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Practical ideas for the Business English classroom: Part One – Developing critical thinking

Developing critical thinking in ESLThis is the first article of a three-part Business English series by ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes. Here, he looks at the core critical thinking skills required by business English students.

Business English teachers are familiar with teaching the language for communication skills, such as giving a presentation or negotiating a deal. Perhaps fewer of us consider including the skill of critical thinking as part of our typical Business English course. And yet critical thinking is regarded as one of the key twenty-first century skills that employees look for in a candidate when recruiting. This demand for job applicants with critical thinking skills is also reflected in the course descriptions of many MBA and university-based business programmes which list the development of critical thinking as a core objective.

So can we, as business English teachers, integrate this skill into our courses? The answer is ‘yes’ and in fact you probably already provide students with language-practice tasks that require critical thinking. Here are five critical thinking skills that I believe the typical Business English lesson can help develop:

Critical questioning

Critical thinkers naturally question information that is presented to them and this clearly has an important role in business. Take, for example, the situation where you have quotes from three different suppliers and you need to select the best offer. It’s important to ask questions about each offer rather than accept each of them at face value. In the classroom, we can also develop this skill by asking students questions about a text they have read or listened to which will encourage them to consider it critically. For example, these might include questions like: Do you think the author supports his opinion with facts? Are you convinced by the author’s argument? Why? Why not?

Challenging assumptions

Business decisions which are based on assumptions run the risk of being out-of-date or repeating past mistakes. By challenging your assumptions you are likely to come up with innovative ideas and original products. Class discussions and debates on topical business issues are one way to develop this skill and require students to use the language for expressing opinions, agreeing, and disagreeing.

Identifying evidence

Evidence in business helps us to make informed decisions; for example, a market research survey will help the future development of new products or services which are customer-focused. Ignoring such evidence could result in failure. However, identifying evidence also means separating what is useful or correct evidence from information which may be opinionated or even untrue. This is often the case if you give students a reading text which contains factual information alongside the view of the author. Ask students to underline factual information and circle the writer’s opinions in the text.

Identifying perspective

This skill means seeing things from another point of view. It’s especially useful in a business situation where, for example, you are negotiating with someone else and need to understand their objectives. Similarly, if you attend a meeting where you disagree with another person, it’s helpful to recognise their perspective. In class, using role pays where students take on a different character and have to view a business problem from their point of view is a useful way to develop this skill.

Creating solutions

My fifth and final critical thinking skill in business is often referred to as problem-solving but I prefer to call it ‘creating solutions’. In other words, I give my students a problem and ask them to work in a team and generate a variety of solutions before selecting the best one. Typically, this kind of task might take the form of a case study in which students read about a real business problem and have to create the solution that they would follow.

As you can see, incorporating these kinds of critical thinking skills into your lessons is fairly straight-forward as the kind of language practice and classroom activities needed are familiar. The difference is that by defining the sub-skills of critical thinking, you can also clearly state your aims in terms of critical thinking and the language that will be required. Such an approach could be the response we need in order to satisfy the growing demand for business professionals who can combine a command of English with the ability to think critically.

Look out for my next article next week where I’ll be providing examples of how to integrate video into your Business English lessons, with suggestions for classroom activities.

 

This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Skills for effective communication at work

Skills for effective communication at workRachel Appleby, co-author of two levels of the new International Express, looks at ways to help your students to communicate more effectively at work, ahead of her webinar on this topic on 3rd December.

The other day I had a meeting with a restaurant manager, Anna, about language classes. Her English was passable, but clearly not as good as she wished, and she felt embarrassed that she couldn’t express herself more eloquently. Phrases didn’t seem to come to her mind, and she kept apologizing for the little mistakes she was making. It reminded me of another of my students, who once complained that he sounded like a six-year old in English, and it didn’t help him do a good job at work at all!

What is it that such people need? Anna is adult and sophisticated, and can run a meeting more than adequately in her own language, but in English, it seemed to bother her that she had so many difficulties, and – as a result – little confidence. I really felt for her.

In a nutshell, her passive knowledge wasn’t bad, but she didn’t have those stock phrases we use in conversation to negotiate a topic (for example, how to add information, give an example, or move on.) – those phrases which help us sound fluent, make it easier for the listener, and ensure communication is effective. When she emailed me later that day, her writing illustrated a similar lack in conventions we use in semi-formal correspondence, those phrases which clarify the message, and orientate the reader.

