The future of business English trainers

I’m thinking about professional development, where the next years will take me. At the moment there is a lot of work to prepare for a few compact seminars, and more translation work for a client, so I’m not exactly unemployed. Still, having gone through the Trinity DipTESOL (still have to write up two papers, but apart from that I’m done!) and seeing my teacher colleagues working at schools makes me wonder: Should I go back to fulltime teaching? Try to become a DOS (director of studies)? Keep up my current motley collection of jobs? Or am I better at other things that I need to focus on to develop?

Transferable skills are what everyone talks about in job qualifications. So what transferable skills has an English trainer like me acquired in 13-14 years of experience? I can teach, I can write (in two languages), I can translate. But many newcomers compete for those very same jobs. I’d love nothing more than to work in a close-knit team, and am still hoping that I will find one that will have me.

One USP is my ability to put it all together for specific clients, e.g. for one group, designing a syllabus, preparing and writing materials, correcting and coaching written work, providing coaching before presentations, even setting up connected tech support. Or, for another client: translating presentations, knowing what language level to pitch the translation at so my client can actually give the presentation, understanding intercultural issues as a trainer to modulate the language, and then coaching in preparation for the meetings and presentations. The key (at least for me) is to develop those good client relationships and to give them more and more sophisticated services, rather than expanding my client base just for the sake of expansion. In fact, what I do has turned more and more into language consulting.

Scouting around, thinking about what might be around the next corner, I just watched James Schofield’s interview at last year’s BESIG. He’s one of the most inspiring trainers out there, a prolific writer (and a really good one), a teacher trainer who has held many sessions at BESIG and also at MELTA in Munich, and here he talks about a typical skill, namely the ability to manage groups and facilitate meetings. This seems to be an area that he has been developing, and it sounds very interesting indeed.

Are you thinking about your own professional development? How do you answer this question: “Where do your see yourself in 5 years?”

James Schofield
Summertown Readers: Ekaterina, Peril in Venice, Room Service, Double Trouble
Business Spotlight short stories (ongoing)
Course: Double Dealing (with Evan Frendo, Summertown, 2004-2006)
Course: Compass Langenscheidt (with others)
Course: Collins English for Business. Speaking (with Anna Osborn 2011); coming in 2012: Workplace English 1&2

Aki Kaurismaki: Le Havre

What a beautiful film. A social fairytale about a shoeshiner, his wife and friends in le Havre, and a refugee who happens into their midst. Breathtaking. Sidesplitting. Gentle. Melancholy. True. The news is all bad, but human nature? Slow down, and there is room for hope.

When we came out of the cinema I couldn’t remember which language the film had been in. It was so immediate. Kaurismäki says this is the first installment in a trilogy about life in port cities, and he plans to make follow-ups in Spain and Germany, using the local languages. Very fitting, the director’s linguistic openness, given the nature of habors. The wonderful title song is actually in English. The refrain goes: “Love the sea and you will always be a matelot.”

There’s a micro subplot involving Little Bob and a lady. Little Bob! Never heard of him, but the guy rocks. His band gives a benefit concert in the film:

Masson, Christine (2011). “Interview with Aki Kaurismäki”. English press kit Le Havre. Retrieved 2011-05-21.

Compare and contrast

Anne at Lago di LedroSteiff bear in Giengen

Thanks Helmut.

There’s a personal story that goes with this, as you can well imagine. My first present from my husband was a…

Blog challenge! Please join in and add two similar but different pictures to your blog!
Brad Patterson
had the nice idea after I’d posted this.
Looking forward to seeing your pictures.
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Limericks and the life of an English teacher

Stan Carey of the Sentence First blog and the MacMillan blog and sundry other lingusitic habitats is holding a limerick competition – yeah! – and there are some really great ones there, don’t miss them. Deadline: September 21st.

My contributions are a bit dour for limericks, but such is the life of an English teacher:

Krashen wrote all about acquisition
being outside the realm of tuition
which made me morose
and take a whole course
which was fine, but I’m still no magician.

There can never be any consensus
Whether German will lull English senses
Russell Smith got it right
Spoken softly by night
by a beauty it surely mends fences.

