Tag Archives: Business English

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 gmx.com 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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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.


Photo credit: http://bit.ly/KQQrKf


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 do you learn?

While I was in the beautiful Croatian town of Dubrovnik for the IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group Conference last November, I made some notes on a very interesting workshop I attended:

The class is your resource

Learners give too much responsibility to the teacher

Fall back on what they´ve experienced before while learning

Think about how they learn to do other things, e.g. building flat-pack furniture

I would happily give credit to the person from whom I gleaned these insights, but I honestly can´t remember who it was! The weekend passed in a blur of sea, sunsets and syntax.  Whoever it was though, I am grateful to them for reminding me that although the fifty-year old factory superviser in my English course may feel like a fish out of water because he has been obliged to start learning English again after more than three decades, this is not the first time that he has learned something and learned something successfully. English learning is not so special or different that it exists in vacuum separate from the learning of anything else. There´s no reason why strategies you use to successfully build flat-pack furniture–perhaps follow the instructions carefully, trust your instincts, make use of the insights you´ve gained on the previous occasions you have built furniture–shouldn´t serve you well as you embark upon learning English at work.

Starting afresh with a new group this week, I decided to create a worksheet to get them to reflect on how they learn and ultimately get them to consider how they can learn better. Their first task was to write a list of ten things they have learned during their lifetimes. I made it clear to them that this could include absolutely anything from learning to walk to learning to operate the  pieces of machinery they work with. Once everyone had their lists, I asked them to reflect on what their experiences of learning these things had been and to compare with each other by answering some questions I´d included in the second section of the worksheet. The participants then discussed these responses with a partner before sharing what they´d found out with the rest of the group.

This discussion gave me some clear indications of what elements I would need to incorporate into the course in order for them to learn English successfully:

They like learning-by-doing, so why don´t we go down into the laboratories and R&D facilities where they work and they can show me how they create prototypes and do their plastic injection moulding? We agreed to do this in the coming weeks.

Having fun while they learn is important to them: let´s include some games and more light-hearted activities so that they enjoy themselves.

They said they thought “doing it again and again” was a good learning strategy, which means I can give them lots of opportunities to practise what they have learnt and do review activities without worrying that they´ll get bored!

Getting tips from experts: so they won´t be afraid to take advice from me, but this got me thinking about what other “experts” they could go to. They could spend more time on communication with their native English speaker colleagues, of course, but they can also get tips from each other. I plan to encourage them to listen to and learn from their colleagues in the course.

Use a range of media: as the majority of the group are male and in their twenties, it´s not surprising that video and internet resources are an integral part of learning as far as they´re concerned. I will, therefore, aim to include these resources in our lessons.

Asking Business English course participants:  “how do you learn?” is just as valuable, if not even more valuable, than asking them what they want to learn (emailing, meetings, telephoning, etc.), which is what I seem to have spent all of my time on up to now.


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