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

This first event day is to promote IATET which was founded on 28 March 2009. We would like to thank ISD GmbH 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 or Paul

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

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 B├╝sing

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  
- Sign up for online participation  

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 or Paul

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.