Monthly Archives: November 2011

#Dogme: Covering Core Business English Using an ‘Unplugged’ Approach

One of the criticisms of heavily student-centered approaches such as dogme is that it is hard to ensure that ‘core language’ is covered. A lot of teachers think that if they don’t have a good Business English coursebook telling them what words to teach or if they don’t present students with a list of business vocabulary at the beginning of the course then they run the risk of not covering these key items at all.

Now, I am a firm believer that students should learn certain ‘core’ language (i.e. the most commonly used vocabulary, expression and grammar tenses). But I also believe that it is preferable to learn these words primarily through genuine communication and meaning-focused exchanges. There is no better way help students learn and be able to use core language items than by actually getting them to talk about their company, their jobs, their projects and their every day responsibilities.

Of course, I don’t have any long-term scientific research to support this claim, but I do have my experience. Below is  a list language items that were covered in a recent 20-hour BE course that I taught. The students were a B2-level. These items all emerged naturally in discussions, role-plays and other speaking activities. As the students communicated with each other and with me about topics that are important to them, I provided feedback, correction, and langauge support to help them get their message across. Students kept detailed notes of all of these items (and others) on their own, and at the end of the course, I provided the students with a final list of the most important language we covered in the course, or a sort of retrospective syllabus.

Below is the some of the language that came up:

Phrasal  verbs

  • To catch up on
  • To break down into segments, categories, etc.
  • To lay s.o. off
  • To branch out
  • To come up (i.e. “Something has come up”)
  • To bring forward (a meeting, an event)
  • To account for
  • To run out of
  • To run into a problem
  • To back s.o. up
  • To factor in
  • To fill s.o. in on
  • To find out

Vocabulary items

  • A trade fair
  • A venue
  • To hire s.o.
  • A former co-worker
  • To resume
  • To summarize
  • An accurate forecast
  • To miss a deadline
  • To meet a deadline
  • To lack
  • A policy
  • To go over budget
  • To stay within budget
  • To attend (an event, a meeting, etc).
  • To set (an agenda, a timeline, etc.)
  • To draft a proposal, an offer
  • To get out of university, engineering school, etc.
  • To keep track of
  • Early-September, mid-September, late-September.
  • To go out for dinner, lunch, coffee etc.
  • To have s.o. over for dinner, lunch, coffee, etc.
  • To prevent s.o. from doing something vs. to warn s.o. about doing
  • Attendees

Common mistakes corrected

  • “I succeeded my objectives” > I reached my objectives
  • “A global picture of our customers” > an overall picture
  • “Ernst and Young is the 1st consultancy group…” > Is the number one consultancy group in terms of…
  • “The good person” > the right person
  • “I’m not at all agree” > I don’t agree at all.
  • “Could you confirm me the date?” > Could you confirm the date?
  • “The juridic department” > the legal department

Verb tenses

  • Present simple and the present continuous
  • Present perfect simple, present perfect continuous
  • The future with: ‘will’, ‘going to’, present continuous, plan to, hope to, to be likely to, etc.
  • Transitive and intransitive verbs

Expressions, phrases and language chunks

  • We’re on the right track
  • Actually, no thanks.
  • So if I’ve understood you correctly, ….
  • So what you’re saying is…
  • What I mean is…
  • Good point.
  • I see you’re point, but…
  • I see what you’re saying…/ I see what you mean.
  • We’re (a bit, 2 days, 2 weeks) behind schedule
  • If my memory serves me well/ If I remember correctly …
  • Ok, change of plans, ….
  • We’re getting off track
  • Time is up.
  • I’m keeping an eye on the situation.
  • I have to get the go-ahead/the green light, from management
  • Do you want to grab a coffee?
  • Do you mind if I take this (call)?

Looking back at this list (and other lists) of language covered in my lessons I am reassured that the speaking activities in my classes are so much more than just conversational fluency practice. Rather, they are real communicative exchanges with Business professionals about their jobs that allow them to practice their speaking skills while at the same time covering important business vocabulary, expressions and grammar.


#Classroom Management: The Perfect Board Layout #ELT

About 8 months ago, I was hired in-house to work as a Business English trainer for a telecommunications firm in Paris. This meant that after 4 years of teaching for different clients in different offices around the city, I finally got to settle in to a classroom. My classroom. This, in turn, meant that I could finally start thinking about what kind of equipment I wanted my classroom to have. I’ve also been able to test different board layouts and, through trial and error, find the one that works best for me.

The above picture is it. I’ve got a flip chart on the left and on the right, an erasable white board in the middle, and a wall-mounted video projector that projects on to the white board.

The flip chart on the right is for the agenda of the day and for the homework. In the beginning of the lesson I put up the different activities that I’d like to work on. As the class goes on, I write up the homework little by little as we go through the different activities and as different language points emerge. Pretty basic really. This lets the students know what we’ll be working on (which I believe is important, not just for language learners, but for any participant in any meeting) and also shows the students that I have a plan.

