January 28, 2016 by helenwaldron
Looking at all of the ELT books I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, you’ll notice that I like niche books. I think a resource is most useful when it doesn’t try to do too much, but instead concentrates on one interest (like art) or one skill (like giving presentations). It’s unrealistic to claim that one product will contain “everything you need for your language learning.” It won’t, because learners need people, not products, to reflect their communication effectiveness. In the case of my business learners, it is their business partners who will react to, or against, their word choice, delivery and tone with unwavering honesty and sometimes with consequences. The resources we teachers and learners use in class are nothing but tools. We use them to fine tune here, and to tweak there, and at the moment it is the small, independent publishers who are reaching the parts that the big brands do not reach.
Most coursebooks have some good stuff in them, but when you think about it, a coursebook, by its very name, takes over the course. Curriculum becomes king, and students’ actual learning may be subservient to their perceived learning. (“They’ve worked through Absurd English Intermediate, so they’re now all Upper Intermediate.” Believe me, they’re not).
And so to the activity book. Julie Pratten’s A-Z of Business Activities has lots of little niche topics aimed at “intermediate to advanced learners of English.” It was the joint winner of the 2015 BESIG David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP, and the “focus is not on correctness of language, but its appropriateness in business contexts” (both p. 8), i.e. it is more task-based than grammar-based. Great stuff.
There are 26 different activities, each taking up 1 -3 fairly uncluttered pages, listed (as the title suggests) in alphabetical order. They range from Agenda to Zoo Management (because business is not just stock images of smart suits sitting in immaculate conference rooms, but managing zoos and hospitals too). By using icons the “contents map” (a double-spread table) shows you the skills needed for each activity (asking for information in pairs/meeting skills etc.) and each activity’s expected duration at a glance. I couldn’t keep to the time limits at all. There is also an “error analysis sheet” for learners to reflect on their inaccuracies and chart their own improvement.
The downloadable version starts with the teachers’ notes. Extremely busy teachers (ahem) may need to be told to to scroll down to the end to find the actual activities. It’s worth it, because there’s a lot of variety. Here are my experiences with two very different activities.
In Hospital is a discussion and planning activity, based around the premise that 10 rich bankers are sharing a 10 bed ward, but need to have their beds rearranged to keep them “happy, comfortable and entertained” during their stay. I wickedly let it loose on a pre-intermediate A2+ course and they thoroughly enjoyed it as a fluency exercise/bit of light relief after an intense bout of grammar work. Eager to keep within the time limit (the time limit is tough when you’re introducing new activities; I find my students need time to get used to things), I wrote some sample sentences on the board beforehand (“It would be better to put Stan next to Carlos”/”I recommend putting Stan next to Carlos” etc.) and insisted they use these in their evaluation (first in pairs and then to the class). I later tried the same exercise with a departmental leader who had recently moved his technical workers (with machines) into a new building. It was too close to the bone and he didn’t enjoy it quite so much. So much for my frequent moan that specialist business coursebooks are too far removed from any real practice. It seems my students come to class to forget about work.
Another activity I selected was the more ambitious Leadership Styles, which my B2 class found difficult because of the subject matter, but my one-to-one manager sailed through easily. The B2 class only managed to work through two of the four mini-texts in the allocated 30 minutes and most of them were unable to fill in the gaps until I helped them, but I am collecting short texts for some work on word order and this next activity will be easier without the distraction of an unknown text. I explained this and fancy I saw a spark of interest as they warmed to a topic they had not been confronted with before. The homework was to reread the texts and check they can use the vocabulary for next time. If we’re lucky, the unaccustomedness of the exercise may just have taken their English up a notch.
This is quite obviously a mini-sample of research, but the point I’m making is that these activities not only provide you with a slice of ready-made lesson-time, they are easy to customize and offer a springboard to whatever you intend to do next with your learners.
P.S. As I sat down to write this I came across Paul Walsh’s blog post written to celebrate the publication of his own business activity book At Work (http://the-round.com/resource/at-work/). In http://decentralisedteachingandlearning.com/at-work-with-convivial-tools/), he talks about “manipulatory” (prescriptive and therefore limiting) and “convivial” (useful, interactive and flexible) tools in teaching. Applying this to ELT publications, the standard coursebook is manipulatory and the one-off activity book is more likely to be convivial.
Took the words right out of my mouth.
A-Z of Business Activities by Julie Pratten (www.academicstudykit.com)