Chris Barwood explains how simulations can be used as an effective teaching technique in business English classes, and offers a sample lesson plan that simulates a business meeting.
Why do simulations?
Why would teachers and trainers want to use business simulations? Aren't they just complicated, difficult to set up and organize, confusing for learners and challenging for teachers? What are the real benefits of using simulations, and are they worth the trouble?
One obvious reason for using simulations is that, if they are done well, business learners are normally quick to see the advantages of them and take part enthusiastically and with good humour. Where else can they interact in such a real way, have conversations and arguments, meetings and negotiations, introduce and close topics and discussions, and generally do a host of activities that are demanded of them in their real work environment? Simulations give learners an unrivalled way to communicate together and are an incredibly rich source of spoken language for feedback.
Learners need communicative practice, where they feel free to express themselves, take risks and make mistakes. Simulations provide this environment in a major way, giving huge scope for practice, but also and very importantly, a safe and interesting way for learners to build confidence and develop fluency.
What do simulations develop?
There are four major areas that simulations can develop, often simultaneously:
- Free practice for language, particularly language that has been taught previously in more controlled ways, and the development of all kinds of language skills from grammar and vocabulary to fluency and accuracy.
- Essential business communication skills for business learners, like negotiating and participating in meetings.
- Intercultural communication skills – every simulation has a context that will involve intercultural issues.
- For students of business English who haven't actually worked in the business environment, many simulations provide a practical and motivating way for them to learn about important areas of business, such as marketing or quality management.
Different kinds of simulation
So, before looking at how to use simulations, let's see what they look like, starting with some quite simple situations and moving on to more extended simulations.
A simple role-play can come from basic business situations like these:
The MD of an advertising company wants the sales team to come on a three-day team building course, but the sales force don't think they need it, and anyway they would rather have the team building over a weekend only. Decide who is going to represent the management and who is going to represent the sales team before you start.
The foreign agents in a company are constantly dissatisfied with the rule that once one of their clients reaches a very high level of sales, it becomes an international account, handled by head office and not them. Decide who is going to represent the management and who is going to represent the sales team before you start.
A greater number of roles makes for a more complex activity. A typical simulation for a group of roughly 3–6 involves learners taking the roles of managers in an organization meeting to negotiate or solve problems. Typically this can be either inside a company, as in a board meeting, or between representatives of different organizations, such as negotiation between clients and providers over price, quantity, delivery, and so on. A good example of a simulation like this is provided in the sample lesson plan which you can find below, involving regional managers in decision-making over working hours, uniforms, training, staff discounts and staffing levels.
By building up detail and context, a simulation like this can become an extended simulation, getting longer and more complex by, for example, adding preparation activities, such as detailed market information, previous correspondence, or listening or writing tasks. In the lesson plan example, letters from the shop workers' trade union representative and emails from the HR manager can be used at the beginning of the activity to enhance the context and give more detail for discussion. A good source of quite extended materials like this can be found in Business Roles by John Crowther-Alwyn. Coursebooks like the series Market Leader and In Company provide some very useful simulations including listening, reading and writing activities.
Materials from management training
Materials that are originally intended for management training with native speakers can give a great sense of realism and motivation for learners. I'm particularly fond of a simulation originally written for training with a nationally known retailer. This is really typical of authentic training materials because it has a wealth of detail which gives participants a sense of realism and involvement; it also has various stages, including a decision-making meeting of store managers, followed by a presentation of their proposal to senior management.
Another way of providing this kind of realism is by using real companies from sources on the internet. I'm currently working with a group of upper-intermediate business learners on a simulation derived from a real company called 'Cameron's Balloons'. All the details of the design, production and marketing of the hot-air balloons are included in this massive case study with photographs, floor plans, real names and real figures. It is not a huge amount of work to create simulations from these materials, and again the realism created by working with details from a real company rubs off very favourably on learners.
The competitive nature of computer-based business games can be very motivating for learners – for example, a game may consist of companies competing against each other in the market, with learners playing the role of managers in each company, making decisions on things like price and distribution, which are then put into the computer as the game progresses. Games like these develop language and communication skills as the teams of each company discuss their decisions, but they can also be a source of practical business awareness and knowledge for pre-experience business learners. These games have a great motivating power as teams compete against each other for market share or profitability. A good example of a game like this is 'Lawn Trimmers' by Christine Elgood.
Making simulations work
Effective planning and preparation are the basis for good simulations. Without them even a simple simulation becomes disjointed. The teacher needs to know:
- what the different stages of the simulation are;
- what learners need to do at each stage in order to progress to the next stage;
- and the timing of each stage.
This is a very crucial stage. It's essential learners:
- understand the purposes of the activity (for example, in the lesson plan below, the aim is to practise meeting skills and making suggestions);
- are given an overview of activities (details for each stage: preparation – simulation – feedback);
- and understand their roles and what they have to do (preparation time in pairs or groups can help here).
It's also in this preparatory stage that materials adding context and details can be gone over: in the lesson there can be a letter from a shop workers' union regarding demands for flexible working hours, and a chart showing a sliding scale of discounts for staff purchases and store sales, for example.
In this stage, whilst participants are interacting, the teacher:
- records material for feedback (using video, audio or written notes);
- makes sure the task is on track;
- and keeps in the background, monitoring but only intervening if it's unavoidable.
The feedback needs to reflect the purpose of the simulation in the first place. If you are primarily seeking to develop confidence and spoken fluency, then you may want to keep feedback very positive and encouraging, and probably quite short. To give feedback on language items (like 'suggestions' in the lesson plan below), it's more useful to pick out examples of both good and inaccurate usage of your target language. If the simulation is meant to develop business meeting skills, then the teacher needs to find an effective way to feed back – for example, video recording and a skills checklist. For pronunciation, video or audio can obviously be invaluable. Whatever method is used, learners need to see a clear link between their learning before the simulation, the simulation itself and the feedback.
Many factors will influence your decisions on how to give feedback. Do learners all speak the same first language or do they have a mix of first languages? Are there few enough first languages in the group for first-language-specific feedback? Are there too many learners for you to give individualized feedback to each one? Are you teaching one-to-one, and getting so much material that you could usefully feed back to your learner that you have to prioritize very carefully? The answers to questions like these will determine how you choose to feed back.
Video can capture everything, which is a great advantage – it shows learners body language and how they interact – but it can be difficult with larger groups. I find that with a group, individual written feedback combined with group feedback on the whiteboard or a slide is both effective and convenient, although in many situations video provides the richest source.
Simulations can take bit of preparation, but because of the opportunities for speaking practice and feedback they give, they are definitely worth the effort. I've given some good sources of simulations in this article, but often the best simulations can be built with the learners themselves. This involves learners in the design and writing and makes sure that the simulation is specific to them and so is more motivating. And of course it will also provide quality materials you are very familiar with for other learners in the future!
Cotton, D, Falvey, D and Kent, S 2001 Market Leader [upper-intermediate] (Longman)
Crowther-Alwyn, J 1999 Business Roles (Cambridge University Press)
Elgood, C 2001 'Lawn Trimmers' (Elgood Effective Learning)
Kerridge, D. (1996) International Business Role Plays (Delta Publishing)
Powell, D 2004 In Company [upper intermediate] (Macmillan Publishers Limited)
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