Problem Solving in Business English

Problem solving helps the students with their language learning and to find solutions as well! (Image taken from http://www.biomethica.it)

As I have mentioned before, this year I teach mainly adults in a number of contexts: some work in banks or various companies (software, packaging). Very often they have meetings to attend, where they are asked by their colleagues and managers to help resolve problems or conflicts. And they have to do it…in English! What I do with them (not something ground-breaking, a very simple idea) is that I try to think of potential problems they may have at work, such as:

1. What do you do if a colleague of yours is constantly late?

2. What happens if your boss asks you to work with your team at the weekend to finish off a project (and you are not that keen on working weekends)?

3. You have been working for months on installing a new computer program for the company / bank and they call you from the US in the middle of the night, asking you to resolve a glitch then and there! And other issues like that.

Of course, because I am learning their line of work from them (there are so many terms especially in IT and as I have recently learned, in packaging too!) I ask my students what kind of problem they would expect to face at some point. I make a list of all these and prepare role-plays and use them with them (some can be used with many groups!). This idea is also in the amazing book Five-Minute Business English Activities by Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton, under the title of Crisis! – the idea is to present the students with a crisis they need to solve. Most of the times I come into the room, putting on a dramatic face in order to set the crisis atmosphere and announce: People, we have a problem. I was fired! or Our new system is down! or something like that. It is unbelievable how they play into the drama and participate! Depending on the culture you are teaching in though, care must be taken not to scare the students or create unnecessary panic. For example, in some cultural contexts I cannot imagine the teacher going into the classroom dramatically yelling that there is a crisis. It would make the students uncomfortable. This activity has helped my students a lot, as they are pulled into it by the nature of it. They do not even realise when they start speaking and we get lots out of it. Sometimes we get lots of laughs too!

IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium 2012 – Word of the Week and Other Ideas for Business English (Updated)

IATEFL BESIG (Image taken from http://www.besig.org)
I am a bit late with this post, but have finally gotten round to posting my slides and the text (the updated version) from my workshop at IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium, which took place in Paris, on June 16th, in collaboration with TESOL France. I really enjoyed all the sessions I attended and will definitely be going to other BESIG events as well, as this was my first one and I loved it!

Here are the slides and some explanatory notes:

Word of the Week and Other Ideas for Business English 

My name is Vicky Loras and I am an English teacher, born in Toronto, Canada but of Greek descent. I have been living in Switzerland for two years and I absolutely love my work and life here.

What I like the most about my teaching here is that I have a lot of business people that I teach, be it in banks, companies, and so on. I find it very interesting to learn new terms and things about the business world – you see, I learn alongside them as well.
 
The idea I will present to you today was not planned in a lesson; it was a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, sure-let’s-use-this-and-see-what-happens decision.

I was reading the newspaper one day two years ago and saw the lines it was going to be a staycation. That last word totally hit me. I thought, great and I immediately looked it up to see if it was a recent addition to the dictionaries. It was, indeed, and I specifically found it on the online Macmillan Dictionary under the category buzzwords.  I immediately thought of telling the bankers I teach the next morning. I still teach them and they love learning new things! So, I presented the word to them and they were absolutely thrilled! The discussion that ensued and the language that was produced were phenomenal. They were talking about vacations and staycations – amazingly low TTT (teacher talking time), with me just popping in occasionally to make corrections or contribute. Anything else I had planned for the rest of the lesson was not used, but it was one of the best lessons ever. …AND THEN….

“Can I bring you one of these every week?” I said. They loved the idea!

But, I did change a few things:

● I did not present the word in a here-you-are-this-is-the-word way, like I did the first time. What I did the second time and all the times after that was this (and I would like to try a few with you):

daycation (simple): give me another word for holiday – lasting one day
Googleheimer’s (complex) : Think of the most popular search engine. Do you know of an illness where people have trouble remembering? Have you ever thought of Googling something and until you have reached the search box on the Google homepage you have forgotten what it was? What is the name of this new illness of the 21st century?
threequel (advanced) Do you like movies like the Matrix? First, they learn the word sequel – so what is the third one called, film number three?

