogue.” It has to start from within us, but can manifest itself through external, physical artefacts such as a teaching journal, lesson report or action research project. Without thinking about what choices you have made within your teaching practice and why and considering what the outcomes of those choices are, there can be no teaching journal entry or lesson report. Or, if there is, it won´t actually help you to develop as a teacher. We may be busy and under pressure, but this internal dialogue is something that we always have with us, which we can always tap into  and which can have a positive effect on our teaching practice. Here are three simple ways in which we business English teachers can also benefit from reflective practice:

  • When you´re setting an activity or giving students instructions, explain to them why you´re asking them to do what you´re asking them to do or, where appropriate, why you´re asking them to do it in the way you´re asking them to do it. This will make you think about the reasons for your choices and the methods you use and if you feel that the arguments for these choices are flawed, meaningless or perhaps even non-existent, you will know that you need to make changes to the types of activities you do and how you execute them. Conversely, if you can find excellent, convincing explanations for your actions in the classroom, this should be a sign of encouragement and a spur to develop further in this direction — can you do it even better?
  • Compare the way you handled a specific situation in the classroom with the way you handled it on a previous occasion of occasions and compare. If you didn´t handle it as well as you did on previous occasions or better, reflect on the reasons for that. Were you just having a bad day or did you just not set up the activity as well as you could have done?
  • Get input on your performance from your learners by stopping the lesson at certain points and asking the learners to evaluate your teaching from the start of the lesson up until that point or from when you last stopped the lesson up until that point. You can then give the students criteria that they should use to evaluate your performance, e.g. how clear your instructions are, how teacher-centred or  student-centred the lesson is.

The important thing to remember is that doing something, however small, is more helpful than doing nothing. No matter how busy you are, you can always tune into your inner dialogue and you´re likely to see the benefits of doing that right away.



Clarke 2003 in Killeavy and Moloney 2010:1071

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Games to try with technical English learners

This post accompanies a workshop I did as part of the IATET Technical English programme in the Pre-Conference Seminar of the 4th International ESP Conference, 4th & 5th October 2013 in Ulm, Germany.

Here are five good reasons for using games with technical English learners:

Five good reasons to use games in technical English courses:

1. They can help learners to actively recycle and consolidate vocabulary they have learned

2. They can give learners the chance to practise communicating under pressure.

3. They allow learners to experience language in a new way.

4. They can inject new energy into the lesson and change the pace.

5. They can give learners the opportunity to solve problems and puzzles.

This is the game we played at the start of the session:

What have we changed?

– At least one of the learners leave the room.

– The remaining learners make 5 changes to the room where the lesson is taking place, e.g. moving a plant, opening a window, writing something on the flipchart or whiteboard.

– When the learner or learners return they have to find out what changes the others have made through their observational skills and also by asking questions using either past simple or present perfect question forms, e.g. Have you opened the window? Was that word on the board before I left the room?

– The other learners answer these questions, also using the correct verb form, until all the changes have been found.


Here are some other games you can try:

1. Active vocabulary consolidation

a. Matching words with pictures

– Take some pictures and some words and ask learners to match them

matching words & pictures

b. Making connections between words

– Take some vocabulary items you´ve been working with or ask each learner in the group to suggest one word, put all the words up on the board/ flipchart and ask learners to suggest possible links between them. They can suggest any links they like as long as they can give a good explanation for why the words are connected. The aim is to make as many connections as possible. You could also ask learners to draw pictures representing a word next to the word itself as a memory aid and encourage them to be as creative as possible. One of my learners, for example, once drew a picture of a mountain with a letter A on its peak to represent the word ________?

c. Taboo/ back to the board game

– Often taking games you might play in other contexts, e.g. at a party, and using them in the technical English classroom can be effective. Taboo, therefore, often seems to be a popular option. You can give learners cards with target vocabulary on and ask them to describe to the rest of the group without using the word on the card or any other forms of it (e.g. the noun, verb, adjective or adverb forms). The rest of the group has to guess as quickly as possible what the word is. Alternatively, one learner sits with his back to the board or flipchart, another learner writes a word there and the rest of the group has to explain and describe the meaning of the word so that the person sitting in front of the flipchart or board can guess it.

