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How to Keep Writing Tasks Real: Hotel Reviews

Hotel sign

Photo courtesy of Tomás Fano via Flickr

Alastair Lane is co-author of International Express Elementary and Intermediate levels, the all-new, five-level course for adult professionals, publishing in January 2014. International Express includes plenty of coverage of the hotel and travel industry. Here, Alastair shows how you can bring the subject alive with a real-life writing task.

“To whom it may concern. I am extremely unhappy with the service I received at your hotel during the week of 1 September to 7 September 2013.”

Those were the days. When customers received bad service, the typewriter would be out in a flash and our disgruntled customer would be bashing the keys in fury. However, today the idea of a letter of complaint is so old-fashioned that we might as well be teaching our students how to write a telegram.

Things are different now. If you go to a hotel or a youth hostel and the service is bad, when you get home you have a chance to complain to the whole world. You might put a negative review on Trip Advisor. Alternatively, if you booked it through a website like Booking.com, you will be invited to place your review on the site.

This is the kind of task people are doing in real life, and it’s the kind of writing task that we should be using in the classroom. We can ask the class to write a review of a hotel that they have stayed at, a fictional hotel, or a review of a hotel that they can see online. Students immediately see the purpose of the task because it replicates something they would naturally do in L1.

Writing a hotel review can work at any level from Elementary upwards, because online reviews can be as short as a single sentence.

Students can go straight to the Internet to find real-life model texts. Sites like Booking.com are particularly good for this. Firstly, they provide an automatic model for writing because users are asked to complete two sections: one for good points and one for bad points. That helps lower-level students organize their texts.

Secondly, users can filter the results to read reviews from people like themselves. If you have an older class, you can look at reviews posted by ‘families with older children’ or younger students can look at reviews by ‘groups of friends’.

When writing an online hotel review, students can write a fifty-word text and it still looks as real as any other entry on the sites. Students don’t have the sense that the task has been artificially simplified to match their language level.

A writing task of this nature also allows you to practice reading skills. Students can exchange their reviews, without the number of stars. The next student or pair has to decide whether the review is a one-star or five-star one. After all, we also want to practice praising the hotel in addition to the language of complaint.

With higher level students, you can ask them to write the review as if they are a particular group of travellers e.g. ‘mature couple’, ‘solo traveller’, ‘business traveller’. They then have to pass their text to the next student or pair. Once again, the next students have to guess which type of traveller wrote the review. This is a particularly good way of reviewing the language of facilities, as a business traveller will have very different needs to a 21 year-old travelling alone.

The short nature of writing online and the fact that users tend to write for an international audience in English provides a huge number of opportunities for the classroom. So let’s forget artificial tasks like the letter of complaint and start replicating what students are actually doing out in the real world.

Alastair Lane has over seventeen years’ experience in English language teaching. Currently based in Barcelona, he has also taught in Finland, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Alastair is co-author of International Express Elementary and Intermediate levels, part of the five-level course publishing in January 2014.


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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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English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right

Businesspeople shaking handsLewis Lansford discusses the four key elements of success for teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Lewis has written a wide range of ESP teaching materials, including Engineering 1 and Oil and Gas 1 in the Oxford English for Careers series, and English for Cabin Crew.

Most teachers come to ESP teaching with no specialist background in the field they’re teaching (English for medicine, robotics, aviation, law, the military, etc.) It can be intimidating teaching experts in a field that you yourself know little about. The key to success is getting a good balance of four basic elements: special lexis, general English language/grammar, special context and pedagogy.

Special lexis

This is generally the most intimidating part of ESP for teachers and learners. Teachers, who are used to being the expert, find themselves trying to help students communicate clearly using words that they – the teachers – don’t understand. That’s tough. Here are three ways that teachers overcome this feeling of lack:

  1. They learn as much as they reasonably can about the field;
  2. They are honest with themselves and their students about the things they don’t know, demonstrating that their expertise is in language teaching, not engineering or medicine or aviation;
  3. They remember that special lexis is only one part of the whole picture.

English language/grammar

This is an area of ESP teaching where the teacher is the expert. Think of ESP as a pyramid. Special lexis is the small pointy part at the top. The wide foundation of the pyramid is the English that everyone needs every day – the grammatical building blocks of sentence structure, verb tenses, adverbs and so on. Special lexis is important, but is useful only with the support and structure of English sentences to put it into. This holds up the whole pyramid.

Specialist context

Getting things done in English involves discourse – conversation, extended texts, and negotiations. Like grammar, this is familiar territory to the teacher: asking for information, clarifying, interrupting, making suggestions and all the other familiar functions. People in almost any professional or academic situation must do these things. Some specific situations differ across fields. Students of English for medicine need to develop an understanding of the discourse of the hospital, which involves communicating in a very hierarchical environment, often under intense pressure, sometimes with lives at stake. Business people need to learn non-linguistic negotiation skills, and often must learn about how these differ across cultures. The teacher’s job in this case is to develop the best understanding possible of their learners’ target context and to create lessons that give students the opportunity to use English appropriately.

Pedagogy

This is where it all comes together. The key to learners’ success is well-crafted lessons that provide exposure to authentic language, but not too much; allow for plenty of practice and recycling; give the teacher and the learner opportunities to measure and mark progress. Without sound pedagogy – well-planned and well-executed lessons – language learning and development are unlikely to take place. When the teacher gets it right, the other elements fall into place, and balance is achieved.

