Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Natives and non-natives - justified discrimination?

Recently the BESIG discussion forum has exploded into life, which is a very welcome development. I belong to three such forums, BESIG, IATET and EULETA, and all three seem to come and go in waves, usually until someone complains about "all these messages cluttering up my in-box". I've never been able to work that one out - surely an active discussion forum is infinitely better than an inactive one, and even the apparently irrelevant postings sometimes generate wonderful debates.

(I also come and go with the forums - sometimes I read everything, get involved in discussions and look forward to the next nuggets of wisdom; other times I'm too busy and barely have time to delete all the stuff cluttering my in-box - but that's more about me and my workload than the quality of the discussions.)

Anyway, a week or so ago on BESIG there was a great little debate about natives and non-natives that came out of nowhere - someone had posted a job ad that specified it was for native speakers only. And the floodgates opened. I didn't get involved in the debate because I was deep in deadline hell (still am actually), but I do need to get some things out of my system, so here goes.

I've spent almost all my teaching career in the natives-only sector. When I started here in Poland in 1996, there was a stereotype that Polish people couldn't teach English as well as us. Apparently Polish teachers of English were too obsessed with grammar; they explained rather than elicited; their lessons were boring and ineffective.

That at least was the message I got from my employers and my students. No idea how accurate the stereotype was. At the time I didn't question it. I'll come back to the issue of stereotypes later.

Then in 2003 I moved to International House, where I was briefly Director of Studies. (I left after 4 months because I was told there was no money to pay me from May to September - this being just after my daughter was born. Not a good time). Towards the end of my time there I was interviewing a teacher for a position in the school. She was wonderfully qualified and experienced, and very impressive. (I discovered today, by coincidence, that's she's become a sucessful course book writer).

But my boss (Polish) vetoed my decision to give her a job. Because the teacher was Polish. The customers won't like it. They have certain expectations, you know.

Again, I accepted that. The customer's always right. Can't argue with the market, and all that.

Next I moved on to the British Council (doubled my salary and had no responsibility - good career move). Another institution dominated by native speakers, but also one that takes equality and discrimination very seriously.

In my first year I attended a conference in Glasgow for BC teachers. One of the sessions I attended was entitled I want a proper British English teacher. The presenter explained that some clients had complained about non-white teachers in the teaching centre (I think the teachers in question were British of Asian origin), so the centre manager explained to the client No, we will not change your teacher. It's alright - all our teachers are fully qualified native speakers.

In other words, the customer isn't always right. The presentation was about standing up to discrimination. Hear hear!

But that got me thinking. The manager (rightly) came down hard on racial discrimination. But he replaced it with discrimination based on nationality. On the surface, the manager was being thoroughly modern and liberal and anti-discriminatory, but under the surface, his message was No, don't worry, they're not nasty foreigners. They're Brits (or Americans or others from the inner circle).

In other words, criticising one type of discrimination while indulging in another. No wonder the client was confused, perhaps.

Before I get into trouble, I'm absolutely not saying one type of discrimination is less bad than another, or one type justifies another type. I disagree with all kinds of discrimination. Discriminating against British non-whites is wrong, and so is disciminating against non-British non-whites. And so is discriminating against non-British whites, for that matter.

It's also illegal, by the way. Probably - good ol' Wikipedia assures me that discrimination based on nationality is covered under anti-discrimination law. (I can't been able to find any evidence of this in actual statutes, but I haven't looked very hard).

You could argue that this is politcal correctness gone mad, and some people have argued exactly that. Surely if you want to learn a language, a native speaker is better than a non-native? Stands to reason, right?

Well, not necessarily. For me as a learner of Polish, I'd probably be better off asking a non-Pole to explain the grammar. For most natives, their own grammar is too deeply entrenched to be available for analysis and explanation. (OK, I know I should get over my obsession with grammar - but that's just what I'm like as a learner). Non-natives have the bemefit of knowing the language from the outside - how it works, what's difficult to get your head round, etc. They also have experience of learning the language. And, very often, they know their learners' language too. Some pretty big advantages.

The much more important issue, however, is that we're dealing in stereotypes. I said a non-Pole might be better at explaining Polish grammar to me, but I can't say all non-Poles would be better than all Poles. That'd be ridiculous.

Equally, perhaps there are many non-native English speaker teachers who have poor English (perhaps) or who can't teach according to a particular methodology.

Perhaps ...

Even if that were true, it would be wrong to deduce that because teacher A was born in country B and not country C, she can't teach English as well as teacher D (who was born in country C).

You can't judge individuals based on stereotypes. Treat each individual on their own merit.

The teacher I wanted to recruit at IH had wonderful English and a better grasp of methodological theory that I did at the time. The only justification for not employing her was the stereotype.

And what of the customer being always right? Well, they're not. We don't tolerate racist customers or pander to their prejudices (I hope). And I think we need the guts and the confidence to stand up to customers who demand a particular flag on their teacher's passport.

Sure, you might lose a few customers. Maybe lots of customers. But if you have a strict policy of recruiting absolutely the best teachers, whatever it says on their passport, you may find the customers who stay are happier and recommend your school to other potential customers.

Anyway, I'm aware this is a hornets' nest, so very much looking forward to your comments.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

How did PPP become a dirty word?

Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of walk-throughs – presentations which involve guiding an audience through a unit of a course book to explain the deeper methodology behind it, to show how exercises build up to achieve a sub-aim, sub-aims build up to achieve aims and aims build up to create a coherent section in a coherent unit. Another reason for these walk-throughs is to elicit ideas for how to use the materials in class – supplementing, personalising, adapting, that sort of thing.

The first time I did it was in my analysis of Business Opportunities and Business Objectives, and a couple of weeks ago I walked through a unit of Introduction to International Legal English (see photo below, taken by one of the co-athors of that book, Matt Frith). And I was at it again at the BESIG conference, walking through our wonderful new book, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-intermediate. This afternoon I’m flying off to Austria for a training event in Klagenfurt tomorrow, doing yet more walk-throughs for two of the books in my series, Cambridge English for Engineering and Nursing Intermediate+.)

But there’s something worrying me in the back of my mind as I’m talking about the wonderful methodology. I feel guilty every time I mention or even hint at the idea of presentation-practice-production – the famous PPP model that we were all taught on our initial teacher training (like my CTEFLA, or the CELTA as it is now).

On my diploma course we learnt that the PPP model is actually extremely naïve and something to avoid at all costs. It’s as if these staples of English teaching methodology are an embarrassing relic from the bad old days.

Or at least that’s the message I took away from my training – perhaps my trainer was les extreme and I got overexcited.

So is PPP dead? Well, certainly, the purest form of PPP would be a disaster. Teacher stands at front of class and gives a presentation. Students do a solitary practice exercise. Students do a freer productive task to demonstrate what they’ve learnt, but … ooops, they haven’t learnt anything.

But does anybody really teach like that? And just because the pure form is rubbish, we shouldn’t dismiss the model. We just need to fix it.

If you think about it, PPP, if done properly and sensitively, is a completely logical way of going about things. Of course many teaches make a hash of it (as I’ll explain below), and of course there’s much, much more to teaching than PPP.