2. Communication under pressure

a. Just a minute

Learners tend to enjoy the game “just a minute” where the aim is to talk about a given topic for one minute without hesitating, going off-topic or repeating yourself. If other members of the group notice that the speaker is doing any of these things, they´re allowed to “buzz in” and point it out, at which time the speaker has to stop talking and the person who “buzzed in” can take over and talk about the same topic for the remainder of the minute. Whoever is talking when the minute is over gets the point(s) for that word. It´s easy to adapt this game for technical English learners by using technical English words/ concepts. Any good examples of words/ concepts you could use here?

b. Call my bluff

The basic principle of call my bluff is finding which of three definitions for something you´ve never heard of is true, the other being made-up or “bluffs.” You are, therefore, under pressure to successfully and convincingly present something which is not true as fact. For the technical English classroom, you could take little-known technical words, give learners the actual definition of it and then ask them to create two other possible explanations for the terms. The other team/ other learner then has to figure out which definition is the actual definition and which two are bluffs.

call my bluff

Tech Talk Intermediate, Vicki Hollett (OUP)    

3. Experiencing language in a new way

One of the advantages of games is that they can also give learners a break from text-based resources and allow them to interact with other learning stimuli.

a. What is it?

safety profiles

Get your hands on a “thing” whose function is not immediately obvious, e.g. these anti-pinch sensors used as safety features in the automotive industry, and ask the learners to ask you or another learner, who knows what the “thing” is, questions to try to find out what it is. Alternatively, you could blindfold a learner and give him/her something to hold which are they are familiar with. Again, they have to ask the rest of the group questions to find out what it is as well as relying on their sense of touch.

4. New energy

Learning technical English is not always easy! Injecting some more energy into the class certainly isn´t a bad thing and getting the learners up out of their seats and moving around can be great. One way you could do this is with the technical English mimes game. Learners are given/ can choose an activity and have to mime it. The learners first have to understand what the activity involves and then find a way of presenting it so that the concept will be clear to the rest of the group, who, in turn, have to activate their passive vocabulary in order to find the right words to describe the activity. A language point here would also be the present continuous and using it to describe activities as they are happening.

Choose one of the activities below and mime it until your partner guesses it

– A pipe is leaking

– The knife is blunt

– The bulb has blown

– The remote control´s batteries are dead

– You are tightening some screws

– You are driving a fork lift truck

– You are drilling a hole

5. Lateral thinking

If you´re taking part in a technical English course, there´s a very high chance that you´re working in a technical field or, at least, you´d like to when you finish your studies. People in technical fields tend to enjoy logic puzzles and lateral thinking and that´s why this game tends to work quite well. Give them a situation and ask them to consider what the possible explanation for this seemingly impossible situation could be. When I´ve used this game with learners, they´ve also been keen to create their own lateral thinking puzzles and I´ve been happy for them to do that as a follow-up activity.

Here is a list of possible situations you could use which I´ve taken from the OneStopEnglish website: You´ll notice that they´ve put in the activities for teenagers section of OneStopEnglish, but they also work well with adults. 

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A Grammar Review Lesson: Focussing on the “Big Four”

I regularly talk to my business English learners about where we´re going with our course: what would you like less of or more of? What have we done that you enjoyed and found helpful? What haven´t we done yet which you would find helpful? In these conversations there´s one topic which probably comes up more often than any other and it´s not email writing, telephoning or any of the other typical staples of the business English diet, but grammar and specifically: can we look at all of the tenses again?