Teachers often start their first ESP job feeling intimidated by what they don’t know and worried about their ability to deliver useful lessons. Those who stay with it discover that their own expertise in running effective classes using appropriate materials balances perfectly with their students’ knowledge and experience in their own field. Many go on to relish the expertise they develop in teaching pilots, nurses, or engineers – comfortable with what they know, but also confident in what they don’t – which may be the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.

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Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes

Male graduate student smilingRachel Appleby, author and seasoned EAP teacher, looks at the challenges of teaching speaking skills in an academic context. Rachel hosted a webinar on this topic on 21st November. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

Why should academic speaking be any different from regular speaking skills?

In General English contexts, students need informal discussion skills, everyday transactional skills (such as those we practise in roleplay activities), and ultimately to be able to communicate successfully. Quite often those students who have good communication skills in their first language are able to transfer them successfully to a second language.

In an academic context, these general skills are still important, but specifically, there are two key areas which require focus, namely:

  • participating in seminars
  • giving academic presentations

So what do we mean by these? Apart from regular language work, how can we help students participate? What sort of questions open up a discussion, or enable a student to delve more deeply into a topic? How can they present an argument well? What do we mean by ‘clarity’ from a speaker’s perspective? And how can we help students structure their speaking, both in terms of an overall text, as well as at sentence level?

As these are actually important in everyday conversation, then they are skills which are already accessible to the teacher; they are things that we should be able to do too!

In terms of fine-tuning what students need, we should also bear in mind the sorts of contexts they learn in. For seminars, this is raising an awareness of, and practising group discussion conventions. For presentations, students need help in planning, and then in organizing the content. And of course unless they are seasoned presenters in their own language, a lot of effective work can be done on delivery, either for giving a PowerPoint presentation, or a poster presentation. I recently spent a little time on the latter, and the results were impressive: my students were not only able to layout a poster with visual clarity, but also present it orally with a good degree of conviction. It certainly pays to work on a few nifty tips and strategies!

Academic speaking skills training gives students structure for what they want to say, as well as rationale and focus; all of which are extremely useful for effective communication in every walk of life.

For us as teachers, it’s also important to be able to ensure equal participation among our students. By first observing, and then working on techniques students can use, we can maximize their participation in seminars and help enable students not simply to join in a discussion but also to lead a discussion.

If you teach students about to study at college, or already in tertiary education, or you’d simply like to know more about these issues, then watch the webinar here!

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Tricks of the trade: teaching English for engineering

Lewis Lansford, co-author of Engineering 1, talks about why teaching technical English isn’t as daunting as it seems. Lewis will be speaking on this topic at the 2012 IATEFL BESIG conference on 17th November 2012.

I was freaking out the entire summer before the class started.
I hadn’t a clue.
I had no experience in the industry.
I realised a teaching mistake could have fatal consequences.

These are the words of English teachers describing their thoughts and feelings as they began the journey into teaching English to engineers and technicians. Many technical English teachers never planned teach technical English, it just happened to them – they were in the right place at the right time – or some might say the wrong time.

Consider this technical English sentence: Our tools sinter or anneal thin-film materials using the photonic curing process in only milliseconds. It’s easy to see why teachers feel frightened. How can you possibly help students express ideas that you yourself don’t understand? And what teacher wants to feel that they’re the person in the room with the least knowledge and experience? The teacher – and not the student – is supposed to be the expert, right?

But is the above sentence a typical example of the language Engineers and technicians need? While highly technical language is an important component of any technical English syllabus, it isn’t the full story. So what is the full story? Here are four lessons learnt by the same four teachers who made the comments at the start of this blog.

It isn’t as daunting as it seems at first

The above sentence about sintering is representative of only a small part of the language engineers need. Just like any worker communicating in English, basic transactional language is the broad foundation that the technical language rests on. As a teacher, you’ll often be in highly familiar territory, because this is general rather than specialist English – Did you get my email? I can’t make the meeting on the 9th, and so on.

Allow your students to teach you

When you are confronted with difficult material, don’t panic. You can make your own ignorance an asset in the classroom by having your students explain technical terms and concepts to you. This sort of explanation is a skill that will serve them well in the work place, and it will help you develop your own expertise as a technical English teacher.

Demonstrate that you’re a language expert

OK, you haven’t mastered the photonic curing process mentioned above, but that’s not what your students want to learn from you. Your job is to bring teaching expertise and a good understanding of the English language to the classroom. Instead of being held back by what you don’t know, play to your own strengths and deliver pedagogically sound lessons.

Fun is pedagogically sound

We often imagine that a classroom full of engineers will be serious students who want ‘hard’ lessons. It’s true that if your students are involved with safety-critical systems such a brakes in cars or control systems for airplanes, it’s important to get it right – mistakes could put lives at risk. But the experience of most teachers is that like all students, engineers are at their best when classes are fun, even when the subject matter is potentially heavy. Technical vocabulary can be taught and revised using crosswords, word searches and puzzles, and communication activities can take the form of games. For example, students can analyse the function and purpose of a piece of equipment by imagining what life would be like without it; students enjoy this sort of break.

Most teachers find that once they’re used to teaching technical English, they have no desire to go back to the general English classroom, with the same old conversations about Lady Gaga, the Loch Ness Monster, and favourite festivals around the world. If you find yourself in a state of panic over an upcoming technical-English teaching gig, take heart and listen to people who’ve been there: It won’t be as bad as you fear, and you’ll probably end up enjoying it.