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Teaching Business English to Beginner Learners

Two businessmen shaking handsTo mark the launch of International Express Beginner, Andrew Dilger writes about the main challenges involved in teaching Business English to beginner learners and suggests possible solutions for overcoming them. Andrew is a freelance teacher trainer and editor, and has been involved in ELT for over twenty years. 

First of all, it’s useful to clarify exactly what we mean by Business English (or BE). One of the simplest, most effective definitions I’ve come across is ‘the English you need to get the job done’. And that’s any job! We might be confronted with a class full of sales people, admin assistants, finance officers or even good old-fashioned managers. These days, almost all employees in an international organization are expected to have some ability in English. That leads on to the first of four main challenges I’ve identified.

1) Context

Finding out exactly what English our learners actually need to use at work can be surprisingly hard. They may be already working (‘in-service’), or in training or not yet in work (‘pre-service’). In both cases, we should start with a comprehensive needs analysis. This is usually in the form of a questionnaire about what learners need to speak about and listen to, as well as read and/or write about. It should also cover who they need to communicate with, how often, and using what media (e.g. phone, email, in person, etc.) Because of their low level, it’s far better to cut to the chase and do this in learners’ L1. At the start of my teaching career, I sometimes only discovered what learners needed to do in English part-way through a course. Too late!

2) Learners

Generally speaking, beginner learners of BE (unless they’re ‘pre-service’) will be older adults, with an average age of between 35 and 55. Younger learners of BE are ‘digital natives’, tending to have tuned into the global importance of English and already managing to have acquired the basics to lift them above beginner level. Older students may not be particularly ‘internet-savvy’ (though they won’t want to lose face by confessing this), and may even have negative associations with learning English or another language from their school days. The thing that works in our favour, however, is that BE is about communicative competence (‘getting the job done’). Most beginner learners of BE will be less concerned with how we teach them English (i.e. the methodology) than how fast and effectively we can teach it them!

3) Time

In-service learners will typically enrol on a language course for a limited period and expect results quickly. What they sometimes don’t take account of is the amount of effort they need to put in, or their language learning capability. It’s often helpful to agree a brief contract (again, in learners’ L1 – and businesspeople like contracts!) about what their expectations and goals are in the given timeframe. This can also include how much work they’re prepared to do outside class. Also, we shouldn’t forget that beginner learners need to review regularly, particularly if they’re out of the habit of language learning. I’d suggest a ratio of new to review material of 60:40, which is what happens in International Express Beginner, for example. The trick is to make the review material feel sufficiently different so learners don’t feel like they’re going over old ground!

4) Motivation

While beginner level learners can improve rapidly, they can also get demotivated by how much there is to learn. As part of the needs analysis, it’s important to establish who the stakeholder is. Are they learning because they want to (‘intrinsic’ motivation), or because the company or their boss requires it (‘extrinsic’ motivation)? If BE learners feel their job is on the line we need to take that into account by making sure our lessons have an appropriate degree of seriousness. This means the practical application and relevance of activities to their working context must be clear at all times. But that doesn’t mean lessons should be dull – liveliness and variety is particularly important for beginner learners!

So what’s your opinion? Teaching BE to beginners varies according to the exact context and profile of the learners concerned, so it’s always interesting to hear a range of viewpoints.

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The Potential of E-books

Dr Priyamvada Agarwal works for Oxford University Press India as a Deputy Product Manager. Here she talks about using e-books for digital natives.

What are you most in need of to teach effectively in the digital age? Everybody would agree that interactive content which can engage students and hold their attention motivates students and enhances learning.

Teaching language skills through the coursebook to students who are digital natives and not digital immigrants can be both boring and time-consuming. Given that, what if the same coursebook could be used in such a manner that the printed exercises could become interactive and thus make existing material more lively, interesting and meaningful? What if something could help the teacher to bring challenge and purpose to the way the coursebook exercises are explored? What if the teacher didn’t have to invest money to make photocopies or to procure resources?

E-books, the digital version of the students’ coursebook, enables the teacher to play with the material in the coursebook, to develop interactive exercises, to add a personalized touch to make the lessons more context-oriented, and to add resources to help students connect instantly with things which aren’t often brought into the classroom. Incredibly easy to use, students’ coursebooks have beautiful illustrations and graphic stories which can be used to prompt discussions, develop predicting skills, etc. Simple features like zoom, hide and reveal, spotlight, etc. can do wonders to make interactive exercises and engage students in their language learning lessons.