Grammar: it´s not always a piece of cake

Grammar: it´s not always a piece of cake

I´ve been through various phases of dealing with the “can we look at all the tenses again?” request. At the beginning I don´t think I made a particularly good job  of it. The key to getting it right seems to lie in:

  • Striking a balance between pure grammar rules and language use.
  • Making sure that the learners have actually understood the input you´ve given them and they could actually use it themselves.
  • Distilling the grammar rules down to the most important points and the ones which will actually help them.
  • Raising learners´awareness of the mistakes they make and/or are most often made when using the tenses.

Before you even get to thinking about those things though, you need to consider which tenses you´re actually going to teach: All of them? Some of them? One of them? After reading that 80% of spoken communication in English among native speakers makes use of just four tenses–present simple, present continuous (or progressive), past simple and present perfect–I decided to focus my attention on these four, which I´ve come to call “the big four”. We could argue about how non-native speaker language use differs from native speaker language use, but I nevertheless see these four as excellent building blocks for English grammar. In the workplace you will definitely need the present simple to talk about facts, routines and permanent situations. You will also need the present continuous to talk abou temporary situations and tell people what you´re doing at the moment. You have to use the past simple to tell people about what you did yesterday, last week or last year. The present perfect is often used to let colleagues know what you have already done and what you haven´t done yet and while making small talk about where you´ve been and where you´ve worked.

Choosing the wrong tense may result in it being unclear whether you´ve done something or are still doing it and this can lead to complications in the workplace.  If you say: “I´m working here for 3 months” when you should have said: “I´ve worked/ I´ve been working here for 3 months”, the colleague visiting you will not expect to see you again on his next trip and may well not prioritise building a relationship with you, as a result.

The tenses review lesson that I´ve developed would be most effective with learners at B1 or B2 level who already have some knowledge of these four tenses and how to use them, but are in need of a refresher lesson or review. I´ve deliberately decided not to focus on the future explicitly here, but I have mentioned the use of the present simple to talk about timetabled events in the future and I have often found that this lesson has led learners to ask questions about the future, such as what about using the present continuous to talk about future plans and arrangements. I would see a lesson reviewing how to talk about the future as being a natural follow-on from this lesson–I don´t want to try to do it all in 60 or 90 minutes.

1) Tell the learners that native speakers use four tenses in 80% of spoken English. Ask them to guess which four tenses these four could be. This will give you an indication of their level of awareness of grammar terminology and the ideas or concepts behind the different tenses. Accept their guesses if they don´t know the name of the tenses but they know what the idea(s) behind them is, for example, if they say: “One of them is the tense for things that happened in the past and are finished.” You could also ask them if it surprises them that these four tenses are used so frequently and why or why not.

2) Tell the learners that you´re going to give them some information about all four tenses and you would like them to read it and use the information there and their own knowledge to find answers to the three questions below and then present these answers to the rest of the group:

  1. What situations do you use this tense to describe?
  2. What are the three most important things to remember about this tense?
  3. What mistakes to English learners often make when using this tense?

You may want to reformulate these questions using simpler language with lower level learners.

You can download my overview of “the big four” here.

Remind the learners that you will not accept them just reading aloud from the tenses overview when they present their answers–they have to present the information in their own words and add their own ideas too.

Depending on the number in the group, you may need to have a small group, a pair or just one individual working on one tense. If you have to have a combination of pairs and individuals, I would suggest giving the tenses which are a little easier to explain, e.g. present simple and past simple, to the individuals or the weaker learners, and those which are a little more challenging, e.g. present continuous and present perfect, to the pairs or stronger learners.

3) Monitor the learners as they´re working on their answers, giving them any support that they need and making suggestions. The area where the learners will probably need the most support is thinking about typical mistakes made when using the tense. The amount of time the learners will need to prepare their answers will range from 10 minutes to 30 minutes depending on the group.

4) When all the groups are finished, ask them to present their answers. Encourage the other learners to ask questions to those who are presenting and add any points which you consider important and any typical mistakes you know which they haven´t mentioned.