I use the flip chart on the left to write up vocabulary words and expressions that ermerge throughout the class.  These words stay up on the board the whole class and they are the words that I want the students to really focus on, take home, and learn for the next lesson. When the first sheet of paper is full, I take it down and tape it up on the wall. This is essential to my classroom because it gives importance to language that comes up spontaneously in the classroom, students’ emergent language. By keeping it up on the board (and not erasing it after 5 minutes because I need board space) I’m validating and underlining its worth and utility for the students.

While the flip charts on the sides are central to the classroom layout, its the white board in the middle is probably the most important part of the equation. I use the white board for all the things teachers use white boards for: drawing diagrams and pictures, writing up new words, teaching grammar points, etc. However, I also use it and the projector simultaneously.  For example in the picutre above, I have scanned a grammar activity and projected it up on the board, allowing me to interact with the grammar activity and facilitate its use. We can correct it  together, I can underline words, use different colors and highlight key points. Without this white board/projector combination, having everyone work from the same document becomes much more difficult and intense. Every 10 or 20 seconds you have to say things like “ok, now look at the 3rd example….is everyone looking at the 3rd example”? It’s very tiring for both teacher and student and can drag the momemtum of a lesson to a halt.  Being able write directly on the document makes things go a lot faster and allows the teacher to point things out that would be too difficult to explain if all the students were looking at their own sheets of paper. Of course, with a computer hooked up, I also use the projector to watch videos, put up pictures and do everything that you can use a computer for in the classroom. I can use the board in a different way nearly for every activity.

I have found that this layout and approach resulted in much higher attention and participation levels from my students as well as more effecient language learning.

If you get the chance, try it!

#Dogme in #ELT: How to Mix Spontaneity and Structure in the Classroom using Speaking Frameworks

At a recent Q&A session with Luke Meddings at the TESOL France colloquium, one of the participants mentioned that in Germany students might not be comfortable with a dogme-heavy approach because of their beliefs about good language teachers. She mentioned that many German students expect lessons to have a clear structure that reflects the effort that the teacher has put into planning the lesson. She felt like she would lose the student’s respect in a open dogme-style discussion where students have as much influence on the direction of the lesson as the teacher.

This is an issue that teachers around the world have to deal with and which has been around since the advent of the ‘communicative’ approach and other student-centered methods. So how much room should be left for communication? How much should the student be allowed or asked to participate in the direction of a lesson? Of a course? My answer has always differed depending on contexts and the beliefs of the learners that I’m teaching at the moment. However, when I am teaching students that have a clear preference for visibily structured lessons, I still make sure there is also a lot of room for spontaneous, meaning-focused communication. How do I mix structure and spontaneity? Speaking frameworks.

Speaking frameworks allow enough room for the student to communicate their own ideas in a meaningful way yet they also help them structure their discourse. Here is an example of a speaking framework that I used in a recent half-day workshop on presenting a new project:

Speaking Framework : Presenting a New Project

The aim of the project is to:


The proposed timeline of the project is:


The obstacles are:


What I need from the different players is:




– Ask the students to think of a real project or innovation in their company or department that they are currently working on or that they are planning on putting in place in the near future. Actually wait for the students to think. Let them think about a real example. Everyone should be able to think of something unless the company is totally inert (in which case doing a class on projects and innovations is probably not appropriate in the first place).

– Pass out the speaking framework to the students and ask them to make a few notes in each of the sections. Walk around and make sure they are actually taking notes. If they’re not taking notes, ask questions to students individually: why is the company carrying out this project? Who’s in charge? What is the goal of the project? When if the first milestone? When is the final deadline? How will you measure success? This should get them writing.

– Once everyone has their notes, depending on the size of the class, you can either ask them to discuss in pairs or you can discuss as a group. Each person should use their notes to explain the project or innovation that they chose.

– You as the teacher should then provide feedback on essential vocabulary and grammar errors. Remember, stretch their language! Even if something they say in totally correct and clear show them a different way to say it!


This type of framework allows the students to talk about their real business issues while at the same time giving them the structure and language feedback they were thirsty for when they signed up for your classes.

Culture in the Classroom:Bethany Cagnol interviews David A. Hill

TESOL France President Bethany Cagnol interviews David A. Hill on culture in ELT, how to use Pink Floyd in the classroom and the TESOL France open mic night. Great stuff.

My Interview with Simon Greenall

Using Humour in the Classroom: My Interview with Geoff Tranter, ELT’s Funny Man!

Task-Based Learning, Spontaneous Tasks and the ‘Space to Mean’

My Master’s dissertation looked at how TBLT could be best adapted and implemented in Business English contexts, and more particularly one-to-one Business English contexts. I devised 4 task-based frameworks that I hypothesized would be successful adaptations of TBLT for this context. I carried the study out over a 6-month period with my own students. Over this time an interesting thing happened. I started to notice that anything could be turned into a ‘task’ in the classroom. A phone call that interrupted our lesson could be used to to get the student to summarize the problems they are having with that particular client; a student arriving late for class could be used to have them summarize their commute to work. I had always used these opportunities in class to start friendly conversations, but I had never looked at them as potential material for ‘spontaneous tasks’. And that is what I began calling them, Spontaneous Tasks(STs). These tasks are not planned by teachers; they come about organically through teacher-student exchange.  Picking up on student interest for a particular subject the teacher decides to turn what might otherwise be a brief conversational exchange into a target task. Here are a few examples of teacher-initiated spontaneous tasks that took place during my research:






Sales Manager

Compare and Contrast

After coming back from visiting two big clients, he was asked to choose three key indicators and to compare and contrast the two clients according to those variables.


