Five Questions with Paul Walsh

In the lead up to our next (and last) workshop of 2016, we asked you to send in your questions for the speaker. Berlin local and ELTABB member Paul Walsh is a teacher, Business English trainer, and author of the recent e-book “At Work”. He is also a keen blogger (Decentralised Teaching & Learning). I asked Paul five of your questions (my favourites!) and he obligingly answered them. So, read Paul’s answers to whet your appetite for his upcoming workshop “Easy, no-materials activities workshop for teachers of Business English learners” which will take place on Saturday the 12th November at All on Board ( Seestr. 27, 13353 Berlin) from 11am-2pm.

1. What is the #1 challenge that our Business English learners face today?

There’s an increasing awareness that pragmatic competence is essential. Knowing the present perfect continuous should really take a back seat to not offending someone. A good example is international business mergers, where one key components in the failure of these mergers is a lack of intercultural understanding. Misunderstandings occur time and time again between different national groups of workers, and once they start, the negative cumulative effect is very difficult to stop.

2. What advice would you give someone who has just finished their CELTA and wants to start teaching Business English?

This is an interesting and difficult question. In my opinion, the best thing a CELTA grad can do is to get a few years of full-time teaching experience under their belt at one institution; an institution that can provide support and training while you find your feet.

Sadly, because of the precarious nature of the job market here in Berlin, most teachers are freelance, which means it’s difficult for them to develop as professionals. I was lucky, I taught in Eastern Europe for my first few years where I had regular observations, senior colleagues to ask for advice, and lots of materials on hand. That’s why I think Berlin is a difficult place for a newbie to start!

Joining ELTABB is a good idea of course. I would also recommend seeking out fellow teachers and trying to organise some kind of support network among yourselves. I think new teachers must find it quite lonely in Berlin.

3. My classes are great fun and enjoyed by all but I’m not sure how much their English really improves with just a weekly or bi-weekly 90-minute lesson. Any advice?

It depends what you mean by “their English”? Do you mean their individual skills like reading or writing, or their ability to carry out real-world communicative tasks? Perhaps you could also try switching the focus somewhat and ask: Am I providing my learners with language-rich, meaningful tasks related to their real-world use of English? If so, learning will take care of itself!

4. How do you plan activities when the attendance of your Business English classes fluctuates drastically? In addition, the levels of the students also vary so that for example, an e-mail writing task I picked with several C2 students in mind has to be thrown to the wind when suddenly a single C1 student shows up.

I’ve had groups where attendance fluctuated a lot, so I can understand your problem. My solution was to ditch the course book and focus on providing tasks and activities related to my learners’ real-world situations; I called this approach decentralised teaching.

If you have a real difference in abilities, you can ‘tweak’ the task to make it harder for the higher-level student i.e. the higher-level student has to write a longer email.

Also, try and get the learners to do as much as possible—even providing much of the input! For example, you could divide the group into A and B groups, then get them to write emails to each other. You could use framework activities, where learners draw a table themselves, then fill this table with questions, then interview each other.

In my opinion, the challenge should be in the task not the text.

5. With long-term Business English courses where you have the same group for 90 minutes once a week sometimes for years at the same company, how do you measure progress?

It all depends what you mean by ‘progress’. If this means merely rising through the levels, or moving onto a higher course book, this can often give a confusing picture—with students learning at higher levels, but with lower-level performance in real-world communicative tasks.

This all comes down to accurate needs analysis. What do they need to do with English? How can you best design a course to meet these needs? If you use course books, remember one course book will never solve the problems of your learners because course books are designed for an ideal type—the general learner—who doesn’t exist.

Progress is also dependent on learners wanting and needing to improve. The problem I’ve experienced in Berlin is that many students don’t actually know why they are learning English—there’s just this general expectation that they ‘need to learn English’. This is because HR departments generally don’t link language learning with their strategic goals, or HR themselves aren’t able to pinpoint the exact skills their employees need. (Apart from some of the bigger firms who have their own in-house providers.)

It’s a problem.

One solution would be to build mini-assessments into your course; a speaking test perhaps, or performance tests on one particular skill at regular intervals.

Introduction and editing by Mandy Welfare.