Personally, speaking

I received an excellent question via email about a month ago and it made me sit, think and try to work out how to give a reply worthy of the value in the q'. There's nothing harder than having to analyze the very nature of your teaching style, which I'm sure you know too!

Anyway, while drafting up my response, I got to thinking that instead of just replying to my emailer, it'd be best to share it with all of you...

This was her letter:

Dear Karenne

I’d like to thank–you for running such a great teacher training session on promoting fluency/ speaking skills. I’ve been thinking about student-centred learning (again) and have been re-evaluating my teaching techniques (again).

I have a Cambridge CELTA- so my techniques are fairly student-centred.

What REALLY impressed me was the way in which you got the teachers to do the work/learning, through a series of stages that built upon an initial task. I know the power of this type of teaching. I learnt through “doing/ self discovery” as opposed to being “told.”

There is a saying that goes something like this: Tell me and I will forget. Let me do it for myself and I will remember.

I’d love to move closer to this style of teaching and also to be able to write/adapt classroom materials that include more student-centered techniques. I was wondering if you have any advice and suggestions for reading material?

Kind regards,
S.F, Stuttgart

I'm going to go way, way out on a limb here and confess that chiefly "my style" of teaching and creating student-centered lessons actually comes from business guru style books rather than pedagogical/ teacher training manuals!

Yeah, Gods, I expect I'll be shot by the ELT teaching community for that comment!

You know the books I mean?

Pop psychology, basically.

Covey's 7 Habits, Stumbling on Happiness, Wisdom of the Crowds - that sort of thing.

Also, of course, my teaching has also been heavily influenced from traveling and the people I've met globally.

Way back in High School (in the US), when everyone was focused and organized or getting there, figuring out what they were going to be: doctors, lawyers, engineers etc, I only knew that what I most wanted out of life was to see the world.

I come from a teenie-weenie island in the middle of nowhere (sorry, Grenada) and have always found people and culture fascinating.

mountbromoThis doesn't mean I didn't like work - I'm often accused of being a work-a-holic - but it does mean that I didn't study to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Instead, in the beginning of my 20's I thought what I'd most love to become was a wine importer and exotically travel the vineyards of the world on glorious shopping trips.

Yeah, okay, right. But I did study to do this.

And, in an odd sort of way, it was the pursuit of this daydream that kinda, sorta led me to leave London for Australia even though I eventually got waylaid in Thailand on the way.

I was sitting on a beach in Java one late afternoon, after having been backpacking solo for about six months and a man came over and sat down next to me.

I don't have to tell you that initially I was pretty suspicious of his intentions.

kidBut, pretty soon, following behind him tottered over two of his kids. They were adorable darlings and looked at me with wide beautiful brown eyes.

The man began to talk to me.

I tried to explain that my Malay was pretty basic (I had a book I was learning from to pass time on buses - Malay is very similar to Indonesian) - it was definitely not enough to manage conversation.

Part of me just wished he'd go on his merry way so that I could just chill out and watch the sunset. But he continued rambling on and I found myself listening.

A very, very strange thing started to happen.

I knew what he was talking about.

He was telling me about his life, his wishes and his dreams.

He used the sand to describe where he lived, what his house looked like but it was much more than just the scribbles on the sand, there was something magical in his very intent to communicate his experience to me and in my willingness to concentrate.

What can I still tell you about that 2hr conversation with an ageing Javan dressed in a colorful man-skirt, over 15 years ago?

Yes, I still do remember most of it.

I don't remember the small-small-talk about the fine evening, have a vagueish memory that the sky drifted off into deep oranges and purples but I do clearly remember that he was married and had 5 children.

His dreams were to give his kids a good education so that they wouldn't end up having to work the land like he does. He was puzzled by politicians and the future of his country, was Buddhist and thought that the world would be a better place if everyone just loved and talked to each other.

His wife was a good woman who argued with him often (about money) and one of his children was sick.

He wanted to know who I was, who my family were - why I was traveling alone, wasn't I afraid that someone would hurt me?