So how can we help these students? They want to be able to function as easily in English as in their own language, even if they’re not at native-speaker level. Our students want to ‘be themselves’ in English, and behave as they would in their own language. The good news is that some work skills are transferable, even if we have to raise students’ awareness of what they are.

So let’s have a look at the main problems are, and what we need to do. Students, especially at lower levels, may have difficulties with grammar, but if we can focus on chunks of language, with an emphasis on intonation and sentence stress, this will help them communicate a clear message. Additionally, students often find that they have the technical language for talking about their area of work, but need help with putting it together. Functional language, phrases which have a purpose, are what they need here.

With writing, obviously we need to highlight standard conventions in emailing, and work with models to help students. I also think when writing that it’s useful to pare down content: it can be easy to write too much in another language in order to try to explain yourself, when it fact you just cause more confusion (I know I do this!) We need to help them keep their writing focused, and avoid unnecessary complications.

In my webinar on 3rd December, we’ll look at some examples of how we can increase students’ confidence, so that they can operate professionally within a work environment. We’ll look at chunks of language to use in meetings, conventions for writing clear emails (in particular, ways of handling difficult emails), tips for creating focused PowerPoint slides, and, finally, how to get your to-do list ticked off – in other words, ways of setting clear work objectives. And I think all these are things which Anna would benefit from!

I’ll be using materials from the Pre-Intermediate, and Upper Intermediate levels of the new edition of International Express. I look forward to seeing you soon!

Register now.


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How to write your own EFL materials: Part Two – Thinking about context and flow

EFL coursebook writingJohn Hughes has co-authored a number of titles for OUP including three levels in the Business Result series, Successful Meetings, and Successful Presentations. He will be giving a practical workshop on how to write materials at the upcoming BESIG conference in Bonn on 15th November. This is the second of two blog posts in which John explores three key areas which he believes underpin effective materials writing.

In part one of my blog on this subject, I wrote about the importance of writing materials at the correct language level and cognitive level, as well as writing exercises and tasks at an achievable level. In this next post I want to consider the importance of context and flow in the writing process.

Creating context

Context is the second area of EFL materials writing that affects how and what you write. By ‘context’ I’m referring to a number of different elements: First of all, the writer needs to understand the classroom context in which the material will be used. In other words, if you are writing material for General English adult student’s books that could be used anywhere in the world, then your material must appeal to a broad spectrum of people. Similarly, you have to remember that an exercise must be able to work with a class of fifty as well as with a class of five.

Something else to consider is the cultural context; a choice of photograph or text that will appeal to students in South American countries may not work for students in Middle East countries. And culture doesn’t just refer to national cultures; the culture and interests of younger students will be different to those for older students. Gender is also an issue; male writers have to consider whether their choice of contexts and materials will also appeal to female students and vice versa (which is possibly why so many successful course books are co-authored by a man and a woman.)

One more context which affects published materials in particular is time. If you are using a course book which is over five years old, for example, you may notice that photographs of technology look old-fashioned, reading texts are out-of-date, or perhaps some so-called famous people are no longer famous. So if you want your materials to have longevity, then topics such as technology and popular culture are often worth avoiding or treating in a way that will mean they don’t date too quickly.

Make your material flow

Having selected appropriate images, texts and exercises that are at the correct level and are appropriate for the various contexts in which the material will be used, you need to make sure they fit together in a logical order. In practical terms, this means that if you have six exercises or stages on a worksheet, then any teacher should be able to pick up that worksheet, take it into class, start at exercise 1 and finish at exercise 6. Yes it’s important that the material is also flexible enough for those types of teachers who like to miss some parts out, change the order or even add their own supplementary materials, but its primary function is to offer a complete lesson.

You have to write the material so that one activity flows into the next and that it follows basic principles of good lesson planning. In other words, there is probably some kind of lead-in task that engages the students, perhaps some comprehension work with a text followed by language analysis and finally a free practice stage of some kind in which students use the language presented in the lesson.

