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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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The power of pronunciation in Business English

Business English pronunciation ESLELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, shares some classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes ahead of his webinar on 19th February. Register now.

Is there any essential difference between teaching pronunciation in business English and teaching pronunciation on a general English course? In many ways the answer is ‘no’. After all, in any type of ELT classroom we need to work on pronunciation in two ways: firstly, to help students with receptive pronunciation; in other words, to help them recognise features of pronunciation which affect their ability to listen and understand. And secondly, to help students improve their productive or spoken pronunciation; this doesn’t mean that they need to sound like a native speaker but that they are intelligible to a wide range of other people when communicating in English.

However, when we teach pronunciation in business English I do think our approach should be tailored to learners’ business needs and that they should have plenty of time to practice pronunciation for specific events. In addition, your business students can also use pronunciation to make their communication skills more effective. Let’s take a closer look.

Tailored pronunciation

Typically on a business English course (especially with one-to-one or small groups) we ask students about their needs for using English. Part of this will include asking them who they need to communicate with in English. If they answer, ‘colleagues working in our China offices’ then we already know that the students will need to listen to recordings of Chinese speakers in class. If, on the other hand, my students make phone-calls to the United Kingdom, then I might spend time focussing on the features of different accents within the UK.

Prepared pronunciation

In business English we also have to prepare a student for speaking at particular events; for example, if your student has a meeting in English coming up soon then you can predict the type of language he/she will need to use. You can practice using that language and identify any pronunciation problems that may affect the student’s intelligibility for the other participants. One useful technique is to role play the upcoming situation with the student and record the conversation. Then listen back to the recording and then pick out potential pronunciation difficulties.

Powerful pronunciation

Many effective presenters and speakers in the world of business also use pronunciation to make their message more powerful. So in my presentation skills classes I help students to work on stressing certain words and adding pauses for emphasis. Take this example which shows an extract from a presentation in which the stressed words are underlined and the / indicates short pauses between words and phrases. Try reading it aloud as you think the presenter said it:

Now I’d like to present the figures / for our most recent quarter / and / I’d like us to consider / the implications / for the rest of our financial year.

The speaker stresses the content words in the presentation and adds short pauses to break the sentences down. In particular, the separation and stressing of the word ‘and’ in the middle emphasises that the presenter has two distinct aims to the presentation. Having students mark transcripts of their own presentations like this can really add power to their communication.

To consider more of the issues behind teaching pronunciation in business English and to get more classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes, join me for my webinar on 19th February. Register now.

John Hughes is a teacher trainer and course book writer. For Oxford University Press he has co-authored on the Business Result series and the video courses Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations.


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Practical ideas for the Business English classroom: Part Three – Teaching successful networking

teaching successful networkingThis is the final article of a three-part Business English series by ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes. Here, he looks at ideas and exercises for successful networking.

We often think of successful business networkers as people who enjoy being the centre of attention. However, effective networking is about using normal conversation to meet new people and build positive business relationships.

At its core, networking requires a business person to be interested in the other person, to be positive and to be interesting. Let’s look at these three aspects of networking in terms of the language your students will require. I’ll share ways to develop each part of the skill with three classroom activities.

Be interested

It’s important for the other person to know you are interested in what they are saying. That means using techniques to show you are listening and interested. Clearly, use of body language is crucial here such as regular eye contact with the other person and nodding your head in agreement. But the language you use will make a huge difference to how the other person feels. We can teach phrases to respond such as ‘Really?’, ‘I see’ and ‘That sounds interesting’. However, these phrases alone are not enough. Work on asking questions which follow on so, for example, you might build a dialogue like this:

Person A: I’m based in London but I’m working on a new project in California.

Person B: Really? How often do you go out there?

Note that the question following ‘Really?’ is an open question because this will always be more effective for networking than a closed question. Open questions beginning with what, why, who, where, when or how draw out a more interesting detailed response. A closed question such as ‘Do you work here?’ only demands a Yes or No response. One simple exercise to practise this is to give students a list of closed Yes/No questions that you might ask in a social situation. For example:

1 Do you work here?

2 Do you do any sport?

3 Can you speak any languages?

Tell students to work in pairs. Student A asks one closed question and Student B answers with a Yes/No answer. Then Student A has to transform the same question into an open question and Student B responds with an open answer. So they might produce a four line dialogue like this:

Student A: Do you work here?

Student B: No, I don’t.

Student A: Who do you work for?

Student B: I work for a large multinational company based in Bonn….

By working through the list of closed questions and creating dialogues with open questions, the exercise demonstrates how useful open questions are for networking and it provides good speaking practice with revision of question forms.

Be positive

In general, we prefer to do business with positive, friendly people. When we are positive, we tend to connect with the other person and making connections is what networking is all about. One activity you can use in class to practise making positive connections is the following. It’s also very good for practising the past simple and present perfect.

Write the following on the board:

– Companies you’ve worked for

– Subjects you’ve studied

– Places you’ve visited

– Jobs you’ve done

– Recent films/concerts you’ve seen

Students stand in groups of four or five as if they are talking at a conference. You set a time limit of three to five minutes and explain that the students can talk about any of the topics on the board.

During the conversation, they give themselves a point every time they find they have something in common with another person. So part of a conversation might go like this:

A I’ve worked for a few companies. My last employer was Microsoft.

B: Really? I’ve worked for Microsoft too. [Receive a point.] When did you work for them?

A: In 1999. I was based in New York.

C: Me too. I worked in New York. [Receive a point.]

The activity is great for fluency and a lot of fun. Students become very competitive to receive points so this encourages them to make conversation. It also highlights the benefits of being positive and finding things in common with the other person.

Be interesting

Of the three aspects of networking, the third and final is the one people find strange; after all, can you really train someone to ‘be interesting’?! In fact, what this means is that to be a successful networker, you need to give the other person plenty of information about you (i.e. be interesting) so that they can respond (i.e. be interested). In language terms, it means that introducing yourself like this isn’t enough: ‘My name’s John. I’m a sales manager.’ Instead, give more information about you such as: ‘My name’s John and I’m in charge of our sales teams across Central and Eastern European regions.’ You can give students further practice with ‘being interesting’ by putting them in pairs. Write a series of topics on the board such as: Job, Location, Company, Hobbies. Each student takes turns to talk non-stop for one minute about themselves on each topic. The other student listens and times the minute. Obviously a student wouldn’t normally talk non-stop for a minute without the other person responding but the aim is for students to practise saying much more about themselves.

For more ideas and exercises on successful networking, take a look at John’s video-based course, Successful Meetings, co-written with communications expert, Andrew Mallett. This contains eight units on different aspects of meetings skills including a unit on networking.

 

This article first appeared in the August 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.