I’ve never met Vicki face to face, so I’m afraid this piece will be more technical than personal. As you’ll see, I’m a bit obsessive about two of Vicki’s books: Business Objectives (BObjs) and Business Opportunities (BOpps).
Forgive me if I go on a bit about them …
Over the years I’ve met a handful of fellow BOpps and BObjs obsessives – people who rave about them at length. But most teachers remember them simply as “Yeah – great books”, but without the passion.
I think those teachers just didn’t get it.
It took me a long time to get it, too. In my first year or so of using the books, I saw them as nice, straightforward ways of getting students to talk about interesting business topics in English. The functional language syllabus was excellent – that was easy to spot straight away – with just the right amount of phrases for meetings, presentations, socialising, etc.
The section on telephoning in BOpps was the best of any I’ve used, with its lovely role-play map. The section on business writing at the end of unit 4 contained a rich bank of essential writing phrases, all contextualised and presented over a super-efficient three pages. What’s more, the topics were ideal for the students I was teaching in various factories (but perhaps more than they would be for, say, marketing types or bankers). So I liked them a lot, but I was still missing something …
I spotted it one day when I was pondering a minor mystery in unit 4.
There was a nice little role-play activity on p39 about managing the environment. Students played the roles of directors of a manufacturing company who had to weigh up the suitability of a range of proposals for making the company greener. The proposals ranged from “Tell our suppliers to provide less packaging with their products” to “Install a large fan on the hillside to blow away pollution” (great idea, by the way).
It was a nice role-play, but at the bottom of the page was a strange little activity: “Now compare your decisions with your colleagues from other groups. Find out which proposals they decided to implement and why”. What’s the point of that, I thought?
Did you spot it? What language were they using to make their decisions?
“I’ll do that if you like”; “I’ll leave that to you”; “Shall I do that or will you?”. And what language should they be using to compare answers with other groups? Aha … it’s will vs going to. Making decisions vs talking about decisions. So actually the follow-up was the key to the whole activity. (Or would have been, if only my students had been aware of the language they were expected to use – mine just used will all the time until I worked out what was going on.).
It kind of made sense.
There’d been a presentation on will and going to earlier in the unit, back on p35. But why wait til p39 for the practice? I decided to take a closer look at the nice reading/speaking activity on pages 36 and 37. Exercise 1 was a harmless little quiz on cultural differences in international meetings, with some good vocabulary. Exercise 2 was a compare-with-your partners speaking, and exercise 3 was a here’s-what-the-expert-says reading. At least, that’s how I’d treated it, but a closer look at exercise 1 showed me it was will again:
“You’re putting forward a proposal that several people at the meeting disagree with. How will you handle the situation?
a. I’ll stick to my guns;
b. I’ll drop the proposal;
c. I’ll do something else”.
And exercise 2 was going to! (“What are you going to do with the working papers?”)
I then looked ahead to the writing activities on pages 41 to 43. As I said above, these were a brilliantly concise everything-you-really-need-to-know guide to standard phrases for business writing. Surely Vicki wouldn’t also squeeze in practice of will and going to? But she did!
In exercise 1 we had to read the letters and discuss with a partner which ones are urgent and how to deal with them. In exercise 2 we had to explain our decisions to a new partner. Exercise 1: will. Exercise 2: going to.
And that’s the point.
The whole unit was practising will and going to. But it did it in such an interesting way that it was actually very difficult to see past the topic or the work on other skills to see the practice exercises concealed beneath. And it’s the same in every unit of both books. They’re full of grammar practice exercises which look like something else!
(There’s an obvious concern here: if the grammar practice was so well hidden that teachers didn’t spot it, it meant that most users of the books missed out on their greatest strength. This was something I asked Vicki about when I interviewed her at the Virtual Round Table here.)
Anyway, unit 6 of BOpps is the best unit of any book I’ve ever used for practising the difference between 1st and 2nd conditionals.
On page 60 we have a fantastic role-play about dealing with shrinkage (losses through theft). Students discuss a list of suggestions using great functional language they’ve been taught throughout the unit (“We’d better …”; “No, that’s simply not feasible”).
The intro to the exercise gives some examples of things to say: “Proposal 1 is a good idea. If we position tills at the exits, it’ll make it more difficult to steal. I don’t like proposal 2. The staff would object if we issued uniforms with no pockets”. Did you spot it that time? (OK, I primed you to make it easier).
1st conditionals for proposals we like; 2nd conditionals for ones we don’t like. How elegant is that!
Now, you may disagree with me on this, but I think intermediate and upper intermediate business students need a lot of work on grammar accuracy.
Many of them already have the fluency, especially the ones who use English every day at work. They come to English lessons to tidy things up. But most business English books (including the most popular ones today) barely touch on grammar, or if they deal with it, it’s not systematic. There’s never enough practice.
Now, if I want to give my business students reading texts from the business press, I can get them from the business press – I don’t need that from my course book. What I need from a course book is the stuff that I can’t create myself in 5 minutes before the lesson.
