Teaching academic writing

Most writing books are pretty useless.


They are born out of a sort of academic incest, inbreeding. The authors look at what other authors got published and follow that. Publishers look at what other publishers sold and publish that. Jack Richards hints at this problem on his website. Shocking truth: Publishers are not in the business to help your students. Continue reading “Teaching academic writing”

Project 400 – Backstage Fashions

A large percentage of our students get jobs at foreign trade companies. Backstage Fashions is a woman’s fashion exporter doing business in several countries in Europe and in the USA. One of my former students works there.

As part of the 400 Project, I visited my former student and her boss. In the photo, I am talking to the manager of Back Stage. I am learning (1) what kind of English do companies need (2) what kind of English we taught our students that they use at their jobs (3)  what kind of English we taught our students that they do not use at their jobs (4) what kind of English our students need but were not taught.

From this research, I am learning how to prepare our students to find jobs easier and to do great at their jobs.

Project 400 – McDonald’s logistics company

McDonald’s sells millions of hamburgers in China. All of that food has to be sent from the companies that make the food to every McDonald’s restaurant. The food has to be kept in a high-quality condition, sometimes kept cold or frozen, and sent to each McDonald’s restaurant when the restaurant needs it. Taking care of that food and moving that food is the job of McDonald’s logistics company called Havi, an international American company operating also in Guangzhou.

The accounting manager and human resources manager explained to me how their American company uses English, what kind of English students need to learn and what kind of English students do not need to learn to work at their company. These managers are also my English students and we meet every week to talk about business innovation and management concepts while improving their English.

Our students may not get jobs at American logistics companies, but this research helps me to have a better understanding of how business English is used in China and how our students may get jobs in American companies.

Project 400 – What kind of English does Mercedes Benz need?

As part of my Project 400, I am talking to company managers, HR managers and company staff to learn how English is being used today.

Teachers should teach students the English they will need when they use English. So let’s start with the question, Why are students learning English? Although most students will say they want to learn English to travel and to make friends, the most important reason they will say is for their jobs.

If that is true, then the next question is, What English do they need for their jobs? We can answer this question by studying the English used in companies right now. When business people in today’s companies in our city use English, how do they use it?

The number one way English is used in companies today is in Emails. I have studied company Emails for almost ten years. They are short. They are informal, almost friendly. They are almost always written to people who are known, not to strangers. They usually use company special words correctly but there are mistakes in sentences. Here are some examples of real Emails from Benz. Please note the mistakes and corrections.

From these sample Emails, you will see that the main mistakes are with small errors in grammar. This is what students need to improve.


Kindly I’d like to inform you that yy has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.
The seminar will be held on July 27 in the evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail detailed rundown).
On yy’s introduction, we have invited xx. xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin Mandarin, too. He is a world class speaker.
We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion(,). we We wonder whether you need to invite him too?
If yes, we should inform yy of the schedule today.
Your reply today will be highly greatly appreciated!


The under insured’s leaflet has finish finished it’s final design, I’ve submit submitted it to bb for her comment.
I’ll attend an HR training this these two days, dd will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.
If there is Anything anything urgent pls contact zz or aa.
Thank you!

Engineering an experience!

Call the New York Hilton Hotel and get this information...
Can we engineer an English-learning experience so impressive and even so intensive that we need to remind students to breathe?

A teacher asked me to address the question about what the teacher should do in the classroom. If extensive comprehensible input is doing the heavy lifting of language learning, if the teacher does not need to teach, drill and test students on he/she pronouns of gender grammar, what should the teacher do in the classroom?

Over the years I have mixed together the things I have learned from dozens of TEFL books (many written by Jack Richards and David Nunan, both of whom I interviewed when they came to China) with things I have learned from late-night TV comedians like David Letterman, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, best-selling business book author Joseph Pine, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Much of this was driven by problems I was having in my teaching. During my teaching career I have received so many complaints about my teaching that it is almost embarrassing. One adult student told me that I was the “worst teacher” he had ever had. Although I have received much in the way of praise for being the “best teacher” many of my students have ever had, I treasure the complaints. I sincerely believe any accurate criticism is worth more than 100 praises and anything really good about my teaching skills came as a result of such complaints.

This set me on a quest to really understand the dynamics of learning, the psychology of managing student motivation and classroom management.

Now what I am doing in my classroom is engineering experiences. By this I mean to create some degree of mental and emotional experience mediated by English.

