Here´s what I did on holiday

We are now well and truly into the holiday season and many of our in-company English course participants have recently been on holiday or will soon be leaving for one. I often find myself making conversation with my learners about their holidays:

  • Learners enjoy talking about holidays
  • It gives them the chance to practise using the past simple and the past continuous
  • It can help them build up their small talk skills
  • Reporting back on something you´ve done is also a good skill to have in the business world
It seemed though, that our conversations about holidays have sometimes lacked some direction and have sometimes descended into generic and not particularly interesting descriptions about camping trips in Italy. I wanted to try and liven up these discussions and also  bring a little bit of the English speaking world to the meeting rooms in Southern Germany where my courses take place, so I decided to do this activity with one of my groups.
I visited Glasgow in April this year and when I got home I found that I had lots of bits and pieces lurking in the bottom of my bag which were reminders of the trip.  All of them had English text on them in some shape or form. I took a selection of these items (see below) into class with me. They included:
  • My Easyjet boarding pass for the flight from Munich to Edinburgh
  • A tourist map
  • A fridge magnet I bought in a kilt shop
  • A receipt from the Marks & Spencer´s store at Edinburgh train station where I´d bought a sandwich and a fruit salad
  • A floor plan for the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow

The learners in this high B1/ low B2 group didn´t know that I´d be away on a short trip the week before , so I gave each participant a different “holiday artefact” and gave them four questions to answer about it:

1. What is it?

2. Where did I get it?

3. Why did I get it?

4. Should I keep it or throw it away?

It was great to see the learners exploring the things I´d given them: turning them over, examining them from all angles, looking closely to get a better look at the text and speculating aloud in English about why I´d bought something or where I could have got it from. After 10 minutes or so they were ready to share the results of their deliberations. Most of the time they´re guesses were accurate, but I filled them in with some more details and we went through any unfamiliar vocabulary.  Some of the topics we discussed  at this stage included:

  • Would you visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum if you were in Glasgow? Why/Why not?
  • Do you collect anything from your holidays? I collect fridge magnets.
  • Do you use a paper map when you visit a new place, or do you use your intuition or your smartphone instead?
  • What´s your opinion of low-cost airlines like Easyjet? Do you use them?
  • Would you like to visit Scotland? Would you try haggis, if you did?

When everyone had responded, I asked all five learners to get together and decide what I had done on my trip: playing holiday detectives, so to speak.

During this lesson, the learners had been alert, full of enthusiasm and very engaged with the language they were getting and with the business of communicating it to everyone else. At the end of the lesson I suggested that we could repeat this activity if any members of the group go on holiday and could bring some things they´d collected on their holiday, preferably which incorporated English texts, into the lesson. Two weeks later, one of the participants returned from a short trip to Venice and brought a wide range of leaflets, mementos, maps and other bits and pieces back for us to look at, not only this but she also created a PowerPoint presentation with photos from her trip, which she presented to us. She also gave me a Venice fridge magnet as a gift, after I´d explained that the reason I´d bought the fridge magnet in Glasgow was because I try to always collect a fridge magnet whenever I visit a new place. This also became an excellent lesson and collecting things from trips and holidays and bringing them into the English lesson to talk about has now become a tradition in the course.



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Creating communicative activities for technical English learners

On Wednesday, 27th June 2012 I presented a webinar on behalf of IATET (The International Association of Technical English Trainers), the aim of which was to provide teachers with a 5-step plan for creating effective communicative activities for technical English learners. The focus here was, of course, on technical English learners but the same approach could equally be used with business English learners more generally.

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Authentic learning materials: Creating them for in-company learners

On Saturday, 16th June 2012 I gave a workshop at the IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium in Paris: the title of which was, Authentic Learning Materials: Creating them for in-company learners. My aim was to look at how we can overcome some of the challenges of using authentic materials (some of which I outlined in a previous post on this blog, Authentic materials: A SWOT analysis) by learning how to effectively select authentic materials and make use of their potential for relevant and engaging learning moments in the training room. I decided to focus, specifically on text-based authentic materials. Although I also use other types of authentic materials in my courses: video and audio materials, realia and other items from the learners´ workplaces, in 45 minutes, there is only so much you can talk about! Here is an overview of the workshop. Thanks to everyone who attended for your participation, your input and your questions.

What are authentic materials? Well, authentic materials in this context could be any materials you can obtain which have not been designed for the purposes of learning English, but which could be adapted for that purpose. In this workshop, I focussed specifically on text-based resources and mainly on what I would term “internal resources,” by which I mean resources that the learner has obtained and then passed on to and/or resources originating from the company or industry in which the learner works. Here are some examples I´ve compiled:

The general consensus today seems to be that using authentic materials in business English and ESP courses is a good idea, but the fact remains that authentic materials pose a number of challenges for English teachers who want to use them in their courses. Which materials should they use and where can they find them? How can they tailor them to fulfil learners´ needs? How can they really get the most out of these materials? I decided to focus on the two main challenges teachers face when they want to integrate authentic materials into their courses: selecting and using the materials.

Would you use this? I showed the audience some examples of authentic materials and asked them to consider whether or not they would use them with their learners. The first document I showed the participants was an article on strategic corporate management which two of my learners gave me (see below). They are attending a summer school for branch managers from their company from all over Europe this year and have to read a number of articles as preparation for the course: this article is one of them. I did read through the text with the learners and help them to understand it because I knew that was important to them, but I would never use this material of my own accord. The language is unnecessarily complex and its level is much too high for these low B2 level learners. This topic is definitely interesting for the participants, but I could have presented it in a more accessible way for them.

The second text is an article from the BBC that looks at how the British greet each other and it´s called, The Pecking Order. I would see this as being an inappropriate authentic material to use with my in-company learners: some learners may find the topic an inappropriate one, the language would be too challenging (and also not useful) for most learners and there are a lot of unfamiliar and potentially confusing words, the content is also not really that interesting or relevant, especially for learners who don´t have any contact with the UK and British English. There is also the issue of copyright to consider and how you could legally copy and distribute a text of this kind from a website. Laws vary from country to country, but they´re generally becoming stricter.  Personally, I wouldn´t use this text in its entirety in my courses, but I have used it as the basis for discussion on how you greet people you´ve just met, how you greet your work colleagues and how this can vary between different cultures. As a warmer for this discussion, I reproduced the graph on the top right-hand side which shows the results of a poll asking people in Britain how they would greet a colleague of the opposite sex if they saw them outside of work. I reproduced the poll as four bars without any labels, only the percentages, and then asked the learners to speculate about which greetings received which percentages of the vote, or in other words which greetings occurred the most frequently. This worked really well and, needless to say, the actual results surprised my German learners, who have quite a different attitude to greetings. Using the topic of or an idea from authentic materials as a springboard to the rest of the lesson, can be very effective. It ensures that there won´t be a mismatch between the language level of the text and the learners´ language level, and it can also result in the learners being more active in the lesson.

The last of the three was a slide from a presentation that a colleague of one of my participants gave in a company that produces scaffolding and formwork (see above). Although, PowerPoints can be quite a static resource to use, I would nonetheless see some value in using this material since there is a close connection between the content of the material and the learners´ work, it was written by someone who works at their company and looks at issues all of them have to deal with in their daily business. The more specialised the industry where your learners are working, the greater the need to use authentic materials produced within that industry. You could create an activity by removing the words in the labels on the high-rise building and ask the learners to write them in the right place and you could get them into a discussion on what the internal and external parameters that you have to consider when constructing a high-rise building are.

I have compiled four tips for selecting authentic materials which I included in the next slide.

Next we looked at four different example activities which make use of authentic materials:

1. Creating reading puzzles: here you can see how I have modified a text about one of the construction projects that one company I teach at is currently working on by removing some words, or leaving only the first letter of the word.  The learners were already familiar with the text and the vocabulary it contains beforehand, so this activity served as a revision activity to reactivate this vocabulary. I also highlighted some chunks I found interesting and asked them to explain what was meant by them. You could also ask the learners to identify chunks they find interesting and then explain what is meant by them or what they mean to them. This can then lead on to more extensive discussion of the topic.