Part of writing materials with flow is also to provide clear ‘navigational tools’ that help the teacher to orientate the students through the lesson. These tools include use of headings, numbering, referencing and the rubrics or instructions which accompany an exercise or explain a procedure. You know when these features are badly written because you can’t find your way around the material or you are unsure what the aim of the exercise is. On the other hand, when they are well-written, you barely notice they exist alongside the rest of the material and everything flows logically.

Finally, once you’ve written your materials, you may find it useful to check them against these nine key questions.  Better still, hand your materials to another teacher and, without any explanation from you, see if they can walk into class and use them successfully with their students!

Check you’ve got the level right:

  • Can I easily identify which level this was written for?
  • Will it interest, motivate and challenge the students at a cognitive level?
  • Are the exercises and tasks too easy or too difficult? (Can you do them yourself?!)

Think about context:

  • Will the material work in classes of two or two hundred?
  • Will the material work in another classroom, region or country?
  • Will the material work next week or next year, or in three years’ time?

Finally, check, for flow:

  • Is there a logical flow from the beginning to the end?
  • Do I understand where to go next in the materials?
  • Do I understand what to do next in each exercise?

 

© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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How to write your own EFL materials: Part One – Writing for different levels

EFL coursebook writingJohn Hughes has co-authored a number of titles for OUP including three levels in the Business Result series, Successful Meetings, and Successful Presentations. He will be giving a practical workshop on how to write materials at the upcoming BESIG conference in Bonn on 15th November. This is the first of two blog posts in which John explores three key areas which he believes underpin effective materials writing.

If you want to write your own EFL materials, where do you begin?  Let’s start with a question: What do most established EFL materials writers have in common? First of all, they’ve all taught for a number of years and they are fairly confident about what will and won’t work in the classroom. Secondly, throughout their teaching career, they have always loved creating their own materials. Thirdly, most materials writers that I know have also spent time working as teacher trainers. In fact, I personally believe some kind of teacher training experience should be a requirement for all materials writers; it’s only by working with and observing other teachers that you can really understand how to write materials for use by other teachers.

Finally, I think that all effective materials writers understand – either knowingly or unknowingly – how to write materials that are at the correct level, aimed at the appropriate context, and organised into a series of stages which flow to form a cohesive and complete lesson. In this first of two blog posts, I’ll look at level in more detail.

How to write your own EFL materials

When we talk about the level of the material, we are usually referring to whether you can use it with an elementary, intermediate or advanced student. So knowing how to write for different levels requires that you have experience of teaching at lots of different levels. In addition to that, there are some tools that can help you. For example, if you are writing or adapting a text for reading materials then you can assess the level of the text with a tool like the Oxford Text Checker. By putting the text into the text checker it will show you which words are not within the top 2000 or 3000 keywords of English. As a result, you can decide how to adapt the level of the text and which vocabulary could be taught as new.

As well as considering the language level, materials writers also need to think about the cognitive level of the students; for example, writing materials for young learners is quite different to writing for adults. Also, there’s the danger that when we write materials for students with a low language level, we write materials which treat the students as if they have low intelligence. Even materials for elementary levels must still be intrinsically interesting, and motivating; in other words, if you are writing for grown-up adults, then the material should feel ‘grown-up’.

Level in materials writing also refers to the level of an exercise or task. In other words, the exercise or task itself must be achievable. So if you ask students to fill the gaps in a conversation while listening but there are too many gaps, it becomes impossible – regardless of their language level. Similarly, if you write a speaking practice task which requires more than three sentences of instructions, then the task is probably overly complex for use by the teacher and students.

So level is a key part of writing EFL materials, and in my next post we’ll look at how it links in with the skills of writing materials with context and flow.

 

© John Hughes ELT Ltd 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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What is the impact of English on your town or city?

ESL EFL English in your town or cityNina Leeke, co-author of International Express, provides ideas for a lively lesson or homework activity around this topic. It’s also the subject of the International Express Digital Poster Competition, which challenges adult students to produce a digital poster around this theme.