But as long as there is actually some sort of input involved in teaching (and it’s not all student-generated self-teaching), that input needs to presented somehow. It needs to be practiced somehow. And students need a chance to use in a more natural situation. And … er … those three steps need to be in that order.

(Before you start spitting at the screen, I’ll deal with that issue of order in a second when I mention TTT).

Imagine you want to learn to paint, or to be a belly dancer, or whatever. You go along to your evening class and what do you expect? Well, perhaps someone to show you what to do, then a chance to analyse it and master it, and then a chance to apply your new skills in as natural, integrated situation.

(My big sister’s a world-class belly dance instructor – I’ll ask her one day if that’s how she does it).

So what’s wrong with PPP? Let’s look at the stages in order, starting with the presentation

I once observed a lesson taught by a very nice but rather inexperienced teacher. The lesson started with her drawing all sorts of wonderful timelines on the board (past simple and past continuous, if I remember correctly), with plenty of example sentences and counter-examples. I got a lot out of it, but I’m not sure if the students did. The teacher forgot (a) to find out what they already knew – perhaps they already knew all of this already, and (b) to involve them in the presentation. If the teacher had done those two things, she could still have done the same presentation but it would have been much better. The students would then have been happy to be confirming what they knew – even showing off to the teacher about how good they were, and much more ready to ask about things they didn’t understand.

A presentation doesn’t have to be teacher-led, and it doesn’t have to involve timelines. Everything we teach, be it vocab, phrases, pronunciation techniques, business skills, collocations, learner training skills, whatever – there’s always some form of presentation.

One of the simplest techniques involves teaching useful phrases from an audioscript. After they’ve listened, students read the script to underline useful phrases. Or you could give them the phrases with the words on slips of paper to sort. Or present them as a gapfill. It doesn’t really matter. There’s useful language in there, and it’s the teacher’s role to make the students aware of it. Ideally, the student should be fully involved in discovering the useful language and selecting whether it is in fact useful. But they still need support and guidance from the teacher.

What of TTT (test-teach-test)? This is often presented as an alternative to PPP, but it’s not – it’s just a sensible extension of it. The initial test could be a role-play or exercise or game or discussion, where the teacher has a good laugh at how badly the students perform the task. Or sees that the students can already do the job really well, and therefore abandons the presentation and pulls plan B out. (Stick a video on, perhaps). The test informs the presentation, practice and production – in other words the teach and test stages. So TTT is just TPPP.

The second P is practice. My diploma trainer used to say PPP stood for piss-poor practice. (He was much more vulgar than me – sorry about that). But of course that’s incredibly easy to fix.

Er … just do more and better practice. Loads of it. Not just gap fills and error correction but controlled speaking, less controlled speaking, moving-bits-of-paper-around games, moving-students-around games, vocab revision games, …

The key is this: as long as the practice activities are useful and varied and fun, you can do no end of them. You can also do them in a non-linear way – so when you’re in the middle of unit 4, you can go back and do more practice from unit 1 and unit 3.

Moving on to the third P, practice. (I feel like I’m doing a conference presentation … there’ll be time for questions at the end).

As a new teacher, I was always disappointed when students completely failed to use target language in their free practice activities (discussions, role-plays, simulations, etc.). As soon as they relax, they fall into their old bad habits, their lazy, safe, easy ways of speaking. Simple tenses, simple vocab, simple phrases (“I disagree”, rather than “I’m not sure I completely agree with you”).

Well, that’s just one of the hazards of teaching, and we need to get over it. We’ve absolutely got to provide lots of practice opportunities, and we’ve got to encourage students to use target language (if, of course, it really is useful to them, which is a completely different issue – but a very important one). Tell them explicitly that you’ll be listening out for the target language during the production task, or get them to listen out or each other. Praise the students that use the target language, and gush about how wonderful it sounds. And keep noticing it, praising it and nagging about it in all subsequent speaking tasks.

One of my old favourite games is to print the target phrases on slips of paper. Before the speaking exercise, students have done something with the slips (like sort them into categories according to function or level of formality or whatever). Then during the speaking activity, they have to use as many of the phrases as possible. When they use one in an authentic way, they can take the slip of paper from the desk. At the end, the one with the most slips is the winner. Of course some students will be silly and overuse the phrases, but even so, the results usually sound great. Again, praise the students – tell them how nice it sounded, even though it was only a game.

So, to recap, PPP is fine, as long as it’s done intelligently. In fact, as long as there’s still some teaching involved in teaching, it should be a staple tool for all teachers.

Friday, 27 November 2009

BESIG 2009 - part 2

Day 2 of the BESIG conference started very badly …

I’d been very sensible. Only one beer at the Cambridge meal the night before. Resisted the temptation and persistent persuasion to go dancing with the king and queen of legal English, Amy Krois-Lindner and Matt Firth. Sensible early night because I had my big presentation at 9.45. Alarm set for 7.

I woke up at 8.45, looked at the clock and felt that churning-stomach feeling that it’s all about to go horribly wrong. I knew I had to choose between breakfast, preparing for my talk and showering. I chose the shower. Then I pulled on my suit, packed my suitcase and dashed to the conference venue with a luxurious 7 minutes to spare.

Actually my talk went pretty well. I was talking about English for Nursing (not coincidentally, the latest addition to my series, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-Intermediate, is coming out in early 2010).

Unfortunately no-one in the audience taught nurses, so it was all a bit hypothetical. I wanted to relate what I was saying to ESP in general – the presentation was called Results-Focused ESP – and I think I got away with it. The audience were very responsive and got involved with plenty of great ideas, which was exactly what I was hoping for.

By the way, I’ll explain my talk in a later post.

Straight after my talk, I had an interview with Carl Dowse. He wanted a film of me giving advice for new ESP teachers. I was surprised how easy that was … probably because I’d already had a chance to think everything through by writing this blog. You see, that’s another nice thing about blogging – it’s great for getting your thoughts straight.

From the interview, I sneaked into Mark Ibbotson’s session on English for Engineering, only a few minutes late. Mark’s session was excellent – he really does know his stuff, and, more importantly, made it all sound really easy and really interesting. At one stage he was talking about the technical vocabulary connected with racing cars, and just kept going deeper and deeper into the vocab. The point he was building up to was that engineering vocabulary is huge and extremely specialised. But … much of it is also generic. The same ideas keep popping up in diverse fields. So instead of despairing at the sheer volume of words, we need to prioritise the vocab we teach.

After Mark’s session, I grabbed a handful of biscuits … a late and not especially fulfilling breakfast. And headed for the last session, the panel discussion on the future of teaching and learning. It was a bit similar to the WOW panel discussion from the first day, but different enough to keep it interesting.

After lots of going round and round with panellists and audience members saying method X is better than method Y, the comment was made (Pete Sharma, I seem to remember) that we’re comparing apples with oranges. Sometimes one’s better, sometimes the other, but it doesn’t make any sense to make absolute comparisons. Eric Baber also made a crucial point: the kind of teaching most of us are involved in is not typical of the majority of language teaching and learning that goes on around the world. Sure, it’s great to have a long chatty one-to-one lesson with a subject specialist, but for most learners that’s simply not an option. The choice for most learners isn’t between face-to-face and computer-based learning. It’s between computer-based and nothing.

