Friday, 29 January 2010

ESP Consultancy, Cyprus

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Nicosia in northern Cyprus, where I've just finished a week's consultancy on ESP course design. It's been a fantastic experience, and hopefully useful for the teachers I've been working with. ESP course design is usually a solitary job that I do by myself on the computer. Even my editing work is almost all done via email, so it's been amazing to actually manage a team creating a course out of nothing. 

On Monday, we worked through a very impressive needs analysis that one of the participants, Serif, had done with the potential students - middle managers from two ministries. In case any of you are unfamiliar with the situation in northern Cyprus, the taxi driver put it well when I arrived: "It's complicated". The island has been divided into a Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north since 1974, as has the capital city, Nicosia. The northern part of the island has been very isolated from the outside world, and the border has only been open for a couple of years, after the two sides came fairly close to reaching an agreement on reunification.

The reason I'm talking about this is not to get involved in the political rights and wrongs of the situation - it's far too complicated for me to have an opinion. But what's interesting is that the two sides mainly have to use English to communicate with each other - Greek/Turkish bilingualism is much less common than it was before the split. So in order to negotiate and make progress on settling this issue, the governments have to speak to each other. In English. And the Turkish-speaking side is taught English by the teachers I've been working with this week. Which is why those teachers need to know how to write ESP courses.

So although my work this week is insignificant on the grand scale of things, it's nice to think it's at least making a tiny contribution to getting people talking to each other.

Or am I getting carried away?

Anyway, over the course of the week, we got an incredible amount of work done - it was like being the manager of an ESP factory. There was a real sense of energy and teamwork. The courses are still a long way from being finished - even an ESP factory can't work that fast, but it was still enormously satisfying.

So I'm feeling tired but happy. The people I've met here have been incredibly kind and enthusiastic.

Now I've got to go back to the Polish winter tonight. I took this photo on my phone in the taxi on the way to Warsaw airport on Sunday night, to prove that the temperature really was minus 18. (It actually got even colder while I was away).

And here's a photo I took a couple of days later in Nicosia. 21 degrees in January. Lovely. Ah, it's hard work being a consultant!

Related posts:

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Wordlists in ESP

I spent most of yesterday creating a wordlist for one of the books in my series, Cambridge English for the Media. I should be working on the wordlist right now too, but I needed a break. Creating a wordlist isn't exactly exciting. But it's important, I think.

Just to clarify, a wordlist is simply a list of words that apear in a course. There's one at the back of International Legal English, for example, with all the key terms defined in alphabetical order. (OK, so it's called a Glossary there, but you could equally call it a mini-dictionary). My students use it all the time, especially when they want to check my dodgy explanation of a tricky word. Here in Poland, we're lucky to have a bilingual version, which you can download for free from the Cambridge website (which also has plenty of other great wordlists).

There's another wordlist in the workbook for Business Benchmark. Yesterday, one of my students used it to demonstrate that my explanation or agent and distributor had things the wrong way round.

A different approach is to put the wordlist online, as we're doing with my series. For example, there's a unit-by-unit set of wordlists for Cambridge English for Nursing. The advantage here is that space is less of an issue. Even more importantly, you can listen to all the pronunciations by clicking on the icon on the pdf. (Before you print it out, I mean - technology's still not ready for that to work with the printouts). That's a huge benefit with all that hard-to-pronounce medical terminology. If you've ever wondered how to pronounce dyspnoea, apnoeoa and tachypnoea, check out the wordlist for unit 2. Again, there's a bilingual version on the Polish website ... perhaps your local Cambridge website also has a blingual version.

So what can you do with all these wordlists? Well, most obviously, you can use them as a reference, as my business student did last night. Students can also use them to manage their vocab learning. A student preparing for the ILEC exam (International Legal English Certificate) could learn 10 words a day from the wordlist and thereby (sorry) master the whole list in around a month ... and then use these words in his/her exam. Or in real life, of course.

As a teaching tool, they're also really useful. I've already mentioned my cut-up-bits-of-paper game on this blog. That's so easy to do with a printed out wordlist.

I mainly use wordlists to play "blockbusters", a teaching classic that I'm sure many teachers already use. For those of you who don't know it, you have a honeycomb grid, with a letter in each block.

There are two teams, reds and blues. Choose a letter to start with, and read the definition for a word starting with that letter. If students know the answer, they put up their hands (no shouting out, please!). If it's correct, it goes their colour and they can choose the next letter. The aim is for the reds to make a connection from top to bottom and the blues to connect side to side. They can go any route they choose, as long as they end up making the connection. Of course, they end up blocking each other, which is why it's called blockbusters. Good fun ... and of course it's just a vocab test in disguise.

(By the way, I have wonderful interactive whtieboards to make it look great, but I played it for years on ordinary whiteboards and flipcharts - just draw a grid and away you go.)

There's a shorter version of the game too, which doesn't involve a grid. Again, teams (not necessarily two teams) ask for letters to get definitions of words starting with that letter. If they get it right, write that letter on the board in that team's column, and they can choose the next letter. The aim now is to collect enough letters to make a word ... probably best if it's more than 3 letters long. Ideally, the word should be connected, however tenuously, to their ESP field, but that's up to you to decide.

One complication: some letters might not have many words starting with them. My legal English students soon work out that Q always leads to quorum, so they don't wait to hear the question. In that case (and also with Z and X), tell them you're going to ask for a word starting with, say, S, but if they get it right, they still get the letter they asked for. This allows you to focus on words you want to test, rather than the same words over and over again.

Anyway, I could go on all day - I'm really into vocab revision, but this wordlist isn't going to write itself ... I'll let you know when it appears on the site.

Related posts:
Vocabulary revision with a table and a guillotine
Fun with contracts
What do words actually mean?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Two approaches to ESP course design

Another brief posting ...

