Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Creative Ideas for Business Writing

(a.k.a. How to make forceful emails and complaint letters enjoyable)

One of the classes that I've recently started teaching is a business writing course. It's a night course that the students take after they have finished working, and, as anyone who has ever worked a full day before going to a night class can attest, energy levels are pretty low at that point.

Unlike some of the material that has been provided for my other courses with this company, the business writing material is BORING. Moreover, there is a higher amount of grammar presentation time and a lower amount of discussion and group work situations created.

Since I'm taking over this course from another teacher, there are only two units left—but those two units are at least 4 weeks of class. My challenge is to find a way to And, from TEFLtastic with Alex Case, I found quite a few resourcesmake the learning of writing a fun process, or the next 4 weeks will be torture for all of us.

Last week (when we were talking about exerting pressure and writing complaints), on the spur of the moment, I changed their homework assignment. Instead of having them read the text and answer questions, they were supposed to email me a complaint about my teaching—fake or real. I've already received one very funny response, and I am looking forward to the rest.

I'm not sure what else to do, though. Here are some ideas I found that seemed appropriate for the situation. I am going to try to incorporate them in my lesson plans, somehow.
  • The National Writing Projects' 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing article had a lot of ideas, including:
    • ask students to “metawrite,” or to reflect on (and write about) writing by researching and examining mistakes (See this article for more info: “On the Use of Metawriting...”);
    • use yourself as a model for writing processes – basically, a think aloud where you show the students your mental process by clearly outlining it in from of them;
    • have the students write to an audience for real purpose instead for a hypothetical purpose, or, in other words, create more authentic situations for their practice writing; and
    • experiment with sentence length by instructing students to make the longest run-on sentence possible, and then, conversely, to fill a page with 4 word sentences.
  • Teach about Grice's maxims (this idea was found in the comments of this blog article). Modern business writing is about being concise and accurate. Keeping in mind the maxims (quantity, manner, relation, and quality) and giving students the language to achieve these maxims will be helpful. Flouting the maxims, however, is where the fun comes in.
  • Break the rules! Speaking of flouting, this suggestion on the TEFL.net forum seemed like it would be fun, as well. Sharon said “Something I do with my students is get them to write the opposite of a good letter. By thinking about everything that's bad, they become more creative. They do this in groups to share ideas. then they all look at each others letters.”
  • And, from TEFLtastic with Alex Case, I found quite a few resources:
I'd love to hear suggestions if anyone reading this has fun or creative ideas for teaching business writing. I'll try to keep you updated on these suggestions when I use them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MiniTube: Solving the Classroom Internet Problem

I don't want to say that Germany is behind the times when it comes to wireless internet access, but, Germany is behind the times when it comes to wireless internet access.

Most of the places that I work have extra outlets (which is good, because I need to plug my old laptop in after 10 minutes). If I'm lucky, the place will have a projector display hook up, which is good, because I like to display notes, etc. if I can. However, nowhere is there a wireless internet connection.

In short, this lack of wireless internet connection means that I cannot show YouTube videos in class. Or, that I COULDN'T. However, I recently discovered MiniTube, a Desktop App that lets you download YouTube videos on to your computer as .mp4 files and then play them later. 

It is a free program for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems, and you can get it here.

Another benefit of downloading the videos (for me) is that I like to keep all of my unit and lesson materials in files for future use. Downloading the videos lets me save the video if it is a major component of my lesson plan, and that way, if for some reason it is unavailable in the future, I will still have it.

Anyway, I thought I would share! Enjoy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lesson Plan: Emailing

In my last post, I talked about using Task Based Language Teaching in Business English. Today, I want to share with you an example of a lesson I did with my German students of Business English (level B1). The lesson was about emailing.
(Yes, Emoticons did come up in the lesson)

Step 1: Schema Building:
I started by talking (in English) about German emails. We discussed issues like
  • How are they written? What is the format?
  • What common phrases do you use? What are the greetings? etc.
  • What is good etiquette? What is polite? What is rude?

The idea here is to elicit key vocabulary about emails, including (but not limited to): Greeting, Introduction, Body, Conclusion, Salutation, Sender, Recipient, Reply, etc., as well as the translation of their common forms for these items. During the discussion, I wrote the information and the terms on one side of a digital note sheet that was projected onto the wall.

Step 2: Controlled Practice
Next, I brought out a series of emails printed on paper. These were emails that were written to me and emails that were written by me, from a variety of settings (both business and casual) and from a variety of people, including friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and people I didn't know. [Side note: It would probably work better to print the emails it so that you can still see the subject line and the email addresses, but that is not as important. I also shortened the emails to the relevant parts only so that the activity would be quicker, as some of the emails were quite lengthy.]

I gave each group several (at least 3) of the emails. Their task was to identify phrases, formats, or things that are different in the English emails than in the German Emails. It's a good idea to make sure that they used English in the group work, because it seems natural to revert to the NL when tasks are information based rather than linguistic based. The students wrote on the emails, underlining and circling items that they found. As we discussed the emails, and I wrote the information on the other side of the note sheet (for comparison with the German).

I also had them arrange the emails from the ones that they thought were the most formal to the ones they thought were the least formal, and then to explain their choices.