Like the majority of teachers, I like to personalise lessons and make them as relevant to my students as possible. Students usually find it easier to talk about things within their own experience and are more motivated to do so, and the language learnt as a consequence is likely to be more useful for them.  As I generally teach in-company classes, we spend a lot of time talking about the students’ jobs and everyday work. But it’s also interesting to broaden the scope and look beyond the workplace.  The local town or city is a topic which everyone has an opinion on, as we experience our environment day by day. The International Express Digital Poster Competition neatly brings these subjects together.  It challenges adult learners to produce a digital poster illustrating the impact of English on their local town or city, and they must include something about the local work environment and social life.  The topic provides plenty of engaging content for a lesson or two! Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Take in some prompts to initiate the discussion. For example, you could choose English-language tourist leaflets, menus, photos of billboards or signs, workplace material such as company documents, newsletters, and emails, videos or recordings of spoken English such as public transport announcements, workplace conversations, or conversations with tourists.
  • Alternatively, you could set the question as a homework assignment. Ask learners to keep their eyes and ears open for evidence of the impact of English on their locale and report back in an upcoming lesson.
  • If English is a strong workplace requirement where you are, you could start by asking learners about changes in the job market and workplace over the years. What skills are necessary for their jobs? How is English used in their workplace? A good starting point is to take in local job adverts or have learners research job ads online.
  • Interviews and surveys always provide a lot of language practice – especially those question forms which students so often struggle with. Learners can create surveys or interview questions on the topic and then interview each other, their colleagues, or people on the street. Your students could then present their findings in graph form – which would provide content for the digital poster if you decide to produce one.
  • Have a debate! Start by brainstorming the pros and cons of the local impact of English. Then divide the group into two teams, for and against the motion English has had a positive impact on … (name of your town/city). This fun activity should facilitate useful language practice of agreeing, disagreeing and the language of cause and effect.

Once your students have come up with enough ideas on this theme, it’s time to get them started on producing their digital poster.  For many learners, this activity will represent a break from the usual routine, which is usually motivating in itself.  The learners I tried it out with – one of my in-company classes – were excited by the change! Plus participants can enjoy the visual appeal and the hands-on nature of the task. Digital posters also represent a good opportunity for task-based learning and collaboration. The results can be displayed either online or physically, and learners can present their poster to their peers.

If you and your students are new to the medium, the following tips may be useful:

  1. Provide your class with some examples first, either by finding them online or creating something yourself. Alternatively, you can have learners look for digital posters for homework and share their favourites in the next class. To avoid too wide a search, you can specify a site for learners to look at.  For example, choose a topic on the glogster education samples page.  Much of the material on this site has been produced by school-age students, but you will find content relevant to adults too.
  2. The examples should give learners ideas on the possibilities for content, for example, photos, text, and illustrations. If they haven’t come up already, you may also like to suggest the use of word clouds, mind maps and infographics. Free resources to try include wordle.net, www.mindmaple.com and www.easel.ly.
  3. Ask learners to select which posters they like best and why. Analyse the elements of a good digital poster, for example, interesting content and simple rules for presentation (such as not too much clutter, and text that is easy to read with appropriate fonts and colours).
  4. Simple software to use includes PowerPoint, Word, Photoshop and Google Drive (go to create/drawing). Glogster has more opportunities for multimedia content and is designed for educational use. There is a limited free version (which includes advertising) as well as various subscription options.
  5. You may wish to create some content guidelines or a template in order to focus the learners and prevent them from feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities.  If you use Glogster, there are various templates to choose from. If you are using other software, you could impose boundaries by specifying the number of different items on the page, or the mix of text/pictures/graphics. Conversely, you may well wish to give your learners the freedom to do whatever they like, if they are not the kind to be spoilt by choice!
  6. Allow enough time for learners to ‘play’ with the technology! If you are like me, they will be more adept at using it than you are! However, they will still need time to experiment.
  7. Having said the above, ensure that learners get their content ideas down on paper first! Otherwise they may spend most of their time trying out presentation options rather than thinking about their message and content.

So, if you are looking for ways to link your classroom to the wider world, the International Express Digital Poster Competition provides the perfect opportunity.  Digital posters present a good opportunity for task-based learning and collaboration – and they are fun to produce!  I hope some of these ideas inspire you, and good luck with your competition entries!

We’re awarding an iPad and an OUP business writing folder to the winning teacher.  Each member of the winning class (up to twenty five students) will receive an OUP laptop sleeve and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Ninth Edition.  Visit the competition website to find out how to enter.

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