He was actually quite worried about my safety and he wouldn't like for one of his daughters to grow up to be like me! ;-(

I learned then, right there on that beach, that we are all passionate about ourselves.

This sounds kind of "selfish" but it's not really.

I mean that what we think matters to us.

And what we think about what we think is of great importance.

Sometimes we will share these very deepest beliefs with an absolute stranger, they are that important to us.

Recognizing this intrinsic human quality and applying it to language teaching simply makes sense to me.

Our students want to talk about themselves.

They are learning English in order to discuss their company, absolutely, however actually they want to discuss their relationship to their company. Their job, their project, their colleagues.

hurricaneThey are learning English to discuss the weather appropriately but more than likely they want to talk about their own experience and feelings about sunshine vs. cloudy days. They are learning English to tell their personal stories.

Textbooks all too often are passive, dry and safe.

They are designed to specifically cater for the highest percentage of student ratio: across age, education, occupation and experience. They are designed to be commercially successful and they are produced in a set framework, the publisher's style, (or whom else's that they deem most popular over the last x years - no matter the faults) and the author's frame of reference.

They specifically aim not to offend and in that very lack of risk, they fall flat and don't live up to our students' communicative needs.

Yes, there are exceptions -I'll blog my praise of them later- and no, I'm not dismissing published textbooks nor their value in general. I also acknowledge the enormous quantity of work that goes into producing them.

However our role as EFL educators is to make sure that our tools and materials (even when we're using a course book) successfully elicit student response. We are there to improve their communicative skills.

How do we do that?

By making our students the first aim, the first objective of any lesson plan.

We must put their actual interests way up on the list of priorities. We can not follow a set index, - unit 4, page 32 - we must start with what do you need to learn?

Followed by what do you want to learn? (And sometimes vice versa).

And when we do this, when we get them to buy in to learning, they will learn - even if it's yet another textbook/case-study on advertising.

phoneBecause instead of discussing the merits of some random BT (British Telecom) ad from about 5 years ago that almost none of them has ever seen (as it was shown on the telly in the UK, not in Germany or Ecuador or Hong Kong and none of these students even know what British Telecom is, nor do they care!)

Ranting sorry...

But instead, as language coaches, we can turn that case study on its head and ask what ads are on the television currently in their countries and which of these ads are interesting to them.

Then we can encourage them to take charge of the lesson's material, change the case study themselves into something that they are interested in watching and discussing: a product that they are or not buying and while they are passionately engaged in their own experience, we can slide that new vocabulary and lexical chunks in like a nice new shoe and they'll adopt it: because they really need it in that moment, it has tangible value.

And with that last sentence, I'm brought nicely full circle to Stephen Covey's book, the 7 habits of highly successful people.

One of his major habits is "Begin with the end in mind."

What is the "end" we are teaching to? Our students' fluency.

Begin with your students' interests,
start with what they need to say.

Questions, comments?

Don't hesitate to add your thoughts, opinions. Let's make this a conversation about conversation!


p.s. I've put a brainstorming sheet on my website which you can download and use to help determine a plan for your conversations lessons. Change it, adapt it, make it better & send me a copy... it's creative commons. Click here.

Politics, power and the media

What an amazing picture!

Don't they look like they're great friends here, discussing a project or working out how best to get things done - together?

Well, as we all know, they're not friends.

They're opponents in the great race for US Presidency. The story is being covered globally, in every newspaper and on every news website... on every social site. It's not as if we can run away from it, now is it?

This situation prompted me to think that this would make great fodder for an EFL lesson on the role media and social networking sites play in politics.

The effects of Joe the Plumber or the Obama Girl have been tremendous - it seems everyone's jumping on the band wagon so why not us, English language teachers, too.

However, I do wonder what effect this will have on politics around the world.

Will all politicians create their own Youtube channels? Will they too twitter and flickr?

I've a tough time seeing Angela Merkel being loved this much - but I could be wrong. Maybe this is the new way to reach 'the people.'

What do you think, is it an effective way to preach a message? Does it seem strange to you or is it fascinating?

Don't decide, get your students to!

