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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Business decisions which are based on assumptions run the risk of being out-of-date or repeating past mistakes.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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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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Teaching low level Business English

Businessmen shaking handsJohn Hughes is an author of Business Result. The new Starter level of this series will be launched in November at the BESIG 2013 conference in Prague. John will also be running a workshop on teaching low level Business English at BESIG called ‘Communicating much much more with a whole lot less!’

As a new teacher in the early nineties I often used to hear the widely-held view from more experienced colleagues that: “You don’t teach Business English at lower levels. The students just need to learn the basics. It isn’t business.” By the late nineties this view had rapidly altered; it soon became accepted that students at Pre-Intermediate level did in fact need English to help make telephone calls, write emails, meet people and make brief presentations. Logically, it then followed that Elementary students in companies also needed lessons with work-based English that focussed on ‘getting the job done’. And nowadays, Business English courses for beginner students are the norm rather than the exception.

However, even if we now agree that Business English can be taught at any level, teaching lower level Business English still presents us with its own set of challenges:

1. Teach to your student’s real level

When your school placement test puts a Business English student at a low level such as Elementary, it’s easy to forget that this same student is at a very high level in terms of their own subject-knowledge. Your business student might not be able to talk about what they had for breakfast in English but they can often describe quite complex aspects of their work in English. Whatever course syllabus or book you are following, give every opportunity for the student to make use of his/her existing job-related English.

2. Be economical

Business people by definition are people who appreciate efficiency. They want to get the job done in the quickest, most cost-effective way. Your approach at lower levels can be similarly economical. If there’s one word or phrase that will get the student’s message across, then – in general – teach that one way; avoid spending any more time on teaching five or six other ways of saying the same thing.

3. Repackage the language

Students at this level need so much recycling and revision of language. However, when we re-present language from the previous lessons, there’s a danger that students don’t feel they are making tangible progress. The trick is to ‘repackage’ the previously taught language. In other words, make sure the language reappears but within a different form; for example, that it reappears in a business text or re-present it the second time by using video.

4. Less is more

Having repackaged the previous language, we need to introduce new language alongside it. In an OUP blog post by Andrew Dilger on a similar subject, he suggests the balance is 60:40. So 60% of the lesson is recycling language and 40% focusses on new language. In fact I’d take this further and suggest that for many Business English teaching situations the balance is more like 70:30 or even 80:20 for classes where – due to work pressures – students have limited time for study.

5. What’s the ‘takeaway’?

In business, ‘the takeaway’ from a meeting is what you learned or ‘took away’ from the discussion. Similarly, students will feel more motivated if they leave your lesson with something tangible that they can take away and use. One way to do this is to find out when your student is next using English at work and give them something to use. For example, if they have a meeting, provide some useful language – even a single phrase – for them to try out at that next meeting. In the following lesson, find out if your student successfully managed to use the new language.

Can you add any more tips on teaching lower level Business English?


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10 attack strategies for teaching the text in Business English

Business woman reading reportAhead of his webinar on the same topic (click on Adult > Teaching the whole text in Business English), Business English expert John Hughes shares his top tips for approaching a piece of text in Business English or ESP.

If you are teaching Business English or ESP students, then analysing a text from their place of work is an invaluable part of determining their needs. You can also turn such texts into classroom materials which will help them to read and possibly write similar texts. It’s a fundamental skill for any teacher of Business English or English for Specific Purposes.

When I first look at an authentic text, I analyse for it ten features and decide which ones are most prominent and lend themselves to classroom exploitation.

1. Visual clues

The first thing we notice about a written text is any kind of accompanying image. For example, it might have a photograph, a chart, a graph, a map or even a table of figures. This will often act as a useful point of focus for students as it helps them predict what the text will be about.

2. Shape and layout

I also look for a shape or layout to the text type. Texts with an overt shape (typically formal texts such as letters and reports) help students to recognise what kind of text it is, which helps build their schema before reading. It also allows for exercises which draw students’ attention to the conventions for layout or to how the writer organises the content.

3. Overt title

A text with an overt title is like a text with a good photograph. You can use it with students to make predictions about the content of the text. In business texts, an overt title might be title to a company report or the title to a set of instructions. In emails, a clear subject line is the equivalent to an overt title.

4. Overt openings

Some texts don’t have overt titles but they do use opening sentences or phrases that indicate what kind of text it is and its purpose. A phrase like ‘I am writing to inform you…’ suggests that we are about to read a semi-formal letter from someone we haven’t met before or don’t know very well.

5. General meaning

Before any further textual analysis, I see if the text lends itself to reading for gist so that I can set some general gist comprehension questions. This is particularly necessary if the text doesn’t contain an overt title or overt opening (see 3 and 4).

6. The writer and reader

With some texts it’s useful to ask students to identify the writer and reader. For example, in the case of a departmental report, students can say who wrote it and who received it. With less obvious texts such as an informal message from a social media site, students might need to speculate who posted the text and why.

7. Detailed information

Having analysed the text for its general purpose and meaning, I start preparing comprehension questions to help students search for and understand more detailed information within the text. This is especially true of long texts.

8. Fixed expressions

Having understood the content of the text, I can start to analyse language which students might be able to use in their own writing. Formulaic texts often make use of fixed expressions. For example, reports might include expressions such as ‘The aim of this reports is to…’, ‘Please refer to figure 8.1…’, ‘It is recommended that…’.

9. Lexical sets

Texts that are related to very specific areas of industry may not fit into a typical pattern or fixed expressions but they will usually have their own specific lexis. For example, within a text related to shipping you might come across terms such as lading, container, pallet, abatement, in bond and ship demurrage. Once you identify a lexical set, you can create vocabulary exercises to help students with them.

10. Grammar

As with lexical sets, certain texts might contain frequently-used grammar. For example, in the recommendations section of an internal company document you might see the it is +passive form structure commonly used; i.e. it is recognised, it is recommended, it is advised… Help students to discover this grammar in the text and identify its form, meaning and use.

So those are my ten strategies for attacking a text in Business English or ESP. Do you have any more to add?

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