5) After this review of the four tenses, I go on to do a speaking activity in which the learners have to use the four tenses and their question forms. This is a variant on the popular “find someone who” activity.

a) I write on the board or flipchart: Find someone who… and then ask them to complete this sentence four ways using a different one of the four tenses each time. I give them examples to get them started:

Find someone who…lives in Heidenheim

Find someone who…is working to a deadline at the moment

Find someone who…went to a Christmas market last weekend

Find someone who…has been to Berlin/ has seen the new James Bond film

Remind them that they should write sentences that they think or know will be applicable to at least one other person in the group, so “find someone who has been to the moon”, for example, is not allowed, for example!

b) When they have their four sentences, they can use them to create questions they will then ask the rest of the group. Review the different question forms you use for the four different tenses.

present simple: Do you live in Heidenheim?

present continuous: Are you working to a deadline at the moment?

past simple: Did you go to a Christmas market last weekend?

present perfect: Have you been to Berlin? Have you seen the new James Bond film?

c) The learners can then stand up and mingle with each other and ask their questions. Tell them their aim is to find a person who can answer “yes” for each of the four questions and when they have done this they have completed the task. It´s OK if they find one person who can answer “yes” to more than one of the questions.

At the end of 60 or 90 minutes, the learners have:

  • been re-familiarised with the important features of each tense
  • been reminded of the common mistakes people make when using them
  • been able to focus on one tense in more detail and explain how it works to the rest of the group
  • been re-familiarised with the question forms for each of the four tenses
  • had the opportunity to produce the language by creating their own examples and questions in the “find someone who” game


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Harnessing technology to boost your profits: My response to the TESOL Greece blog challenge

As a business English teacher working in companies, the interplay between learning, resources, and technology is one that I´m confronted with on an almost daily basis. Let´s start with the resources: I teach in companies that are paying a language school or training company to provide courses that should help their employees become more effective English communicators. The companies are doing this because it is compatible with their long-term business strategy. The company expects, however, to get their ROI (return on investment) in the form of employees who are measurably and noticeably better at English than they were at the start of the course. The more money they invest, the greater the improvement the learners are expected to make.  As a result, if we as in-company English teachers can find a way to increase the amount of progress that the learners make and ensure that the training we provide is really having an impact and helping our learners to get better, then not only do we have greater job satisfaction and more satisfied learners, but the chances of the contracts for the courses we teach being renewed is much greater. This is, of course, the ideal situation but one which isn´t always easy to achieve.


Now let´s turn our attention to technology and what it means in my teaching context. The people I teach vary from IT specialists who are more clued-up than I am when it comes to techie stuff to employees whose distrust of technology is so great that they don´t even own a mobile phone. Somewhere in the middle between these two extremes we have the average in-company business English learner who may or may not have a company smartphone, but who definitely spends a lot of his time working on the computer and is probably involved in some form of online social networking. Your average in-company learner in Germany knows the ins and outs of the software application SAP, but confront him or her with a Google doc  and the reaction is likely to be:” I don´t really like Google, I have a email address.” Integrating technology into the classroom is happening more and more in in-company business English courses, but teachers are often faced with obstacles, such as not being allowed to use the company wireless network or only being allowed to use company computers where websites and web applications which could be useful are blocked. Not to be under-estimated is also the lack of familiarity with technology and ways of integrating it among teachers themselves who may not have the time, the money or the option to take part in professional development courses.

So where´s the link? Well, what I haven´t mentioned yet is that despite the resistance to technology which may arise,  if you get the learners on board, technology can help you deliver more stimulating lessons and this can boost learner engagement, ensuring that they stay in training long enough to get better. Instead of or as well as just telling learners about how people from different cultures tend to introduce themselves in a meeting or giving them a text to read about it, for example, you can show them how this works by bringing a video into the classroom. Instead of or as well as asking learners to write emails on paper, which, of course, no one would do in the real workplace, you can ask them to use their mobile devices to send an email from their actual email account. There are web applications learners can use to record their speaking and these recordings can be used as the basis for language feedback, identifying areas for improvement that learners can then work on together with their teacher. There are limitations to the scope of technology´s application, as I mentioned earlier, but if in-company learners are more engaged, are being exposed to a range of media, are getting more authentic communication practice and being given effective feedback on their language use, then they´re more likely to go on learning English and they´re more likely to get better. The better they get and the longer they stay in training, the greater the ROI will be for the company—in other words, harnessing the power of technology within in-company English training pays dividends and makes good business sense.

