Category Archives: From the training room

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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Presenting your workplace to the world

The lesson plan in this post was inspired by a conversation I had with two C1 level learners I teach in an aeronautical company. They´re both managers in the mechanical engineering department in their company; one is head of industrial engineering there and the other is responsible for the milling shop. We had a very long discussion about what English people like them actually need, and this proved to be a very interesting conversation, both for me and for them. This type of dialogue seems to be one that we often don´t engage in often enough, don´t initiate frequently enough, or perhaps one that we are keen to have at the start of the course, but then don´t think about repeating. Here´s a summary of some of the most interesting insights they shared with me:

  • They don´t need to know all the words, just the most important ones!
  • They need vocabulary which is useful in the field where industry meets business, e.g. the language of SAP, and words like cost centre, working plan,  and work´s council ,and to feel confident about using them.
  • They need to be able to process a contract in English and communicate with sub-contractors in English.
  • They need to be able to explain abbreviations and other terminology in simpler language for their international colleagues.
  • They need to be able to understand the English interfaces on some new machines that they have and the terms used in some new  software packages.

One point that they kept coming back to though, was the fact that a lot of the time when they´re communicating in English at work it is in order to perform a public relations role for their company, which could be described as a “global player”. They have to present the public image of their company to the many visitors who come to their department from all over the world. Some of these visitors are colleagues from other European sites, some are customers, some are suppliers, others are simply interested in and want to find out more about the work that they´re doing, for example, government officials. Here they´re not only communicating in English they´re also doing what you could public relations or, even sales, work in English, which each require distinct skill sets.

I, therefore, decided to create some tailored materials for the learners in this group to help them meet these communication challenges and I also created some materials for learners working in an industrial environment and who are at a lower level (B1 to be exact)  to get them to reflect on their experiences of giving tours of their workplace, consider how they would deal with future requests to give tours and, finally, to prepare a crib sheet for future tours which they can adapt and reuse. Incorporated into the lesson plan is also a grammar focus, which looks at the use of the zero, first and second conditionals in this context.

You can download the lesson plan here.

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Unexpected phone calls

Here´s an idea for a lesson on telephoning that I successfully used with a group of managers in a logistics company this week.


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It seems that the majority of calls that in-work business English learners have to answer are unexpected, and what they need is, therefore, not only the language of strategies, but also strategies for dealing with these unexpected calls. The aims of this lesson are to engage learners in a dialogue about the unexpected calls they receive and how they deal with them and then for them to take part in simulations of unexpected phone call scenarios and possibly to practise how well they can spontaneously react to an unexpected phone call from their partner.


1. Write UNEXPECTED PHONE CALLS in the middle of  the board or flipchart and ask the learners what that means to them. Make it clear before they respond that you´re talking about unexpected calls at work only. What is an unexpected phone call? Which phone calls are expected and which are unexpected.


2. Draw four lines coming out from UNEXPECTED PHONE CALLS in the centre and write these headings at the end of them: 1) How often? 2) Who are they from? 3) What do they want? 4) Strategies. Ask the learners to discuss their answers to these questions in pairs and then feedback to the rest of the group. (1. How often do you get unexpected phone calls? 2. Who are they from? 3. What do the callers want? 4. Do you have any strategies for dealing with unexpected calls?)


3. Write up the learners´ responses on the board or flipchart during the feedback/ group discussion phase. Ask the learners to be a bit more specific or give some more details, if necessary.


4. Now ask the learners to choose one person (or type of people, e.g. suppliers) who they get unexpected calls from, one thing that this person could want from them when they call them unexpectedly, and one strategy they could use to deal with the call effectively and to do this in cooperation with a partner.


5. The learners then prepare for a role-play based around the scenario they have chosen in pairs.


6. The learners perform the role-plays either individually with their partner, in front of the rest of the group or both. Alternatively, the learners could create an outline of a telephone conversation within the context they´ve and then pass this on to another pair. In this case the unexpected element would really be there because the learners wouldn´t know for sure what scenario they were going to get and they could then role-play it as spontaneously as possible as a test of their ability to deal with the unexpected and stay cool under pressure!


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English for SAP

This English for SAP exercise has its origins in a lesson I had with two A2 level in-company learners. One is the quality assurance manager and the other is technical manager in a factory in Bavaria. They both initially struggled with English learning and were resistant to anything which appeared to be grammar. Their level was relatively low when they started the course, but they actually had a lot of English input to deal with at work, so they were being exposed to a lot of English, but they weren´t really able to understand, process and respond to it in English themselves.

After going through some typical A2 business English topics at the start of the course: introducing yourself, talking about your daily routine and the organisation of your company and looking at company history to practise the past simple, one day the participants had a stroke of brilliance. They told me that the SAP programme they had to use at work was an English version of the software and they sometimes had difficulties understanding the terminology it uses. They suggested that one of them log on to the computer in our training room and show me their SAP programme, which we did. We then made a list of all the vocabulary in the programme which they thought was important, this came to about fifteen items. I then asked them to tell me:

  • which words they´d seen or heard before
  • which words they could translate into their first language (German)
  • which words they could use in a sentence or give an example or definition for

From this sorting exercise came an exercise designed to review and consolidate their grasp of some of the words they thought were important and knew the translation of in their first language (or at least they knew it after our discussion of SAP vocabulary in that lesson), but which they couldn´t use in a sentence or give an example of. We did this exercise the following week.

