BESIG Summer Symposium 2014 in Graz: a summary of two inspirational talks

Posted: June 15, 2014 in Conferences
Tags: , ,

BESIG Summer Symposium in Graz finished yesterday. This was my first ever BESIG event – and my first ever conference where I was torn between talks to attend almost every parallel session. All in all, these were two very interesting days.

Below are summaries of the two talks that became the highlights of the conference for me. Both of them gave indispensable insight into designing a customized course. 

Simona Petrescu. TIP – a proposal for customised business English syllabus design (a workshop)

Simona started with the concerns she had designing a customised syllabus:

  • How to ensure that there is a connection between what I do today and tomorrow? (Some approaches used at the moment: from easier to more difficult language structures; around skills; around tasks – tasks focussed on in no particular order.)
  • How to ensure that no areas identified during the needs analysis are overseen/accidentally left out ouf the resulting course?

She’s looking for a framework for course design that can be reused again and again.

A task for the audience:

You’re going to move to a country where you don’t know the language. You have a native speaker friend who is not a professional language teacher who’s agreed to teach you. Create a syllabus: 1) what you’d loke to be taught 2) how should these topics be sequenced?

My partner and I came up with

  • language used in particular situations, e.g. ‘buying food’, etc
  • language to compensate for gaps in knowledge
  • expressions to organize speech: conjunctions, stance markers, etc

We didn’t come up with any ideas how to sequence them logically.

Other ideas coming from the audience: 

  • Starting from ‘life skills’ and breaking them down?
  • Not much on order – maybe use some input from psychology on what makes a situation ‘simple’ or ‘complex’Ы

Simona Petrescu’s approach:

  • What to teach? – the building blocks of the course: tasks (what will I need to be able to do in Arabic?) A ‘situation’ is static, a task involves whether you’re achieving your goal; tasks directly emerge from needs analysis
  • Sequence?
    Take your customer’s business process and replicate the flow (an approach adapted from the way IT business analysis approach designing the system by understanding the management and the flow): the task that follows the current task is going to be the next natural step in the business process; everything in our life is based on a flow – just reuse it and there are very good chances that we’re having a systematic flow
    Example 1: you first enquire about a product, then make an order, then complain
    Example 2 (for the case study given earlier to the audience):
    >Travelling: checking in, asking for directions, …
    >Settling in: meeting my neighbours, shopping, opening a bank account, finding a place
    >Starting work: introducing myself, talking about my experience, …
    Example 3: materials Simona designed for an HR course, again based around their workflow – she won the 2011 ELTONS-Macmillan Award for Innovative Writing for these materials
    >Recrute (design job descriptions, explain contract provisions) etc – coursebooks don’t look at them as tasks, that is, what does an HR managee have to do?
    >Train: induction/explaining procedures (what to avoid, who to report to etc)
    >Appraise (review business indicators/figures and numbers, interpret figures)
    >Implement the strategy and develop the staff
  • Added benefit: this provides you with a template for needs analysis. ‘Brainstorming’ needs, on the other hand, is just not good enough because the results will never be comprehensive and systematic.

Simona Petrescu’s blog.


Charles Rei. Taking business English agile: Applying research on complex systems to teaching methodology


Charles started by outlining the problem: designing a truly customized BE syllablus is immensely complex; it’s impossible for a starting BE trainer to find their footing. A simple calculation yields that designing a truly customized course for a group of 5 people requires so much time that the cost is miles beyond what their company would be prepared to pay.

His solution: Look at the most complex industry – IT – which faces a similar challenge: in the current market companies cannot afford a year to design a product, time pressures are incredibly high. How did they change the way they manage projects in response? How can we adopt their approach?

Approaches to project management in IT (and implications for syllabus design)

  • ‘The old way’: Waterfall
    Plan then implement; planning takes around 1/3 of the development cycle; after planning ‘you hope and pray you’ll be able to follow your plan; you won’t, but you can hope and pray’. This is what a coursebook is in IT terms. The resulting product has a lot of features that any specific user will not need: you never use 60% of functions available in Microsoft Word – same with coursebooks.
  • In response to the pressures of the market: Agile Manifesto
    >> individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    working software (language) over comprehensive documentation. The only thing to care about is what the students are able to do
    >> customer collaboration over contract negotiation – asking the students to sign that they will do homework is meaningless; deliver value or they won’t show up
    >> responding to change over following a plan

Charles Rei’s process

  • Needs analysis. Charles starts the course with ordinary needs analysis – typically, each student is given post-it notes to write their needs on. Then he creates an Excel file (Backlog) where the needs are logged. This file is open during every lesson and whenever it becomes evident that there is an issue with student production (e.g. ‘the group makes a lot of mistakes in comparatives’; ‘the students do not use backchanelling’;) Charles points this out to the group and immediately adds this need to the backlog. Students can also add areas they would like to focus on. Each entry in the backlog comes with Type (V[ocabulary]/S[kills]/F[unctions]/G[rammar])/Topic/Subtopic/Submitter
  • Iterative training. Like in Agile, the course is divided into parts (Sprints). Each sprint lasts 7 weeks. Before the new sprint, the group and the trainer examine the backlog and choose priorities for the next 7 weeks. After these 7 weeks the students have working skills. Week 8 is reflective – the group and the trainer reflect on what to add to the backlog.
  • At the level of a lesson: task-based, informed by the backlog
    >>a task aimed to identify a performance gap (e.g. functions are missing? communication style is not appropriate? no self-confidence? technology?); the trainer can add variety or tweak the level bychallenge by adding Condition and Standard to the Task
    Example 1 (high level of challenge). Task: Give a presentation about a new product; Condition: everyone in the room is A2; Standart: at the end, they will want to buy your product
    Example 2 (less challenging). Task: Give a presentation about a new product; Condition: the audience works in your company; Standard: they have only basic understanding of this produce
    >> if the performance gap can be dealt with in this lesson, this takes the form of a timeout in the middle and then
    >> the students carry on with the task taking the feedback they’ve just got on board (refined production);
    if the gap can’t be dealt with in the lesson, it goes into the backlog
  • Results: after introducing this model, Charles has noticed visible improvement on all counts (higher customer satisfaction, 4x higher referral rate, higher attendance figures, etc)
  • Added benefit: this process educates the learners to formulate their needs more precisely

Charles Rei’s blog.

To sum up, these were two immensely valuable talksInterestingly, both of them looked at adopting IT practices: Simona Petrescu adopts the way IT business analysts analyze customers’ work processes; Charles Rei, the way IT companies organize their own work. 

Also, I completely take on board Charles Rei’s idea to make syllabus design interactive and transparent for students. English teachers do adapt the course in response to the students’ weaknesses, but is this always evident to the students? In my own experience, when I simply started to provide language feedback in electonic form and use it as a basis for homework and tests, the students’ attitude to homework immediately changed; so it’s very likely that the approach Charles Rei suggests will bring perceived relevance of the course to an entire new level.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s