BarackObama vs John McCainAnd if you're hoping to do a lesson on this subject sometime over the next 10 days or so, check out the collection of youtube videos I've slapped together or visit the articles, images and more that I've saved on delicious.

You're welcome to send the links on to your students too. Get them to do the research at home and then come into class geared up for a great debate.

I've also made a "special edition" version of my SimplyConversationsTM: downloadable Politics set with a SimplyQuestTM for your students for free.

Don't hesitate to let me know how it all goes & may the best man win!

Here's an example video of social networking and media in action. This is a video which came via email. Very interesting - very effective.
If I was an American, if I was in the US, I'm pretty sure I know where I'd have been that Tuesday!!
Although, I did celebrate in Germany!

Useful links:

Articles, blogs and more
Youtube videos (various videos in the lead up)
Wordle cloud images (great for pre-teaching vocabulary: search for Obama & McCain or politics - new versions updated regularly)
Flickr photos (good for prompting discussions)

If you're not sure how to download videos on to your laptop go here.

Added 5 November 2008:
He did it!!!

The Guardian UK have a fascinating interactive map which you can use with students to discuss the demographics of the voters (and of America itself). Click here.

Obama's acceptance speech:

Higher quality (full) video can also be watched on the Guardian, transcript to the speech here.
The Changing Minds blog has written a very interesting analysis of the speech. You can find this here.

McCain's gracious defeat:

Still not enough materials to smack together a great lesson? Here's a flickr photostream!

Download the photos (or your students can) and use to discuss the probable feelings and emotions during the different scenes - in the lead up, when it happened and the aftermath.

Would work well with A2 students and above.

"He was nervous, he looks sad... she seems bored, she's excited etc."

The direct link to the photostream on flickr is here.

If you also teach kids or young adults, get them involved in a letter-writing project to Obama, details can be found on Nik Peachey's blog here.


p.s. If you would like to purchase a set of conversation cards on politics, you can find them here (€.79 for individuals, €2.39 for institutes). Free samples of other sets, here.

Fatally Financial

The messages of doom and gloom slither out of every corner of the newspapers.

Your students cautiously mention that their companies aren't doing so well this year.

How did it happen? How'd we get in this mess?

Did you know that you can use professionally made presentations in your classes? I got these above from SlideShare - a great site with many, many seriously good presentations which can be downloaded for free.

My favorite of these is Credit Cruncher (3rd one in the righthand bar) - although if you don't have a fast computer and can't see these, it might be a good idea to travel on over here.

The presentation is full of metaphor and meaning; the images used are simple, dynamic, straightforward and although the author uses few words, what's there creates a good lexical set.

Slideshares make excellent teaching aids, it's a good idea to spend a little time on their site although of course, I'll be dipping back in and showing you my faves. They're especially good for pre-teaching vocabulary, providing support to conversation activities and generally, they work well when blended-learning supplementing textbooks or other materials.

You can also discuss the visuals, stylistic cues and how well /accurate the slides are.


p.s. To buy a copy of my SimplyC:finance & investment €1.49 individuals, €4.99 institutes go here. To find articles, videos etc related to this theme, go here.

The McMaster and Commander

As I promised, I've still got to update you on the other two workshops I attended at ELTAF 2008 teacher-training conference! So am back...Planet EarthIII by Aaron Escobar

Both workshops dealt with the issues of globalization and their effects on language learning.

I'll start off with Comfort's commanding presentation of Best Practice, an intermediate and upper-intermediate course book, published by Heinle.

NB: Unfortunately neither the Comfort handouts or the book have arrived as yet so I'll be blogging only from memory and quick notes.

Jeremy Comfort is one of the directors of York Associates, a firm specializing in intercultural training for the corporate sector. For yonks he's been developing methods and materials which integrate an intercultural dimension into language learning.

And as we all know, this is a real buzz topic at the moment. Perhaps even more so, with the financial crisis unfolding and business partnerships moving and changing.

York Associates does intercultural training for teachers, not just corporations. One of these workshops is called "Developing People Internationally." It's pricey as all get out but you can get 20% off if you belong to a teachers' association.