[Sorry, Eric and Pete if I’ve misrepresented you – this was the message I took away from the session, and may not have been exactly what you were trying to communicate.]

And that was it … the conference then kind of stopped. It would have been nice to have a closing ceremony, even a closing plenary, a chance for us to thank the organisers with a standing ovation and say good-bye until next year. Apart from that, it was a perfect conference – great sessions, great food and great networking. BESIG is the best conference of the year, and I’m looking forward to the next one.


I had a couple of hours before my train back to Warsaw, so I agreed to go with my friends from Cambridge for a bit of lunch. I was pretty hungry, so it seemed like a good idea at the time …

But by the time we’d ambled down to the city centre, found a nice place to eat and ordered our food, I realised I was cutting it incredibly fine with my train – which was at 3.30. It was already after 2.30. I calculated that I’d need to leave at 3pm at the very latest to have a chance of catching the train. The food finally arrived at five past. I bolted a few mouthfuls, grabbed my coat and suitcase and started running.

OK, so it was only 1.7km (about a mile?), which a top athlete could do in 4 minutes. But top athletes don’t do it on a full stomach, wearing a thick winter coat and dragging a suitcase across cobbles. I had 20 minutes … 16 … 12 … OMG I feel awful …7 … I feel sick … 3 … gotta keep going … 2 … there’s the station … 1 … there’s my train …

Well, somehow I made it. I spent the next hour sweating, panting, groaning. Fortunately I found a Milky Way in my bag, a gift from Vicki Hollett, brought all the way from ‘merica. Best Milky Way I’ve ever had.

So a bad start and a bad finish, but overall a great day and a great weekend. The worst thing was getting home exhausted and realising that it was Monday tomorrow …

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

BESIG 2009 – part 1

[Saturday 21st November] If I were a proper techie, I’d be blogging live from the BESIG conference, which I’m currently attending in Poznan, Poland. But I’m not, so I’ll write this up the old-fashioned way and post it when I get home.

Actually, that’s the most striking thing about this conference – the number of people filming, tweeting, typing and doing all those touch-screen rock-and-roll moves on their iPhones. I feel old.

Last night (Friday), at the excellent welcome event, as I was doing a bit of face-to-face networking (mainly people I’ve got to know online over the last 12 months) I got the impression I was the last, sad individual to resist the urge to tweet. But this morning I felt a bit better: in Nick Robinson’s session, he asked the audience how many of us were on twitter, in case we’d like to tweet while we listened. And no-one was on twitter! So it seems I’m not the only one.

But not for long, it seems. This afternoon I ended up sitting in while Karenne Sylvester was teaching Vicki Hollett how to tweet and how to organise her tweetdeck. I’ll confess, I was expecting the tweetdeck to be a piece of hardware … but now I know what it looks like and how it works. So I guess I’ll have to join the twitterverse …

A quick round-up of the sessions today: Vicki Hollett’s plenary presentation was very nice, focusing on the importance of politeness strategies and whimperatives in building relationships. It seems we don’t ever say “I disagree” or “I propose XYZ”, but rather use long-winded constructions to avoid being too direct. The key question is whether our students need the long-winded version or the simpler version. Corpus linguistics suggests the former. ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) might suggest the latter, but as Vicki said, even in international business communication between non-natives, relationships matter, so the long-winded versions really are important. Food for thought.

After that I went to Nick Robinson’s talk on financial English. He was promoting Cambridge’s new blended learning course, Cambridge Financial English, which looks very impressive. He was also focusing on the way ESP courses need to be not just needs-based but also means-based, i.e. the best medium of instruction will vary from student to student. That’s something I need to think about, and I’ll come back to it in this blog.

I was delighted to see Nick had borrowed one of the slides from my wish-list presentation for his presentation! The cheek of it! Well, actually, it was a nice surprise. This conference has been great for my ego. When I flicked through the EL Gazette in the conference pack last night, I was delighted to see my name on the front page (an advert for my BESIG talk!), a fragment from one of my Jargonbusters on the back page (with a not very difficult competition – you’ll find a clue to the answer by following the link to my Jargonbuster) and a great almost-centre-spread featuring a big extract from Cambridge English for the Media and a big image of the six books in my series – the first time I’ve seen them all lined up like that. Nice.

But the best thing for my ego came from Amy Krois-Lindner’s talk today. She put up a couple of quotes from ESP experts, and the third one was from me! How cool is that? (OK, maybe you're less excited about it, but I found it cool anyway!)

Amy’s talk was really interesting – she was talking about the importance of transformations in ESP. By transformations, she means, for example, listening to a university lecture and turning it into notes, or turning those notes into an email or a spoken explanation to a classmate. When you think about it, these transformations are everywhere, and we should perhaps focus more on the skills involved.

I’m getting out of sequence. Between Nick’s talk and Amy’s, I went to a presentation by Heike Philp and Holly Longstroth – two ladies I’ve met through their wonderful Virtual Round Table service. Today they were talking about their experiences with their Avalon project in Second Life. It’s looks intriguing … certainly a lot of potential, but it looks as though teaching on Second Life needs a pretty radical re-think from traditional methods. The clip Heike and Holly showed was of two ladies having a discussion about the euro. The picture was mainly static because the ladies were too busy concentrating on their English to experiment with moving their virtual hands, let alone flying around their virtual world. So my first impression was “Why bother with Second Life?”. But as I say, there is a lot of potential – but it needs a lot of thought. Maybe I’ll wait a year before I get myself an avatar and learn to fly. I'll learn to tweet first.

After Amy’s session I watched Cleve Miller’s session on English 360. I thought I knew quite a lot of it already, after my interview with Cleve, but I was still a bit blown away by it. I think it was Cleve’s enthusiasm and passion for the project that did it for me. A very funny and well-informed presentation – the best of the day for me. I was sitting next to my friend Andrew, who spent the whole presentation whispering “Oh wow!”, “Brilliant!” and “Yes, yes, yes”. I think he was impressed.

The last session of the day for me was the panel discussion for the Cambridge ESOL World of Work Forum. There were half a dozen members of the WOW forum reporting back on what they’d discussed earlier in the year in Cambridge concerning technology in teaching, learning and exams. It was very interesting … but a bit long. The half dozen presentations all merged into one for me … but perhaps that says more about my muddled brain after a very long and inspiring day. That's my excuse, anyway.

[Tuesday 24th November] That’s all I had time to write up before heading out for a very nice evening meal with the Cambridge crowd. I’ll add my thoughts on day 2 soon.

One last thing – I joined twitter last night. My user name is specificenglish (not very creative but at least I’ve got a new photo for my profile). Looking forward to learning how that works and following some of the people who follow this blog.

PS If you went to the BESIG conference too, I’d love to hear your comments below. Cheers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Interview: Cleve Miller

A few months ago I became aware of English360, a blended learning product aimed specifically at ESP and business English, and I decided to check it out. Since then, everyone seems to have been either talking about it or working on it. So I thought I'd better speak to Cleve Miller, the man behind the product, to see what else I could find out.