“Until Friday,” she’d said, so I queried
“You’ll be writing all week?!” I was worried.
“No, I’ll do it on Thursday,
you’ll have it on Friday.”
“By Friday, then, fine.” Out I hurried.

Grammar Guru: is to or has to?

Newspapers like the New York Times are reporting that Obama wants to introduce $1.5 trillion in new taxes to help reduce the country’s debt. Combined with his new $450 billion stimulus plan, he is taking a more populist approach to confronting the nation’s economic problems. He wants to call it the “Buffett Rule” for Warren Buffett, who complains that Congress is “coddling billionaires” like him.

Obama to seek new tax rate
(Washington Post news video)

“President Barack Obama is expected to seek a new base tax rate for the wealthy to ensure that millionaires pay at least at the same percentage as middle income taxpayers. The proposal will be officially unveiled on Monday. (Sept. 18)”

The headline refers to Obama’s plan to do something. So which word is missing here, is or has?

Obama _________to seek a new tax rate

Finish your partner’s sentences

I was just on Facebook to Stew when I stumbled across a video… and bingo, here’s a nice task for you learners: Tell a story about something two of you did together. OK, you don’t really have to have done this, ok? You can make it up – invent it. So: It should be a long event with lots of interesting details. Put the details on cards. Sort them into the sequence they “happened in”. Then tell your story. But the rule is: You’re not allowed to complete any sentence, your partner has to pick up and finish it for you. Then he or she continues the story, and you finish the sentence, back and forth.

Watch the first minute of Kermit and Fozzie doing just that here:

Discussion: How do you feel about completing your partner’s sentences, and about your partner completing yours? Does it feel like you are interrupting each other? Do you mind it when others complete your sentences for you in real life? What does it depend on?

Handling pairwork: How do you sort things out when you are not happy with your partner’s part of the story? Language tip: “Well, what actually happened was that we…” “But then…”

You can do this exercise in writing, too, of course: You start writing a story about the two of you, and your partner has to continue.

Have fun!

Job interview

For the Trinity assessed lesson, my class did job interviews. I can warmly recommend the topic to other teachers who have to do a Trinity diploma or DELTA assessed lesson, especially if your class is as motivated as ours was, and job interviews are in fact on their agenda. It obviously helps to choose a topic your students really do want to talk about. The main content should be authentic and matter to your learners, yet be packaged playfully, so noone gets bogged down in their own immediate agenda. Thank you, dear class, for being so wonderful and lovely!!


This was the third lesson in a series on job applications. The group started by thinking about the exact definition of 12 given words that you can use to describe your strengths (and weaknesses). Since some of them are similar in Spanish, and others are very different and can easily be confused, the class spent quite some time exploring their meanings, and applying them to themselves.

  • supportive… means I am helpful when there are problems. — de apoyo!
  • friendly… means I am nice and helpful. — amistoso!
  • focused… means I am very clear about what I am doing.  — centrado!
  • flexible… means I can make changes as needed. — flexible
  • creative… means I have many ideas.  — creativo
  • organized… means I plan very carefully.  — organizado
  • responsible… means I do the right thing. — responsable
  • careful… means I think about what I am doing so I don’t do anything wrong.  — cuidadoso
  • technical… means I understand technology.  — tecnico
  • experienced… means that I have done something a lot.  — exprimentado!
  • reliable… means that I will do what you expect.  — fiable!
  • successful… means things are going very well for me. — exitoso!

One of the most important things I learned in the assessed teaching practice, through somewhat painful trial and error and very helpful feedback from Mark McKinnon, was to break down new content into individual stages. So, for example, I didn’t have the learners focus on the spoken words until they had worked out the meaning in groups. I didn’t ask them to tell or read me the answers, because that would have meant having them say the words, and I would have either let their pronunciation errors pass, or would have had to correct them, distracting everyone from the area we were focussing on. Only after everyone had the correct words and definitions lined up did we begin to work on pronunciation.

I only took this approach after having done a simlar exercise differently in a disasterous earlier lesson, where I’d had them do a gap fill and then read off answers, which lead to discussions about meaning and pronunciation drills all mixed up with questions about where we were on the page, creating a huge mess of an activity which completely tore apart a lesson which on paper had looked balanced and promising. So: these details are important!