The Best Practice course books are Business English textbooks, not cultural briefings, sort of a cross between your standard BE book and a guide to intercultural intelligence.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland
They reportedly look at culture, not only from the perspective of different countries but also down into the depths of company culture - particularly those of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China).

During his presentation, Comfort went through the familiar images of the iceberg - what is seen above is only a part of what is seen below:

i.e. Artefacts, words, behavious being obvious and visible, above the surface; while customs, norms, attitudes, assumptions and thought processes lie hidden below.

Colourful onionsHe also touched on the models of Hall and Trompenaars and gave us an overview of the onion, the layers of cultural meanings and discussed the skills involved in developing transparency of communication, attitudes of tolerance and exposing intention.

Comfort explained that mostly his corporate clients are interested in developing their managers' Leadership abilities - intercultural competence skills fall in with this. He went through the various factors involved, from business knowledge to language ability, personality, motivation and business skills.

He also discussed communicative skills: how influence, establishing rapport and developing active listening skills are crucial building blocks of any successful cultural competence course.

But, to be absolutely honest, although Jeremy Comfort is a very commanding presenter, and I was very pleased to get to see him in action, his slides were a bit jumbled.

How can I describe this and still be nice?

Er, kind of a "mindmapping" circles and sticks leading out into various directions on powerpoint.

From my own cultural perspective, this was a bit disconcerting. Still, the books sound awfully interesting.

IanMcMasterMcMaster took us from the world of English to the German market.

As Editor-in-chief of Business Spotlight, (an English language learning magazine published for the German, Austrian, Swiss markets) Ian McMaster is well equipped to do this.

First off, he challenged us to an exercise involving a quadrant on the advantages non-native speakers of English have over natives in business situations(!) and vice-versa.

This then led to a mini-presentation of the Business Spotlight, great mag, and then he got on with the meat: back in Spring 2007, Business Spotlight did a survey of Germans who speak English for business purposes and what problems they have when communicating.

Their results were really quite fascinating and in many ways surprising.

Did you know that France is Germany's main trading partner (import and export)?

The US is second, the UK third.

And although 52% of the respondents they surveyed said they speak English to both Non-natives and Native speakers, 31% speak mainly or only to non natives.

Me at workAnd who, do they find easier to communicate with?

Yes. That's right: not us.

39% think that we're the problem.

Alright, not completely the whole problem but the difficulties Germans face when talking to native business partners range from speed (86% say this) and

60% of us use unknown expressions, 57% use far too many idioms, 56% say the words we use are too difficult, 56% that we don't speak clearly enough and 45% have declared our accents too thick.

"Mr Graddol says the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. Indeed he adds, many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English speakers present."
Michael Skapinker, FT, 9 Nov 2007.

So, NATIVE-ENGLISH business leaders: would you just slowwwwwwwwww down!

Are you ready to call it a day yet? Pack up and go home?

Oh, come on, you're a language teacher! You know we don't still speak that way.

Later on that year, in Sept 2007, Business Spotlight did a follow-up poll of their respondees and asked them where the people were from, the ones who they have the most problems understanding - 192 (of the 1,330 who initially did the survey) answered.

This time the Chinese topped off the list at 34%, the Americans following close behind at 32%, French at 24%, Indians 22%, Japanese 21%, British 21%, Russians and Italians sharing 12%.

I hear that in another presentation across the hall, in Ian Badger's room, his survey results revealed slightly different statistics:

in fact, the real culprits are the Scottish.

But that might just, could be just, a rumor.

What does this all mean for us, on the ground and in the classroom?

onionOur German students have a clear need to communicate interculturally and they need materials that reflect a global world.

What you do with this information is down to you.

But my personal top tip would be to read this book, recommended to me by one of my colleagues: it's excellent and really challenges you to have a look at who you are, as a language teacher, as a person living overseas.

