Tag Archives: Business English

You, the expert (2). How the project worked out

You, the expert: An experiment in constructivist, technology-enhanced teaching


So we negotiated the syllabus, planned our tasks, and started working on the different stages. As I had expected, attendance proved to be the biggest issue. Because of holidays and international projects there were a lot of absences and the project had to be extended by 2 weeks. Of the 6 students in the group, four participated, but by week 5 only 2 had finished their e-book. Despite this, everyone felt very positive about the project and they said that knowing their work would be used in the future made them more attentive to what they were doing.  I was delighted with their enthusiasm and the quality of the work they produced, having had little success with writing tasks in the past, particularly those presented in the course book. We also spent a lot of time talking about learning in a way we hadn’t done before.


For this project I chose tools I was familiar with, which require little digital expertise, but what I hadn’t considered was accessibility. When the students wanted to carry out their interviews they couldn’t access the audio recording site I had asked them to use from their laptops. The problem was easily overcome. None of the students had their phones with them, so we used the voice recorder application on mine instead. It allowed us to make the recordings, but having to use my phone instead of their laptops removed some of their control of the task. When using Vocaroo.com with other groups, I saw students listening to their recordings in class, analysing the results and in some cases, re-recording them. They discussed pronunciation, pace and delivery, as well as vocabulary and grammar, and decided on ways of improving different elements. Being in control of the tool allowed them to do this, and as a result, the process of recording themselves became an important part of the experience.

In this situation neither set of students mentioned or asked about listening to their recordings there and then. They did give each other feedback immediately after the interview, listened to the recordings when I sent them by email and spoke the following week about how useful having the recording was when editing their texts. However, I feel that one important element of the process was lost.

The situation also shows that what works in one environment may not somewhere else, and that for this type of project to succeed, teachers need to be flexible with regards changing or adapting their plans on the spot. As Harmer (2015, p201) reminds us, ‘technological malfunction’ is in itself nothing new, cd players and overhead projectors often broke down at inopportune moments, leaving teachers to improvise or revert to their backup plans. I would argue, however, that in these cases, teachers chose to simply continue with the unit in the book they were working on or wrote up the grammar explanations on the blackboard instead of displaying their pre-designed transparency. The technology was a tool the teacher controlled, in a lesson the teacher planned. The goal of this project was to hand over control to the students, from negotiating the syllabus to creating content future lessons would be based on, and technology was central to that process. If the technology breaks down, the Plan B could lead to the loss of the key characteristics of constructivist instruction. In this case, the alternative available limited reflective practice.


‘A good teacher will exploit to the fullest extent all knowledge already available in the classroom’  Clarke, 1991, p18

In the post-project interviews, students mentioned choice as being a key factor in motivating them to carry out the task.

‘I chose a topic that interested me (Iran) because of my business trip in September. I have a personal connection to the topic and this motivated me to do research and share the information with the group.’ Student M

Ryan & Deci say that ‘intrinsic motivation will occur only for activities that hold intrinsic interest for an individual—those that have the appeal of novelty, challenge, or aesthetic value for that individual’ (2000, p60) and choice and self-direction play a huge role in intrinsic motivation. This project was a classroom task set up by the teacher and therefore, involved extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Deci (2000) would, however, class this as integrated regulation. This is the form of motivation closest to intrinsic, for while the push to action comes from an external force, the students evaluate the task or action required of them, and begin to see it as compatible with their own desires or needs. However, unlike intrinsic motivation, the reason for carrying out the task is other than enjoyment in the task in itself.

M was first to perceive the personal value the task would have for him. He referred repeatedly to the fact that in carrying out this task he was simultaneously preparing himself for his upcoming business trip to Iran, a country he previously knew little about.

With participation optional to a certain extent and no grades being awarded, successful completion of the task was dependent on students’ own interest. In this project students played an important role in motivating other group members.

When J joined the class, having been absent for a number of weeks, M was presenting the first draft of his article on Doing business in Iran. J’s role was to read M’s draft, offer feedback and then interview him on the topic. She was very enthusiastic and asked many questions, referencing the nuclear agreement and future trade possibilities between Germany and Iran. After the interview, she told us that as a student she had a professor from Iran who often spoke about life before and after the Islamic Revolution.