Enjoy the interview and please add questions and comments at the end.

For years I’ve been wondering how to connect ESP teachers around the world. Many of us end up creating our own materials for our own students because our fields are too specific to make them attractive for publishers. If only there were a way for us to share our materials and benefit from each other’s expertise. Is English360 the answer to that problem?

We hope so! That’s certainly the idea. The beauty of web platforms is that they allow people to find each other and work together, while at the same time collapsing any distance between them. You’re right that much of ESP is too specific for traditional publishers, and by providing a self-publishing and collaboration platform, we hope to fill that gap by bringing niche ESP fields together into online communities of practice. We envision teachers working individually or, especially, together in groups to share, exchange, discuss, and publish digital content that can be delivered online or used in class.

Could you explain what English360 is, and how it’s different from other learning management systems (LMSs)?

Well, there is some LMS functionality in English360: organizing courses, recording student results, scheduling, admin privileges, and the like. But compared with the LMS-based products in ELT, English360 is a very different proposition, for several reasons.

First, English360 is open. Other products are basically course delivery systems, while English360 is a course creation system. We’ve opened the platform up so that teachers can create their own content with our authoring tools, as well as adapt and manipulate the Cambridge material, mixing the two into truly personalized courses, delivered in class or online. Basically, we don’t make the courses, our users do, because we believe that teachers know the needs of their students best.Second, English360 is easy to use. It is a powerful platform, and there is a learning curve of a couple of hours. But a school can register, upload their logo, invite their teachers, create courses, and invite students, all in one morning. 

You don’t have to install anything on your server, deal with hosting or HTML, or pay any upfront costs. Many schools are under pressure to have an online component … we’ve made that process simple and quick so that you can focus on teaching.

Where do the course materials come from?

A variety of sources. First, we’ve “disaggregated” over 25 books (with more coming) of Cambridge content – basically digitally cut them into separate pages so they can be searched for and re-combined, and manipulated into whatever sequence the teacher needs. A large majority of these are actually interactive, self-scoring tasks, many with multi-media, not static PDFs.

Second, the material comes from you. You can upload your own content – exercises, audio, video - into the English360 templates as interactive tasks, or as static PDFs. You can add any file from your hard disk without changing the format, or you can copy and paste into interactive templates provided. You can associate your material with the collaborative features of the platform such as course forums, page comments, and teacher or peer feedback options.

Teacher-generated content is where it gets interesting, because of the wide range of sources that teachers use for content. English360 excels at adapting authentic material: from the web, from your students, or from your company clients. Recombining this adapted authentic content with a core of Cambridge content is where we see a lot of value.Third, content can come from the English360 community. While many schools and teachers choose to keep their material private, others decide to share their content with the community. That’s a wonderfully rich source. We have some nice quality rating tools on the way that push the best material to the top of the search results.

In this respect, English360 is a self-publishing platform. Whether the material comes from Cambridge, a school, or a freelance teacher, all content contributors are compensated, and compensated at the same rate. Royalties are paid out according to pageviews, so popularity defines compensation. If you share a great series of lessons on, say, reading clinical studies in medical English, and they become popular, then the income might get interesting. It all depends on how many students are on the platform, but with a BE/ESP market in the tens of millions of students, we believe there is potential for English360 to create tremendous value for teacher authors.

English360 is aimed at the Business English and ESP markets. Could you explain the rationale for focusing on those markets?

We’re focusing on these markets for two reasons, one trivial and one important. The trivial reason is that I’ve been in the BE field for 20+ years, so we’re doing what we know best.

The important reason is that we are firmly in the “all ELT is ESP” camp. Every learner has specific purposes, from a 40-year-old researcher writing scientific abstracts, or a 17-year-old listening to song lyrics from her favorite band. “General” English will move into a new era when it can accommodate this level of personalization for 25-student classes. The collaborative web is going to make this possible: every student will have their own personalized coursebook, with common learning objectives but bespoke input and output.

This is already the reality with BE and ESP, in that many teachers already customize the curriculum based on the needs assessment. Teachers do it now with analog tools – paper, scissors, tape, a photocopier – and English360 pushes this one step further by providing digital tools and online delivery.

But it is of course easier with in-company classes, smaller groups and individual classes. So we are starting there. But we’ll get to general English as we grow, I assure you.

I teach at the British Council, an organisation where many decisions are made centrally and where big changes have to be justified in terms of cost and impact. I can imagine my bosses’ reaction if I suggested switching to blended learning: fewer contact hours = less income. How could I persuade my bosses?

Well, with your permission Jeremy, I’ll dispute the “blended learning = less income” equation! The flexibility of a blended approach delivers unsurpassed revenue opportunities. Physical infrastructure (i.e. classrooms) is the one critical constraint for income in the bricks-and-mortar world; with blended learning that constraint disappears. For example, say you charge €100 for twice weekly classes, versus €65 for “once-weekly + online component” blended course. In terms of physical space you can now double the number of students, increasing income by 30%. Or, you can add a purely online product as a follow-up to a f2f course, adding revenue with minimal cost. Or you can charge €120 for twice-weekly classes, plus an online component. The possibilities are endless.

The problem is that we are stuck in the old “e-learning replaces the teacher” paradigm. Some e-learning companies actually still use this as a sales pitch. We take the opposite view: English360 was made for teachers, and by teachers, and delivers tools to teachers so they take charge and do what teachers do best. That will deliver tremendous value to learners and that value will come back as income.

Another argument is differentiation. By using English360 as a custom curriculum engine, you can create a unique, premium product that delivers competitive advantage in your market.

A final argument for the British Council overlords is that if they don’t do it, someone else will. The reality is, to remain competitive, blended is not an option. Our students are twittering away and updating their Facebook page off their mobile at the back of the class. Our in-company BE students are using collaborative knowledge management tools on the job. Schools that embrace the technology of our students’ everyday lives will thrive. Those that don’t will fail.

What are the practical issues? I mean, how do we join, how much does it cost, and when can we start?

Teachers and schools can get a preview right now by registering here. You’ll be enrolled in a preview community hosted by my colleague Valentina Dodge, who’ll answer any questions you may have.

We formally launch in January. At that point student access is based on a monthly subscription per student account. The cost per student varies by the volume of students, but an average school would see approximately €6 per student per month. There are no set up costs or up-front fees, and there is no fixed cost; you pay for only the students enrolled each month. For this you’ll have an advanced online platform, branded with your school’s logo, accessed off your school’s website, with student access to your own online content and online access to over 30 titles from Cambridge (and more on the way).

Teacher, school, and school admin accounts are free; to maintain a school account, which allows full branding with school or training company logo, there is a minimum monthly commitment of ten student subscribers. We’ve worked hard to keep it as inexpensive as possible; our goal was under €10 per month, and we’ve achieved that and then some.

Finally, could you tell us something about the man behind the product? Are you a software guy or an English teacher?

