>Coursebooks are failing our students

>Except for new teachers, it is an overly simplistic idea that coursebooks are doing a great job of meeting the needs of our students.

No publisher or book author knows your students like you do. Look at nearly every single business English book. There are loads of stuff in there that will not help anyone. I’ve yet to have any students who could make full use of one of those business English books.

I mean there are entire units talking about Advertising, Marketing and Investing. My business English students were managers at Colgate in China or managers of a Japanese electronics firm in China. They were managing the factory. They had nothing to do with Advertising and Marketing. Actually, what they really needed was Manufacturing English. Where is the book on that? Sure there might be one or two but those are usually outdated and still too general. I need a book on electronics manufacturing and one on fast moving consumer personal care goods manufacturing. I had an IT English book that explained what a “floppy disk” was. Can you imagine going over the definition of a floppy disk with an IT manager?

Is nothing going to ever change? Are we going to be stuck with books forever? I learn very little from books these days. I’ve been studying the significance and uses of corpus from the Internet. I’ve recently learned a lot about the significance of Bayesian statistical theory and e-rating, the science of machine rating writing papers on the Internet. But I must admit that I am turning to books to satisfy my interest in Physics and String Theory, but those are audio books.

What is going to come after the book? That’s why I think that “books” have got us in a BOX. Teachers today do need help. They need highly adaptable materials in an electronic format that they can focus to each type of students they are going to teach. If they had a basic course framework with basic teaching content that the teacher could shift to different needs. He could shift this basic course framework to teach English to doctors, English to lawyers or English to policemen. The biggest difference between the different courses would be the vocabulary.

I know that years of research goes behind the design of coursebooks but still I’m tempted to believe that the course book designers are doing something that Dave Barry would describe as “listening to a little voice in my head that makes up believable facts”.

The unit themes in business English course books have a lot of redundant material that business professionals will never need. Few business people need the full scope of topics including everything from Stock Market Investing to Advertising. Now you could argue that college students who are not certain what field of business they will get involved in could make good use of this and I will grant that.

But to make that concession here in China and some other places it is getting more and more difficult. I just bumped into a student from last semester. He was real happy to tell me he found a job at Nokia. I was happy for him. Nokia is a great company. I asked him what exactly he was doing. He was a salesman working a counter in a department store. It is unlikely that he will get any English practice in that situation and the job holds little prospects.

Consequently, the English of this student and a lot of his classmates will go unpracticed and possibly much of it lost. This is not entirely an English teaching problem but it is part of the reality in which we operate. The Chinese government has announced it will reduce the number of college students in an effort to improve teaching quality and the high employment expectations of graduates. These kinds of concerns are not reserved to China. Something similar has happened in France.

At the college level what we are doing is “front loading”, filling the student up on knowledge that he might need. There was no recourse to this when we were students. But today, after all the technological developments, the science and art of teaching needs to become much more flexible and targeted. We need to employ the principles of “mass customization” to be able to mass generate customized training for students and give them this training “just-in-time“.

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>China is in the past with "New Concept"

>A teacher wrote us: “I noted recently the, I think, generally unannounced passing of LG (Louis) Alexander in June 2003. Alexander was a giant of TESOL in the early 70s when I began using his texts in TEFL situations. When I returned to the field a few years later his hour had passed and he wasn’t heard of again. Too much repetition; too much focus on habit formation.”

Alexander and his “New Concept” series, published in 1965 (with only superficial changes since) predating even Dell Hymes’ and the Communicative Approach (is it still a new concept?) is the number one best seller in China even today. It seems like Chinese students and Chinese teachers think it is the greatest invention in English teaching since the dictionary. They erected a statue to Alexander in Beijing .

A teacher suggested an examination of methodologies of the past to see what good things from them may have been overlooked. Obviously, more work needs to be done to get the world’s largest English learning population out of the past and at least to the present. So much has changed in the English teaching world since “New Concept” was published. The study of linguistics has benefited a lot from the research of Noam Chomsky, Stephen Krashen and many other researchers and modern thinkers. “New Concept” is in the past. It is the old concept. Time for a “new” new concept.

>Business English lessons for low level students? Don’t do it

>A teacher asks for some material to teach Business English to low intermediate students.

I suggest that it is not in the students’ best interest to begin studying Business English at that level for two reasons:

1. They really should get grounded in some basic English before trying to learn a specialty English like Business English. About 95% of their communications will be basic verbs and basic vocabulary.

2. There are no Business English books that can give the students the help they need in basic English at a low intermediate level.

At best they can only learn a McEnglish. This is what I call the English that McDonald’s order takers have around the world. Here in China you can ask the girl for a Big Mac, fries and Coke without any problem. However, if you ask her if she thinks it will rain today she is lost.

Giving a Business English too early makes the student aware of SOME business vocabulary at the expense of a broader grasp of the language.

A great general English book is New Interchange in 4 levels from 0-3. A good approach would be to get the student up to at least the level 2 (about mid-intermediate) and then instead of doing 3 with them it would be safe to introduce Business English.

There is a world of difference in teaching college/university students and business people or professionals. The first group is quite intrigued about business and are eager to learn it. I have even been asked by these students to teach more business and less English.

The second group deals with the language of their business constantly. They actually excel at all the little buzzwords and company language of their business. My Chinese Proctor and Gamble English students used to carry on whole conversations in English in their P&G lingo and I could hardly understand a thing. However, this group invariably needs help with basic vocabulary as well as the grammar patterns to create correct proper sentences.

For example, here is the last Email sample I received as part of my needs analysis of a logistics company where I have begun teaching. It is very typical:

“Pls refer to blw details,payment has been settled by our agent. Pls kindly arrange remit to head office asap TTL:USD141.00. Tks to release cargo accordingly.”

I would say the key business vocabulary here is: details, payment, settled, agent, remit, head office, release cargo; all used quite well. However there are lots of grammar errors.

Business English for pre-employed students is much different than for students who are professionals.