That’s what BOpps and BObjs provided.
I’ve taught plenty of advanced-level students, high-powered business leaders who can talk with wonderful fluency but who are desperate to fix their grammar problems. And I used to put them all on BOpps – even though it was supposed to be only upper int. And it worked.
(I say used to because I’m no longer a manager – a fact which has nothing to do with my choice of course books, I hasten to add).
I haven’t said much yet about Vicki’s other classic, BObjs, although that too did some pretty cool things.
For example, in the unit on Business Travel there’s an exercise called Future Possibilities where students have to match sentence halves. We end up with sentences like “If you haven’t met before, how will you recognize him at the airport?”, “If you have to be there by ten, you’d better hurry up” and “If she wasn’t on that flight, she’ll be on the next one”. In other words, conditional sentences about the future which break free of the traditional rules and formulas of first conditionals.
In fact, out of 12 sentences, only 1 fits the classic IF + PRESENT SIMPLE formula taught by all other books since the beginning of time. Only 1! And this is for A2/B1 students, many of whom will never have learnt about conditionals before.
So Vicki tells them, right from the start, “don’t worry about formulas – there’s nothing scary about conditionals. Just use normal tenses!” I wish all course books at this level were as brave as that, but unfortunately I’ve never seen this approach in any other book.
As a course-book editor, I’m obsessed with two things: aims and flow.
Each unit has to have an underlying structure – a series of sections linked together naturally in a logical order so as to provide the right amount of context, language input and practice at just the right time to really achieve the unit aims. Each section and sub-section can itself be analysed in the same terms, so a perfect unit is like a wonderfully intricate mechanical device – cogs within cogs, all perfectly aligned.
The units in BObjs and BOpps were (almost) all like that.
Let me take you step-by-step through unit 10 of BObj, which is about Progress Updates, to show you what I mean. We start with a personalisation task (“Who services the equipment and machinery in your company? And who fixes it when it breaks down?”) to lead in to the topic of the first section: a situational dialogue between two managers at an office equipment repair company.
The first focus is on the content – comparing call-outs in October with those in September, but then we get to the language focus, present perfect, with examples of the structure pulled out of the dialogue. Contextualised presentation.
On the next 2-page spread, we have a new context – a profit and loss account, for a couple of very controlled practice exercises of present perfect, one spoken (explaining what has happened to the figures) and one written (completing the chairman’s report).
Finally there’s a personalised practice activity, talking about your own company or department.
Most course books would leave it there – or they wouldn’t even bother to provide this much practice of present perfect. But Vicki keeps going.
The next page focuses on another new topic, staff changes, with some vocab work (e.g. sack, recruit) to take us off in a new direction, but then we come back to more written and spoken controlled practice of present perfect using this new context and language.
Then we get another freer-practice personalisation activity: “Have you taken on any new staff recently?”. Another topic: targets, with contrastive practice including an information exchange to focus on the difference between past simple (“How many units did they sell last year?”) and present perfect (“How many have they sold this year? They haven’t achieved their target”).
Do you think our students have mastered present perfect yet, after six pages and four contexts? Again, most course books would assume so, but of course as teachers we all know that A2/B1 students really take a long time to master present perfect.
So the more practice the better, as long as you can keep the topics interesting and the activities varied and personalised.
So on the next spread we have a cycle of activities (personalisation – controlled practice – freer practice – role-play) on present perfect with yet. And on the final spread, we listen to the business news (guess which tenses we’ll hear) and do yet another information exchange, this time on share performance, and yet again using present perfect.
So the whole unit practises different uses of present perfect (contrasted with other tenses).
But it’s never boring or repetitive because it’s also excellent fluency work, vocab work, listening … and it’s all personalised and contextualised.
Anyway, I did warn you that I’m a bit obsessive. I guess what I’m trying to say is: through these books, Vicki taught me a huge amount about how to teach business English, how to write courses and how to edit other people’s books.
If you’re serious about teaching grammar, business English or ESP, if you write courses or books or would like to in the future, if you care about aims and flow, I suggest you get hold of copies of these two old classics and learn from the master.
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Vicki Hollett is the author of textbooks like Tech Talk, Business Objectives, Business Opportunities, Quick Work, Meeting Objectives, In at the Deep End and the soon to be Lifestyle. Vicki’s special interests are business English, sociolinguistics and pragmatics.
British by birth, she’s currently based in the US where she’s writing more courses, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and Learning to speak ‘merican: http://www.vickihollett.com.
She'll also be giving the Plenary at BESIG in Poznan, Poland, November 20th 2009.
Jeremy Day is Series Editor of Cambridge English for ESP a series of short courses.
He has written two teacher’s books on legal English (International Legal English and Introduction to International Legal English), both for Cambridge University Press, as well as major ESP courses for the British Council and International House. He also has several more books in the pipeline. He teaches general, business and legal English at the British Council in Warsaw, Poland, and is passionate about grammar. His new blog, Specific English, is aimed at teachers of ESP.
The She-in-ELT series: