Tag Archives: authentic materials

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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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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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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