TESOL France Presentation Overview – Tailoring ESP courses – Part 2: Technical English for the Construction Products Industry

Flickr,   DaraKero_F
Flickr, DaraKero_F

2014 has arrived and the end-of-year rush has given way to a calmer time for reflection on new year’s resolutions, both personal and professional. My free time in December was taken up with learning Mandarin and Spanish, and preparing for different running events. This year is going to be a big change for me as from tomorrow I will be working as a freelancer. Although I will continue to teach business English, I think that the competitiveness of the market will no doubt be a harsh reminder of the importance of tailoring courses to clients’ specific needs. In this light, I’d like to return to my thread on using companies’ promotional materials in teaching to make courses relevant to students’ jobs. This time, I’m going to discuss a project I did for a construction products company.

The company I worked with makes products for concrete such as admixtures and fibers, liquid pigments and air and vapour barriers. My students here included a maintenance manager, logistics people and a marketing and communication assistant. To be honest, I had no idea about what a ‘surface-retarder’ was when I first arrived. The only interaction I had ever had was walking on it. And so, when I first arrived on the site, I wasn’t used to seeing the forklifts driving around, the industrial-sized barrels of salt water for defrosting the ground or the people dressed up in their overalls, facemasks and hard hats. The first thing I did was to ask my elementary-level maintenance manager for a tour of the site. He showed me the safety equipment (I had all that vocabulary mastered at least) and we went on our way. There were machines for grinding, mixing different powders and packaging them. One part had different brightly-coloured dust scattered around the workshop, which reminded me of an Indian dye festival. At this point I had difficulty imagining what exactly the products were for and didn’t really have the technical vocabulary my student needed to be able to explain how the machines operated and common repairs he made.

With regards to the technical parts, I had to do some good old-fashioned online research. I asked my student to bring me some technical drawings and looked up translations for French words in the dictionary. I did have some textbooks in my office to help me with some of the vocabulary we needed, although it makes sense that publishers aren’t going to produce textbooks for industries so specialized and limited in size. To help me understand what exactly they were making, brochures with colour photos of the products used on real concrete structures. The fireproofing, waterproofing and graffiti-proofing weren’t so hard to get my head around, but the pigments and textured finishes were a little more complicated.

Here’s an example of what concrete pigment looks like:

Concrete pigment

Concrete pigment

There’s also something else called pre-cast concrete. Essentially the company prepares the concrete in specially-made moulds for the customer to give it different textures and patterns. You can have concrete with different finishes to look like bricks, wood or even bamboo.

And so, with my intermediate level marketing and communication assistant we worked with a number of brochures and samples to help her to be able to present her company’s products. The company also has a wall outside with different samples of decorative pre-cast concrete, so it was an excellent exercise to take my students out of the classroom and have them touch and describe the different textures. On a more technical level we could also look at and measure the depths of different grooves and the measurements of each panel, and imagine the applications of each mould. Here‘s an example of the kind of catalogue we worked with.

Other exercises that could be done with any products (obviously this is much easier of you have a brochure or a selection of products in front of you) is to compare their prices, sales and perhaps customer feedback.

And so, this job has given me a great insight into an industry that was previously foreign to me and as a result of exploiting companies’ promotional materials, my students completed their training with a lot of the vocabulary they needed in their work. I would love to hear from any other language trainers about how they have tackled such technical subject matter.

TESOL France Presentation Overview – Tailoring ESP courses – Part 1: Comparing hotels with travel agents

Wharariki Beach

Wharariki Beach

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the TESOL France annual coloquium in Paris, where I met some great teachers and attended some excellent presentations. I gave a presentation myself about exploiting companies’ promotional materials for teaching and I thought I’d write up a little overview here. Here’s the first part, watch this space for the construction and pharmaceuticals industries, as well as some FAQs.

The problem: Business English and ESP teachers aren’t always trained in whatever they need to be teaching

My first few teaching jobs were disasters. I prepared my classes on my own and oblivious to pedagogy and professional objectives, I taught grammar-heavy classes which were simply too general. My CELTA helped with the pedagogy side of things, but didn’t give me any better idea about how to make my classes more relevant to my students’ jobs. And while I do cringe when I think about some of the classes I taught in those beginning days, they do serve as excellent lessons as to what not to do when teaching BE and ESP classes. I know teachers are really busy and aren’t always specialists in the areas they’re teaching in, but at the end of the day we’re being paid to teach relevant skills that students can use immediately in their jobs.

How can we keep our teaching relevant?

Here are a couple of things that are particularly important

Needs analyses

Schools generally do these at the beginning of a course as well as an oral evaluation, (if your school doesn’t, you’ve got a problem). It’s important to read through them regularly throughout the course to keep the students’ objectives fresh in your mind. However detailed the reports you get may be, it’s still important to talk you your students about their objectives when you first meet them, as well as the situations where they need English.

Every lesson, ask your students what they’re up to

Needs change, and to be the most effective teacher you can be, you need to keep up with them. Ask your students about projects they’re working on at the moment and ask them to bring along an email or a plan and talk you through it. Have them practice their presentations on you.

Troll for information about their job and their industry

Pick up brochures at reception (if you’re lucky they might be some in English). Take a look at the company’s website and websites of competitors. Another suggestion I had was to contact the HR department and get a job description to give you a better idea.


  • A little background

The company my student works for organizes international group travel to Eastern Europe, the Americas and Asia. Although the organizational side of things is in French, my student and her colleagues accompany groups to different locations. She needed to be able to fulfill the roles including guide, interpreter and support person. My student began at an elementary level, so it was important to break the course up into manageable chunks and balance the practical English focus with fundamental grammar. You can see here the topics we covered, they’re all pretty straightforward ‘travel English’, although I didn’t manage to find everything I needed in textbooks and travel guides. Finding materials for the airport English part was easy enough online, and the textbooks we work with seem to all have parts with some vocabulary for recommending places and giving directions. Explaining to an Indian police officer that your wallet and passport have been stolen or that your client is having a heart attack is a different story.

  • A mini-presentation to work on hotel vocabulary and comparatives

When designing a package, my student needed to decide on which hotels groups would stay at and obviously compare them based on criteria including location, facilities and price. To begin with, I gave her a little presentation about two hotels in a destination I had chosen myself and showed her their websites. The presentation I did with my student was simply browsing the net, so the preparation was minimal. I simply looked at the hotels’ webpages and their corresponding TripAdvisor reviews to look at vocabulary for describing hotels as well as comparisons.

HW Beach photo

I’m going to go on holiday with my mum to the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island of New Zealand. It’s a region with beautiful hills, forest and beautiful beaches. The most famous beach is called ‘Hot Water Beach’. It gets its name from the hot water that comes up from springs under the ground and at low tide visitors like to dig holes in the sand and sit in the hot pools. I would like to spend one week relaxing on the beach, doing some bushwalks and reading books. I need to book some accommodation, and I have two possibilities in mind

The first place I’ve found is a bed and breakfast called ‘Hot Water Bed and Breakfast’. Does a bed and breakfast. It has a view of the ocean and is very close to the beach and the forest. There is a balcony where I can read my book and relax. The beds are queen-sized and the price is $120 per night which is around 75EUROs. It has tea and coffee making facilities and breakfast is included. Unfortunately there’s no wifi, so I won’t be able to upload my holiday photos until I get home.

The second place is called ‘Whitianga Beach Motels and Cabins’. It’s also very close to a beach, although you have to drive for half an hour to get to Hot Water Beach. Here, it’s possible to order breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are laundry facilities, so I can wash my clothes and the rooms have single and double beds. The price is $110 a night, which is around 65EUROs. There are also tea and coffee facilities and wifi. 

Which of these do you think I should choose? Why?

(write target language on board – comparatives and facilities)

Perhaps before I book I should have a look at some reviews to help me with my decision?

First, let’s have a look at the reviews for the bed and breakfast. You can see that 28 people have reviewed it as ‘excellent’ and it only has one ‘poor’ review. The last reviewer ‘loved it’ and overall it looks like a pretty popular place.

Here you’ll see that we have a review that would be too advanced for my elementary learner; with a lot of vocabulary that might not be particularly useful for her (I’m not sure when she’ll have the opportunity to use “wallowing” or “nomads” in the future). Here I think it would just be best to focus on the title of the review.

Now let’s have a look at the Beach Motel and Cabins in Whitianga. Oh dear, this doesn’t look good. We have four ‘average’ ratings and three ‘terrible’ ones. And the most recent person didn’t like it at all. Here I think it’s important to look at the vocabulary ‘disgusting’, ‘filthy’ and ‘smelly’ and it could also be a good time to talk about things in hotel rooms like sheets, pillowcases, tea and coffee facilities, mould…

I then asked her to prepare a similar mini-presentation of two hotels at a destination of her choice. The students I have worked with have all enjoyed this exercise as I suppose it was interesting in that they discovered a new place in the world they might not have hear about before. I think they also appreciated doing something a little different from the textbook, although I did use the textbook as support for a clear presentation of comparatives. They could see the point in it and would use the same skills in their work immediately after.

