I was therefore very excited about the fact to discover that I could conduct a lesson purely by using the students as my resource. I was even more excited when I realized that without a prescribed coursebook, we were better able to focus on our students’ needs, interests and motivations and quickly became a convert to what I saw as a cutting edge method of teaching.
But when I started speaking to my Business English teaching colleagues, many of them simply said, “There’s nothing new about this. We’ve been doing this in our Business English classes for decades.”
When I became a Business English teacher, I realize why the Business English department in my school had chosen a ‘no-prescribed-coursebook’ policy. Although all the students had come to learn so-called Business English, the only constant was that they needed English for work. But while one learner was in sales and needed to negotiate prices in English with clients in East Asia, another was an engineer who needed English to discuss his technical project work with his counterparts around the world.
The Business English teacher thus has to conduct a detailed needs analysis before every course, and tailor the course to fit each student’s needs. As there are no ‘one-size-fits-all’ Business English coursebooks, the proficient Business English teacher often finds him/herself using the students as the resource. Even when materials are used, they are picked and chosen carefully to fit the students’ needs and tend to be authentic texts like news feeds, blogposts, TED talks, and the like. The activities and tasks often revolve around the student and not the materials.
Why should this be any different in General English classes? After all, there is nothing general about ‘General English’. We know we can’t learn all the words in a language. And even if we could, we wouldn’t waste our time doing it. There is simply no need for a fizzy drink sales person to learn the technical jargon used in astronomy (unless that’s his secret hobby).
Depending on our needs and motivations for learning English, English will act as a tool for our communication in different communities of practice. With the lingua franca status of English in the world today, the learning of English will no longer be simply to speak to native speakers and assimilate into native speaker communities. English is now learnt to fulfill specific needs rather than studying for the sake of studying.
Here are some of my students’ motivations for learning English:
- To take part in gaming communities e.g. Playing Call of Duty online with a global gaming community.
- To understand English language films and songs.
- To understand information on the internet that is written in English.
- To do a university course where English is the medium of instruction.
- To communicate to other non-native speakers in business and trade.
- To travel the world.
- To understand research shared by an international community of academics.
It is not only in Business English where one size no longer fits all. And we can’t always find the exact coursebook that fulfills all of our learners’ needs.
So what tips can we learn from our Business English colleagues?
What activities and tasks can we pinch and adapt to our learners?
Here are some ideas:
- Role-play a job interview.
- On the first day of the course, get students to interview you for the job of their teacher. This gives the students a chance to get to know you, your skills and your beliefs and attitudes to English language learning.
- On the first day of the course, interview the students for a place in their class. This gives the students a chance tell you about their needs, motivations and interests, and allows the class to clarify class rules, etc.
- Role-play a talkshow where students have to talk about specified areas of interests.
- Mingle activities where students simulate a party where they meet for the first time.
- Role-play situations where students need to make small talk in English: e.g. at the bus-stop in the UK waiting for a bus; queuing for the new iPhone at the London Apple Store; speaking to an international colleague on the phone.
- Allow students to talk about what they did the day before and let that conversation run by getting other students to ask questions.
- Set up a negotiation where students role-play and negotiate: their rent, the price of a rug, their salaries, the investment they are looking for, the conditions of sale of a bulk sale they are closing, etc. The possibilities are endless.
- Students can also have real-life negotiations that can have real-life consequences: their English syllabus, where to go after class (as a class), what to talk about in class the next day, when to have their class party, etc.
- Role-play a meeting where students have to organise an office (or class) party or any event.
- As a class, students have to pick their top-ten: e.g. top ten people to invite to join the class, top ten films for learners of English, top ten countries to visit, top ten computer games, top ten apps to download on your smart phone, etc.
- Students brainstorm ideas: e.g. ways to learn vocabulary more effectively, books for the class to read, English songs for the class to learn, etc.
- Look at a company, an organization, or even a celebrity that is in trouble recently. Have students play the roles of high-level employees of the company, organization or celebrity having a meeting about how they can deal with this crisis. And have them conduct a press conference (with half the class playing journalists asking hard questions) to manage the crisis.
- Look at a famous trial or court case e.g. the OJ Simpson case, the Meredith Kercher case, the Steven Avery case. Have students gather information on the cases using the internet, films or TV series (if any) and report back to the class for a debate.
- Look at a product, a company or even a social phenomenon that students are interested in. As homework, get students to use the internet to trace its history, its development and its future plans e.g. Coca Cola, Kit Kat, the Kardashians, rap music, social media, etc. Report back to the class in the form of a presentation.
- Get students to give a 5-10 minute talk about a topic that motivates them. Have the class ask questions.
- Role-play a product launch à la Steve Job’s iPhone launch.
- Have student bring in emails that they have written or received in English. Together, they can read the emails and/or improve on them.
- Have students pick a blogpost on a topic of their interest and read it as a class. Have students comment on it and share the replies with the class.
- Have students write letters to magazines and newspapers, and send them.
- As homework, have students find out about trending topics on the internet and report back to the class.
- Start a class Facebook group for students to use after class. Have students share content with their classmates in the group. Encourage students to continue class discussions on the Facebook page.
- Conduct a class debate with a motion that relates to their interests and needs.
- Create a survey and conduct the survey in class, in school, online, or in the streets.
- Hot-seating: Have a student sit in the ‘hot seat’ in front of the class. For a set time, e.g. 10 minutes, the class can ask him/her any question they choose and the one in the hot seat has to answer.
- Arrange for students to speak to someone relevant to their interests and needs on Skype.
- Have students find articles and video clips that interest them or that specifically addresses their needs. Students bring them to class to share them.
- Simulate a situation of difficulty that students have experienced and consider how they can deal with it differently. e.g. an argument they had with a housemate, a complaint they have to make with a restaurant manager, ending a relationship (a romantic one or a business partnership), etc.
Obviously, none of these ideas are necessarily stand-alone activities or tasks. They can be expanded upon and case studies can become presentations or debates, research done online often can involve communicating with online bloggers and companies, and class negotiations are often meetings as well.
But perhaps by seeing communication skills in terms of the soft skills that are often featured in Business English resource materials, i.e. meetings, negotiations, presentations, social English, interviews, etc., we can be inspired with a range of ideas as to what we can do in a class where its variety of needs and interests go beyond the scope of a regular General English coursebook.
After all, the more ideas and tools we have as teachers, the more empowered we can be to face a classroom without a coursebook as our crutch, and the more we are able to truly tailor a course to fit our learners’ needs and interests.