M later said that J’s questions helped him identify background information or more detailed explanations that needed to be added. Moreover, taking on the role of editor and interviewer had a motivating effect on J, who immediately decided on the topic she would focus on. She asked if the project deadline could be extended, as although she would be away on holiday for a few weeks, she was eager to participate.

This example shows how the actions and attitudes of group members had positive effects on others. This ties in with Ryan & Deci’s (2000) notion that relatedness, the need for a sense of belonging and feeling of connected-ness, is of vital importance in the case of extrinsically motivated actions.

At the end of the 5 weeks, students returned to the CEFR descriptors they had initially chosen to discuss how they felt they had improved.  Breen & Littlejohn (2000) encourage teachers to see communication with students about learning as an essential component of the communicative classroom, and in this case, it was a positive experience, enhancing students’ feelings of competence.  In the coming school term, the students will create activities around their projects, using their course book as a model. They could create comprehension questions to accompany the recorded audio, or a follow-up writing task linked to the text. Returning to their work in this way will give them an opportunity for further reflection on their abilities while also supporting their competence.


While the promise of collaboration and deeper learning is appealing, incorporating constructivist practices into the classroom can be daunting. It requires a complete change of role for teachers, less about providing information and more about creating an environment that supports students in exploration and meaning-making. Despite any difficulties, the outcomes of this project have definitely encouraged me to continue on the constructivist path.

Example e-book, Iran – Chance or Change or both?  (shared with student’s permission)



Breen, M.P. and Littlejohn, A., 2000. The practicalities of negotiation. Classroom decision-making: Negotiation and process syllabuses in practice, pp.272-295.

Clarke, D.F., 1991. The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work?. Applied Linguistics, 12(1), pp.13-28.

Harmer J. The practice of English language teaching. Fifth ed. Harlow: Pearson Longman; 2015.

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L., 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), p.68.

You, the expert: my experiment in constructivist, tech-enhanced learning. Part 1

Blogging has taken a backseat in the last year as I’ve been focusing on being a student again myself. Today my post is an outline of my last assignment, which actually came about through my interest in blogging and the role it can play in learning English.

The project, called ‘You, the expert’, was designed to help students develop their writing skills by producing a short e-book. Different digital tools were used for support during the writing process and to create finished texts which could be used as resources for later lessons. The group I worked with consisted of 6 students at level B2 to C1, consultants in the energy industry. They have weekly lessons of 90 minutes at their office, but attendance is irregular, with 2 or 3 students present each week.

Unable to find a course book linked to their business field, the students had been choosing news articles relevant to their jobs, which we read and discussed in class. To help them develop a wider variety of skills, we decided to use the ‘can do’ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They then chose a number of C1 descriptors to work on, identifying the types of real life activities that they were likely to engage in. In one example, the students linked the descriptor ‘Interviewing and being interviewed’ to situations where they are required to advise international colleagues on topics related to the German energy market. For ‘Turntaking’, one student mentioned an upcoming project with the European Commission and the types of meetings he would be taking part in. The result was a list of descriptors, tasks and situations suggested by the students. In this way, we created a type of negotiated syllabus.

One advantage of the negotiated syllabus approach, as mentioned by Nation and Macalister (2009), is that when students have greater control over decisions about what and how they learn, their motivation, satisfaction and commitment to the course is enhanced.

We planned a 3-week project where each student would write a report on a topic of their choice related to their job or industry, be interviewed on this topic by a classmate, and finally use the text and audio recording of their interview to create a short e-book. The multimedia materials they created would be presented to the group at the end of the project and used as content in future lessons.

Digital Tools

1. just-the-word.com, a corpus tool useful for checking collocations and how specific vocabulary is used. Students could refer to this site to find out how to use some of the language they discover when doing their research. Chambers (2005), in a study on the training of language learners in corpus consultation, notes that students reacted positively to concordancing tools, believing that discovering lexical or grammatical patterns by themselves could be more effective for retention that explicit teaching in traditional textbooks.