Far more the teacher. While I did do much of the top-level design of the software user interface, I’m not a coder. But I’ve been in the BE field since the late 80s, teaching and doing corporate consulting and linguistic auditing, and what I could see was how the new collaborative approaches to the web could be employed in a language teaching and mat dev context, and how that should work and how that would add tremendous value to the BE and ESP community. We’re excited the platform is finally built and we’re able to invite everyone in.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Listening: What’s the aim? (Part 1)

In home-made ESP courses, listening tends to be the neglected skill. It’s easy to make text-based lessons – just find something on the internet and turn it into a lesson. Easy peasy. Speaking is also easy to do – as long as you’re happy with spontaneous discussions. Role-plays are a bit harder to set up, but they’re still a piece of cake. Writing … well, you need to come up with some tasks, but after that, the students do all the work for you. 

But listening … that’s a different matter.

For many years, my preferred technique for incorporating listening into home-made courses has been SLTTTSE – Students Listen To Their Teacher Speaking English. Somehow, by some sort of osmosis, students get better at listening by interacting with their teacher. 

Actually, it’s not such a crazy idea – we do learn by doing, and in many ways a teacher is infinitely better as a source of practice than an audio CD, because the teacher is interactive. That means students can learn real-life strategies for dealing with communication breakdowns (e.g. “Sorry, could you speak more slowly, please?”, “Sorry – I didn’t catch that last word” and “What?”). Those techniques won’t get you very far with a CD. 

And that's how I've always justified it to myself as a teacher.

But I got caught out with this technique earlier this year. I was doing reports at the end of a course I was writing and teaching for a group of students from the National Audit Office, and I needed to give a mark for “listening”. So I used one from a BEC Vantage practice test book. Not especially relevant to their jobs, but at least it’s a scientific (?) assessment of their listening skills, which is what I wanted. 

Most of the students did quite badly – it seems I hadn’t prepared them during the course with the listening skills they needed to complete the task. And afterwards, one of the students said to me, “Jeremy, it’s so nice to hear real English for a change. Can we do more of this?

And she was right. I don’t speak real English – I speak teacher English. (Of course the actors on the CD weren’t speaking real English either, but you get the point.) 

So it made me think again about how I should be integrating listening skills into my home-made courses. (I keep saying home-made, by the way, because the published courses I’ve worked on have always been stuffed full of listenings, for reasons that I’ll make clear later.)

As I see it, there are five valid aims for listening activities. The best activities should achieve (or at least support) more than one of these aims.
  1. To provide listening practice.
  2. To teach listening skills.
  3. To provide an interesting topic for discussion.
  4. To present useful language in context.
  5. To serve as a model for speaking activities (and, by extension, for real-life situations).
Now you know why I called this posting ‘part 1’. There’s plenty to say about each of those aims, so here I think I’ll confine myself to 1 and 2 (even though in ESP I think the real meat is in aims 4 and 5).

So … listening practice. As I said above, it’s not unreasonable to assume that students get better at listening if they get lots of practice. It’s not very systematic, and it’s not really teachable or measurable. At the end of your lesson, you can’t tell whether your student is any better as a result of your lesson than before, which may or may not be a problem (depending on how you have to report progress). But it’s still a valid aim.

And if that’s your only aim, there are all sorts of ways to achieve it. SLTTTSE, for example, or BEC Vantage practice tests, or indeed listenings from regular course books. (Obviously you wouldn’t want to photocopy pages from those books – here at the British Council we have class sets of 12 copies available for such activities.) There’s also the internet, of course – YouTube being the obvious example, but also many news sites (e.g. BBC) often have short films to accompany topical stories. The list goes on … listen to songs, watch films or TV programmes, with or without subtitles, etc etc. You don’t me to tell you that.

But the point is, it’s not very systematic. It’s important and it’s hugely better than nothing (or than SLTTTSE by itself), but I think we can go beyond that. That’s where the other aims come in.

And what of aim 2? By listening skills, I’m referring to micro-skills that we can try to focus on in our lessons, which may be a bit more measurable than just ‘listening practice’. They fall into three broad families:

Top-down processing: The idea here is that if you know enough about the context / topic before you listen (contextualisation), and if you can relate it to your own knowledge / experiences / attitudes (personalisation), you can understand a huge amount, even if you miss plenty of individual words. The brain fills in the gaps.

That’s why we do so much pre-listening work – discussing the topic, relating it to our own ideas, predicting based on pictures and titles, etc. And it’s also why we tell our students not to get hung up on the meanings of difficult words, but instead to try to get a general understanding.

It’s also one reason why pre-teaching vocab may be valid. It’s a way of doing a bit of predicting and avoiding the hang-up issue at the same time.

As teaching techniques to enable students to understand a particular listening text better, these are all invaluable little tools.

But I’m not just talking about these as teaching techniques. Can we teach them as a life-skill? Something they’ll start doing more outside the classroom as a result of our lesson? Well, yes and no. I think most top-down processing is done subconsciously – you don’t usually decide to predict something or to relate it to your own experiences. It’s difficult to decide not to get hung up on something. It should come naturally.

But sometimes it’s difficult to spot something that should be obvious. Some people do need to be told not to get hung up on every word, or to read the questions on the exam paper before the recording starts. So for some students in some situations, I think this is a valid life skill to teach.

Bottom-up processing: This is the opposite set of skills – the idea that you hear particular patterns of sound waves, which your brain turns into phonemes, which are then assembled into words, which in turn are processed as chunks of language with meaning. If you think about it, there must be a lot of this going on. If top-down processing fills the gaps, bottom-up processing provides the gapped text itself.

Can we teach it? Yes, I think we can. Most obviously, we can do things like dictation exercises (and related activities where students write what they hear). Not much fun, perhaps, but good for bottom-up skills. Especially at lower level, we can work on helping students break down a continuous stream of noise into discrete words. But at higher levels, I think it’s more a question of building up their vocabularies – a huge job.

Communication strategies: These relate to the idea that real-life listening is usually more active than classroom activities. I’ve already mentioned a few phrases for dealing with communication breakdowns, but there’s lots of work we can do here on clarifying and checking information, active listening skills, asking the speaker to speak differently, etc.

We can also teach (or at least advise on) psychological techniques, e.g. the fact that it’s actually acceptable to ask for clarification, that it’s better to look a bit silly by asking questions than to look like an idiot by failing to understand an important instruction or by attending a meeting where you have no idea what’s going on. Easier said than done, of course, but simply by telling students that they’re not the only one with these crises, you’ll take the first steps towards breaking down the barriers.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough for now. I’ll deal with the other three aims soon, but for the time being, I’ll summarise by saying that (a) STTTSE isn’t enough by itself and (b) listening for the sake of listening practice is fine up to a point, but we can be much more systematic. That said, even the techniques I’ve suggested won’t guarantee quick results. There’s no quick fix, but at least we can try.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Why do we do it?

I’ve just got involved in a little discussion here in my staffroom. One colleague was describing how his classroom discussion about TV had fallen a bit flat because so many of the students claim not to have time to watch TV. No-one’s that busy that they can’t find time to watch TV, he said incredulously. That’s when I chimed in – I’ve been too busy to watch TV for six and a half years.

That’s neither a complaint nor a proud boast – it’s just a statement of the facts. I enjoy watching TV when I can, just as I enjoy drinking beer, but life seems to be an endless procession of scary deadlines. (I have about 4 hanging over me right now).