One simple example of this I have already described. You know how English coursebooks always have some dialog for students to imitate in order to book a hotel room? To create a better experience, many teachers ask students to sit back-to-back. I think this is very good and causes students to focus their listening more and even their speaking to be more understandable. It is a rather odd thing to do in the classroom and its uniqueness also wakes students up from the boring routine of sitting facing the teacher.

But can we do better than that?

How about booking a real room in a real hotel with a real phone call to a real American? And what hotel? I had once shown the movie, “Regarding Henry”, to my students. When it came time for us to have a lesson about how to book a hotel room, rather than do some boring unrealistic coursebook dialog, we called the Ritz Hotel which was featured in the movie. My students were actually calling a real hotel that they saw in a movie. (We also ate a box of “Ritz Crackers” which were also featured in the movie.)

The students were excited and nervous about the idea. All of them were not going to make the call. We’d choose a student. But I let the tension fill the room and hang there, permeating my students’ minds as every student thought it might be him or her doing the calling. As I played back recordings of students from other classes making these calls (which are completely different than any kind of coursebook sample) my students desperately clung to every word in anticipation and some degree of fear that in a couple minutes it might be them talking to a hotel clerk on the other side of the world. Eyes were widened. Hearts were pounding.

For my “volunteer” I always choose one of my most outgoing self-confident students, sometimes the class clown. His English may not be the best but he is least likely to have a heart attack and die in the classroom due to the excitement and stress. Sometimes I tell them that I will choose another student to make the call after him. This keeps them on edge.

All the other students breathe a sigh of relief that they “missed the bullet” this time, but now they are intensely interested in how this phone call is going to go. After all, they might be next. Again they cling to every word to listen to the negotiation of meaning between the clerk and the student. I record the call and play it back so we can talk about what happened. The mp3 is available so students can review it further if they want.

Contrast the intensity of such an experience with the relative boredom of repeating a coursebook phone call dialog. I’m sure that you have done more exciting things with your students and that you have many more ideas. Please share them with us.

I think we can quit apologizing to our students for the boring coursebook and “think outside the book” or make the book exciting. Some teachers dodge their responsibility of providing students with engaged learning saying they have to “follow the book”, that they and the students are destined to some kind of Dante-ish classroom experience, like it or not.

Don’t you think we can do better?


Do not book a room unless you are going to use it. But you can call for information about rooms and facilities. Although it may be afternoon in my classroom and late night in New York, these hotels have 24-hour staff to manage inquiries. To develop skills in understanding different English accents we have called hotels in Switzerland, India and the Philippines. With today’s calling cards these long distance phone calls are quite cheap. I set the phone on speaker mode and put a microphone next to it so the class can hear. Calls to USA 800 numbers can also be made for free by using Skype.

“Office English” and why nearly all business English books are useless

Famous publisher coursebooks, such as Cambridge University Press Pass Cambridge BEC Preliminary, teach such seemingly useful and important items as:

Product development (drug development in the USA) Measuring company performance (a private British rail network) Banking sector (about British banks) Quality control (a snack foods producer) Recruiting staff (article about various methods)

The seeming usefulness of this sort of study quickly vanishes when examined through the lens of reality, aka: needs analysis. Our students don’t need it. Contrary to popular belief and even many of our own assumptions, these lessons have little or no connection to the jobs our students will have.

This became apparent to me due to my practice of collecting 10 Emails from each of my corporate students. Examining the English that is actually used in companies, two things are very clear:

1. The specific vocabulary taught in these books is useless.
2. What our students need is basic business vocabulary and grammar.

At the bottom of this message are ten very typical examples[1] of Emails from a foreign insurance company operating in China. Please note the business vocabulary:
target customers
criterias [sic]
marketing plan

But please also note the specific industry vocabulary:
insured campaign
agent score card
Production Tracking Reports

As you read the Emails, below, you will see that little vocabulary is specifically about the insurance industry. But there is a lot “office English”, communication about approving forms, arranging a meeting, new procedures. Rather than call it “business English” with all its current sexy connotations of big negotiations, wining and dining in exotic five-star restaurants and stock market investments, I call this “office English”.

“Office English” is what our students are going to need. Not all that other crazy stuff in the business English books. Some of our students are going to work in the fashion, catering, manufacturing, chemical supply industries. Each of these have a very specialized vocabulary.

Special vocabulary they will pick up on the job.

So let’s look at this grammar. A few samples from the messages:

1. I’ll attend HR training this two days.
2. target customers who is inactive
3. the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st 4. u guys need not worry his ability 5. he has agreed with the revise

This is not “business grammar”. This is everyday grammar. They can pick up this grammar from reading novels, watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet, reading newspapers, graded readers.