2. vocaroo.com Students could use this simple voice recorder to record themselves and save recordings as mp3 files. Students can listen to the recorded interview to help them produce their final draft, and can later add the recording to their ebook.

3. www.atavist.com Students would use Atavist to create a simple e-book or long journalistic essay, integrating their audio and images. To find images, students could use www.stockvault.net (or similar sites). This website has thousands of images free to use for educational purposes. The terms of use are read and discussed in class to ensure that everyone is clear on correct usage.

Every stage of the project is carried out in English, including any training in the use of tools. Students read guidelines and FAQs on the websites, watch video tutorials if needed, ask the teacher or classmates questions, and give each other feedback. This focus throughout is on the process rather than the end product, with students learning new skills as they go along.

Project Design

The type of course I describe does not fulfil all the requirements of a negotiated syllabus as set out by Breen (1987). Clarke (1989) admits that in most teaching situations achieving a fully negotiated syllabus may be impractical. However, he asks educators not to reject the concept entirely, but instead to consider introducing an element of negotiation into each stage of course design.

One disadvantage of the Negotiated Syllabus is that without guidelines as to which types of skills or tasks are available, students’ choices may be restrictive from a learning perspective (Nation and Macalister, 2009). As Clarke says ‘few learners, indeed, would have any clear awareness of what they need or want to learn, let alone how they would wish to go about it.’ (1991, p19)  This is particularly a danger when working with adults returning to education after a longer absence, as their knowledge of activities derives from language learning experiences in their own school days, and methods may have changed since then. I believe the CEFR level descriptors can alleviate these problems as they clearly set out competencies in different skill areas (e.g. addressing audiences or sustained monologue) and also include descriptions of the strategies language users can utilise to achieve these tasks, such as planning, compensating, and monitoring and repair. With this information at hand, negotiating a syllabus becomes a less daunting and more satisfying process.

Nation and Macalister (2009) mention a major obstacle to implementing a negotiated syllabus from the teacher’s standpoint, that is the fact that creating individualised lesson plans and resources requires a greater investment of the teacher’s time than if a course book was used. Clarke (1991) also discusses the difficulty in finding sufficient materials, stating that it would only be possible if there was a large selection of local resources available combined with ‘ideas books’ of ready-made modules that could be used as required.

These authors focus on the challenges a teacher faces in creating or locating adequate materials. However, if we take a constructivist approach or the constructionist approach advocated by Papert & Harel (1991) which links making or developing a product to deeper learning, then the problem of insufficient materials is eliminated as students create their own. The act of creating something becomes part of learning and the process, rather than the end product, takes the spotlight.

Having read about the benefits blogging has on language learning (Sun & Chang, 2013; Bloch 2007; Sun, 2009), I wondered if a similar type of task would be possible with this group. Would producing and publishing shorter stand-alone texts be feasible and if so, would this have the same effects on learner motivation and language development as blogging?

Although previously this group had shown little interest in writing tasks, writing ‘reports and essays’ was something they identified as requiring attention. Bloch (2007) says that instead of wondering what we can do with blogs, we should consider what problem might blogging be the solution for. With this in mind, I hoped that a writing project involving research and peer feedback, with a published product at the end, might encourage student participation and perhaps even have a positive effect on attendance.

What happened? Well, there were highs and there were lows, but I’ll have to wait for another post to fill you in on all that.

To be continued…


Bloch, J. 2007. Abdullah’s blogging: A generation 1.5 student enters the blogosphere. Language Learning and Technology. 11(2), pp.128-141.

Breen, M., 1987. Learner contributions to task design. Language learning tasks, 7, pp.23-46.

Chambers, A. 2005. Integrating corpus consultation in language studies. Language Learning and Technology, 9(2), 111–125.

Clarke, D.F., 1991. The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work?. Applied Linguistics, 12(1), pp.13-28.

Nation, I.S.P. and Macalister, J., 2009. Language curriculum design. Routledge.

Papert, S. and Harel, I., 1991. Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, pp.1-11.

Sun, Y.C., 2009. Voice blog: An exploratory study of language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 13(2), pp.88-103.

