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Engaging content for your Business English lessons

What’s the point of talking about this?

Because exploring a topic with your class that they are interested in and passionate about can spark some great conversations. Discussing content that students don’t want to engage with is, in contrast, nowhere near as valuable.

In this post, Business English author John Hughes looks at the types of topics and texts which will get students speaking.

In Business English, most of our students want plenty of speaking practice and the opportunity to talk. However as teachers, we are all too familiar with the real challenge of finding a topic that students will be interested in speaking about – it’s never as easy as it sounds! This is a challenge for all teachers, but in Business English you also have to find topics that have relevance to students from all sorts of different business backgrounds.

One typical approach to any speaking lesson is to start by giving students a reading or listening text, or a short video to watch. Then set some comprehension questions to check their understanding and ask students to talk about the topic. If you’re lucky, you’ll have chosen a topic that your students have views on 😃. If not, you’ll experience that sinking feeling when no one has much to say ☹.

When approaching this kind of Business English lesson, here are four criteria I tend to consider about texts and topics which will get students speaking.

  • Click-through topics

The world of online marketing refers to something called ‘click-through’. That’s when a link or advert attracts people and generates plenty of clicks through to a product page. In the same way, the topic you choose for students to discuss must be the sort of topic that would get lots of clicks if it was a link on a webpage. Ask yourself if you would click on it? Show it to a colleague and ask if they would. Do you think students would read it in their first language? If not, then why would they in English?

  • Tell me more

Any type of text you choose to prompt discussion (and I include video here) works best when it’s real, authentic, and information-rich. For example, choosing a text about a fictional made-up company is rarely as interesting as a text about a real business. Also bear in mind that nowadays your students can conduct their own research about the topic online, they’ll soon know whether a topic is fictional!

  • Tell me something new

Find topics that give your students something new. With pre-work students this might be easier than with experienced business students but fortunately the business world is full of new concepts that look at working in a new way. If you don’t believe me, try googling the terms shadow work, fun theory and upside-down management. These are all intriguing business concepts that have relevance to the life of any business student.

  • Talking about something I can use

Finally, I like using texts where the students learn about a business skill and then apply their own experience. Take the below example from Business Result Second Edition. The students listen to a business trainer describing how to use a priority matrix to help in their own daily decision-making. The main idea is that you list all the decisions you have to make in the next few weeks and categorise them in four ways, as a result you can prioritise your decision-making (Note that this matrix works also well for busy teachers!).

[From Business Result Second Edition Intermediate page 72].

In the lesson, students begin by discussing how they approach decision-making, then they listen to the talk and understand how the matrix works. Next, students list five things that they must make a decision about this week and use the matrix. Then they tell their partner about their priorities AND describe why they put them into certain squares. Finally, they discuss the effectiveness of the process. In this case, the speaking task has meaning and students learn to do something new – not only in English but also in their job.


John Hughes is a teacher, trainer and ELT author. His titles for Oxford University Press include Business Result, Business Focus, Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations. John has also run Business English Teacher training courses for schools and teachers all around the world. At last year’s BESIG conference, he received The David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP.


*The diagram in this blog post is taken from page 72 of Business Result Second Edition Intermediate: ‘The Priority Matrix’ from Teach Yourself: Run Your Own Business by Kevin Duncan Copyright © Kevin Duncan, 2010. Reproduced by permission of John Murray Press, an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton Limited.


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Teaching English with vox pops 🎤

Teaching English with vox popsVox pops videos can transform your Business English classroom

The term vox pop comes from the Latin term vox populi, meaning voice of the people. In modern media terms, it refers to the method of recording people’s responses to questions on camera. In this century, vox pops have become especially popular on news media channels where reporters go up to people in the street and ask for their views on a political issue. In the commercial world, the same technique of interviewing customers about new products and services is widely used and then shared on social media.

Using vox pops

Showing vox pops videos in the Business English classroom can work well for many reasons. They are short, so don’t take up too much class time, and – as with any video – they can help to change the pace of a lesson. They provide exposure to authentic real speech, and because they follow a question-answer format, they are often more manageable for students to understand than a long monologue. I also find that once I’ve shown the video to students, I can then ask them the same questions from the video and their responses are often much richer – possibly because the video gives them a model to follow.

To illustrate this point, here is a short vox pops video which is taken from a course called Successful Presentations. Notice how in this example there is only one question, but different people answer it in different ways. As students watch, they can note down each person’s answer and then afterwards add their own views.