You can find the TESOL Greece Blog Challenge and the other responses to it here.

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How much time do you spend online? An independent study activity for my trainees

Here´s an activity I created today for a group of 19-20 year old trainees I teach in a logistics company. I won´t be able to teach them this Friday as I´ll be at the IATEFL BESIG Annual Conference in Stuttgart, Germany, so I wanted to give them something to do to keep them occupied and keep up their contact with English while I was away. This is a very mixed group with learners from high B1 to low C1, but each of them can communicate according to their own abilities while completing this task.

Here are your instructions for this week´s English task:
1. Please complete it by Friday, 23rd November
2 You can do all (or nearly all) of it online
3. Look as this infographic (an infographic is information presented in the form of a graphic) about how people spend their time online:
4. Make a note of: a) one thing in the infographic that you didn´t already know
                                      b) one thing in the infographic that you find surprising
                                      c) one thing in the infographic that you find interesting
5. Think about how you spend your time online and either:
                            a) write a 300 word report–you can either email this to me or bring a paper copy of it to the lesson
OR                     b) give a 2 minute presentation  about it in the next lesson
6. Points you could include in the report or presentation are:
a) How much time do you spend online in an average week?
b) How do you usually go online: on a computer, using your phone or using another device?
c) What percentage of your time do you spend on the following activities: social networking, online shopping, searches, multi-media websites, communication (including email), reading content?
d) Do you think you spend too much of your time online: if so do you plan to change your habits? If so, do you have any tips for those who spend too much time online–how can they reduce the amount of time they spend online?
e) How do you think people will spend their time online in the future? Do you think it will change, and, if so, how do you think it will change?
Please let me know if you have any questions about my instructions or if anything is unclear. I´ll be away at the conference tomorrow and Friday, but I´ll still be able to check my email. Looking forward to some interesting presentations and reports next week. If you choose to write a report please either: email it to me or bring the paper copy of it to the lesson. If you choose to do a presentation, you can do the presentation in the lesson next week or the week after next if you can not come to the lesson next week.

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Making it authentic:Exploiting authentic materials in business English

On 7th October, I presented an online workshop on behalf of IATEFL BESIG as part of their weekend workshop programme. The workshop was called: Making it authentic: exploiting learners´ materials in business English courses and in it I wanted to share some new activities I´ve created over the last few months which make use of authentic materials. If you´re a member of IATEFL BESIG, you can watch a recording of the online workshop by visiting the weekend workshop section of the BESIG website.

During the workshop the participants and I shared ideas about how to effectively select and make use of authentic materials, focussing specifically on texts and objects.

Our discussion brought us to the conclusion that we should see authentic materials as a starting point or a springboard for communication rather than just as a text to be read or an object to be looked at and inspected: start with the text or the object and see how many different directions you can move in from there. Usually keeping things simple and fun in this journey from the text or object to communication seems to be an effective way of creating memorable learning moments. Exactly what that communication is should depend on the learners´ needs and wants.

I also hoped that during the workshop we managed to debunk a few months about using authentic materials, above all, the fact that making use of authentic materials doesn´t have to be time-consuming or taxing for the teacher and the experience of working with them doesn´t have to be a difficult or daunting one for the business English learner.

Formwork component bingo!