Sun, Y.-C. and Chang, Y.-J. 2012. Blogging to learn: Becoming EFL academic writers through collaborative dialogues. Language Learning and Technology. 16(1), pp.43-61.

Why I’m using Chat tools in face-to-face ELT

Online tutorials are a weekly fixture on the distance learning MA  I’m currently doing. Contrary to my expectations, these are not carried out in a video conferencing setting to replicate a face-to-face environment. Instead, a synchronous chat tool is used. Students and tutor are online at the same time, in a ‘meeting room’ where they discuss a topic by typing out their comments to each other.

My initial feelings towards chat were very mixed.  The approach is very student-centred and I was at times frustrated by the slow pace of discussion and the tendency of the participants to go, as I felt, off topic. I enjoyed the interaction and felt it was a nice way of getting to know classmates, but was sceptical about how beneficial it would be for me from a learning standpoint.

I quickly noticed that my class mates didn’t feel as I did. Some of the benefits they mentioned were

  • there’s a written record/transcript of the tutorial (useful if a student is called away)
  • the transcript can be used for revision or to help you catch up if you missed a discussion
  • non-native speakers of English may feel more confident about participating in writing
  • multiple people can ‘talk’ at the same time

Within a few sessions, I’d completely changed my mind. Two factors I found particularly impressive were increased participation and inclusion. Because communication is being carried out via text, participants don’t have to wait for their turn to respond. So there’s no real limit to the number of comments they can make within the hour-long tutorial. As more people are commenting simultaneously, participation is higher than it would be in face-to-face tutorials.

Many students mentioned that they feel more confident making a written contribution to the discussion, as they have time to formulate their comments and reflect on grammar and vocabulary choice. As a result, chat tutorials are more inclusive than tutorials where spoken communication is required. This was really something I had never thought about and it encouraged me to assess how I facilitate communication in my own classes, with the realisation that, be it through the context I work in or an unconscious bias based on learning styles or preferences, oral communication is prioritised over written communication. So my new goal is to try to introduce text-based communication to some of my lessons to see if it could help increase participation and ensure all students have a voice.

Of course from using chat weekly, I see that there are some disadvantages. Due to the fast pace of participation, there are often spelling and grammar mistakes, from native-speakers as well as non-native speakers. As many people are communicating simultaneously without the presence of turn-taking conventions typical in face to face communication, the discussion can be hard to follow.

This means the tutorial scripts can be confusing, particularly to those who didn’t take part.  However, I think that errors in syntax and spelling, and confusion arising from comment overlap can become valuable learning opportunities, especially as students are analysing their own mistakes. So this main disadvantage is actually a benefit in a language learning context.

After some research, I have found the site TodaysMeet.com a free site that allows you create ‘rooms’ for chat comments and discussions.

So far I’ve used it with a group of six B2-C1 business students in an advertising agency, as a backchannel for comments and questions while we watched a TED talk (I paused at regular intervals to allow them to read and comment on what the others had written).

I also tried it with a group of 20 university students (mixed levels B1- C1) studying tourism. I created 4 rooms, assigned 5 students to each room and with the students scattered around the room, gave them a problem to solve. No speaking, just typing. Of course, the silence was broken by occasional laughs, but all in all, I was very impressed with how they got stuck in. With the adults, on the other hand, all aged between 30 and 50, a few had to be ‘disciplined’ for messing around (which I admit was funny in itself, especially their expressions when I gave them homework as ‘punishment’. They had to write up a summary of the discussion using the transcript, which surprisingly for this group, most of them did!)

I intend to do more experimenting with this tool now that I have realised the benefits chat can have and plan to write up some lesson ideas soon. In the meantime, if anyone tries or has tried this out, please let me know how you got on.

I know the link is weak, but it’s about chat communication too! 😉

Learning to appreciate Quizlet Flashcards

Adaptive Tutoring Systems – Quizlet  

I’m busy being a student again and now half way through the first year of an MA in Technology and Education with the University of Leeds. As part of the module ‘Learning with Digital Technologies’ MA, I had to reflect on my experiences with different tools and learning theories. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flashcard tool Quizlet.