Making your own vox pops

It’s also easy to make your own vox pops videos to use in class. If your school has filming equipment you could use that; but to be honest, any up-to-date phone with a video camera will do a good enough job. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to get good sound quality. External microphones can help here, though in general I find the internal microphone on my phone is adequate depending on the environment.

In terms of the actual filming, decide beforehand what questions you want to ask people. These could be questions taken from the course book or questions which will generate language about the type of topic you are currently working. It’s often fun to video people that your students know already; for example, if you are teaching in a school with other teachers, video their responses to questions as your students will enjoy seeing other teachers give responses and opinions. Note that if you are only showing the video on school premises you don’t necessarily need people’s written permission to show the video in other classes but for any other kind of public broadcast (e.g. online or in other locations), make sure the interviewees have formally agreed to it.

Some people will get nervous about being in front of the camera; typically they will want to prepare their answers. However, don’t let them spend too long preparing because vox pops videos should be fast-paced. This approach tends to generate interesting examples of real speech that can help your students to develop listening skills in class.

Vox pops work very well in the Business English classroom as they allow you to utilise experts on a business topic. For example, if one of your students is a Human Resources professional, why not interview that student on video and show it to other students who know less about the topic. In a recent project with Oxford University Press for the new Business Result Second Edition, we were lucky to have had access to several ‘outside experts’ in the form of business academics and researchers from Saïd Business School, one of the world’s leading business schools. After trial and error, I found that the best approach to these kinds of interviews was to write three questions beforehand. In general, three questions were enough to generate plenty of content on a topic. The business experts were then happy to talk about their area of expertise in response to each question. But we also allowed them to go ‘off topic’ which sometimes generated more useful content. The result is a set of vox pops videos which are designed to be as engaging as possible in, perfect for stimulating class discussion afterwards.

To illustrate this, here’s an extract from a Saïd Business School interview with surprising information about the effect of price location on consumer behaviour.

Helping students to make their own vox pops

One final tip about vox pops videos is that your students can even make their own. For homework, your students could go around their place of work and interview their colleagues in English, asking simple questions like ‘What do you do?”, “Tell us about your workplace?”, “What do you enjoy most about your work?” It’s a technique which is very learner-centred and encourages them to practice the kind of language they’ll need in the workplace.


John Hughes is a teacher, trainer and ELT author. His titles for Oxford University Press include Business Result, Business Focus, Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations. John has also run Business English Teacher training courses for schools and teachers all around the world. At last year’s BESIG conference, he received The David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP.


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Transforming business research into classroom materials

In advance of his talk at the BESIG conference in Malta (November 10-12), John Hughes describes how he makes use of business research in his teaching and materials writing.

Business research can take many forms – from a customer survey run by a marketing consultancy to a university department setting up experiments to explore workplace behaviour. When this kind of research is reported in business publications or university journals, I often find it a useful resource to take into lessons.

 

You might be thinking that for many of your business English students, such research might be rather dry and distant from their everyday world of work. However, a great deal of research currently going on in business schools for example has huge implications on our lives. So, if you can select the right kind of research text and data, students can enjoy learning something new about business as well as learning English.

Here are four points to consider about using texts with research in your Business English classroom.

Useful sources reporting research and data

Results of research and surveys related to business and research often appear or are referred to in publications such as The Economist, The Harvard Business Review or Fast Company. In addition, you can also come across reports with data in your daily newspaper or online. In particular, infographics often include data shown in a visual format and you can find one that’s relevant to your students by googling the words ‘infographic + [your choice of topic]’.

Choosing relevant research

If all your students come from the same area of business, then you’ll want research that relates directly to their field. However, the reality is that many Business English classes or English for work classes contain a broad range of interests; for these types of students I tend to choose research which has broad appeal. For example, one piece of research which appeared in the Harvard Business Review reported on data based on 6.4 million flight bookings.

 


Taken from Business Result Upper Intermediate Second Edition, page 43. For the full reference please see the end of this blog post.

The data showed that women tend to book flights earlier than men and that older women book sooner than younger women. The data concluded that older women save more money and implied that companies should bear this in mind when appointing people to decision making posts. Such research works well in many classes because the implications of the data affect everyone and generate natural discussion about issues such as gender, age, and responsibility.

Thinking critically about the research data

Once you have chosen a text that reports research you need to design activities to go with it. An obvious starting point is to write some reading comprehension questions to check understanding. However, students also need to approach research critically and question its validity. You can also approach a text by asking students to think about questions such as:

– Is the source of the research or data reliable?

– How was the data gathered?