After our class being interrupted by a phone call on the company’s new pricing policy, he was asked to do a quick presentation of this policy.


HR Director


After saying that he recently wrote an important email in English, he was asked to explain the background and summarize the content of the email.

However, during my study I quickly came to realize that STs can also be student-initiated; the student defines the outcome of the task. In these cases, the student takes the reins of the lesson, making it known that he/she wants to work towards a particular outcome: telling a story, working on an email that they had to send later that day, or simply asking me questions about life in the United States. Here are a few examples of student-initiated STs:






Human Resources Director

Writing email

The student had a difficult email to write. She asked to work on it, with the teacher providing feedback.

Preparing a short presentation

The student received notice that she would have to go on a business trip shortly and make a presentation. The student asked to prepare the presentation with the teacher.


Licensing Manager

Telling a story

The student spontaneously started telling a story that took place during a recent marketing event.


Fund Manager

Information gap

The student spontaneously asked the teacher about a current event that had just happened in the United States. The student asked a number of questions, asked for clarification and gave his own opinion on the subject.

I could always feel during the lessons that students loved these types of exercises and as I went about collecting student satisfaction data from my students it became clear that these STs were actually some of the most popular tasks that we had worked on.  Students mentioned feeling more confidence and that they had the impression of truly ‘interacting’ with the language. I’ve been a spontaneous task convert every since.

But are STs really tasks?

Tasks are defined as learning endeavors with the following characteristics: a primary focus on meaning, expression of students’ ‘own meanings or ideas’, a non-linguistic outcome and a relation to the real world’.  Willis and Willis (2007) argue that the ‘taskness’ of an activity can be defined using the following questions:

  1. Does the activity engage the learner’s interest?
  2. Is there a primary focus on meaning?
  3. Is there an outcome?
  4. Is success judged in terms of outcome?
  5. Is completion a priority?
  6. Does the activity relate to real world activities?

STs certainly fit all these criteria. The students often choose the subject matter of the task; there is therefore student interest. Teacher and student exchange information or opinions directly related to the student’s life or job; there is therefore a primary focus on meaning, an outcome and a direct relation to real world activities. The students generally want to complete the exchange and make themselves understood; success is therefore judged in terms of outcome and completion is clearly a priority. So yes! STs are indeed tasks by almost any measure.

Spontaneous Tasks: Moving from ‘Need to Mean’ to ‘Space to Mean’

Samuda (2001) argues that a key feature of tasks is that they “activate the learner’s need to mean”, that is to say, their need to create meaning and to communicate. What my findings about STs made clearer to me is that the ‘need to mean’ often comes about organically. In fact, rather than focusing solely on creating this need to mean, teachers should  focus on allowing students the space to mean. Providing the space to mean implies giving importance to students’ interests and concerns by transforming them into teacher-initiated STs.  It also implies giving students the chance to set task outcomes themselves through student-initiated STs and accepting these as valid tasks, not simply as distractions.  Based on the experience from my MA research and nearly all my lessons since, it seems that students whole-heartedly embrace this opportunity to fill the communicative ‘space’ given to them.

Also, turning student ideas, interests and concerns into tasks gives importance to and shows attentiveness toward the student. It helps build a truly student-centered, meaning-focused classroom. It also helps build a close working relationship between student and teacher. It also improves learner autonomy. After accepting these student-originated tasks once or twice, the students come to realize that their thoughts, goals, and personal experiences are central to the class, not just interruptions of the teacher’s lesson plan.

Finally, ignoring these opportunities is simply counter-productive. When a student has a particular subject on his/her mind or needs help with a particular professional task, brushing these concerns aside not only misses out on an opportunity to build a student-teacher partnership, but also, the student may simply lose motivation altogether. Often instead of forging on with another task that you, the teacher, had in mind, listening to and being attentive to the students’ needs and creating a ST can be much more motivating and beneficial for the student.

Of course there are downsides to such an approach. First, the spontaneity of these tasks might not please all learner profiles and might go against their beliefs about language learning. Indeed, STs are generally not unanimously popular with students. The reasons for this would necessitate further research, but it may have something to do with learner beliefs about language learning and teacher roles.  Furthermore, even if students enjoy these tasks, it is unknown if they provide optimal learning conditions. The scaffolding provided to students in the form of texts, listening extracts and other materials cannot materialize as spontaneously as the desire to exchange meanings. On the other hand, the one-to-one context does make other forms of scaffolding, such as incidental feedback and correction, more practical.

So, when using a TB learning approach don’t limit yourself to pre-planned task sequences, be spontaneous!