This was fascinating to me. I learn very differently than many of my students.  I tend to set up tasks based on my natural inclination to synthesize information very quickly rather than processing it analytically, and prefer short general explanations that don’t break things down over the more extensive and particular explanations that many learners prefer, but which I find positively irritating when I am subjected to them. So following my own preferences over the years means I haven’t been giving learners with a less global/ more particular and less synthesizing/more analytical approach quite the information they needed to do their tasks well. Realizing this blind spot in my knowledge of learning preferences and exploring similar issues goes far beyond just being sure to cater to visual or kinesthetic learners. This broader approach to self-reflection on language learning styles was introduced to me by Patricia Franco using Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning, and it has made me turn my teaching inside out. The Strategy Inventory makes a lot of sense to me as a reflective tool and I hope to incorporate it consciously into my new courses. I’ve found a very extensive learner questionnaire by Oxford, Cohen and Chi that can be used as is to jump-start a deiscussion with learners, and help profile their preferences from the very beginning of a course: Learning Style Survey.

In a second step we did a very short review of question forms. I had anticipated that this would not work well, as this was a mixed level class with a variety of different approaches to studying grammar, so I declared this a sub-aim to the communicative aim, and wrote that I wasn’t aiming for accuracy, but for fluency. The question sorting part went well, but question formulation was something that only the more advanced learners could do on their own, and in fact a number of them did do it while the others were still working on the sorting activity. So when time ran out, I decided to drop the formulation activity and go straight to the role play. If I had to do it again, I’d declare the formulation part to be a flexible addition for the advanced learners to do on their own, and leave it at that.

The stronger learners supported the weaker ones throughout this course, which Patricia and I encouraged and relied on. The communicative activity that got the participants to speak English extensively and try out the new words and use the questions was the interview itself. I had prepared a cheat sheet with questions for them to pick and choose from, and they did really well, and interviewed away.  This setup for role play is something I learned from Heather Lyle. As for the seating arrangements, I had the learners move their chairs and sit in two formal rows facing each other, so they actually had to move physically into the role, which I think makes all the difference in getting into the mindset. After round one they switched partners and played the other role, balancing out the communicative heart of the lesson.

I had prepared a presentation anticipating a few areas I thought they’d have problems with, some of which did come up, so I could project those selected slides onto the board and we could work around the gaps and spaces to add emergent language. This is low tech, just a Powerpoint and a normal whiteboard. An IWB would be a cooler solution. In any case the projected images were a better solution than writing up all of the language that came up on the board, especially with these very visual learners. 60 minutes are such a short timespan to work with, and just understanding them when they were speaking and noting down emergent language was a challenge, let alone analyzing it and getting it onto the board in a comprehensible and didactically valuable way. It was more feasible to select and preempt areas they’d had trouble with just the lesson before, things I just knew would come up. Predicting errors and language problems in teaching learners whose L1 I don’t speak was really the hardest part of the entire course for me.  German learners I can teach on the spot, but not Catalan and Spanish speakers. GIven how lovely I found the country, I’ve decided that learning Spanish is definitely on my agenda!

The phonology bit, focussing on word stress, went fine. They had learned the notation using capital letters with Patricia the day before, and they had given us feedback that they actually really liked any and all drilling we did.  In hindsight, I should have added some work on /aɪ/ to the mix for “reliable” /rɪˈlaɪəb(ə)l/, which Spanish speakers have a great deal of trouble with.

Just to clarify: This is certainly not the way I have normally taught. I’d have poopooed this degree of scaffolding as “spoonfeeding”. Patricia and I had very interesting conversations about other kinds of lessons and learner training with analytical and deep end components that may be more effective in paving the way for greater learner autonomy over the duration of a course and in the long run. Still, I see staging in increments, followed by the communicative heart, as a very valuable teaching model because it redirects my attention towards what the learners can process on their own in a single lesson. That’s in fact very much a part of what I wanted to learn in this course. So I’ll be experimenting with it in “real life”.

Handout: Job interviews
Job interview roleplay
Presentation job interviews

Teaching practice documentation is required for each assessed lesson.