In other words, they can learn it from extensive comprehensible input, material at their level and a little above that is interesting. Specific business vocabulary they will learn on the job from extensive comprehensible input in their work environment.

Collect Emails from your corporate students or ask your graduates who now have jobs to send you some samples and let’s compare notes. Are business English books hitting the target or are our students’ needs so diverse there is no ESP (English for Special Purposes) book able to serve them well?


[1] Below are ten actual Emails from an American insurance company in China. Please note some very specialized vocabulary. Students tell me they learned this vocabulary on the job and did not study it. They just picked it up from their work in the office. For a Word document with 50 examples, please contact me.


Kindly to inform you that xx has invited xx to be the speaker of OOC touch point seminar.

The seminar will be held on July 27 evening ( Pls see the attachment for the detail rundown).

On xx’s introduction, xx is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker.

We think it’s maybe a good opportunity for agency promotion, we wonder whether you need to invite him too?

If yes, we should inform xx the schedule today.

Your reply today will be highly appreciated!


The under insured’s leaflet has finish it’s final design, I’ve submit to xx for her comment.

I’ll attend HR training this two days, yy will forward the confirmed design to you ASAP.

Anything urgent pls contact xx or zz.

Thank you!


Dear all:
Kindly to remind you that as GZ’s inactive orphan policy lead size is not so sufficient. GZ have 2 selection criterias:
1. For the target customers who is inactive for 5 years(the same as SH), 2. For the target customers who is inactive for 3 years.
Thank you for your attention.


Kindly be informed that the marketing plan of Under Insured campaign has been approved by our GM, I’ve fax the hardcopy to you, pls check it.

As the time is very tight, can we finish the whole approval circle in two weeks?

Thank you very much!


Considering the under insured campaign is LG channel, to give more information and motivation to our agent, I modified the tracking report:
1. Add a new report named: billboard
2. Modify the agent score card( for team) I’ve discuss with xx, he has agreed with the revise.

Thank you!


Many thanks for your kindest support to make it happen! We strongly believe that xx is the right person for our seminar.
Your continuous support is the key of our success!


Dear both,

Denise has already invited a guest speaker from HK agency. He is called Andy xxx ( Senior District Director).

well, he is a very very good speaker and he can speak fluent mandarin too. He is a world class speaker, so u guys need not worry his ability 🙂

Kind regards,


I’ve double checked these cost items, and they are all right. Furthermore, I’ve mastered how to use correlative forms, and I’ll ask xx’s help when I have other questions.


There is the final version wording of “NML Campaign” we prepared in the attachment, please help to check whether it is ready to apply for approval program.


To conduct the campaign better and more conveniently, we prepared three “Production Tracking Reports” for agencies, and we’ll update them every two weeks from now on; Furthermore, because the data in today’s reports just update to June 1st- when our campaign have only launched for ten days, so some items just for your reference. If there are some questions or proposals about these reports, you can contact us further.

>ESP needs

>As far as teaching students who are working, I’m terribly disappointed with the published materials for English for Special Purposes (ESP). Our school wanted to start several various ESP programs and we did a review of all the books available.

Cambridge’s Information Technology ESP book, embarrassingly, has vocabulary including for “floppy disk”. It is typical of many books on the market. (1) Out of date information. These books get old and are not updated. (2) Out of touch. IT people nearly always have a good technical vocabulary and perhaps to a lesser extent so do other professionals.

Of all the ESPs the biggest one and the one that attracts the most efforts of publishers is Business English. Even with Business English it is difficult to find material that is truly suitable for office workers.

I am about to start another year of teaching at an American logistics company that has centers in over 40 countries. Here is a typical Email that represents the type of English they need. This is written by one of my next students there:


Dear Mr. Cao(ABC Co.), Polly(DEF Ltd.), Charles(GHI Inc.) and Daniel(JKL),

Greetings from Susan Lau, MNO Guangzhou.

Per PQ’s e-mail below, I believe you already come into production the Holiday POPs. As you know, MNO need to repack and allocate the POPs to more than 400 RST Stores in Mainland China.

Usually, we will do the following when POPs ETA MNO:
– Combine some POPs to one carton to save packaging materials. (e.g. We usually put the Translite, Standee and Hanging Mobile into one Standee wrap)
– Ask some Temp. Helper on the POP allocation(to reduce Over Time Pay for
– Catch Normal Routing Delivery to DCs, then from DC to Stores(to save delivery cost)
– 2 days repack in SUMS for 400+ stores

Therefore, we need your cooperation to deliver the POPs to MNO on or before Dec. 27, 2004. Otherwise, some POPs will be delivered by Express mail, this will bring on high delivery cost.