2. The next document I showed was an insurance quote one of my learners received. He is the CFO of the American subsidiary of his company as well as the German head office, so he receives a lot of financial documents in English. I encouraged the learner to devise a communicative task based around some of the materials he had and he suggested a telephoning role-play in which I would call him to ask him questions about anything in the quote which was unclear for me and he would respond to my questions. This made for a very successful role-play.
3. I then showed an activity I used to practise forming accurate questions for a group of learners in a construction company who were having difficulties with this (see below). I divided the learners into two groups, one group had a photo of a project the company was working on at the moment and the other group had a text about the project which I had adapted from the company website. The group who had the picture weren´t give any information about the project other than what it looks like and had to write six questions to ask the other group to find out more information about it. The other group then had to respond to their questions and then they changed over roles. I asked the learners to give the answer if it was included in the text or to speculate on what it would be based on the knowledge they have, if it wasn´t there. We often get so excited about using authentic materials that our learning aims and the learning outcomes we want to achieve go out of the window, so I wanted to make the point that this doesn´t have to be the case: keep the learning aims in mind, look at the materials you have available, and look for possible areas of overlap between the two.
4.  I brought this part of the workshop to a close by looking at a graph about energy use in Germany, which I was given by some participants in a German energy company. The activity idea here it to use the interpreting of authentic graphs and charts as a consolidation exercise after doing some work on language for describing graphs and trends. The one criticism I made of this particular resource is that it might appear out-dated because it only provides information on energy use up to 2008. One of the great advantages of authentic materials is that, if chosen carefully, they tend to be relevant for learners, choosing up-to-date resources will help to make them even more relevant.

At the end of the workshop, I wanted to leave the participants with some guiding principles for selecting and using authentic materials:


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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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Authentic Materials: A SWOT analysis

On Saturday, 16th June from 13.30 to 14.15, I will be doing a workshop at the IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium: Authentic Learning Materials is the title. I´ve been working with authentic materials and working on strategies to maximise their potential in my English for Professional Purposes courses for the last five years, and in that time my ideas have developed a lot. I´ve now managed to distill this down to a series of strategies for selecting and using authentic texts and these are what I´ll be focussing on in the workshop. I´ll post the Prezi I´ve created for the workshop which includes these strategies, a lot of examples and some guiding principles for integrating authentic texts next Saturday on this blog.

In order to give you some background to my take on authentic materials, here´s a short article I wrote recently in which I did a SWOT analysis of authentic materials in true business English trainer style. Here I was specifically looking at the use of authentic materials in technical English courses, but in my Paris workshop, I´ll also be broadening my focus to look at other areas of English for professional purposes, including English for logistics and financial English.

Authentic materials are materials which are considered authentic because they have not been designed for the purposes of learning English, instead they have been created by the company whose employees you´re teaching or by those the company interacts with. The scope of authentic materials is extremely broad, since they can include anything from press releases to machines and from test reports to technical drawings. Basically, anything your learners and their company will let you get your hands on, any relevant materials you find online and any of the machinery or equipment you have access to if you´re teaching in-company.

Let´s put authentic materials under the microscope and do a SWOT analysis on using them in technical English courses: what are their strengths and weaknesses and what opportunities and threats do they present?

The greatest strength of authentic materials is probably their relevance to the learners´ working lives— it´s easy for learners to relate to texts on aeronautical engineering, if that´s what they spend every day at work concentrating on. The learners, therefore, feel like they´re learning the English they need, rather than stuff which is just “nice to know” and this can give their motivation a boost. Vocabulary found in authentic materials will be the vocabulary they will need to know and the format or style of authentic texts will most likely be the formats and styles that they will need to be able to read and, potentially, write in themselves. In some smaller and more specialised industries, authentic materials are usually the only way that technical English teachers can gain access to industry-specific vocabulary.

Although I see the use of authentic materials as being a very positive and useful component of a technical English course, they do also have their weaknesses. Perhaps the biggest weakness is what defines them as authentic materials: the fact that they have not been created with the purpose of being used for teaching English in mind. They may be poor translations with spelling and grammatical errors in them and the English used is likely to be at a high level, i.e. B2 plus. From the teacher´s point of view, probably the greatest drawback is the fact that they require the teacher to first of all understand their contents and then spend their preparation time incorporating them into exercises and activities which will create learning moments. This is, of course, particularly challenging if you are not an expert in the field that the learners are working in, as many of us aren´t. There may also be a tendency towards more language reception than production whilst working with these predominantly written materials. Teachers need to be creative to ensure that a communicative element is still present in lessons where authentic materials are used.

Authentic materials can, therefore, provide the teacher with opportunities to engage learners, give them what they need in terms of vocabulary and reading comprehension and support them as they encounter and have to use English at work. On the other hand, authentic materials may make demands on the teacher which they wouldn´t have to fulfill if they were using a course book instead. While using authentic materials, the teacher also abdicates some control over course content to the learners since they are the ones supplying the teacher with materials.

In short, authentic materials can have a positive impact on Technical English courses, but should be handled with some caution.


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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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