Tag Archives: in-company learners

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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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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