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Text selection for in-work and pre-work learners

How important is text selection in business English? Louis Rogers, co-author of Skills for Business Studies, discusses the challenge of choosing the right texts for pre-work and in-work learners.

Choosing a topic or a text for a lesson is a challenging task. It is especially difficult to strike a balance between the ‘needs’ and ‘interests’ of the students. This can be particularly true when dealing with two apparently similar groups such as in-work and pre-work learners. There are topic areas that quite clearly and seamlessly cross the boundary between pre-work and in-work learners, such as Marketing or Management. However, other topics, such as Logistics or Takeovers and Mergers tend to be much less accessible and of more limited use to a pre-work learner in an academic environment. So what makes these seemingly obvious business topics more or less accessible to each sector?

Essentially, it comes down to the sphere of influence surrounding the individual or group of individuals. A sphere of influence can be used to analyse many different concepts from politics, to market reach, through to leadership. For example, a shop’s physical sphere of influence would simply be how far are people prepared to travel to reach that shop. Factors such as reputation, price, location and competition all have an impact on a business’s physical sphere of influence. Or consider a country’s political sphere of influence which can be determined by factors such as economic, historical or military power. But how are students’ spheres of influence relevant to text selection in different teaching contexts?

If we reverse the scenario and place the learner at the centre of the sphere we need to consider the influence relationship from a different perspective. In other words, to look at not what they have an influence on but at what influences them. If we place the learner at the centre of a series of concentric rings, with each ring further from the centre considered to have less influence on the individual and therefore be of less interest and relevance, we can build a model for text and topic selection. In both the pre-work learner environment and the in-work learner environment, and arguably in any teaching situation, it is vital that texts are both relevant to the learner’s needs but are also of a broader generic interest and appeal.

Take the topics at the start of this post as an example. Successful Logistics is a key element to so many parts of a business. It impacts on the finance department in terms of costing, it influences the marketing department in terms of getting the product to market on time in order to run an effective marketing campaign, and it affects the customer relations department in terms of maintaining customer satisfaction. Yet for the pre-work learner the significance and influence of Logistics dramatically diminishes. It may have an impact on this kind of learner as an end consumer of a product, but the very process of logistics is an abstract notion that is happening behind the scenes in a company and does not touch on their daily lives.

So a new take on the topic or an entirely new topic needs to be found to engage the pre-work learner. Without a tangible relevance to the learner’s environment it is likely that motivation will dramatically diminish and ultimately impact on the success of achieving the course’s intended learning outcomes. As teachers we need to think carefully about our learners’ spheres of influence and ensure that we choose topics that will engage and motivate them, particularly if the text types are likely to be linguistically challenging.

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English for Finance – no cause for panic

David Baker, co-author of Finance 1 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses the subject of his forthcoming talk on English for Finance at BESIG on 19th November.

Whether you’re an experienced teacher or new to the field, one of the most daunting aspects of ESP teaching is the dilemma of how to deal with specialist vocabulary as part of the wider process of training and learning.

If you’re teaching in-work trainees, you will sometimes need to master terminology which the people you’re working with will normally understand far better than you. And if you are working with pre-experience learners, you will need to monitor and help develop their understanding of the specialist vocabulary they are about to use in their future careers.

Nevertheless, technical vocabulary is not always as frightening as it first seems. Financial English is an especially interesting example. Thanks to the banking and stock market turbulence of recent years, we have all become instant ‘experts’ and cheerfully bandy about expressions which would have left us completely baffled before the intensive –  and often obsessive – media coverage of world financial affairs got under way. Terms such as ‘sovereign debt crisis’, ‘quantitative easing'(or ‘QE’ to the real experts), ‘double-dip recession’, ‘the PIGS’, and so on trip off our tongues in pubs, offices, and dinner parties as if we had all just arrived hotfoot from a hard day’s trading on the stock market.

Most of us are in the happy position that we don’t have to understand precisely what these terms mean in order to use them and even to express an opinion on them from time to time. In my talk at BESIG on Saturday 19th November, one of the ideas I want to explore is how the process of finding out the meaning of such terms can be a route to learning more basic terms and concepts.

I have recently been working on developing materials for pre-experience learners preparing for a career in the financial sector. The main vocabulary-learning priority for this category of trainee is not so much the finance buzzwords I have just been describing, but rather the sort of ‘bread-and-butter’ terminology needed to talk about basic financial concepts and instruments.

In my BESIG session, I will explore ways in which teachers and teaching materials can help develop our trainees’ techniques for learning vocabulary. In particular, I will look at techniques for delivering and adapting teaching materials to take account of different levels of specialist background knowledge, as well as broader linguistic competence.  I will also show some examples of integrating vocabulary teaching with other skills work.

I hope that you will be able to join me at my session. Together, in the words of Susan Jeffers’ seminal self-help tome, we will feel the fear of teaching financial vocabulary and do it anyway.

Do you teach English to trainees who require specialist vocabulary? Feel free to share any hints and tips in the comments section below.

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