The participants responded well to this activity because it helped them practise some of the language that they need to be able to use in their daily business and because it was derived from a source that they use while doing their daily business.  It gave them a context in which they could see the vocabulary and inspired the learners to create their own example sentences or definitions for other words used in SAP.

You can download the exercise here.

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How to write a meeting agenda

A couple of weeks ago the two branch managers I teach at a logistics company, told me that they needed to write an agenda for a meeting they were hosting (in English) with other branch managers from a range of European countries. They asked if we could focus on this topic in our next English lesson, the following week. I said, “Of course, we can do that.” I´d never taught a lesson on this topic before since most of my participants have previously been employees on a lower rung of the corporate ladder doing administrative and controlling work or manual work in the production. There must be some material out there for this topic though, I thought, there has to be.

After scouring all the course books I own (admittedly, my selection is of average size, far from comprehensive) and the internet for help, I found next to nothing which I could use to help my learners effectively write an agenda in English for their meeting, so I decided to put something together myself. My web search wasn´t entirely fruitless, however, and I found a text helpfully entitled “How to write a meeting agenda.” on the Microsoft training website. The text was far from perfect though. The learners are both high B1s and would have struggled with some of the more complicated parts of the text, so I simplified them and generally did my best to make the English more learner-friendly in my version. I also added questions for them to discuss their answers to before they read the text to warm them up and get them thinking about meeting agendas. I then decided to give them a vocabulary challenge by blanking all but the first letter or first two letters of the some of the key vocabulary for meetings and agendas, and asking them to complete them. This makes it a more active exercise since the learners have to recall and use vocabulary and it exposes possible lacks in their meetings vocabulary repertoire which we can then work on together.

Before we looked at the text together though, I brought in some examples of meeting agendas that I have in English and they brought in some examples that they had and we evaluated them together: What points do they include? How effective are they? Is there anything missing?

The learners responded well to the exercise: they said it gave them just what they needed, it got them talking, got them thinking and they began to activate their passive vocabulary and learn some new words which will prove useful to them during their upcoming meeting. We spent most of our 90 minute lesson on this activity and then followed it up in the next lesson by actually writing the agenda. If your learners don´t have a meeting agenda to write in real-life right now, then you could still do this follow-up activity in the form of a simulation based on a meeting context which you´re participants have recently had.

If anyone has or knows of any other resources for writing meeting agendas, I would very much like to know about them.

You can download the worksheet here.


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Dr. Fons Trompenaars on Corporate Culture: A lesson based around a video

This is a plan for a 90 minute lesson with high B2 or C1 learners, created for an in-company course. I would recommend using this lesson plan with participants who have regular contact with colleagues, customers, suppliers, partners from other countries, since its aims are:

  • to encourage the learners to reflect on the essential components of their own corporate culture and how that compares and contrasts with corporate cultures in other cultures or geographical areas
  • to develop strategies for minimising conflict potential and establishing successful working relationships between themselves and business partners from those different culture and geographical areas.

Two different sources inspired me to write this lesson. The first was a task I completed as part of the CertIBET (Certificate in International Business English Training) course that I´m currently taking part in with The Consultants-E. The aim of the task was to read about the ideas of a range of thinkers and decide which one was the most interesting for me. I chose Fons Trompennars and his ideas about intercultural communication because as a British person living in Germany, I´m frequently confronted by culture contrasts myself and I´m interested in explaining and trying to come to terms with them. I also just found his ideas interesting! My CertIBET tutor, Carl Dowse, then posted this video of Fons Trompenaars talking about corporate culture:

The second source of inspiration was a group I teach. They´re German scaffolding specialists who are currently working on a project for the Queen´s diamond jubilee in collaboration with a British company which provides seating for events. They were having big communication problems with their British partners! I asked them to elaborate on what was going wrong and found out that they were communicating in a very direct manner and the British partners had perceived this directness as impolite and unfriendly. There was also the matter of timekeeping: the Germans expected deadlines to be met and that they would be given ample time to meet them, whereas the British wanted to take a more flexible approach to time and had asked the Germans to complete work for them at short notice. This didn´t please the Germans and they weren´t afraid to let the British know about it. My group seemed to lack sufficient awareness of the fact that their British colleagues had a different way of working than they did and they expected them to conform to their German way of doing things, which, of course, was never going to happen.

This lesson was written with these learners in mind and in the hope that it would reduce the conflict potential between thems and their international business partners next time around and, therefore, help them to establish more successful working relationships, which can only be beneficial to their organisation.
You can download the lesson plan here.
Here´s the link to the YouTube video.


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