It reminded me of a question I had this week from my friend Natasha: why do we do all this extra stuff on top of our teaching? Natasha is one of the most active members of cyberspace that I’m aware of, always writing messages to discussion groups, mailing lists, forums and the like, and getting involved in countless extramural activities. Natasha and I jointly hosted a grammar week earlier this year, which turned into a grammar fortnight. (You need to register with the site in order to read all the amazing discussion that went on that week, or you could just take my word for it.)

I also seem to be the busiest person I know – I often look at my colleagues in the British Council staffroom and wonder what it’d be like to do just one job, to have time to watch TV and drink beer more than once a month, to earn a regular full-time salary 12 months of the year. (I resigned as a full-time teacher last year to devote more time to writing and editing – so now not only do I work harder but I also earn much less!)

It also relates to something I was going on about last week when I was giving presentations in Czech and Slovakia: the idea that we, as ESP course designers, can go the extra mile and create really polished courses. But why bother? Why not just do the bare minimum?

So why on earth do we do it?

About 4 or 5 years ago, I was working really hard for several months on my first legal English course (for the British Council). All my colleagues thought I was mad. “Why are you wasting your time and energy on this course, when you're not being paid properly for it and you could be spending more time relaxing?”

My honest answer was simply that I enjoy working on new challenges. I get satisfaction from learning new things, and I find that to be more fulfilling than the alternatives (a quiet but repetitive life). But I also had a vague feeling that it might lead to new opportunities ... who knows what?

And of course that's exactly what happened. Thanks to my British Council Legal English course, I ended up getting involved in the Cambridge University Press course, and everything else that's followed.

The point is, I've been doing extra things like this for years. Of course I've done plenty of other extra things that haven't led anywhere, but come to think of it, things usually do come out of them eventually.

Just after my daughter was born (2003, i.e. a very difficult time for me), I spent 6 months writing a course for International House on Marketing, which I assumed had just disappeared without a trace. (I lost contact with IH shortly afterwards). But this year I met the ex-boss of IH (who this year became one of my big bosses at the British Council) who had commissioned that course. He told me that my little course had served as their model for a whole series. Fantastic. And now I’ve got a very good relationship with one of my big bosses.

I could go on: so many presentations have led to new contacts, new friends, new opportunities. (I’d love to tell you more, but it’s top secret). Voluntary teacher training looks fantastic on the CV and again leads to new contacts, new knowledge and new experience.

It’s a form of leverage: if you’ve done this little project here, you’ve got a much better chance of getting involved in that medium-sized project there, which will create the possibility that you could be in charge of that huge project over there.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you volunteer and go the extra mile, it very very often comes back to you eventually, usually in completely unexpected ways.

But that's not why we do it. We do it because it's enjoyable. I like helping people, and I like the good feeling it gives me. It also does wonders for my ego to realise that I can actually help people.

And what's the alternative? Work just for the money? Sit around watching TV? Nah!

PS What about you? Why do you do it?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

IATET event for technical English trainers

Just a quick message before I jet off to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for four days of presentations in four cities. I almost certainly won't have internet access while I'm on the road, so apologies in advance for anyone waiting for a comment to be approved.

Anyway, I've just received notification of a very interesting event organised by IATET, the International Association of Technical English Trainers.

The event will be held in Stuttgart at the end of November, but it'll also be available online, an idea which certainly appeals to me. I can't imagine I'll find time in November to fly to Stuttgart (as I already have two big events that month), but I'm very much looking forward to watching the sessions online.

Anyway, I'll post the complete invitation below. For more on IATET, see my interview with one of its co-founders, Paul East, or go to the new IATET site. IATET has recently been officially recognized as a proper association, and seems to be becoming much more active, with teacher training, exams and events all on the way.

They've even got a cool new logo, which I hope they won't mind me using below:

Just to clarify: I'm not a member of IATET (yet), although I am a fan, so please contact the organisers, not me, for information. Anyway, here's the invite:

You are invited to attend the first event day of the International Association of Technical English Trainers (IATET) featuring eight 15-minute presentations followed by a 15-minute Q and A session with the audience in the room and online chat.

We will be recording the sessions so those who cannot attend on the day will have the opportunity to view the presentations on the same day or later at http://iatet-events.ning.com/.

This first event day is to promote IATET which was founded on 28 March 2009. We would like to thank ISD GmbH www.isdgmbh.eu for kindly making their facilities available to us. Thanks go to the presenters for dedicating their time and sharing their expertise with us.

There will also be a small publisher exhibition.

If you have any questions regarding the event, please contact Cornelia cktrans@t-online.de or Paul paul.east@t-online.de

Event details:
Date: Saturday 28 November 2009
Time: 09.30 - 17.00
Venue: ISD GmbH, Alexanderstr. 42, 70182 Stuttgart, Germany, http://www.isdgmbh.eu/

Attendance fee:
- Attendance of presentations on the day is free of charge for IATET members. Attendees will be asked to make a small contribution for coffee and cold drinks.

To join IATET and request an application form, please contact our treasurer Andreas Büsing 169645@gmail.com

Places for attendance on the day are limited so register asap. IATET members have priority.

- Attendance fee for non-members: € 25 (to be paid on the day) - lunch not included in fee
- Online participation: free of charge for members and non-members. Online participation of future IATET events will be for members only.

- Registration for attendance on the day: please send an email to Olaf Kaufmann okauf@web.de  
- Sign up for online participation http://iatet-events.ning.com/  

Schedule and program

9.30 – 9.45

9.45 – 10.15
Session 1:
Acquiring technical vocabulary
Acquiring vocabulary is an important point in technical English as each sector has technical terms aplenty. This workshop will present an approach on how to use company resources to teach the vocabulary students need, using specific examples from Liebherr Verzahntechnik.
There will be time for discussion at the end.

Dipl.-Ing. Stefan Schratt has a degree in engineering at the Technical University in Munich. Certified translator & interpreter, CELTA. Freelance English teacher and translator, main field: technical English.

10.15 – 10.30

10.30 – 11.00
Session 2
Pumping Engineers
Technical people are often not very talkative about their work – even in their own language. They feel more comfortable with handling objects than with using words. But this characteristic can be an obstacle for them when they try to communicate in a foreign language. Frustrating for them; and difficult for the trainer to elicit language for analysis and feedback. In this talk we will look at ways to draw out technical people and to help and encourage them to use the language they already have or are learning.

Richard Phillips is an English trainer at ISD GmbH, teaching adult learners from various professions in Germany for over 22 years; specialising in Technical English; author of two Technical English coursebooks.

11.00 – 11.15

11.15 – 11.45
Session 3
English for Engineers – Behind the scenes of the Magazine Approach
Finding suitable material for engineering students can be challenging – especially for non-engineers. The magazine 'engine' will help you with this search. It offers articles from all engineering disciplines, dictionaries, technology basics and vocabulary and grammar lessons. Naturally, each issue can only cover a small selection of engineering topics. Therefore, we like to share some of our sources and help you research content relevant to your students. The talk will present a few (internet) resources for texts as well as audio and video files on engineering subjects.