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Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, games and quizzes which can be used to learn vocabulary, definitions, historic dates and so on. Progress is assessed automatically, giving students feedback as they make their way through the activities.

After logging in for the first time, I typed ‘English’ in the search function and found numerous flashcard sets, created and shared by users.  Many consisted of image and word combinations suitable for lower ability levels. Others sets such as ‘Junior College English Vocab’ contained words like nebulous, fetters and truculent, which would be too advanced for most ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many sets were simply titled English and, although hovering over the title presents a view of the contents, it was often unclear what the connection between the words was. Without proper naming or tagging conventions to clearly identify the target group and type of the vocab, finding suitable sets to practice with is time-consuming and I feel this reduces the value of the set sharing function.

However, when I started practicing with a flashcard set I found the tool to be very engaging and was impressed by clever additions such as the option to listen to the words, the choice of displaying either the term or the definition first and also the fact that tests can be printed. The games are timed and once your score is revealed, you are encouraged to repeat the activity to beat your time and improve your position on the score board. Motivating messages, such as ‘Yipee, you beat your previous record’, are also given.

Having assessed Quizlet from a learner’s standpoint, I followed the steps to create a set of flashcards on English financial terms with definitions. This was very easy and, as the tool gives you the option of importing your own lists, very quick.

Quizlet does not ‘teach’ the user, being limited to simple repetition of words to help memorise spelling and meaning. However, I feel the key to its appeal is the individualisation aspect, as students can choose the type of activity they want to try and can repeat it as many times as they want, therefore defining the pace of the progress.

I had heard of Quizlet prior to this, but had assumed it would not be suitable for advanced-level adult learners. I worried they would see it as game-like or frivolous, and I also felt that prescribing lists of words for students to learn goes against the type of student-centred learning I try to practice. Having to try out different tools as part of the MA course has made me aware of the need to reflect on my own bias or preference regarding learning strategies, and now having tried Quizlet, I feel that, ironically, the tool I dismissed as being too teacher-centred could have great potential in a constructivist classroom. Allowing students to choose the vocabulary and definitions they want to practice or encouraging them to create sets themselves, which they could then share with classmates, would give them a central role in the learning process.

Padlet digital noticeboards: ideal for English teachers

As Business English teachers, travelling from company to company, we usually have to make do with the equipment available to us. In some cases, that might not even include a whiteboard or flip chart. If, however, you are lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard, or even just a projector to hook your laptop up to, you’re ready to make that move from course books and handouts to a more creative ‘connected classroom’.

The range of websites and apps out there is staggering. You can produce everything from podcasts and word clouds to infographics and videos, but what then? You need some way of bringing it all together, a place to save and share your students’ finished work. For this, Padlet.com is ideal.

Padlet lets you create a digital wall, similar to a noticeboard or pin board. You can post content for your students, adding documents, videos and links related to a topic being covered in class or you can create a wall for collaboration and allow students post their work, comments, questions there.

I love it because it’s easy to use and because students do not need to sign up to access walls. You can have multiple padlet walls, one for each group or project. You can customise your wall, make it public or private, pick an address or url for each one and share the link easily. You can choose to be notified when students post something, which is handy if you want to give feedback on homework. I could go on and on.

Watch this video on how to get started:

Some of the many ways teachers can use Padlet:

  • Share content with your students. Have a wall dedicated to each different group. Add anything you see that might be of interest to them, related to their business or the topic being covered in class. This can be used for homework or as a source of further reading for when they have some extra time on their hands and fancy some English practice.
  • Create walls for specific topics. I have walls for things like presentation skills or CV preparation. Students and teacher add relevant content. These walls could potentially be reused again and again.
  • Students create their own walls and use them as a digital portfolio. They save their finished work there. It’s a great way of charting their development and at the end of the course, they can present a selection of their work.
  • Use a wall for team work and brainstorming. The free flow layout allows you to move posted ideas around to categorise them as good, ok or impractical.
  • Have a wall for each course book or course book unit  – students add new vocabulary, links to extra grammar practice, additional texts relating to the unit’s content.
  • Display – photos of art projects, finished essays (stream mode works well for this also).
  • Discussion (stream mode). Post a statement and students give opinions and comment on the opinions of their classmates.
  • Students can each create a wall and use it as a learning diary, a language notebook, or a resource scrapbook. Save links to websites, notes on grammar, vocab lists, inspiring quotes. As walls have no limit to their size, this makes them a great bookmarking tool.
  • Use a wall for introductions at the start of a course. Students can share information about themselves, photos, even post an audio greeting. You could also collectively create a list of everyone’s contact details, so if someone misses class, they have the chance to get in touch with fellow-classmates to find out what they missed.