– Was the survey size large enough?

Students doing their own research

Texts with research results often offer a springboard into in-class surveys or questionnaires. For example, with the earlier example of decision-making in flight bookings, students could do a survey of the class’s own flight booking behaviour and see if the results reflect those in the text. Students can also design their own online surveys and questionnaires using tools such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey. The benefit of using online surveys is that students can get a much larger response from people outside of the class. These tools also create instant results in graphic forms which students can use in their own report writing or classroom presentations of their research.

By bringing in texts with research results, a teacher can develop students’ reading, writing and speaking skills. In the new second edition of Business Result we also included video interviews with researchers from SAID Business School (part of Oxford University) describing their research so students can also benefit from listening practice.

If you are attending the BESIG conference in Malta on November 11th, I’ll be exploring the further uses of business research and suggesting practical ways of exploiting it in the classroom.

The graph in this blog post is taken from page 43 of Business Result Upper Intermediate Second Edition: ‘Gender differences in booking business travel: Advance booking behavior and associated financial impact’ from http://www.carlsonwagonlit.com/content/cwt/ch/en/news/news-releases/20160412-women-book-flights-earlier-and-pay-less.html. Reproduced by permission of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.


John Hughes is a teacher, trainer and ELT author. His titles for Oxford University Press include Business Result, Business Focus, Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations. John has also run Business English Teacher training courses for schools and teachers all around the world. At last year’s BESIG conference, he received The David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP.


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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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A professional approach to teaching professionals

EAP for professionalsSam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series. In this post he explores some practical ways of bringing language to life for professionals.

Teaching professionals such as postgraduate doctors requires a number of modifications in approach on the part of any teacher coming into ESP. At a recent event, a participant was reporting a discussion with a volunteer tutor about what he, a retired consultant in the medical field, should call the members of the group he was teaching. He didn’t feel it was right to call his fellow professionals ‘students’. A seemingly minor episode, but it does highlight the shifts that we as professionals need to think about when teaching other professionals. It may be that our students carry on being ‘students’, but our attitude towards them, our behaviour and way of working does need to undergo some transformation.

Working in a team

In the medical field, if you are lucky enough, you may find yourself working as an ESP teacher with a team of health professionals in a hospital setting. You may be part of a team made up of other language professionals, a general practitioner, a nurse, a social worker, (a) consultant(s) along with professional actors/ actresses, all working together in the same training session.

You may, however, be working on your own in a language school and feel that you are isolated, but realise there is more to teaching in the medical field than just doing language practice. In this case, it may be possible to bring in retired or practising health professionals such as consultants or doctors or nurses to help with training, or arrange a visit to a local hospital or clinic. The aim is to make any classroom training as close to the hospital setting as possible, which the Medicine 1 and 2 and Nursing 1 and 2 in the Oxford English For Careers series have aimed to do with their task-based approach.

Training in a hospital setting

A typical training session in communication skills for doctors might involve a multidisciplinary approach with one or more team members where the language itself may appear incidental, but is integral, to the tasks the doctors perform. Each doctor can be given a scenario such as a 25 year-old young woman, Miss Brown, presents with a severe headache. How much detail the doctor is given can be modulated even to the point that all the doctor has is the name and age of the patient; or, if the patient has seen the doctor before, then some past history can be given. For safety and confidentiality reasons, the patient in the training is an experienced actress who has a defined role to play with medical information and details on personality, behaviour and attitude/ mood as well as accent. The history taking is watched by fellow doctors and other health professionals such as those mentioned above, including the language professional. The process is then followed by constructive feedback from the doctor himself, from the actress as the patient, the actress as herself, the other students and trainers. In this instance, the language input on the part of the language professional is dictated by the performance of the doctor in the scenario.

The classroom

The cost of providing the multidisciplinary training described in the previous section may make it difficult to replicate outside the hospital. However, it is possible to create scenarios where the doctors are the patients and their colleagues give feedback from different perspectives (social/ medical/ psychiatric) with the teacher maintaining the role of the language expert. If at all possible, you may be able to bring in actors/ actresses for the scenarios, which will enhance the training considerably. Your students can also be given open-ended problem solving tasks such as dealing with the performance of a colleague. The students discuss the problem in groups of about four within a defined time. Each group member has their own observer who gives constructive feedback on their group interaction. This latter task is a good way to improve insight and self-awareness.

The same training principles apply in other areas of ESP such as business, engineering, finance and law where a problem solving approach can be taken to bring the language to life, focusing not on language practice, but on language use.