Italki Review

italkiI am proud to say that this morning I managed to get out of bed at 6:15am for my 15th Italki/Skype Chinese lesson. My regular teacher Ally helped me wrestle with a particularly daunting unit in my book on shopping (with lots of numbers and vocabulary for clothing and department stores). I’ve been learning Chinese and Spanish with Italki for four months now and although there are already a good number of helpful reviews online explaining exactly how it works, (such as the one by Fluent in 3 Months you can find here), I would like to share some of the things I appreciate about it and some of the things I don’t.

If you’d like to make an account and check it out, you can use my referral link here.

Features I like:

  • Language partners – Free conversation/writing practice

Although language partnering certainly isn’t a new idea, italki provides a forum where you in can get in contact with native speakers of the language you’re learning and either communicate with them by message or organise Skype meetups. This is great for conversation practice and putting anything you learnt in lessons to use. As you might have guessed, English speakers are in hot demand so I haven’t actually had to search for any language partners myself. Although this is quite helpful for me in Spanish, my Chinese isn’t anywhere near advanced enough to be able to take part in casual conversation. In my experience Chinese non-teachers tend to complicate things more than they need to and ‘language exchanges’ can become English conversation practice. If you want to go this route, make sure you agree on how much time you want to spend speaking each language and tell them whether or not it’s appropriate for them to Skype you anytime you’re online (some students are more enthusiastic than others).

  • Informal tutoring

Informal tutoring is a more casual kind of language training which is useful for revising anything you’ve already looked at with a teacher. For Chinese, for example, I seem to need to repeat a lesson two or three times before I can get a good grasp on the vocabulary and remember the complete phrases. The main advantage of informal tutoring is that it’s less expensive than professional lessons and you’ll see that many of the trained teachers on the site also provide informal tutoring. This is definitely worth a try.

  • Trial lessons – Try before you buy

One of the biggest advantages of Italki is that you can take up to 5 trial lessons with different teachers to see which one best suits your needs. I didn’t gel with the first couple of teachers I tried as I felt they moved too quickly and didn’t have me repeat enough (don’t we language teachers make difficult students?). Before settling on a regular teacher, I recommend you shop around.

  • Teachers’ availability – You can find someone available most of the time

I love waking up early and having my Skype class with my tea and toast. Thanks to the time difference between here and China, I can have a class at 6:30 or 7am if I like.

  • My notebook – Have your writing corrected

After my lessons, or in fact whenever I like, I can write something in my notebook in one of the languages I’m learning. Native speakers can check and correct this and give me feedback, (and I can do the same thing for their English).

  • My referral link

If anyone signs up to italki using my referral link, and then tops up their account I get bonus credits I can put toward classes.

One improvement that could be made:

  • Class time length – 1H plus

Although it’s possible to have 30-minute trial lessons, it doesn’t seem to be possible to organise regular 30-minute classes. This is a shame because I think two 30-minute classes a week would be much easier to fit into my schedule than a whole hour and it would also help with concentration and make homework more manageable.

So please check out the site and tell me what you think, I hope you’ll enjoy it and find it as useful as I do!


Italki’s marketing department has informed me that there are in fact teachers offering 30 minute lessons, so I’ll sign up for a few and let you know how it goes!


Young learners activity – teaching numbers and actions

Flickr - Rameshng

Flickr – Rameshng

On Saturday mornings I have the pleasure of teaching a nine year-old boy English for an hour. Although I prefer to have a good range of tasks in each of my business English classes, the energy of my younger student is always a fresh reminder of the importance of variety. We read books, use flash cards for vocabulary and sing songs. In the spirit of learning by doing, today we tried a new game for practising some action verbs and numbers (I suppose you could use this for any vocabulary really), and I’d love to share it with you!

What you’ll need:
- About 10 post-it notes
- Enough space for your student(s) to run around without hurting themselves

What to do:
- With your students, write a different number on each post-it note (for example my student has problems with 11-20, so we used those numbers today)
- Ask your students to stick the post-it’s randomly around the room
- Now give the students instructions on which number to go to and how to get there, for example “Run to number 11″. You can also use different actions for movement like hop, skip, jump, walk, swim, fly. Be creative!
- I think this would be great if you had a group of students and they could take turns to give instructions
- When the kids are out of energy, you can ask them to bring you the post-its back one by one and tell you what is marked on them

I’d love to hear from anyone who has other suggestions!

3 things I’ve learnt from kids classes about teaching adults

Flickr -  woodleywonderworks

Flickr – woodleywonderworks

Next week is “la rentrée” in Dijon, meaning that all the kids are going back to school after their two-month holidays. I remember when I was younger our summer holidays felt like they lasted an eternity and I always almost forgot what school by the time I needed to go back. Some of the French kids I know have been to summer camps in the mountains and having fun zip-lining, rock climbing and visiting fun parks. This week, however, is the week where they start preparing for next week’s classes and I am lucky enough to be able to work with a couple of kids one-on-one to get them back up to speed. I spend most of my time working with adults and these kids classes have really got me thinking about some similarities and differences between working with kids and adults.

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Some kids are shy, so are some adults. We need to make them comfortable.

Two of my 11-12 year-old students are really shy. In our first classes they had real troubles saying “hello” or even “bonjour”. This has absolutely nothing to do with their English ability, but rather their shyness. But by no means is this something exclusive to kids. I have also had adult classes where certain students were initially afraid of speaking, in a group setting in particular. Perhaps they were afraid of making a mistake or felt that their level wasn’t as high as that of their classmates. In my experience the French school system is more lecture-based, where students are expected to listen and take notes rather than use the language they are learning. This could partly explain why kids can have a hard time speaking and why adult students, who learnt in the same setting, have the same difficulties.

So how can we make speaking easier for kids and adults? I think it’s important to go gently in each case to begin with, until you’ve built some rapport and made them comfortable with anyone else they’re working with. Another thing to think about is keeping it relevant. I remember my CELTA trainer Mo Killup telling me about a trainee who had designed a lesson that included a ten-minute freer practice activity where students were asked to “discuss the differences between Beethoven and Mozart, and tell your partner which you prefer”. Needless to say this activity bombed, given that this group of students was not made up of classical music buffs. Just as I’ve had to take the time to figure out what my younger students are into (one likes koalas and another likes fastfood and martial arts), my adult students also respond better to topics they know about and are interested in.

  • Kids like songs and games. Adults too can learn better using them.

My first fun-sized student was a ten-year-old boy who loved everything musical and had ants in his pants. He wanted to dance, sing and jump around. After making the rookie mistake of wearing high heels to the first lesson, every week I dressed for a workout. We covered actions with “Simon says” (run, jump, stand up, sit down, turn around) as well as singing songs for learning animals and body parts. One of his favourite games was running to post-it notes with different vocabulary items spread around the room. Is a game-based and song-based approach appropriate for adults? Absolutely! Keeping in mind that business English students probably don’t want to be seen singing in front of their colleagues, or running around the room sweating in their suits. Adults enjoy a challenge every bit as much as children do. Games with competition between colleagues (for example the ‘circle board game‘ can lighten up the dullest vocabulary revision exercise. Throw a ball around the room for grammar drills, eliminate students as they make mistakes and it will all of a sudden become more of a challenge. Teaching kids reminds me that it’s always possible to teach whatever I’m teaching in a more stimulating way.

  • Kids like and need repetition. So do adult learners.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach some groups of kindergarten-aged kids (4-5 years old) everyday for two weeks. Our theme was Julia Donaldson’s the Gruffalo, a mystical beast who lives in the forest with his little animal friends. On the first day, after our “hello, how are you?” song and a few flash card games, I read the book to the class. They sat and listened, and one or two were already telling me the names of the animals on the pages. On the second day, near the end of the class, we read the same book again, this time looking not only at the animals but also at the different colours. The kids really enjoyed it and more of them were participating. On the third day I figured they could do with a little variety (or perhaps the reality of the situation was that I was bored of reading the book again and again, and naively assumed my students were feeling the same way). I gave them a colouring activity which they were happy with, but when they were done and I told them the class was over, they were absolutely gutted that they couldn’t read the book again and tell me he names if all the animals. The following day when we did read the book, even the quieter kids were participating and telling me the animals and colours hey saw.

I think that deciding how many times to review content with any particular students, is a skill that is developed through experience. Over time I’ve become better in tune with students’ needs and won’t hesitate before I squeeze in extra review. It can never hurt to present target language in a new way and to make students more just a little more familiar with it.

The circle board game


This is a little game I learnt from Warwick Isaacs when I did my CELTA training at the Campbell Institute, Wellington NZ. It’s great for revising any kind of vocabulary and all you need is a couple of different coloured pens and a whiteboard or paperboard.

How it works

1. To set up the game, you will need to write all the vocabulary you want revised, scattered around the board, (see my number revision above). This should be in one colour.

2. Get two students up the front and give them each a different coloured pen, (for example one will have a blue pen and one will have a red pen).

3. Explain how the game works. The objective of each student will be to circle the most vocabulary items. The teacher’s job will be to call out the vocabulary the students need to circle. For numbers, I simply read a number off the board. For other vocabulary, you could give a definition or tell them what the opposite of the word is. This is great for checking comprehension. If you’d like to make it more challenging, you could ask another student to make the definitions. If you have a larger group it could be a good idea to create to teams and switch students around.

I hope you find this one as useful as I do. Happy teaching!photo



TwitterMy new twitter account

The slow Dijon summer has left me some time to create my new twitter account. If you’d like to get my updates, there’s a link on the right-hand side.