Go check it out! I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I do.


Business skills and cultural awareness: businessculture.org

Have you discovered the fantastic website www.businessculture.org yet?

If you are teaching Business English, or want to add something about cultural awareness to a general English class, you’ll find this to be an invaluable source of information.

Aimed at businesses wishing to do more business internationally, or students considering spending time abroad for work or study purposes, the site offers business culture guides on 31 European countries, in 9 languages. Each guide includes a short video with interesting facts about the country in question, as well as extensive information on business topics such as culture, etiquette, communication and social media.

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I built a 2-week intensive course around this resource, with students divided into regions, and each student taking a country within their region as their own area of expertise. Every day, as well as covering business skills, vocab and grammar, students used businessculture.org to research their country and then created or presented something.

Here are some of the tasks:

Presentation Skills. A mini Pecha Kucha presentation on their chosen country. (Instead of 20 slides with each shown for 20 seconds, they had 10 slides.) They were to include some general information (size, location, language etc), something about the economy, and something they thought really interesting about the country. Each slide was an image and if they really wanted to add text, they were limited to 5 words per slide. They presented these to the students in their regional group.

Report writing. Our ‘company’ is interested in doing business in country x, and the student has been asked to write a report on business etiquette and culture to help us understand our potential business partners better.

After learning about the concept of Nation Branding, and watching some example videos from different countries on youtube, students researched information about what makes their country attractive for business and investment.  Create a short video/ narrated slideshow.

Business Meetings.  Emailing / Interviews. The website gives a list of questions to be considered before organising or attending a business meeting. Students imagined they were on a business trip to their country and wrote an email to ‘colleagues’ at home telling them some things they noticed about how meetings are run there.

With another group, they created radio reports / podcasts where an ‘expert’ (student) was interviewed by the presenter on the topic of business meetings in Country X.

  • What are the local attitudes to business meetings?
  • How should you go about organising a meeting?
  • How do you greet people at meetings?
  • How should you run a meeting?
  • What do you need to think about when conducting negotiations?
  • What should you do after a meeting?

Other tasks, which involved looking beyond this site for information, included creating a flyer/ itinerary for a 3 day sightseeing tour of a region or city in the country, and researching a national product or brand and creating an infographic mapping out its history. The website always mentions something about the economy, and I found it helpful for students to begin there.

‘Cyprus exports primarily to European countries and, in particular, the UK, Greece and Germany. The main exports are manufactured goods like clothing, pharmaceutical products, wine, cement, furniture and agricultural products.’

It proved to be more fruitful to search online for ‘ Cypriot wine’ rather than a more general ‘products from Cyprus’.

Finally, to bring it all together, we held a ‘European Business Networking’ Trade Fair. The class was divided into 3 groups, and we had three 20 – 30 minute sessions. We had the use of a spare classroom and the first group had 10 minutes to set up. I gave them large sheets of paper and markers, and told them to set up their stands. Then the other students came in and went around from stand to stand, introducing themselves and using the language we had practiced in class to find out about the different countries. Afterwards, they had a few minutes to take down some notes about who they met and what they learned. Then we had the next session.

Later they wrote follow-up emails to 3 of the people they met to make suggestions for future collaboration and arrange meetings.

The trade fair idea worked far better than I could have ever imagined, and the students put more effort into it then they would have done with a standard role play. They actually were the experts, and were enthusiastic about sharing their research and creations (flyers, videos etc) with their classmates.

There are countless other lesson plan ideas that you could come up with using www.businessculture.org. It is definitely a resource I find myself going back to time after time.

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