In this article, Ed Pegg deals with how to help Business English students when you’ve never seen them at work.


How can I help my learners perform at work when I never see them actually do their job?

A few years ago, I trained people in a Japanese bank in London. Before each lesson began, I would walk through the cavernous trading floor where I could see the big stock-ticker, watch people using five screens at the same time and hear snippets of conversations. Right from the start of the course, I had an awareness of what my learners did and the environment in which they did it. Furthermore, I was able to sit in the back of meetings, silently listen in to teleconferences and attend presentations. This real-time data about what my learners had to do, could do and were currently unable to do really helped inform my training and ensured that what I presented in the training room was directly relevant to them. 

Sadly, once that contract finished, my training reverted to a more hands off approach and I now meet my learners in a training room and lack the immediate connection with their job. In this context, it’s much more difficult to select what learners need and, most importantly, identify whether the instruction they receive directly impacts their performance at work.

If this is also your training reality, how can you ensure your training maximises learners’ performance?

Here are four useful tips to consider.

Talk to your learners

Probably the biggest source of information will be the learners themselves. Ask them what they do, who they do it with and what they find difficult. Start with closed questions, like: Do you attend meetings? and Do you give presentations? Once you’ve got an idea of the types of situations in which they use English, try more searching questions such as: What do you find difficult about meetings in English? and Why is it difficult? If they talk about listening, go further and ask them about accents, speed of speech, etc.

This way, you can pinpoint their specific problems and begin working on them directly. As a result, you can be fairly confident that your classes will make a direct impact on their performance.

This technique is covered in more detail in my final article in this series, on the subject of needs analysis.

Read up on the industry

The more you know about the industry in which your learners work and their specific job functions, the more you can predict the situations they operate in and the potential communication problems they face. As well as ensuring you can pre-empt issues your learners have, it makes you more credible if you can demonstrate an understanding of what they do on a daily basis.

When choosing reading material, I’d recommend blogs over books. Books are good and will give you a great grounding in the theory of the jobs your learners do, but the language tends to be formal or academic and not that relevant to what your learners encounter on the shop floor.

Industry blogs tend to be written in a more informal style that better reflects the language learners encounter on a daily basis. These can be a great source of high frequency vocabulary, particularly collocations, that your learners must know.

Great blogs include:

Keep it practical

Once you’ve got a sense of what your learners do on a regular basis, try to create simulations that copy the functions they need as closely as possible. The simulation you use really depends on what your learners do, but here are some ideas:

  • For managers – giving feedback, giving instructions, setting deadlines
  • For people in sales – identifying the needs of a customer, listening to a complaint
  • For finance people – discussing a budget, deciding how to allocate resources
  • For technical people – explaining a process, ordering components, explaining delays
  • In general – decision-making meetings, negotiating sales/purchases of common products

Use these simulations in a ’test-teach-test’ format. This lesson structure allows a diagnostic simulation first, identifying the current gap in learners’ language. Then you can work on closing this gap with new language input, followed by a second simulation which allows learners to activate new language and improve in the communicative task.

This method allows two things:

1 Comparing the first and second simulation presents a very clear benchmark, allowing learners to self-monitor progress.

2 You can get feedback on the authenticity of the first simulation, allowing you to tweak the second to better reflect learners’ reality.

Use reflective practice

At the end of each lesson, learners will go back to their jobs and perform the tasks that you’ve been practicing. So, why don’t you use that? This isn’t usually possible if you’re teaching intensively, but is a great idea if you teach longer courses. Here’s a structure for you:

1 At the end of the class, ask learners to think about their upcoming week and what they will have to do.

2 Get them to identify one or two skills or language areas you’ve worked on that they are likely to use this week.

3 Ask them to remember these skills when they are in the situation and, after the event, assess what they said/wrote, why they said it and how they could say it better.

4 Begin the next class by asking learners to present their analysis.

5 Once learners have analysed their performance, identify reasons for problems and possible solutions.

6 Create an action plan for learners on what you need to do in class to help them improve in these areas.

7 Repeat the process.

By doing this, you create a real-time test-teach-test scenario. Learners take the language you give them and apply it the workplace, then come back and report what worked, what didn’t work, what they feel they can do and what they still need to work on. This data makes it very easy to choose meaningful, useful future language input.

So in conclusion, if you follow this advice, you should be confident that the language you provide learners with will allow them to go into their workplace communication armed to succeed, whether you’ve seen them do their job or not.