As a hand-out to accompany the workshop I produced an overview of a sample lesson I taught last week in which I made a lot of use of authentic materials and you can also download this lesson overview here. I wanted to show exactly how the activities I had talked about in the workshop could be put into practice in the training room.  In this lesson I introduced vocabulary for formwork components produced and used by the company where the learners work, we then consolidated this vocabulary and, finally, the learners were able to use it within a communicative task. This week, as a follow-up, I asked the learners to match the names of the components to the drawings of the components again to see how much they had remembered and we then discussed the functions of the different components and how they would be used on the construction site. We also talked about the dimensions of the components and their advantages and possible disadvantages. The learners had the knowledge about the components, but needed support from me in expressing it in English. I, as the teacher, did not have as much knowledge of the formwork components as the learners did, but I was able to support them with their English expression. This created an effective information gap between us and an excellent motivation for the learners to activate not only vocabulary for formwork components, but also all of that other useful language for talking about dimensions and describing what things are used for and how they work. All in all, a successful lesson!


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Getting to know you – a business English warmer or filler

Guess who!

This is a time of year when we find ourselves doing a lot of first lessons, either the first lesson ever with a new group or the first lesson after a long summer break. Facing this situation myself led me to come up with an activity which can take anywhere between 10 minutes and a hour and which is a great way of helping learners to get to know each other better, even if they´ve been together in the same English course for some time. It´s a very simple activity and it´s not a completely original idea of mine, but all the learners I´ve done this with have responded really well to it and it´s got them activating a lot of worthwhile language.

Learning aims:

  • Get learners talking
  • Get learners writing
  • Help learners get to know each other or get to know each other better
  • Enable you to do some correction and needs analysis work with learners based on their use of vocabulary and grammar
  • Stimulate discussion around the topics learners have written their sentences about

Ask the learners to take a piece of paper and write a short sentence about themselves on it. Tell them that after they´ve done this their pieces of paper will be mixed up together and the group will guess who wrote what. For this reason, it´s important that they don´t write something which could be true for all or several people in the group, e.g. I work at Company X, if they all work at Company X. They also shouldn´t write something about themselves which is already visible to everyone, e.g. I wear glasses or I have blue eyes.   It´s probably a good idea to give them some examples of what would be suitable things to write at this stage too. Here are some examples from one of my groups, reproduced with their permission:

Last week I went to the cinema and watched the film “Wer´s glaubt, wird selig” (a German film popular at the moment)

This sentence got the learners speculating about which one of them goes to the cinema on a regular basis and then led to the learner who wrote it explaining the plot of the film and talking about her reaction to it. We then moved on to discuss film preferences more generally.

I have never been in New York

This sentence led us into a discussion of who had travelled where and when the person who wrote it was revealed, he told us that he was, in fact, going to New York in December to do some Christmas shopping, which led to a discussion about whether you could actually save money by doing that and what sights the learner also wanted to see in New York. A point for discussion and correction here was: been in New York or been to New York?

My car has to be investigated at the end of October

This sentence got us into a discussion about cars, what type of car everyone had and what condition they are in. We also discussed whether investigated was the most appropriate word to use here and decided that it would be better to say: my car has to be serviced, instead.

When I was younger, I was a scout!

Some members of the group didn´t know the English word scout, so first of all we discussed what that meant and what being a scout involves. The learners then had a very animated discussion about how teenagers nowadays spend so much time online or playing video games and have forgotten how to have good honest fun and work in a team. Here we also discussed the punctuation the learner had used and talked about how this would be correct punctuation in German (the learner´s first language), not not in English.

Once the learners have each written their sentences, collect the papers in, mix them up and then read them aloud or let one of the group members read them aloud if you´re sure that they won´t be able to recognise each other´s handwriting, i.e. because they´ve just met for the first time in this lesson. The aim is then to guess who wrote what. Encourage the learners to ask each other questions to try to uncover who wrote what, without asking: did you write that? Once the person who wrote the sentence has been identified engage the learners in a discussion on the topic the sentence deals with, if they don´t automatically start having one anyway. If you feel comfortable, you could also write a short sentence about yourself and add it to those the learners have written, so they can also get to know you a little more. This can be a nice way to show your willingness to share information about yourself as you ask them to share information about themselves and, it seems, most learners are curious to know a little bit more about their teachers.


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