Learners (and especially young ones) are able to retain information more easily if pictures, audio and videos are integrated into the lesson. Integrating videos into lessons creates enticing visuals and an interactive envi­ronment in the EFL/ESL classroom. Teaching English through videos also allows teachers to be creative when designing language lessons. As Cundell (2008, 17) notes, “One of the most powerful ways that video can be inte­grated into courses is for the visual represen­tation they provide for learners on otherwise abstract concepts.”

It’s not often you use the Internet at the same time as reading a book. With e-book technology this is commonplace. The teacher can’t get much more interactive and visual than using the audio-video clips in the e-book. Adding hyperlinks enhances the pedagogical value of the coursebook, and finding appropriate teaching materials online is not difficult.

An effective lesson does not nec­essarily require expensive and high-tech materi­als – relevant and contextual audio and videos available on the Internet linked with the lesson enable the student to easily relate to what’s being taught. At the click of a button, the web links direct you to the video to be shown. Moreover, it is a one-time exercise for the teacher because the web link can be easily annotated and saved on a sticky note.

When teaching about places like the Arctic/Antarctic oceans, the moon, or if teaching about some abstract concepts or about wild animals, which may be difficult for some to visualise and imagine, showing a video on the subject adds an additional layer of context and comprehension.

The multitude of enhancements that can be made to the digital version of a coursebook is a compelling reason to explore the potential of e-books in classroom instruction even at the primary and middle level.

If you are using e-books in the classroom, share your experiences and some of the interesting activities that engage students in the comments below.

Cundell, A. 2008. The integration of effective technologies for language learning and teaching. In Educational technology in the Arabian Gulf: Theory, research and pedagogy, ed. P. Davidson, J. Shewell, and W. J. Moore, 13–23. Dubai: TESOL Arabia.

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Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners

Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 with co-author Tim Falla about how best to exploit currently available digital resources, Paul Davies looks at how the digital world is changing learners.

The term screenager was coined 15 years ago by the author Douglas Rushkoff in his book Playing the Future. He used the term to refer to young people who have been reared from infancy on a diet of TV, computers and other digital devices. On the surface, screenager is just another mildly-annoying made-up word, like edutainment and infomercial. Look deeper, however, and the word contains a clear implication: that teenagers are somehow more different than they used to be because their brains have been permanently altered by constant exposure to technology.

In the media, headline writers love to seize on reports which appear to confirm that implication. “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilizing’ the human mind,” warned the Guardian on 24th February 2009; “How the internet is rewiring our brains,” lectured the Daily Mail on 7th June 2010; “Web addicts have brain changes,” claimed the BBC news site on 11th January 2012.

But go to the primary sources and you’ll find that very few of these studies actually claim to show what the headline writers claim they claim. For example, while the study of web addicts did indeed show their brains were different from non-addicts, the differences are just as likely to explain their addiction as be caused by it. The researchers took no ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the addicts’ brains and could therefore make no claims about changes – but you would never know that from the media coverage.

Perhaps it is not surprising that newspapers should have a grudge against today’s teenagers (who don’t buy them) and against the internet (which is killing them off). So, claims which reflect badly on both are given top billing. When Susan Greenfield, the Oxford-based brain scientist, recently suggested a link between the Internet and autism, it was splashed over several front pages. But again, the headlines turned out to be misleading and Greenfield later clarified her position: “I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That’s all.”

Not all the headlines are negative, of course. Some claim that modern technology has boosted young people’s cognitive skills and ‘rewired’ their brains (whatever that means) in positive ways. Today’s youngsters are supreme multi-taskers with brains that are more active and more efficient than previous generations. They may appear to lack focus, or be unable to concentrate, but that’s because we adults don’t quite get what they’re like. In fact, they’re fully evolved to live in a digital environment which has, to a greater or lesser extent, left us behind. Personally, I find these positive claims more refreshing, but the science behind them is equally shaky.

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Not Digital ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Laptop on legs on the grassMany of us have heard of the so-called Digital Natives / Immigrants divide (if not, read Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?). In this post, David White, a researcher at Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), an award-winning e-learning research and development group in the University of Oxford, introduces us to an alternative distinction: that of Digital Visitors and Residents.

At TALL, we have been taking a close look not at what technologies our students use but at how they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants – i.e. this distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies, it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students’ appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on whether they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have a persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc. The Resident will, of course, interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study, and for recreation. In fact, the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?

Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

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