What I do with these words is at the end of each month, I add them to a simple Word document – at the end of the month, they get the updated list with the definitions in English. I am thinking of having them contribute the definitions at the end of each month!

Some educators ask me (and they are right in a way), what do they need these words for? We don’t even know them and we are their teachers! How do they help our students?

Conclusions:– I don’t know some of them either. As a vocabulary fan I love learning new words!
– I don’t care if they don’t remember them afterwards (the interesting thing is that they remember a lot of them)
– It is what happens as they are trying to FIND the word of the week:
1. They learn words like sequel to a movie
2. and AFTER they have found it! The language production that goes on is unbelievable! I truly wish I could show you what is happening in our classes. They go on for ten minutes, half an hour, the whole lesson!

I help them with their vocabulary (I write a lot on the board) and their accuracy in grammar.

I am not here to tell you that I am a great teacher. I am here to tell you what my students, your students, OUR students can do with a simple thing! Just one or two words!

What we do with the Word of the Week:

Conversation: most of my Business English students have lessons to enhance their speaking skills, so this helps them a lot – that is what they want and they find it interesting, so they start talking without even thinking twice

– They can write a short paragraph or story in pairs or small groups, using say 5 words of the week – you cannot imagine what they come up with!

This is a goodbye card my students (IT specialists in a bank) wrote me when our course ended – full of Words of the Week!

– They actually FIND some of them in everyday life. A student of mine, from the group of bankers I mentioned at the beginning, called Werner, went to London on holiday and when he came back, he told me: “You won’t believe it! I was in London and I saw the word netiquette in a newspaper headline. I could explain it to my friends!” I see them everywhere as well. Lately, I have seen the word slacktivist numerous times, in newspapers, on TV, everywhere.
– They go back to their offices after their lessons and tell their colleagues who are not in our classes about the new words they learn.
 
They NEED to move with the times. Languages are living organisms, they breathe, they grow, they branch out. It is humanly impossible for them to remember all of those words/expressions, but even if they get 10 in the end, it is success. It also helps them decipher other words they find in the future. I have noticed that they do this now with many words. They are more independent now in deciphering the meaning of a word.
The point is that one single word can spark such a big conversation, can unlock the students and their potentials – they just start talking, and the language we get out of it is unbelievable!
This is our absolute favourite.

• Another activity we do is called difficult situations or Crisis! I have taken the idea form Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton’s book Five-Minute Business English Activities. I present them with potential problems in their work and have them discuss a course of action in twos or threes – when they have it ready and planned, then they discuss the way they would solve the problem and come up with potential solutions. Through this activity they learn how to use language to negotiate (as they might not always agree on a common course of action) and use expressions like I think, I believe that the best course of action would be… and of course practice their Conditionals (I have a great love for Conditionals and try to get them in there any way I can!) – If we did this, this would happen….If we had done this, this would not have happened… The only thing we should be cautious with in this activity is not to touch any sensitive issues that might stress them, or any topics we know they might have a problem with. It can be for instance something like this: informing my IT students that the new system they installed is having a few problems, so they have been told by their line manager that they have to work over the weekend to fix it and what they would do in this case.  Sometimes I go out of the room and pretend to be a partner or colleague of theirs who comes into the room and shouts Crisis! This and this happened. So it kind of prepares the atmosphere and the ground, let´s say, for this activity. It also depends on the culture of the students. Perhaps their culture is not so expressive so actually coming into a classroom shouting Crisis! is not the best idea.

• If you have Business English students who make presentations, then you might find it useful for them to give you an actual presentation as part of the lesson. It can be something they have done for their work (but there you have to vouch for confidentiality – some teachers even sign an agreement of confidentiality that no information will leave the room) or a presentation on anything. Some of my bankers use vaious ideas to present – a few of them presented their countries, along with Powerpoint slides, or bike races – it can be even something as simple as that and the language you get out of it is absolutely amazing. What I do there is I sit with the rest of the students while one of them is presenting and keep notes, of great things they have said or of mistakes they have made. I then present the mistakes altogether if I know they will feel uncomfortable. It all depends on the learners.

• I also practice telephone conversations with them – but because our classroom does not connect via intercom with another, what we do is we turn our chairs and backs to one another and pretend we are phoning each other – turning our backs, so that the other person cannot see facial expressions and so cannot anticipate what the call is about.

