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7 Tips for Teaching Speaking for Academic Purposes at Graduate Level – Part 1

Four college students wearing graduation robesIn this series of three posts, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Learning and Teaching Centre Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Victoria, Canada, shares her top tips for the teaching of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to English-as-an-additional-language students at the graduate level.

Anyone who follows news, feature stories, or research related to higher education in English-speaking countries will have noticed the increasing number of items related to recruitment efforts or enrolment trends of international students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). Even if you are not following the latest trends and research related to graduate EAL students, you are likely witnessing the ever-growing presence of international EAL students first-hand in your institution.

Since I first taught EAP in 1997, which led me to pursue advanced degrees in this field, I have had the good fortune to continue working with graduate EAL students at various academic institutions. Over a decade later, my passion for EAP only grows. Today, I wear my regular hat, as I carry out research related to language teaching and learning and train ELT professionals and researchers. At the same time, I still design and run courses and workshops for graduate EAL students and consider it a great privilege to work with these usually highly motivated learners. These students are eager and determined to improve their academic conversation skills, because every day, they encounter many opportunities to speak English on topics about which they have sophisticated knowledge. They also know very well that their academic conversation skills and confidence will impact their future career options.

The idea for this post series came from my recent sharing at a local conference for ELT students and professionals. The tips presented here are inter-related, and they are not meant to be rules or a be-all-and-end-all guide; they are derived from my own teaching experience and research. My hope is that this post series will prompt you to reflect on and share what has worked well for you in your own teaching/learning contexts, so that together we can continue to enrich our students’ learning journeys.

Tip 1: Conduct a needs analysis

As instructors, we often ask, “What should our learners learn?” but a quick show of hands at a recent presentation I was giving reaffirmed the fact that not many of us regularly ask what our students’ needs are from their own perspectives. In addition to the mismatch highlighted by research between learners’ and instructors’ views about areas where learners need help, my recent research further suggests that what instructors or learners consider important skills to possess may not necessarily be the ones that learners perceive that they need to develop. Whether learners’ perceptions represent their realities or not, few of us would argue with the idea that learners’ needs are sound starting points for instruction, because learners may be most receptive to guidance in areas where they perceive a need for support and development. Furthermore, because learners’ needs are context-specific, it is important for us to conduct our own needs analysis to help us prioritize and inform our teaching.

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Take time to teach negotiating

Close-up of a handshakeJohn Hughes, author of Business Result, returns with advice on the importance of negotiation skills and language for Business English learners.

A student of mine once failed to indicate on her needs analysis form that she was regularly involved in negotiating. I was surprised because I already knew that her work included dealing with customers on the phone in the supplies department. When I followed this up later on, it became apparent that she viewed negotiating as something only top executives did. As far as she was concerned, talking about prices and delivery times didn’t really count as negotiating.

Aside from demonstrating that needs analyses are never water-tight when it comes to terminology, this highlights that negotiating actually happens at all levels in a company and doesn’t only need to be in the boardroom. For example, it can be between two colleagues discussing a day off or a request to leave work early.

So, when starting a lesson where students will negotiate, it’s worth taking time to explore what students think a negotiation is and when they need the relevant language for their job. Then consider how formal or informal the key expressions might be that students need. Do they need to be able to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can agree to that,” or will the more direct “Sorry, but no way” suffice!

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The only three questions you’ll ever need for a Business English needs analysis

Business meetingJohn Hughes is a Business English author. He also has his own blog, TrainingELTeachers. He’d like to acknowledge Regent Schools who ran the training course referred to in the article.

Formally or informally, Business English teachers carry out needs analysis all the time. It might take the form of a questionnaire at the beginning of a course or it can emerge out of a simple social comment at the beginning of a lesson such as: “So, what are you doing at work this week?”  Typically, the student happens to mention that he has something going on which requires English which he hadn’t bothered to tell you and so you put all your other lesson plans on hold while you prepare him/her for that.

Whatever your approach to needs analysis, there are three simple questions which you need the answers to.  I learned them on a particularly beneficial training course early in my career. You might well already ask them, though word them differently.

Question 1: WHO do you communicate with?

If you can find out from the student the type of people they communicate with then you know the level of formality required. It also affects the listening and pronunciation practice. For example, a student who communicates with US speakers needs appropriate listening and so on.

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