Like any Business English teacher worth their salt, I ask my learners at the start of the course what they would like to be able to do by the end of the course or by a certain point in the future, say 6 months from now. I also ask them again during the course in case anything has changed and to check that they´re happy with the programme we´re following. The topic that I think I receive the most requests for, whenever I ask my learners what they want, is emails. Let´s do emails, sure…but how do we “do” emails is often the question that I´m left asking myself.
I´m a fan of the approach to teaching writing which says: let the learners actually write emails and reply to them in “real-time”, as they would in the real world. You can do this either on computers and have learners actually send emails to each other ( I would put them in pairs for this so that the two learners can support each other) or use pieces of paper that are exchanged back and forth if you don´t have access to two devices that you can use to send emails (don´t forget many learners have web-enabled smartphones which they could use if there´s internet access where you are). Learners enjoy the fact that such email exchanges simulate authentic written communication in English. While I was testing out this approach, I asked the learners to suggest topics for the exchange and nominated one person or pair to produce the initial mail. The learners liked the autonomy this gave them, but the topics they suggested were not the ones they most needed to be able to write emails about: the most frequently suggested was writing an email to the teacher to ask if they could change the time and day of the English lesson, for example. I realised that I was going to have to step in and give them some work-focused stimulus for their emails which would also get them to work on their weak points in English.
Last week, I created a series of five short emails for a course with five learners who work in different departments of a tobacco company in Germany. The course is mixed-level, but we are working at roughly an A2 level. I wrote five short emails and with each email I had a different participant in mind. I wrote emails on topics which I knew they actually received emails on at work. Each email, however, was laden with errors— the ones which they most often make. I threw some German false friends in there too and some closes which were inappropriate to the context (we had been looking at appropriate salutations and closes in a previous lesson). Here is the method:
1. The learners read through all the emails and identify which email has been written for them.
2. Together the learners correct all of the emails, but the person who it was written for leads the error-correction and supports the group if they are unsure about any job-specific vocabulary used.
3. The learners each write a reply to “their” email. They exchange their emails with a partner, who proofreads it and gives their partner some feedback.
4. Finally, the learners can type up— with some modifications, if they wish — the email they have written and email it to the teacher to look at. The teacher then also provides the learner with some feedback. Any errors that persist could be used as inspiration for future “error emails”.
This activity was a big success with the group and the emails they wrote in the final stage were a lot better than those they had been writing before.