There are basically two types of ESP courses, which we might call English-through and English-for

English-through means teaching English through the lens of an ESP field. The aim of the course is to bump your students up to a higher level of global language proficiency (e.g. from CEF level B2 to C1). That means teaching all the grammar, vocab and pronunciation that all other language learners have to study. And making sure your students understand the language structures at that level and can use them as well as others of the same level. It also means working on the four skills - to improve reading speed and listening comprehension, spoken confidence and written style. All that sort of thing.

In other words, it's just like any other English course. The only difference is that everything is done in the context of the ESP field. So you teach present perfect through examples from that field and practise it with a field-relevant role-play, or whatever. You work on their reading skills by giving them increasingly challenging things to do with texts about their field. The ESP field exists in the the course primarily as a means of keeping the course interesting and relevant. If you work in finance, for example, you might get more out of a report-writing task on the causes of the credit crunch than on the pros and cons of fox hunting. Or whatever.

English-for is different. This type of course focuses specifically on the language and skills that are directly relevant to your students' present and future work situations. It's all needs-based. Crucially, it ignores the non-essential language or skills and focuses exclusively on the target language. So if Nurse X never has to write reports for work in English, it doesn't need to be in his/her course. If Engineer Y only ever has to read and write technical English, and never needs to speak, why worry about his/her fluency or pronunciation?

In many ways, English-for is more short-term. It's about giving the students the language they need right now to do their job. Longer-term things, like what they'll need English for in 5 years, is not a priority.

Now, of course in real life, we tend to mix and match - I can't imagine many courses fit the extremes as I've portrayed them. But I think it's important to plan, right from the start, what sort of ESP course you're creating, (mainly) English-through or (mainly) English-for. Which would be more useful for your students right now and in the long run?

English-through courses are quite easy to create. You basically get your syllabus - created by you, the language expert - and find materials to fit it. OK, that's not exactly a piece of cake, but it's doable.

English-for courses are much more challenging for the course designer. You need to get a really deep knowledge of your students' field and somehow find out what language and skills they will need in their jobs. You can find out a lot by asking them, but very often they themselves don't know what they need until it's too late. Very tricky.

(That's one of the big reasons, by the way, why the books in my series, Cambridge English for ..., focus much more on this tricky side - to save teachers the hellish job (or at least reduce it) of finding out for themselves what language people need in particular professions. But I didn't plan this post as an advert for the series, so I'll stop going on about it!)

Anyway, I've got my terminology now, so I'll probably use those labels in other posts too. I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with the distinction, but I wonder if anyone's used the labels before ...

Related posts:

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Freer practice

First of all, sorry for the prolonged absence. As always, I've got far too much work on, and my deadlines finally overwhelmed me before Christmas. I'm working on two huge career-milestone projects at the moment, plus four or five smaller ones, none of which I can even hint at on this blog. Very cool but pretty frustrating.

So with that in mind, I'll mark my return to the blogosphere with something short and sweet.

Last week, with my Upper Int Business English group, we were doing second conditionals. (For those of you who don't 'do' cliches of English grammar like that, please forgive me. I made sure it was business-contextualised and communicative, and my students claimed to find it useful. As adults who've mostly learnt by doing rather than studying, it was new grammar.)

And I'd better admit it ... it was the next thing in the book.

After the little presentation in the book (some contextualised examples, which we analysed) and a few short written practice exercises, they were ready for a bit of freer practice.

I'm not sure if that's a universally recognised term - I use it all the time, but just in case, it's the type of practice exercise that bridges the gap between controlled practice (gapfills, transformations, drills, dull stuff like that) and free practice (role-plays, debates, simulations ...). The problem with free practice, as I'm sure you all know, is that students promptly forget to use the target language, being so engrossed in the task itself.

So the trick with freer practice is to make the task not quite engrossing enough for them to forget the aim of the exercise, which is to use the target language - to take risks with it, to play with it, to experiment with it, to get their heads around it in the heat of semi-fluent speech. I think those are valid aims.

Usaully, it's enough simply to tell students to use the target language, and also to get them to police each other (e.g. by asking questions with the target structure, or insisting on some risk-taking from their partners).

The exercise in the book didn't sound very promising. Discuss with a partner: If you set up your own business, what would it be? What problems would you have? It's a fine context, but I could see those questions lasting about a minute at best, so not much of a discussion.

So before we started, I drew/elicited a mind-map onto the board. In the centre, I wrote 'own business', and then there were arms coming out of the centre saying 'name', 'type of business', 'location', 'premises', 'clients', 'competitors', 'source of finance', 'number of employees', 'business philosophy', and so on.

This turned the activity into a proper interview. From two questions we now had around a dozen. The interviewer had plenty of questions to ask, making it more of a dialogue than the monologue it could have been. In fact, the interviewer probably practised the target language (second conditionals, don't forget) more than the interviewee. But that's fine - everyone had a chance at both roles. And it generated tons of target language. Bucketfuls. Very nice.

(Whether they'll go on to use the language in free practice and then real life is another question, but we teachers have to be optimistic, I suppose.)

As a final flourish, I asked them to feed back to the group, but not about their own business plans, but about their partners'. That made the feedback session much more interactive and engaging - and also very funny, as the feedback included the ridiculous or silly ideas, not just the ones that survived the discussion.

In the next lesson, I did my cost cutting worksheet from Professional English Online, which demonstrates and practises the real business benefit of being able to distinguish between first and second conditionals when discussing proposals.

Between them, I think my two freer practice activities did actually go some way towards convincing them that the language is useful and not too difficult, and helping them to get their heads round it and feel a bit more confident about using it. And we had fun in the process.

Related posts: