Jeremy Day on Vicki Hollett's Opportunities & Objectives

The ‘she in ELT’ who has had the biggest impact on me – Vicki Hollett.

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).

business opportunities oup vicki hollettIt 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).

business objectives oup vicki hollettI 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.

- 0 -

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:

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:
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Special thank you for the photos to the folks at Linguarama: Colin, Claire & Howard!

7 Responses to “Jeremy Day on Vicki Hollett's Opportunities & Objectives”

    October 01, 2009

    Thank you, Jeremy, you are so right.

    You've in fact hit the nail on the head as I've been wondering about my disillusionment with coursebooks.

    It goes without saying that I used to use them much more often and it's not just the shift towards dogme that has led to their abandonment.

    Several things you've said here make perfect sense and actually inspire a bit of curiosity for your own series!

    Flow - the flow in Vicki's books simply isn't there in most of the more modern business English books.

    Personalization - it's so brief (shoved in between everything else i.e. articles from flashy news sources - like that's the point of a text) nowhere near as repetitive as in the BusOpps and BusObjs books.

    The systemic, repetitive (and deceptively innocent) practice.

    I think this may even be why teachers have to spend so much time outside the books these days - sourcing fun activities - mashing things together from various sources - because way too often these days, they feature something for a microsecond, the latest buzz (which by the time the book has been printed is no longer the latest buzz) and then they drop it along with any important vocabulary or grammar that was on that page.

    One course book author disagreed with me on this, rather emphatically (on my dogma of dogme posting) because I said vocabulary is not repeated from unit to unit - but the fact is, in my eyes, it's not.

    Not just this, but also the StoryTelling.

    I don't see repetition anymore, not like Vicki did it.

    And don't get me started on "space" to breathe and think and actually see what's on the page.

    Anyhoo, I'd better let others get a word in edgewise.

    Take care, again THANK YOU very much for writing this very different contribution to the She-in-ELT series.


  • Jeremy Day says:
    October 02, 2009

    Hi Karenne

    Well done for condensing my huge obessive article into three words: flow, personalisation and practice. That actually sums up my attitude to teaching/writing, as well as the appeal of Vicki's books, really well!

    And yes, I think flashy is a good word to describe some of the books we have nowadays - they look great and that helps them to sell well, but they often feel a bit shallow.

    As I mentioned in my comments to your previous posting, on balance I'm still pro-coursebook. I think for those of us struggling with legal English or other ESP fields, the arrival of coursebooks has made a huge difference to teachers' workloads and boosted our confidence that we're teaching something vaguely accurate, useful and systematic - at least compared to the home-made courses we used to use before.

    In other words, it's probably a case of resenting the coursebooks we've got, but missing them if we didn't have anything at all.

    But of course there are coursebooks and there are coursebooks. BObjs and BOpps are/were definitely in a class of their own.



  • Heike Philp says:
    October 04, 2009

    Very nice to read this article about Vicki.

    She deserves our praise about the books and she is a remarkable woman too.

    During the Virtual Round Table which we did with Vicki in June this year, I learned to admire her openess to technical experimentation, her naturalness and her great sense of humour.

    Quite unique how she used the opportunity of this learning conversation with teachers who use or used her books in class to inquire from them what could have or should have been done or changed.

    A truly heartwarming experience that was.

    Kudos to Vicki for being so open for Internet communication technologies and you can find her on twitter too @vickihollett.

    Rgds Heike

    October 04, 2009

    Thank you Heike - I very much enjoyed your round table with Vicki - it was a great opportunity for us to ask her questions and yes, she is a very warm and giving teacher, teacher-trainer and materials author! I am very much looking forward to her new books - but don't tell my dogme peers. ;-)


  • vicki hollett says:
    October 23, 2009

    Jeremy and Cristina,
    Please forgive me for taking me so long to respond publically to this piece. I hate handing over hasty copy. I totally understood where Vale was coming from last week when she said how speechless she felt. And Vale, please forgive me for stealing your words here but it made me feel like melted chocolate. It's the perfect description. It was so surprising and flattering and I’m awestruck by the company I’m keeping – so much so that it’s difficult to respond.
    There are some things I’d like to say about ‘she-in-elt’: Aside from enjoying learning about inspiring educators in the different postings as a reader, I feel I have a rather unique perspective on this series. I have both written for it and then been honoured. Both experiences have been very special.
    When I was writing about Cristina Whitecross, I had help from friends, colleagues and even her kids to check facts and find photos. It wasn’t just me Cristina inspired, so when I told folks what I wanted to do I found they were tripping over to help. One of her friends commented, ‘I’ve always thought people should read their obituaries before they die’. Thankfully Cristina is full of life, but I understood his sentiment. Too often, we don’t get the chance to write about people who are dear to us until it’s too late. Being given the opportunity to say a public thank you is a very warm experience.
    Cristina had no idea of the conspiracy afoot, and she was led to the posting believing she was following a link to ELT Journal work. (Thank you Keith) I know she was astonished and also very touched. But I don’t think I fully understood how she must have felt until I found myself linking to the piece above. And this is where I struggle for words again.
    Jeremy, I sometimes think writing a book is rather like giving birth to a baby. And as any parent knows, there are few things more deeply heartwarming than hearing praise for their kids. For someone I don’t know to take so much time and trouble to write such kind words – well, I’m still dumbstruck. Many other folks (including Cristina, other editors, students, colleagues and friends) helped me writing those books, but I’m sure you already know that as a writer yourself. We’ve never met face to face but I look forward to thanking you in person for your generosity.
    And Heike thank you for your kind words also. The virtual round table was a pleasure and thank you so much for your expert guidance to this newbie.
    Karenne – I’m reminded of studies where they have found strong links between feelings of gratitude and feelings of happiness. In this series, you have given us the opportunity to both express and receive appreciation. That’s a wonderful gift. I really don’t wanna do any guys down here, but may shes-in-ELT rise. I think generously sharing ideas and thoughts is the most powerful way we have to ensure that happens and thank you for carving this unique path.

    October 23, 2009

    And now I too feel like melted chocolate, Vicki ;-) it was a real pleasure masterminding this with Jeremy: we're both deeply indebted and grateful for your work in ELT.

    Oh boy, I just read through my last line: all a bit American, isn't it?

    ;-) ya gotta love those yanks for teaching us how to be nice to each other... I smell a new post for you to write LOL!


  • Jeremy Day says:
    October 23, 2009

    Melted chocolate? It's all getting a bit girly round here ... bah, humbug.

    But it's fantastic to read this, Vicki. Your kind words make it all feel worthwhile. (You wouldn't believe how many people I asked to get hold of a copy of your books. Like me, about a dozen [literally] people claimed to have a copy in a box in the cellar, but which wasn't there when they checked. I had half of Warsaw rummaging through boxes before I finally gave up and bought a well-thumbed copy of BOpps from a dusty old bookshop.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, Vicki. Thanks again ... I don't feel like melted chocolate, but it's a nice idea!


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