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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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Where’s the video?

Woman on the floor with laptop and headsetRachel Appleby, co-author of the Business one:one serieslooks at some of the benefits and drawbacks of using video in the classroom. She’ll be running a workshop at IATEFL 2012 in Glasgow around the range of videos available to teachers and the practical implications of exploiting them.

In my multiple efforts to learn Spanish, I started watching a film last night. I was expecting it to have English subtitles, or at least Spanish, but it turned out to have neither. 15′ into the film I was floundering. Not exactly my idea of a relaxing Sunday evening.

I have a list of strategies for improving my Spanish, most of which come in bite-sized chunks. Watching films doesn’t quite fit into that category, but as long as I understand what is going on, then it seems worthwhile, and naively I like to think it helps!

I often recommend films to my students, however, but only to the higher level learners. Unfortunately with Business English students, there is rarely time to focus on long extracts. We all have favourite YouTube clips, and these can be a good starting point for a lesson, but beyond that (and a lot of extra work), I have my doubts.

While there are now a number of language teaching websites dedicated to short video extracts (both short clips, as well as film extracts), they still need fitting into the syllabus, and making relevant to students, and this is particularly difficult, I find, with BE students and their disparate needs. Such media needs to enhance learning, make it easier, more fun, more interesting or more memorable, and ultimately more effective to achieve lesson aims.

Maybe I’m unlucky where I teach, but too often I’ve been held up showing a clip on YouTube in class while the streaming regularly stops to buffer. I’ve also found that my favourite extract straddles two clips on YouTube. Once, the only decent-quality clip from a film I wanted to show had subtitles in Japanese. I’m doomed. Classes must be free of such technical glitches!

From a student’s perspective, there are other issues: sometimes they simply “don’t get” the point of the extract I thought would be a resounding success at the start of class. The clip is de-contextualized (both situation and characters need explaining) and, perhaps most importantly, the language is either too fast, or at a level which is too difficult. Handing out a video script either before or after is helpful, but not exactly motivating, and to me, it initially defies audio as listening practice. The result can be very demotivating for students.

While videos can be useful for exposing students to good examples of language, such extracts are rare, and need searching out and working on: in fact, a lot of thought and time is required to put together a good lesson based on a video extract.

Without denying the potential that authentic video has (and I’m a great believer in real language, and the ‘here and now’), I think there are many times when a short, tailor-made video will encapsulate exactly what is needed to engage the business student, inform and inspire them, and ultimately give them the confidence to use the language or information they have learnt in their own environments, thus providing a greater sense of achievement in the process.

Isn’t this, ultimately, what we’re after, well over and above the mere entertainment factor?

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How to make progress with Advanced students

Students shaking hands with their teacherIf advanced-level students think they’re not making much progress, or they’re struggling with motivation, it’s time to try some new ideas. Rachel Appleby, co-author of the Business one:one series, shares hers with us.

This article was originally published in Dialogue Magazine.

“Basically, they can operate quite well in English, perhaps with a few mistakes. And their vocabulary’s OK, though they sometimes avoid complex grammar.  They don’t seem very motivated, because they don’t easily see their progress, yet I’m sure their English could be much better.”

Sound familiar? It’s certainly pretty common at the start of any of my advanced courses. But a few simple tricks to determine what they need and what you want them to do, and you’ll be teaching advanced learners successfully before you can say ‘advanced Business English’.

My advanced students often simply state that they want more sophisticated English, but what do they mean by that? Well, I believe they want to communicate  in a more appropriate style, and sound  like a native speaker. They also want access to a wider range of expressions, and of course, they need to ‘lose’ some of their ingrained mistakes.

So how can we do this? Well, first and foremost, they need exposure to lots of listening and reading materials – texts which are carefully selected and exploited in advanced-level course books, as well as a wide range of authentic material. Encourage them to be active readers and listeners, by suggesting they highlight or note down phrases they’d like to add to their repertoire.

Set a challenge

With one of my current groups of advanced learners, we were practising phrases for meetings, but they weren’t really using them. So the next week, I produced a tick-box form of phrases (see below) and put students into groups of three – two students to have the meeting, one student to listen and tick boxes. The students swapped roles so there were three meetings altogether. I told them that at the end we’d be counting up the ticks. Well, now the challenge was on, the results vastly improved, and their satisfaction by the end was greatly enhanced – as was mine!

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A cocktail of ideas: blended learning and student autonomy

Young man using computer at desk, wearing headphonesAhead of her talk at BESIG this month, Rachel Appleby, a teacher and teacher trainer specialising in Business English, considers how to select appropriate technology when teaching a range of different learners.

When planning lessons these days, where do you start? With a piece of fantastic technology you’ve just heard about? A great YouTube clip, or podcast you’ve enjoyed? A new function or widget you want to share? I know I do this – often; it’s this which gets me using a wider variety of materials and, if I’m motivated, I know some of that will rub off on my students. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing this!

However, the more I try out new features, the more wary I have to be of what my students will want. What will make them ‘bite the bullet’ and join in or have a go? Increasingly, I’m finding I need to think of each individual – what they need, what they have time for, and what’s going to spark an interest to encourage them to experiment and ‘do something online in English’.

Getting students to be committed, engaged, and to ‘learn’ or use English, just doesn’t work if they’re not interested or they don’t see the point. We have to start with the learner and, with an ever-increasing range of materials to draw on, it isn’t getting any easier.

In my talk at BESIG on Saturday 20th November, I’d like to find out what others are experiencing. I’ll elaborate on some of the above issues, and describe what I’ve been doing over the past few months to work with a range of learners in different contexts – part-distance training, face-to-face classes, and of course trying to keep tabs on those learners who can’t make it regularly to class. Within all contexts, some are young adults with unreliable internet access, while others are more experienced in their learning and very computer savvy. There’s someone different on each point of the continuum.

My own experiments have included setting up collaborative group websites, exploiting a VLE (virtual learning environment – Moodle) with course planning, documentation and discussion forum options, and a range of other attempts to inspire my students to participate in a way which best suits them.

Ultimately our aim should be to help guide learners towards their own preferred resource types, and part of that process is showing them what is available, but also helping them manage their learning systematically. This may simply be highlighting the wealth of goodies contained within the course book package and thereby promoting traditional approaches through contemporary methods; for many, this is more than enough.

Blended learning may be all things to all people, but primarily we need to keep up-to-date in terms of resources and learning contexts, and ensure students are able to maximize their learning opportunities and achieve the required results within the framework within which they are operating.

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