There are literally hundreds of ideas to use when teaching Business English and I have shared only but a few – enjoy your lessons!

The slides:

And those of us who were first-time speakers for BESIG were up for an award – I got third place! I was so happy to be presented the award by one of my favourite linguists, Professor David Crystal. Many thanks to Mike Hogan for the photos!

Professor Crystal, the judges and the award winners (Photo taken by Mike Hogan)
Getting my award from Professor Crystal – a double happy moment! (Photo taken by Mike Hogan)

An #ELTChat Summary – What do we do when a lesson goes horribly wrong? How do you cope and recover?

What if the students are not so concentrated – what if the lesson is not going well? (Image from #eltpics – taken by Laura Phelps @pterolaur)
Today’s lunchtime ELTChat was about yet another very interesting topic. It has happened to all of us – a lesson goes wrong, the opposite of what we expected. How do we handle it?

We started off with what kind of bad lessons there are:
– Losing the students; when they do not co-operate or understand
– A tech glitch that throws the planned lesson completely off track
– The lesson not meeting our expectations, leaving the students and ourselves confused
– When something exciting has happened before the lesson and the students find it difficult to concentrate
– In general, our lesson plan going completely awry

How do we know?
– The students have a confused / glazed over look
– The student in one case informed the teacher, quite rudely, that she did not want to do the task designated
– In another case, a student ran out of the class crying

And here came some really great replies:
What do we do in these cases?
– We reached a general consensus that it is better to switch activities and after the lesson, sit down and reflect on what went wrong. It is not advisable to do away with the said lesson plan, but it is even better to adjust/change it, in order to use it more effectively in the future.
– It was mentioned that it is a great idea to have fillers up our sleeves to manage in such situations, when something does not work.
– It is generally better to sometimes admit in class that something did not work / was not suitable and perhaps even discuss with the students what went wrong / what could be done better next time.
– Having the confidence to stop is a great thing; acknowledge an idea is not working and just move on. Keeping yourself calm is also important, as it can be a difficult moment.
– Leave space to customise for each student / group of stiudents. It is essential to be flexible with our lesson plans.

Lessons that do not work can leave inexperienced teachers lacking in confidence. What would we advise them?
– That it is okay when a lesson fails – it can prove to be a learning experience. What happened? What was the lesson plan like? Which group were you teaching on the given day?
– There was a very nice quote: “Making mistakes shows you are trying!”
– A bad day can happen to anyone.

Useful links that came up during the talk:
Jane and Dave Willis’ ELT Website.
Cybraryman’s Lesson Plans page.

Today’s super moderators were:
– Shaun Wilden (@ShaunWilden)
– James Taylor (@theteacherjames)

Today’s contributors were:
– Sue Lyon-Jones (@esolcourses)
– Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)
– Mike Griffin (@michaelegriffin)
– Evidence-Based EFL (@EBEFL)
– TtMadrid TEFL Course (@TtMadridTEFL)
– Amelie Silvert (@TeacherSilvert)
– Gisele Santos (@feedtheteacher)
– Julie Moore (@lexicojules)
– Leo Selivan (@leoselivan)and also introducing wonderful teachers in Azerbaijan to Twitter! @Samiratey, @FatimaFatima28, @Sevinc8996, @taira_akhundova, @OfeliyaG
– Stephanie McIntosh (@purple_steph)
– Tamas Lorincz (@tamaslorincz)
– M. Lincoln (@arrudamatos)
– Oksan Yagar (@OksanYagar)

My First Lesson – A Post for the #ELTChat blog challenge

The Faculty of Philosophy, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where I spent four years (Image taken from http://www.auth.gr)

First lessons, first lessons…. do I remember my first one ever? I sure do! I have not kept my lesson plan, or have any photos or any other things from that day – I just remember that I was 19 years old and a student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

As a part of a course called Teaching in Secondary Education, we went several times to observe a high school class before we were actually asked to (gulp!) teach the kids. Imagine that our age difference was so small, I was 19 and the kids were 17. Thoughts that went through our heads? (We were a group of four who were going to teach individually on four consecutive days.) Will the kids like us? Will they think that we are too young to teach them? Of course, the students knew why we were there, but still… In addition, the school was in one of the most underprivileged areas of Thessaloniki and some of the kids were in gangs, some were taking drugs, which made it even harder.