Step 3: Authentic listening practice
After the discussion, we watched 2 YouTube videos that I had chosen. Both were intended for native English speakers (i.e., they weren't English teaching videos). This is important to me because I want the students to get a feel for what real English sounds like, not just what teacher language sounds like. 

The first video was a email guide, probably for people who didn't know how to use email at all.


My students are proficient in email, but the task here was for them to write down new words, interesting ideas, or things that they learned. It would be better to have some more focused questions for the discussion, but I didn't. During the video, I paused to let them discuss and write down notes. I also skipped a big chunk in the middle about revising emails because it was really boring and not relevant. We discussed their responses at the end of this video.

The second video was about email etiquette. It was shorter and funnier, and the person in the video also spoke a lot faster.

After, we talked about the questions they had (i.e., “What is Snail Mail?”), and then about the interesting content. They didn't remember some of the content, but when I mentioned how I learned something from the video, too, it reminded them and sparked a little more conversation.

Step 4: Focus on linguistic elements
The linguistic focus for the lesson was a review of the uses of the various present tenses (simple present, present progressive, present perfect) but we also ended up reviewing the simple past. The rationale behind this choice is that, not only do the tenses need to be reviewed, but that emails generally feature a lot of these tenses. This section didn't connect as well as another grammar point could have, but you have to work with your students' specific needs.

I wrote the three present tense forms (I work, I am working, I have worked) on the board and at the beginning, I mentioned their technical grammar tense names once in the beginning, but after that, I focused on their use. We discussed by comparing two forms at a time (i.e., what is the difference between “I work” and “I am working”). After that, we did a go-around-the-room exercise conjugating different verbs for different circumstances.

Step 5: Provide freer practice
I split the class into two groups, and each group got a prompt.
  • Prompt 1: You work at company that makes advertisements. You want to make an advertisement for a big toy company. Email the marketing director (you don't know his name) and see if he is interested in working with your company.
  • Prompt 2: Yesterday, there was a meeting in your company. You went to the meeting, but you are a little confused. You have some questions about what happened in the meeting. Email your co-worker (the meeting leader) to ask for more information.
Each group wrote an email based on the prompt. I gave them about 5-10 minutes, and then they “emailed” their paper to the other team. The other team then responded to the “email”. I saw that they were a little confused in the response, so I also had them switch prompts so that they knew why the original email was written. This activity probably needs more time and it also needs very simple prompts.

Step 6: Introduce the pedagogical task (Homework)
The last step was homework for the week. I split the group into partners, and I handed each person an A or B task, and then briefly explained what was going to happen. Basically, there must be at least 4 emails total (2 from each person). Person A must initiate a meeting, person B must reply and ask for a copy of the meeting agenda. The students are supposed to print out the entire email chain and then we will review them in class next week.

Here are the task assignments: (2 people, 1 group AB; 3 people, 1 group ABC; 4 people, 2 groups AB AB; 5 people, 2 groups AB ABC; 6 people 2 groups ABC ABC OR 3 groups AB AB AB, etc.)

  • Person A: - Initiate a Meeting. Try to find a a time, date, and place. Provide any information that the other person needs.
  • Person B: Wait for the email from Person A. Agree on a good meeting time and place. Also, ask for the meeting agenda.
  • Person C: Wait for person A and Person B to email you. You can't meet on the day that they suggest, but you are free almost every other day.
I hope you like the lesson. My students told me that they enjoyed it because it was so "interactive." Feel free to use or modify it, and let me know if you have any questions!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Task Based Language Teaching

Recently, my teaching schedule has picked up a bit, and I have started 3 new courses. One of the courses is with an English school that provides a curriculum and materials, and one is a private tutoring gig, but the other course is, for the most part, completely open as far as content goes. Currently, I am facing the challenge of creating a course plan that will satisfy everyone: the participants (adult, business people), their company (that is sponsoring the course), and my company (that claims to have a creative, unique approach to English instruction).

Task Based Language TeachingAs I was looking through my textbooks for ideas, I came across David Nunan's Task Based Language Teaching (Click here for the Amazon page). At the time we studied this book in my degree program, I remember thinking that the system Nunan sets out in the book was great, but still less appealing than the standard Effective Instructional Sequence that we typically used for lesson planning in the program (even though, in reality, they can both go together).

However, in my current situation, faced with the simultaneous needs to teach concrete skills in English, to teach English grammar (without taking a traditional grammar teaching approach) AND to foster a discussion-like environment in the course, Nunan's task based language teaching model seems to be a perfect solution.

In the model, each unit is based around a pedagogical task – a real world activity performed in the safety of the classroom. Building up to that task, the teacher scaffolds activities and lessons that will develop the skills needed for the students to successfully complete the task.

Here is the outline of the unit model:
Step 1: Schema Building
Step 2: Controlled Practice
Step 3: Authentic listening practice
Step 4: Focus on linguistic elements
Step 5: Provide freer practice
Step 6: Introduce the pedagogical task

Obviously, there is a lot more to this book that just the model outline, but I can't do it justice in a blog post. I recommend looking into the book if you are teaching business English without a pre-set curriculum, because it allows you to focus on the specific language tasks (sending email, having a meeting, interviewing, etc.) that they will encounter.

If you want to see the Table of Contents and a little of this first chapter, here is a link. Also, I found this blog that focuses on Task Based Language Teaching. It has not been updated recently, but the posts that are there already have some good ideas.