Culture from the Inside Out: Travel--And Meet Yourself: Your Personal Strategy for Crossing Cultures

Useful extras:

You can also view last year's presentation by Ian McMaster at the BESIG 2007, most of the slides are the same - all statistics (very clearly presented, potentially great for a lesson on the subject with your students) are contained within. Click here.

You can get a full report of the survey on the Business Spotlight website if you're a registered subscriber.

Business Spotlight is also now published in the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Bulgaria.


Company secrets

Following on from my post about Facebook vs Twitter, the privacy or lack thereof when one chooses to place one's photo albums, private thoughts and messages to friends in a public space, I somehow got around to thinking about secrets in general.

dirtylaundry by jose goulaoIn today's modern world, via the internet, we can easily access just about anyone's dirty laundry.

I teach a lot of bankers and financial staff in general and we're in, it would seem the beginnings of a major financial crisis, so I ended up musing about financial reporting. Okay, okay, I had nothing else to think about. But

company reports are great materials for the language classroom.

They are authentic, relevant and often topical and believe it or not, interesting(!) , in short, if you teach financial English and want to get away from the textbook they make the perfect tool.

All the language your students could possibly need if they have to write their own reports in English, is contained within.

When discussing them - what is involved and included, the introductions written by the CEOs, the format and style of language, the pie-charts and statistics - you will be able to cover a lot of very useful vocabulary and believe me, it's very realistic and relevant English speaking practice.

I've got some notes below on what you can do with them in class, however, please feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comment box as I'd love for you to share with me too.

But first,

where to find company reports?

A lot of corporate websites actually have links on their pages which lead to their published reports.

First, visit the website of the company you're interested in, then look for a heading that reads financial reports or investor info or annual report.

You are often given the options of downloading (.pdf), or printing (watch out, they can be very long) and, if you're lucky, there will also be an emailing option. Emailing is a good idea if you have your students' addresses, let them decide if they want to print it out or read on-line.

There is also a great site, called which offers a huge variety of freely downloadable reports on listed companies.

The site is easy to use: simply state what company you're looking for in the box, click and you reach a pdf which you can download/read on-line. You can also search by industry or sector.

Top Tip:
Merrill Lynch have also published a guide to understanding financial reports, available on Scribd.

This .pdf brochure explains the major components within a financial report and a lot of the "jargon" is broken down into layman's terms (perfect as a teaching material - or a training tool for the non-financial Business English teacher who find him/herself having to teach these types of students!).

What to do with financial reports in the language classroom?

Lesson plan idea 1:
  • Ask your students for a list of 3 - 5 of their top competitors. If you're teaching at a bank or investment company, then ask them for a list of their clients. (This may be confidential information so treat it thus).
  • Find the company reports. Bring in the most relevant pages (or let your students do this task and make this decision). Some may be interested in only the balance sheet, some may like to concentrate on other specific areas.
  • Ask your students to make a comparative chart using either a flip-chart size piece of paper or an excel spreadsheet.

Lesson plan idea 2:
  • Provide students with the link to and then get them to choose a company they would like to do research on. They can do this at home or if you have a classroom with internet access and laptops they can do it in-class.
  • Ask them to create presentations of what they've learned. Multi-media it! (i.e. grab logos, link to videos and advertisements etc.,)

Lesson plan idea 3:
  • Choose a large international company that is currently undergoing a financial crisis (based on the news of the day).
  • Print out their report for the previous year(s) - focus on the balance sheet - get your students to analyze it and make opinions on why they think the company went bust/ is experiencing difficulties.
  • Ask students to become detectives and follow up on their opinions. They can check googlenews, wikipedia and other sources (including news published in their own language).
  • Ask them to go in-depth and find out the steps that ocurred before the company went under.
  • Hold an interesting discussion on what they found out.
Lesson plan idea 4

  • Get students to pick a major international company and ask them to read the financial report. Look specifically at their plans for the future.
  • Ask your group to think about what the future really holds - are the company's expectations realistic, why - why not?

Take care, enjoy the weekend!


p.s. If you teach financial students, you may also be interested in my SimplyC:finance and investment conversation cards and related webquest. Click here to purchase them (€1.49).

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