Matthias Meier is editor-in-chief of 'engine', freelance technology writer and also a mechanical engineer. In 2003, he developed the concept for a language magazine tailored to the special needs of engineers.

11.45 - 12.00

12.00 – 12.30
Session 4
How engineers work
Engineers and technicians are a different breed than linguists. However, it's not enough for us language people to adopt, use and teach technical jargon, but we also have to take a different working and learning style into account. In this workshop, we will analyse what makes engineers and technicians tick and how we can customise our courses accordingly to ensure effective learning.

Marion Karg is a freelance language trainer; she has a Masters degree in English and French studies. Speciality areas: business and technical English. Occasional author, advisor and coursebook presenter.

12.30 – 13.30

13.30 – 14.00
Session 5
Plain English – analyzing and improving texts
What is formally called "Plain English" is simple, clear, easy to understand, and to translate. There are some specific rules and guidelines, which we can learn and learn to teach. Attendees are asked to bring some examples which we can work on (please send in advance by email).

Graham Tritt is from New Zealand, an information and communications specialist (B. Sc. Hons. (Math, Chemistry), Dipl. In Computer Science, Master in Engineering Science. He has considerable experience in moderating, public speaking, writing, and teaching of technical English.

14.00 – 14.15

14.15 – 14.45
Session 6
Tech Talk – the practical approach to learning technical English
What is so unique about Tech Talk? It is practical. It features a practical approach where students can discuss how things work, explain specifications, and troubleshoot defects. Tech talk has been designed with busy, technically oriented workers in mind, so they can relax, have fun and be creative in class, including games, interesting visual materials, humour and purposeful communicative activities. In this workshop, we will explore ways in which its highly dynamic and communicative syllabus provides skills students can pick up and use immediately at work. Technical English you can take to work today …

Specializing in games and interactive activities for adult education, Allison Antalek has extensive experience as an FLT teacher and teacher trainer, and is author of the Cornelsen Short Course Action Packs. In 2009, she took on the position with Oxford University Press as Senior ELT Consultant for Germany and Austria.

14.45 – 15.00

15.00 – 15.30
Session 7
Putting the "T" into Technical English
When teaching technical English it is of primary importance to define the needs of the learners. Not only the language of the specialist field must be taught, but in some cases technical aspects must also be explained. This talk will describe an in-company blended learning course. The task was to teach the technical English required by those staff who needed it: clerical staff from sales, finance and customer support, with little or no technical background, together with quality control and production staff, conversant in their own discrete fields of technology.

Ann Claypole is a former committee member of ELTAS with a long experience as a translator and freelance teacher of professional English in Germany. In addition to designing materials for in-company training, she also acts as editorial consultant to ELT publishers and lectures in ESP at Pforzheim University.

15.30 – 15.45

15.45 – 16.15
Session 8
A content-based approach to the teaching of technical English
There is a growing need for a more formalised approach to the teaching of technical English. In this connection, I will for the first time set out a series of principles for which I have coined the acronym, COLT (Content-Oriented Language Teaching). I will highlight how this concept differs from CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) and from ESP (English for Special Purposes) and illustrate how the principles involved can be implemented in the day-to-day teaching of technical English.

Maurice Claypole has over 20 years experience as language teacher and developer of course materials for a variety of specialised subjects. He has taught technical English in both corporate and tertiary education contexts. He is also a technical translator with a broad client base including companies in the automotive, mechanical engineering and precious metals sectors. He is the author of numerous publications and a regular contributor to various ELT periodicals.

6.15 – 17.00
Closing, discussion

If you have any questions regarding the event, please contact Cornelia cktrans@t-online.de or Paul paul.east@t-online.de


Saturday, 17 October 2009

Vocabulary revision with a table and a guillotine

This is my absolute favourite technique for vocabulary revision. I use it all the time. It's almost certainly been 'discovered' thousands of times already - it's hardly revolutionary, but I think it's the simplicity that makes it so cool.

(I've made a little 5-minute film using Jing to show me working through the process, which means I'll explain a bit superficially here and then hopefully it'll all make sense when you watch the film at the end. The technique involves creating a table with MS Word, adjusting column widths, tidying up borders, deleting columns, sorting alphabetically, etc. I discovered on a recent training course that I was running that many teachers don't know how to do these things, or are unaware of many of the time-saving tools on MS Word. So as well as showing you my teaching technique, I'll also use this post to showcase the wonders of the Tables and Borders toolbar - one of my top three toolbars.)

First the old version - the one I used to do. I've been making vocab revision worksheets for years - using the 'tables' function on MS Word to create a 5-column table (with 20 to 30 rows for the actual vocab items). In column 1 you type the word, or the beginning of the collocation, or whatever. In column 5 you type the definition, or the end of the collocation, etc. In column 2 you insert numbers 1 to 20 (or however many rows you've got) and do the same with letters in column 4. Column 3 stays empty - it's for students to draw connecting lines from numbers to letters.

The next step is mixing up the two halves of the sentences. The quickest way to do this is to cut the last column and paste it somehere else. Then use the 'sort' function to sort it alphabetically (don't worry - I'll show you how in the film). Then you just paste it back in its original position. Hey presto, a matching exercise. You still need to adjust the column widths to make it look pretty and all fit on one page, and clear the borders in the middle column (so students have space to draw their lines), but once that's done, it's ready to print.

As I say, that's what I used to do. It's good for revising vocab, but it's not much fun to do in class, so I used to find my students wanting to do it as homework, which kind of defeated the object. (Which was, of course, to fill up some class time).

So I had the brainwave one day of cutting it up and turning it into a 'sort-the-slips-of-paper' exercise. Now this is a vast improvement. Where before students were working alone, in silence, a bit bored, now they were working in teams, standing up, moving around, racing to be the first team to complete the challenge. It's communicative! It's kinaesthetic! It's a change of focus! It's fun!

There were still a couple of teething troubles. the slips of paper were too small and fiddly, so I found a quick way to make them bigger (see my little film). Students preferred to have something to take away with them, so I started printing a class set of non-cut-up worksheets for them to keep. This had the additional advantage that early finishers could start matching the words on their complete worksheet while the slower groups were still messing around with slips of paper - so nobody is sitting around bored or feeling cheated because they didn't have enough time. Of course the second time they match the words (on the worksheet) it's much easier - that's because they've learnt something. There's even a chance for a third time: they fold the worksheet vertically (through column 3) so they can only see the beginnings and then test themselves or a partner to try to remember the endings.

And that's the technique. It's useful (vocab revision is one of my key obsessions), it's fun (a challenging team game), it's great for classroom management (when they're looking a bit glassy eyed, you can pull out the game) and, best of all, it takes about ten minutes to make.

(If you're really clever, you can plan carefully to save time at the guillotine too. If you make sure all the rows are the same height and all start at the same point on the page, you can slice up a whole set for one group (say, 4 or 5 pages) at the same time - no need to sort them into separate little piles afterwards. I've got some good techniques for guillotines, but I can't work out how to film that on Jing, so you'll have to take my word for it.)