Any query or comments please feel free to call me or send me an E-mail.

Many thanks!

Susan Lau
Manager Trainee – MNO(GZ)

BERL Services (Guangzhou) Ltd.


Most business people have difficulty with basic English. Students should probably focus on basic English until the upper-intermediate level. At that point the technical vocabulary they need is often particular to their specific type of business and their particular company and it is unlikely that a business book will even come close to it.

What is the solution? Something the publishers have no interest in giving us.

The ultimate ESP teacher tool would be a computer program that drove a flexible template based course generator. It would be strong on basic functions and notions and grammar practice (as is needed in the sample above) and allow teachers to easily insert the vocabulary and themes needed by the ESP teacher.

Photo: My student, a manager of a cold storage logistics company, visiting one of the top supermarkets in the city with me, learning and practicing her English about…well, cold storage.

>Business English or Office English – There is a BIG difference

>A teacher asked: “Can anyone recommend some textbooks or references that I could use in class and what is the course structure for teaching Business Communication?”

A lot depends on your students and their level.

College/university students have little idea of what kind of business English they will need and they have little or no real knowledge of English in the work place. Publishers have rolled out tons of material for these types of students which cover such a wide spectrum of business subjects, everything from stock portfolios to business travel, to be of little specific good.

On the other hand, you will find that professionals, who are already working in a business, have already mastered the vocabulary of their business but not the grammar. Here are samples of actual work Emails that I collected when researching needs at three different companies:

TO A CUSTOMER: “As per your request, we offered 7-cup & 10-cup rice cooker, single & double burner. Please kindly see the attached to re-fresh your memory. You like our product, and want to mix container of rice cooker and burner. Our Manager agreed that you can mix 4 items, 7-cup & 10-cup Rice cooker, single and double burner in trial order.”

TO A CHINESE COLLEAGUE IN AMERICAN COMPANY: “Please advise the factory must check for lose color stones, the customer is complain last orders 993105, 993106, 993107, 993109, 993110, 993111 most of them the color stones are lose, please make sure factory double check for lose stones on these present orders…”

TO A CHINESE COLLEAGUE IN AMERICAN COMPANY IN CHINA: “we certify blue card of OBA or QC for those who were on board this month as per the training flow.[OBA&QC duration of OJT(red cards) are 15 working days to 20 working days ] . However we will certify blue card within this week if they had ability to working on their station. If not certification of blue card will be postponed to end of OJT by trainers. The OBA persons total 8 in A shift. We will certify their blue card in this week if they were able to work absolute. I will certify those who am I follow up persons. You certify those who are you follow up persons.”

This latter type of students, the professionals, need what I call “Office English” but there is as yet no such textbook. Such a textbook would guide the student in making formal and informal business requests, confirming and checking information, accepting and rejecting suggestions, etc. Failing an Office English textbook, some of these needs are covered in General English and General Business English textbooks.

>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.

>Know your students, know your ESP

>Mert Bland on developing English training for special purposes (ESP): “I always begin where the students are and work outward in a kind of spiral. Like, have each one describe what he does. Ask questions. Have him teach you what security and facilities maintenance are all about. He should know more than you.”

Mert makes a good point here. It’s very easy for the teacher to make wrong assumptions of what the students need. You should also ask your students for copies of their incoming and outgoing Emails so you can see what your students communicate about, what kind of language they use and what kind of errors they make. When I start a training I get 10 Emails from each student. I have collected thousands by now and have a pretty good insight into real business writing.

Many teachers think that the students need to expand their vocabulary in their professional field. However, I’ve found that professional vocabulary is one of the things they learn first while on the job and they are often more in need of improving their grammar to support their vocabulary. This is a big relief for the teacher who may not be conversant in their particularly technical field.

Lower level students will need more functional help, how to describe or plan certain actions; ie: planning the work schedule for security staff. Higher level students will not have much trouble with this but will need help in discussing concepts and ideas; ie: future trends in security and maintenance.

The best way to figure out what they need is, like Mert suggested, talk to them about their work. You could also ask for a tour of their facilities and this will give you lots of ideas of things to talk about with them or you can even help them learn how to do the tour in English.

One final thought is that in some cases it is best to not always fit the training too closely to their job. I was teaching Business English to some students from Caltex and found some Caltex materials and a video clip on the Internet. I formulated some lessons around this Caltex material which I thought would really hit the target of what the students need. I suppose it did but the students hated it. They told me they deal with Caltex stuff all week and they’d like to get their minds off work a bit when they studied English.