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Learner Expectations – The Elephant in the Room

June 19, 2011 2 comments

I wonder if many would disagree that the job of the ESP trainer is to ensure that, following their course, clients can better perform key business functions and add value to their organisation.

In my opinion, the most effective way to do this is to identify what learners need to do in English, assess how well they do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are causing perfhey do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are and meaning’ version of the ‘time and motion’ study.

Therefore, in order to achieve time bounded results and provide maximum value to the learners and other stakeholders,  language presented and practised must be that which is most likely to be used in work place situations.

If the learner is B2 or above, they’re likely to have most of the grammar and much of the vocabulary they need to perform their job and their major issue is likely to be effective utilisation of that language to achieve particular purposes.

As a result, effective business English teaching should avoid lengthy grammar teaching and subordinate accuracy to fluency and meaning. I’m sure many people will reply to that; well, duh! However, how many of your learners agree with you?

In the language classrooms of many cultures, the teacher represents ultimate authority, learners expect a directive approach and accurate use of grammar is viewed as the ultimate purpose of study. This means that many learners come into our classrooms with rather set expectations of what’s going to happen, for example:

  • We’ll study grammar
  • We’ll learn new words
  • The teacher will make me learn
  • My input is not wanted and not needed

You may think I’m being a little flippant and I probably am but I’m also sure that some of these observations will resonate with you and your experience. How do we reconcile this with the general values of modern language teachers:

  • Context and meaning are of pre-eminent importance
  • Fluency is of greater importance than accuracy
  • Realistic practise is critical for remembering and using new language
  • Grammatical study should take second place to real language use

I truly believe that focusing on the latter list is most likely to produce in long term linguistic effectiveness but I also know that, for some learners, practice is not learning. Giving them a gap fill exercise resonates with their experience and is therefore how they perceive learning. Learners often view talking in class as a cop out as it doesn‘t result in new knowledge. In their opinion learning is distilled to the acquisition of words and grammar, recalling them in stressful situations will just happen.

Being flippant again?

How many learners with books of uncatagorised, decontextualised vocabulary have you encountered and how often have the same learners asked to study the present perfect, again?

Obviously, even if we don’t agree with many learner opinions of learning, we need to accept that their experience and worldview is valid and must be accommodated into the learning process. At the same time, allowing the learners ‘wants’ to dominate the learning process may mean that ‘needs’, of both learners and stakeholders, are not addressed. So, how best to ensure learners are taught effectively but their perspective and experience is respected?

Here’s an approach I’ve been using:

  • At the start of the course, express your values overtly, sincerely and honestly and explain how they will affect classroom activities.
  • Ask learners about their expectations for grammar learning, vocabulary input and error correction, listen empathetically and explain why you may disagree with anything mentioned.
  • Negotiate an approach that accommodates all opinions and put it in writing in the form of a training contract.
  • Explain aims and approaches before activities and how they relate to the training contract.
  • Summarise achievements at the end of each activity and ask learners to assess progress at the end of the course.

In my experience, this framework works and you win respect from the learners. It also guarantees that you can incorporate the wants of other stakeholders who, at the end of the day, are probably paying the bill anyway.

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The 7 Truths of Business English Teaching

June 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I read a great blog post by Seth Godin recently, entitled ‘selling nuts to squirrels’. In this post, Godin talks about the challenge marketers face when selling products across multiple markets.  The issues outlined revolve around how different world views result in different needs, different ways of perceiving products and, critically, different ways of talking and behaving in the same interaction.

This simple but rarely dwelt on observation has serious implications for how we instruct ESP learners. The language that will automatically be produced in any given interaction is greatly affected by how the speaker views the world. Therefore, it’s critical that our instruction takes account of this world view and ensures that the language we offer our learners correlates with their way of interacting with the world.

A perfect example is the language of negotiation. If you ask any teacher what they would teach in these situations, items such as conditionals, diplomatic language and softening technique (both lexical and phonological) will probably emerge.

However, does this decision take into account what the learner thinks about negotiating and how they wish to express themselves? Although this generic language may be used in a negotiation, will the learner use it? Many negotiation materials don’t take into account cultural or organisational styles or positions people take. It’s fundamental that we, the trainers, find these things out before instructing a functional task so that the language we offer is that which is most likely to add value to the learner’s workplace production. In short, does our instruction equate to the learner’s meaning.

This problem is also true when one thinks about presentations. Signposting is one of the most common items taught in any presentation lesson. However, analysing my own and others’ presentations, this generic language is actually very low frequency. What I struggle with when preparing and delivering a presentation is ensuring that my meaning is conveyed clearly to my audience. It’s the content that causes sleepless nights, not the structure.

Again, content and, most fundamentally, meaning is specific to individuals. Without starting by analysing what learners say and how this fails to express what they want to mean, we cannot be sure that our instruction will aid them the next time they prepare and give a presentation. Of course, generic materials and language cannot help us to achieve this.

In order to ensure language is meaningful, memorable and useful, it must be tailored not only to learner needs but also to learner worldview. Therefore, whenever a particular communicative situation is taught, to be as useful to learners as possible, it must be unique, speaking to the meaning that particular person wishes to express.

This realisation has led me towards developing the seven eternal truths of Business English teaching:

  1. All instruction in a business English classroom must start with the learner, their worldview and their language.
  2. Trainers should focus less on what learners say and more on what they mean.
  3. Needs analysis should focus on perspective and meaning as well as linguistic competence.
  4. Trainers must be knowledgeable about learners’ culture and industry, whether this be through experience or research.
  5. Feedback must focus on meaning rather than accuracy.
  6. Generic materials are incompatible with developing meaning and workplace performance.
  7. The assumption that we, as experts, know the language needed cheats the learner of opportunities to express meaning. We cannot know their meaning because we are not them.

I feel that if we put learner meaning at the centre of our classes, we will ensure maximum learner performance. However, a fundamental problem to this is that the learners, who do not have the benefit of educational theory, don’t always agree with us.

How do we ensure that learners schooled on ‘grammar Mc Nuggets’ accept an approach focussing on meaning?

 

 

The course, she is good but maybe more grammar!

May 31, 2011 2 comments

As I read this feedback comment earlier today, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Masimo was a lovely guy and everyone liked him but boy, did he love that grammar.

It’s not like he didn’t get any either. Future in the past, mixed up conditionals, perfect, past all sorts.

But, by the end of his three week stay, his speech was as slow, laboured and irritating as  when he arrived.

He learnt lots of grammar but couldn’t use it. He couldn’t express himself using the language he arrived with, so why did he want more?

His excellent trainer pointed this out to him but he didn’t listen and after being fed grammar for 3 weeks, still felt he hadn’t had enough.

So, lessons to draw from this?

1 Some learners are bonkers.

2 Language in context is not always as important to our learners as it is to us.

3 Ideas about the best way to learn differ greatly throughout the world.

I’m told grammar fetishism is an Italian trait and there’s not much to be done. Italians of a certain age won’t accept communicative approaches so don’t even try.

I understand where this comes from but I can’t agree. We have here a classic example of needs vs wants. He wanted grammar but needed vocabulary and fluency. How does the future in the past help him do his job better? It doesn’t.

I worry that the language he forced his trainer to teach him hasn’t helped him to use English at all. I also worry that he’s already forgotten it all.

I should have forced the point, talked to him and made him see that being able to talk is far more important than collecting grammar points.

But I know I would have failed, some learners just love Grammar McNuggets.