Anyway, here's the film (it's my first attempt at film-making, so excuse me if it's a bit "experimental". You may hear my son playing in the background!):

By the way, the text I used was one from Management Today on 'Offsetting'. If someone tells me how to insert the actual documents into a blog post, I'll upload those too. Cheers.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

In defence of course books

The blogosphere seems to be buzzing at the moment with reasons for not liking course books – most notably coming from Kalinago English (here, here and here), but also this wonderful parody of Headway on the TEFL Tradesman (although I’d warn sensitive readers that the humour is very close to the edge). Now, of course there’s plenty wrong with many course books, but that’s the same with any market for goods or services – there are good items and less good items, items of mixed quality and some truly dreadful items. But that doesn’t mean the whole concept is rotten.

Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? – I’m an editor and writer and I’m seriously hoping course books will one day pay my mortgage and enable me to spend more time at home with my kids (and less time with other people’s kids). But I also think this is very true for me as a teacher … especially as a teacher of business English and ESP.

First of all, there have been some great books. You can read my article about two of my favourite old classics, Business Opportunities and Business Objectives, both by Vicki Hollett, here. What I liked about these books was the way they approached and practised grammar in a very systematic way, with plenty of personalised discussions and role-plays designed to practise whatever grammar point was the focus of the unit. The functional language syllabus was also excellent.

Secondly, and this relates closely to my debate on non-experts in ESP, certain course books have opened up new fields of ESP to non-expert teachers. The best example here is International Legal English, which really did transform the teaching of LE for many many teachers. Where before we had to make do with home-made materials of variable authenticity, quality and usefulness, now we had a solid syllabus and authoritative answers to guide us as teachers. Even more important, we now had realistic situational dialogues to listen to and to use as models for our students’ speaking.

Of course there are flaws in the book (just as there are flaws in BOpps and BObjs) – things that I would have done differently, exercises which don’t work as well as they could, but overall this is an incredibly important book. (Again, I don’t want to sound like a salesman – I know I have a kind of vested interest, having written the teacher’s book – but as a teacher I can’t help comparing the standard of my teaching of legal English before and after ILE was published.)

That was the guiding principal behind the Cambridge English for … series, but again I’m wary of sounding like a salesman.

Now I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot to be said for course-book-free teaching. (I’ll avoid calling it dogme, because I use this technique as part of a course-book-led syllabus, which I’m sure goes against the dogma of dogme). I had a one-to-one student earlier this year who thrived on long discussions about her work, with error correction and spontaneous input from me. It was very satisfying for both of us. But it only worked because she was an expert in her field (IP law) and a naturally talkative person (also, I humbly admit, it helped that I knew more or less what she was talking about, thanks to my experience in this field, and was able to interact intelligently). It also helped that I always had plenty of teaching materials in my bag ready to use if and when the conversation dried up or stopped being useful.

But that wouldn’t have worked with my other students – my less experienced lawyers, my less talkative one-to-one, my low level group ...

Earlier this year I had two business groups that I was teaching without a course book. For the first few weeks, it was wonderfully liberating for all of us. I had plenty of texts and discussions and home-made exercises and student-generated exercises. But then the courses started to drag … and we all wished we had a course book.

Anyway, for most of my teaching, I need a course book to provide: 
  • expertise;
  • listenings – semi-authentic situational dialogues;
  • language input;
  • a springboard for discussions – even lesson-length discussions that go off at a wonderful tangent;
  • ideas to practise the language;
  • a sense of progress – both for my students and for their employers;
  • a sense of structure – a psychological crutch that we were having a course, not just lessons (see my thoughts on DRIFT here);
  • and, last but not least, a fall-back, a safety net, for when the ideas run out and you still have 20 minutes to fill.

OK, that last one may come as a shock to certain wonderful teachers, but I’ve had the sick-stomach feeling enough times. My wonderful worksheet, intended to see me through 60 minutes, has limped on for 40 and the students have had enough. Or it was too difficult. Or too easy. It’s at times like these that the trusty course book pops up like a loyal Saint Bernard to rescue you from the deepest, snowiest crevasse.

(Oh no, I’m getting into metaphor. I’m really sorry about that. It won’t happen again.)

Anyway, I’m glad dogme is recognised as a legitimate and solid approach / technique / methodology. I was getting sick of trying to justify to observers and even some students why all my lessons started with about half an hour of student-generated discussion and language work. But I think course books have their place, and would be sorely (Soar-ly? … Oh no, it’s ELT puns now!) missed.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Legal English blogs

There are a couple of new legal English blogs that I've become aware of in the last week of so.

The first one is called Legal English Teacher, and it's been created by my old friend Andrew Nathan. (Observant readers will notice this is the same friend I mentioned a few weeks ago in this post as an example of someone who has become a real expert through years of teaching in a particular ESP field). Not one to shy away from the big issues, Andrew has kicked off with a piece on the plain English vs legalese debate. If you thought that debate had been long settled, think again.

Andrew's blog led me to this one from Wayne Schiess on Legal Writing. This blog seems to be aimed at native English-speaking lawyers and law students, but it has plenty of lively and pertinent ideas useful for those of us who teach the same skills non-natives.

Another new blog that I've just become aware of is Jeremy Wheeler's Anglaw Budapest. Jeremy is in the process of setting up a new centre for legal English in Budapest, and promises to keep us informed of the joys (or otherwise) of getting the school off the ground, as well as tips for teaching legal English. Sounds great.

Also, Translegal has a new Legal English Blog, which seems like a great resource. As well as building our vocabularies (and our students'), we'll find out about common mistakes, drafting tips, recommended reading, and things like that. I noticed this week that Translegal have also launched their own online dictionary for non-native learners of legal English. Excellent ... although there's an annual subscription fee to access all the really exciting content.

I've already mentioned in a previous posting Margaret Marks' nice blog for legal translators, Transblawg.

Finally, I can't forget the trusty old EULETA discussion group. Although it's not a blog per se, it's still the best source for LE tips, lively debates and gossip. Well, perhaps not the gossip, but you never know ...

Please do let me know (in the comments section) of any more good LE blogs. Cheers and happy surfing.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Instant role-plays

Here's a quick technique I used last week with my business English students. We're using Business Benchmark (CUP), just getting to the end of unit 1, where there's a BEC-style speaking task:

Your company has decided it needs to provide more training for staff. You have been asked to help prepare a staff training programme. Discuss the situation together and decide ...
And there's a few pointers to guide our discussion. This is, as I say, a typical BEC speaking exam task, so the author is right to leave it very open. But I wanted to make it less exam-oriented and more structured.

So ... before the role-play, I wrote the following on the board:
  • Country
  • Company
  • Products/services
  • Employees
  • Problems
 ... and then started eliciting. A few years ago when I tried this technique before we ended up with an Icelandic company which made ice-cream. This time it was less exciting: a Spanish company making big trucks and fire engines. Their employees, according to my students, included sales staff, technical staff and production staff. The company's problems included poor quality, cheap overseas competition (guess which country) and poor staff morale.

OK, so with that quick elicitation done, my students are ready for a much more productive and entertaining role-play. It always works well and often generates lots of laughs.