I do not remember which coursebook we were using (perhaps I have all this material in Greece, I have to check next time I am there) but I do remember it was a lesson on graffiti. I was to do a listening task with them, which I thought I could expand into a speaking task as well. I have no recollection of anything else. The night before I did not sleep a wink – I was constantly getting up and looking at the book, practising what I would say and thinking the worst scenarios, that they would laugh at me. My clothes were hanging on a chair. I was going to wear a bright blue cardigan and jeans (it is so strange what our brain manages to keep as a memory!).

I went in the following morning to a group of twenty or so very chatty and hyper-energetic 17-year-olds and I was thinking “How will I ever get their attention?” so I suddenly blurted out “OK, who likes soccer?” They suddenly stopped talking and started shouting out only the names of their favourite teams and commenting later…in English! (Thessaloniki has three very popoular soccer teams, PAOK, Aris and Heracles). I was thinking, oh no, their teacher (who was sitting at the back) is going to be so disappointed I did not start immediately with the book (little did I know back then!). I slowly pulled them into the lesson with graffiti (I connected it to soccer, as the walls in Thessaloniki were covered with sometimes really beautiful graffiti related to soccer among others).

I cannot remember too many details and it is a shame I have not found my notes or plans of the day. The teacher liked how I managed to get their attention and the kids said they liked it at the end! I was a happy 19-year-old (and I learned successful teaching does not mean open the book to page 34 at the beginning of a lesson!) – I was so encouraged by this experience, that I started teaching as a private teacher after that.

Born in the USA

Usually before my next class with any level of students I prepare them a little bit about what is to follow. For instance, if I decide that the lesson will be about Martin Luther King, I may tell them a little about him or the Civil Rights Movement. This day, though, was going to be different from all the rest. I was still teaching in Greece then. I said goodbye to my students and that I would see them next time and they looked puzzled. “What, you’re not telling us about next time?” “No, I would like the next lesson to be a surprise and I would like to see what you will make of the specific lesson completely on your own”, I told them. “What is it? A poem, a song?” they insisted. “Well, forgive me but I would prefer not to tell you”, I said.

So the next lesson came. It was with two teenage students of an advanced level. I greeted them and told them we would start immediately by listening to something from a CD. I pressed the play button and suddenly Bruce Springsteen was heard singing his song Born in the USA.

I let it play until the end and the kids had the lyrics in front of them, but I could still see their frustration at the song and they were looking at each other in a “What is this?” kind of way. When the song ended, one of them, a really polite boy, said: “Sorry Miss Vicky, but this was the worst choice of a song. What can we possibly analyze about this song? That he is proud of his country, the USA that wage wars in various parts the world?” So I let them talk to me and vent their frustration. “Yeah”, said the girl of the pair. “So okay, he is feeling patriotic. What for, though?” she said. Quite a while passed by and the kids were telling me, in fantastic English throughout the lesson, how frustrated they had felt at listening to the song, how Bruce Springsteen could have written such a song and how he could feel proud about events like the Vietnam War. The kids were raising extremely persuasive arguments and using the most beautiful vocabulary they had learnt. So, I decided to tell them the real deal.

I started to explain Springsteen’s background – that he comes from a working-class Jewish family and that the title and lyrics of the song were actually ironic towards the policy of the USA, with reference to the Vietnam War and the welfare system that was not working and all those things that made the singer feel frustrated with what people were going through at the time. The kids were so interested and surprised and we had a wonderful discussion based on the song. They came up with some fantastic questions and we even pretended to take an interview from Bruce Springsteen, coming up with the questions we would ask him. We talked about how it was to be a part of working-class America at that time. What really satisfied me was that the students were very intrigued by the history behind the song. They loved it so much, that they asked me to bring more of this kind of songs, for the reason that they said “it made them think”. They did think, they did learn and they used a great part of the vocabulary they had assimilated until then.

So the next song I took into class was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”…