Posts Tagged ‘English for IT’

This blog has been quiet for a while, because life really got in the way.

I spent the bulk of spring finishing my Delta Module 3 assignment (the mammoth of a text had over 200 pages of appendices by the time I sent it off to Cambridge), and then three weeks ago I had a wonderful baby daughter, who’s been amusing and occupying me ever since.

This post is a bit of a diary entry, actually. Normally I don’t create any materials when I’m not teaching, but this post will be an exception. Right now I’m doing an iTDi course on Creating ELT Materials with Katherine Bilsborough. It’s been a very enjoyable experience so far (and a nice change from the stress and toll of Delta), and I thought I’d make a note of some of the things that I’ve learnt on the course and post some of my assignments here.

My biggest takeaway from the first life session was the idea to bring together the materials writing principles that I adhere to and use this list as a checklist to proofread the worksheets that I create. When I started writing down the principles, they were an incoherent mess, but after a while some logic emerged:

Materials should

  • have clear aims that are authentic (real-world outcomes that the learners desire to achieve);
  • focus on language points/sub-skills that are key to achieving the aims (as opposed to ‘shoe-horning’ pre-chosen language points with no regard for discourse). To achieve that, they should be informed by insight into language in authentic use, e.g. be researched through a corpus or use authentic texts, and insight into performance of competent speakers);
  • stimulate genuine communication/authentic use of language, empowering the learners to get across the meanings they want to get across and, more generally, achieve the outcomes they want to achieve.

Materials should

  • be informed by insight into language acquisition;
  • cater for the learners’ learning needs (e.g. stimulate and sustain interest, stimulate motivation e.g. by providing the learners with the opportunity to notice the gap between their performance and target performance; be cognitively engaging; elicit emotional response; be aesthetically pleasing; build the learners’ confidence; promote learner autonomy);
  • provide the learners with sufficient support through a well-designed sequence of tasks, e.g. focusing on Meaning/Form/Pronunciation of language or targeting specific sub-skills (this also means that they should not be overloaded: LESS is MORE);
  • provide opportunities for feedback.

The assignment for the first week was to create a worksheet based on a very short authentic text. I chose this 40-second video:

Lesson Overview
Level: B1

Video: (from Google Developers Youtube channel);
Learner type: Business English or General English/Teens.
Time: 60-75 minutes 
Lesson aim: the learners will improve their ability to understand a British accent and get practice talking about what they love about their job and/or hobby.

The course has a thriving Google Plus community where course participants share their material writing assignments, leave feedback and share tips, and for me this has been a great opportunity to hear suggestions how to improve the listening worksheets that I have been creating – something that has never really happened with materials posted on this blog – and I found the feedback from the course participants and Katherine immensely valuable.

Here’s the summary of the feedback that I got so far:

  • For key elements of the lesson, don’t rely on the Teacher’s notes and the teacher. Most of my lesson plans have an element of decoding work, but up to now I never actually wrote any information about the features of connected speech in the worksheet explicitly, leaving it for the teacher to cover. This is bound to be confusing for the learners, so in this worksheet I summarized the key points in an information box.
  • Teacher’s notes: first, explore teacher’s books and look for good instructions to steal. Second, choose a style of presentation and stick to it, e.g. how will the Keys be highlighted? Will I use bullet points or paragraphs of text to present longer procedures? Third, use simpler language both in the teacher’s notes and in the instructions (one way to do that is to run them through a vocabulary profiler, aiming for A2 vocabulary).

So, here’s the resulting worksheet. I would be thrilled to hear any other tips how it could be improved. Any thoughts?



One of the questions that my learners (who are IT people) are very likely to be asked during interviews and promotion reviews is ‘Tell us about your favourite technology’. But, whatever their profession, Business English learners need to learn to speak fluently and persuasively when presenting the advantages of products, tools and options.

Here’s a ‘geeky’ lesson plan in which the learners

  • watch a video of a developer talking about the features of his favourite browser (activities: gist listening, listening decoding skills)
  • analyze linkers used for listing ideas
  • briefly revise modal verbs (could, (don’t) have to)
  • talk about their favourite tools, apps and technologies

It worked very well with my learners, who spent more than fifteen minutes discussing the relative merits of file managers and development environments. For learners who are less geeky, I included a range of other websites and apps to talk about, e.g. social networks, messengers and and to-do list apps.

Level: Intermediate (B1)

Time: 90 minutes

Materials: an editable Microsoft Word worksheet. If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you could download the .pdf file from Slideshare:

Today I’m sharing a lesson based on four video snippets with Google employees describing their career paths and how they got to Google. Although this topic is covered extensively in every Business English course, I wanted to give my group (which is a very strong Pre-Intermediate group about to finish the course) exposure to authentic speech, and this material seemed both interesting linguistically and not too challenging. The learners revise past simple and present perfect (time adverbials used with those tenses), practice listening decoding skills (listening to verbs in past simple and present perfect), focus on vocabulary to talk about educational background and career paths, and finish the lesson by speaking about their own career paths.

I must admit I was very unsure that the learners would cope well with the listening tasks, because my previous attempts to introduce (tiny bits of) authentic listening in that group had caused a lot of frustration. But this time they did all right. Apart from Task 2, all they needed to do was to discriminate between Past Simple and Present Perfect – the ‘secret reason’ for the task was to get them to notice how Past Simple is pronounced (very often it sounds very close to Present Simple, as the ending /t/ is barely pronounced, which might be confusing for the learners). NB For the tasks in which the students listen to sentences one by one to check their answers, it’s better to open the videos on youtube and use the interactive transcript feature to replay sentences.

One thing that I noticed while working on this worksheet that I had never noticed before was that speakers tend to use vague language with periods of time (‘a little over a year ago’, ‘for about four and a half years’, ‘for a bit’ – other examples that didn’t make it into the worksheet were ‘for quite a number of years’, ‘for close to six years’). This definitely sounds a lot more natural, but I’d never thought to teach this little trick to my students who were preparing for exams.

Anyway, here’s the worksheet – let me know if you use it or if you see how it could be improved.


Level: Intermediate (B1)
Time: 90 minutes
Materials: a worksheet (feel free to edit and adapt).

If you don’t have Microsoft Word, you can download a .pdf file from Slideshare:

Extract 1:

Extract 2:

Extract 3:

Extract 4:

NB These videos come from Google Developers Youtube channel.

I’m enjoying a Saturday lie-in with Corpus Linguistics for ELT: Research and Practice by Ivor Timmis, a great new book which arrived in my mail just yesterday. It made me think of a quick exercise that can be used as a follow-up to any reading or listening activity. 2015-07-18 17.52.12It’s really simple, but since it takes a bit of technology to create it quickly, I thought I’d write a quick post.

The book overviews the insights into language achieved by corpus linguistics and discusses their implications for the ELT classroom. I’m currently reading the chapter called Corpus research and grammar, and one of the main topics of the chapter is to what extent the frequency of a linguistic feature should influence the amount of time devoted to teaching that feature. The author gives a number of very interesting examples of frequent features that tend to be underrepresented, over-represented or misrepresented in coursebooks (examples include ‘though’, which is often used in speaking to signal soft disagreement, and conditionals, which more often than not do not fall under ‘the zero, first, second and third’ two-part conditional structures, which most coursebooks almost exclusively focus on).

One striking fact mentioned in this chapter comes from an article by Biber and Reppern. Apparently, just 12 lexical verbs (say, get, go, know, think, see, make, come, take, want, give, and mean) account for 45% of lexical verbs used in conversation. Biber and Reppern suggest that, since they are so frequently used in speech, these verbs require more attention in class than they currently do, judging by the coursebooks that they reviewed, and that these verbs should be used more to exemplify various grammar structures.

I’m thinking of giving my students an occasional gap-fill exercise based on the reading and listening texts that we are working on, with these verbs gapped out (their frequency is said to be higher in conversation than fiction, news and academic texts, so probably the task will work best with listening transcripts and informal writing, e.g. forum posts).

Finding and replacing the various forms of these verbs could be time-consuming, but there are tools in which one can make such a gap-fill exercise in one click. The first one is a free nifty little text editor called Notepad++.

notepadThe trick is that the editor uses so-called ‘regular expressions’ to allow you to search for more than one expression at once. So, if you open your text file in Notepad++ and type in (some|any) in the search box, you’ll see all occurrences of both words in your file and will be able to replace them with gaps in one click. The following search will find all verb forms of the 12 verbs mentioned above:


(If you want to know why this expression matches all forms of those verbs, scroll to the bottom of the post).

Here’s how to create a gap-fill using Notepad++ in a bit more detail:

  1. Insert your text into Notepad++, select the text (on my system, by pressing CTRL+A),  and open the search window by pressing CTRL+H.
  2. In the search window, click the ‘Mark’ tab. Ensure that Search mode is set to ‘Regular expressions’ and that the ‘in selection’ check box is checked. Insert this into the ‘Find what’ box:

    Click ‘Mark all’ to highlight all occurrences of these words, so that you can look through them and check how many there are and how they’re used, and that nothing unrelated was accidentally found. In the example below there are 14 matches.

  3. Go to the ‘Replace’ tab, type in ‘________’ into the ‘Replace with’ box and click ‘Replace all’.
  4. Finally, insert the gap-filled text alongside the initial text into a word document. Voilà!

As an alternative to installing Notepad++, use the web-based Find and Replace tool – thanks to Mura Nava for the heads up! It’s even quicker and you don’t have to install it on your computer (one possible drawback is that you can’t highlight and check what you’re going to replace).


I’ve tried this activity with a few transcripts from youtube, and I found it doable and enjoyable. I think I want to try to use it on a regular basis with my Upper-Intermediate students, encouraging them to note down interesting chunks with those verbs.

Let me know what you think.


Biber, D. and Reppern, R. (2002) What does frequency have to do with grammar teaching? Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24/2: 199-208

Timmis, I. (2015) Corpus Linguistics for ELT: Research and Practice. Routledge

A bit on regular expressions

If you want to create your own regular expression searches, you might like to figure out how the one in this post works.

  • | stands for ‘or’. So (say|said) will return all present/past/past participle forms of ‘say’.
  • ? stands for ‘this part is optional’. So, (say|said)(s|ing)? will return all the forms from the previous example, plus ‘says’, ‘saying’, ‘saids’, and ‘saiding’. Only the first two words exist, but that doesn’t matter.
  • Some instances might be ‘false positives’. For example, ‘essays’ contains ‘say’, but that’s clearly not what we need. So, we need a way to show the tool that we’re only looking for full words. This is done by wrapping the search expression into ‘\b’ tags (they stand for ‘word boundary’).

So, in order to find all verb forms, I list all present and irregular forms, separating them by ‘or’, add possible endings (ed|ing|s)?, account for the fact that (e) will disappear before ing (hence, mak(e)?) and add \b at the beginning and the end:


A couple of weeks ago I was doing a diagnostic test with one of my Business English groups to establish how well they answered interview questions. One of the questions was Have you ever worked with someone who it was difficult to work with? The students came up with lots of stories of difficult colleagues, but two things became evident from their replies. First, they didn’t really understand what to include in the answer, so they mostly focused on the description of the situation, and at least half of them didn’t even mention how the situation was resolved. And second, their replies were so long-winded that it was difficult to see structure in them even when they were

So here is a video-based lesson plan that we did with that group today. The main aim of this lesson was to help the students structure their speech when talking about past experiences and decisions using the STAR framework for impromptu speaking. They listen to an extract from a workshop in Stanford Graduate School of Business in which the framework is presented, focus on vocabulary (talking about deadlines) and grammar (cleft sentences) in the video and then practice using the framework in their own speech.

In the second lesson (or for homework), the students analyze an example of a business person using a variation of the technique in her presentation:

Language level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
Learner type: adults (Business English)
Activity: listening (gist and decoding work), vocabulary, speaking strategies (STAR framework), cleft sentences (optional)
Length: ideally, two lessons (either 60 or 90 minutes, as communicative activities are flexible in length)
To do the lesson in 90 minutes, skip the task focusing on cleft sentences (see the procedure in the Teacher’s notes at the end of the worksheet).
Materials: editable .docx worksheet (tasks, transcripts, teacher’s notes). If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download a .pdf file from Slideshare:


Some of my students are great conversationalists who thrive talking to new interesting people, but for others having to maintain a conversation with someone they don’t know that well is a truly daunting task. I personally am more of a quiet type, and I deeply sympathize with people who have this problem. I remember, when I first started out teaching, being positively terrified by meeting some of my students on the underground: inexplicably, having chatted with them effortlessly in class, I completely froze and didn’t know what to say the moment we stepped out of the classroom.

When it comes to intercultural communication, the issues of shyness and not knowing how to break the ice or fill the awkward pauses may be additionally complicated by the fact that different cultures might expect different behaviour during the conversation. For example, in her IATEFL presentation on The Pragmatics of successful business communication, Chia Suan Chong gave a very interesting example of how politeness and the wish not to interrupt may be interpreted as lack of interest:

Allyson: You won’t believe what happened to me today!
Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.
Allyson: Right, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!
Jun Sook: Huh?

Russians make another good example: we use back-channeling (i.e. small noises and comments that show you’re listening and interested, like ‘Mmm?’ and ‘Interesting’) a lot less than English or American people, and a typical reaction when some of my students notices the question ‘Really?’ in a transcript is to giggle and ask, ‘How come she doesn’t believe him?’ We also have quite different body language, so a lot of my students avoid making eye contact, and hardly use any gestures when they speak.

A few weeks ago a team of engineers at my company needed to entertain a customer (something that they normally don’t do) and I needed to teach a short course designed to help them brush up their English and conversation skills. Here’s one of the lesson plans that was part of the course. It is designed to help learners maintain conversations more easily by

  1. asking a range of follow-up questions more skillfully and
  2. using some ‘active listening’ techniques, namely, showing interest verbally (through short interjections and comments) and non-verbally, through eye contact and body language.

Levels: B1/B2
Length: 90 minutes

  • an editable Worksheet
  • a projector or a laptop to show the video
  • a deck of cards (you’ll need around 8 cards for each student – printed out cards will do)

If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download the .pdf from Slideshare:

Teacher’s notes

Task 1. S/s discuss in pairs for 3-5 minutes. Brief feedback.
Task 2. The purpose of tasks 2 and 3 is for the students to notice the differences between the way they show interest / encourage the other speaker to continue and the way Americans do that.
For task 2, split s/s into groups of three or four. Two people in each group are talking (Task 2), the remaining students are analyzing their conversation (Secret task on last page). Allow 2 minutes for Student As to read the task, then let Students B and C talk for 3-4 minutes.
Task 3. Elicit from Student As what they were looking out for and board the questions. Conduct brief feedback, then focus the class on the first three questions: (1) How do they use their hands? (2) Do they make any eye contact? (3) How do they show that they’re listening? Explain that you’re going to watch a short video of two IT professionals discussing their work. Explain that the topic is quite technical and that the students’ task is to ignore what the speakers are saying and concentrate on questions (1), (2) and (3). Play the video.


Suggested answers:
(1) How do they use their hands?
They use hands a lot to illustrate what they’re saying

(2) Do they make any eye contact?
 They make eye contact occasionally, but they don’t look each other in the eye for more than a few seconds.

(3) How do they show that they’re listening?
Non-verbally (they’re sitting half-facing each other and they nod a lot)
Verbally (they use ‘small noises’ (Huh-huh), make short comments (Right), and at one point ‘echo’ by reformulating a key word (3:28: ‘They’re still on the same visit’/’The same session’).

Play the video again, this time stopping after each example of back-channeling and asking the students to repeat it.

Task 2′. Get the students to repeat the same task in new pairs – this time nobody is doing the secret task and the objective is to (1) use more interesting gestures while you’re speaking and (2) show interest by body language, small noises and short comments. 

Task 4. The aim of tasks 4 and 5 is to extend the students’ repertoire of short comments used to show interest and to give them controlled practice coming up with follow-up questions. Refer the class to Task 4 and ask them to sort the reactions. Conduct brief feedback.
Follow-up: Elicit answers to the following questions:
1. What word makes follow-up sound more friendly/conversational? (So).
2. What words make comments work more natural/conversational? (So, then).
3. What is the structure of the comments? (Short reaction, e.g. ‘Really?’/’Yeah’/’Exactly’ + a longer comment).


One- or two-word comments / echoing key words. Follow-up questions Comments that work as follow-up questions Comments about yourself
5 years?Interesting.
Right.Was it?
Really? What was that like?Why did you decide to leave your start-up?
So, were you working on the same project back then?So when exactly did you start with this?
So you know the company pretty well then.

So you have been working here for quite a long time now.

Really? That’s interesting because…

Yeah, I had a similar experience. I ….

Exactly. I think…

Refer the class to Task 5 and ask to come up with more short comments / follow-up questions and comments (do the first line together, then allow the students to work in pairs).

Task 6. Distribute cards to students and put them in new pairs. Explain that in this task they’ll chat about the questions and they’ll need to use the cards to know how to react: by showing interest using body language, by asking follow-up questions, by making comments that serve as questions or by making comments to share something about themselves.

Task 7. Either as a follow-up or for homework, get the students categorize the questions in Task 6 and come up with more questions. Use those questions for another revision/communication activity next time.

For homework, share the links to the following two resources:
Quora thread Meeting New People: What is the best way to start an engaging conversation with a stranger?
Lifehacker thread What’s Your Best Ice Breaker When Meeting Someone New?

Ask the students to read them, choose their favourite tips and share them, either in the next lesson or on your facebook group/blog, if the group has one.

Update. I was delighted to hear that this post got shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it (in which case, THANK YOU! :)), let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their facebook page: .

In this post I want to share a tip that might be an effective and enjoyable way to work on your IELTS speaking, and on your speaking skills in general.

When I first started teaching for IELTS, I came across a great book by Matt Clark on how to crack the Speaking part of the exam, and that book helped my students a lot. The idea that I learnt from Matt Clark was that a lot of IELTS Speaking topic fall into categories, and it’s important to know the common question types and to have a framework for each type. Here are some examples of question types (taken from

  • Frequency. How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours? How often do you go to a restaurant (to eat)? How often do you use a computer for work / study?
  • Problems. What problems do many young people have? What problems can people have when they change jobs frequently? What problems can result if a teenager has too much money?
  • Solution. How can one (or, how do people) make new friendships? How can people maintain long-term friendships? How can the government encourage more people to use public (mass) transportation?
  • should. Do you think people should have to pay to visit museumsDo you think employers should provide recreational facilities for their employees? Do you think we should obey all laws, all the time? Do you think people should help their neighbours? (Why? How?) Do you think children should be encouraged (or taught) to help others? (How?)

The structure for replying to frequency questions could be ‘It depends’ + ‘case one’ + ‘case two’. E.g. here’s a possible reply to ‘How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours?’

Well, that really depends on what time of year it is. If I’m on holiday spending time in my summer house, then probably that would happen every single day, because we see each other all the time and we’ve really grown quite close over the years. But on the other hand if I’m here in town, then that hardly ever happens, simply because we don’t run into each other that much.

You can see that this answer could be easily adapted to any other ‘How often..?’ question, and that the linkers in bold hold this reply together, helping to build an extended monologue out of short simple sentences.


IELTS Speaking score consists of scores for the following aspects:

  • Fluency & coherence (speaking without pauses and structuring your speech)
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range and accuracy
  • Pronunciation

As you can see, having ready-made frameworks for some of the question types will help you a lot with coherence – that is, with structuring your speech. That will also make your speech more fluent (by buying you thinking time) – provided you say the linkers fluently (fast) and with correct pronunciation and intonation. This will also allow you to use more complex sentences, improving your grammar score.

The importance of structures is true not only of IELTS and other exams, but of speaking in general. Here’s an extract from Matt Abrahams, an expert in communication, giving a workshop on spontaneous speaking in Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this extract he argues that the key to successful spontaneous speaking is having a structure, because it’s a lot easier for the listener to process structured information than information without structure. He gives two examples of great structures ‘to have in your back pocket’:

problem ⊲ solution ⊲ benefit

What? ⊲ So what? ⊲ Now what?

(NB This video has accurate subtitles – watch it on youtube with closed captions if you need them. The extract starts at 38:37 and finishes at 42:50)

So, how can you use this information to improve your IELTS speaking score and speaking in general? By actively looking for structures and linkers in examples of spoken communication and adapting them to other topics. Nowadays there are lots of talk shows and podcasts that come with transcripts, and it’s quite easy to find them and analyze them. For example, I spent some time today reading the transcript of a programme on Soft Skills and Marketing Yourself as a Software Developer with John Sonmez (an episode of JS Jabber, a great podcast for software engineers), and I could see some kind of structure in virtually every speaker’s turn, simply because when speakers speak at length, they have to organize their thoughts somehow. Here are a couple of examples. First look through each one looking for the linkers, and then scroll down to compare with my version.


I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. I know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. And I think that there’s a reason for that. I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. And so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. So yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. So, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people.

Here are the linkers that I saw:

I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. [reasonAnd so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. [wrap-up] So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. [exploring consequences of a hypothetical caseSo, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

Now, this structure could be adapted to ‘Do you think … should…?’ questions. E.g. here’s what I came up with for Do you think people should have to pay to visit museums?

I’m not a big person who believes so much in allowing people to visit museums for free. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most well-known museums, like Louvre or The Hermitage, aren’t free. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that running a museum is very expensive [reasonAnd so, you can’t do that if you don’t have a stable income – the quality of your service will suffer and your museum will lose popularity. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think museums have to be paid for. [wrap-up] And also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] they’re quite affordable anyway. You don’t need to go to the Hermitage every single week – most people go once a year, or only when they travel, and anyone can afford to go once a year. And so, I think while yes, we can look at prices and say, “Yeah, they are too high and they reduce the popularity of museums,”  I think that in fact most people can easily buy those tickets. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

2. Here’s another example:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need. That’s the goal of marketing. Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. It’s a beneficial thing.

Here are the linkers I saw:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that marketing is bad] Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need.[stating a fundamental positive fact about marketing]  That’s the goal of marketing. [reformulating the previous statement] Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying marketing is good one more time]

And here is an adaptation of this framework to the following question: Do you think television has a positive effect on a child’s attitudes towards learning?

Yeah, I guess so. Some people say that TV makes kids stupid because they watch silly series for teens all the time. But that’s not necessarily what television has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that TV is bad] Television at its core is really just providing information to someone who needs that information.[stating a fundamental positive fact about TV]  That’s the goal of television. [reformulating the previous statement] If you didn’t have television, kids whose families can’t afford good schools wouldn’t have access to information. They wouldn’t have the chance to learn from programmes like Discovery channel, or other excellent educational programs, which I’m sure get lots of kids hooked and really interested in subjects like biology.  [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] So, at its core good TV is good for children’s education. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying TV is good one more time]

These are just two examples, but as I said, basically every single extended speaker’s turn was structured and packed with linkers. (Here you can find a couple of more turns that I analyzed – I’m putting them to a separate file in order not to clutter up the post).

Acknowledgement. A big word of thank you goes to Kirill Sukhomlin, who came up with the idea to look through the transcripts of JS Jabber as we were watching the youtube workshop above.

How to practice using structures?

I recommend the following steps:

  • Go through examples of past IELTS questions for parts 1 and 3 and start grouping them into categories, to get an idea what question types are frequent. Here is a great site with past questions: NB As far as I understand, this website is perfectly legal, because there’s no policy on IELTS that stops test takers from sharing the questions they got asked.
  • Find a podcast or a talk show which comes with a transcript. Here are some links to youtube channels that feature interviews with transcripts. (If you’re in IT, the turns analyzed above come from JS Jabber, a podcast for JS developers. Another source that I’d really recommend for this kind of work is Android Design in Action on Android Developers youtube channel. Click on ‘More’ under the youtube video to load the interactive transcript.)
    I’ve never compiled a list of podcasts with transcripts, but apart from JS Jabber, a quick search on google returned e.g. Freakonomics, Science Session PodcastsThe Guardian Global Development podcastUniversity of Birmingham podcasts, The Creative Penn, and I’m sure there are a lot more.
  • Find an extended reply in the transcript and analyze its structure. Find linkers and try to formulate what kind of information each linker introduces (e.g. general opinion, an example, a reformulation, a summary of the previous point, etc).
  • Copy out the linkers; practice saying them after the video/audio – it’s extremely important that you get their pronunciation right, because research shows that you sound fluent if and only if you pronounce such frequent chunks fluently.
  • Try to reproduce the passage from memory looking only at the linkers – first in writing, then out loud.
  • To help yourself remember the structure, represent it visually, e.g. as a diagram with pictures.
  • Try to adapt the structure to another topic. First do that in writing, to help yourself memorize the linkers, then do lots of spoken practice.
  • Go through past questions looking which ones could be answered using the structure you’re working with.
  • To find examples of a particular type of question, use google search on Examples of search terms: 1) “What problems” site: 2) ‘Do you think * should” site: See this article called How to Google like a boss for tips on efficient googling.
  • Meanwhile, work on memorising those linkers – use mnemonics like Keyword method, flash cards, apps like Anki – whatever it takes to really nail them.

I hope that helps. Happy studying!


Update. I was very happy to hear that this post got shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it (in which case, THANK YOU! :)), let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their facebook page: .

Levels: B1+/B2
Length: 90 minutes
Course type: Business English

Materials: Worksheet  (also see the Update with a more elaborate version two lines below)
If you don’t have Microsoft word, download the worksheet from Slideshare:

Update: My colleague Anastasiya Chernetskaya and I have created a longer worksheet which would probably take 120 minutes to cover, or would need a 30-45 minute revision slot during the following lesson. Apart from expressions for saying ‘no’, this worksheet also contains a useful framework for structuring a refusal so that it doesn’t cause offence, and written practice.

  1. Warmer (page 1-2) 10 mins
    Lead in by asking the students: have you heard of Quora? Tell them that that’s a question-and-answer service where you can ask any question and get replies from people ‘in the know’ (interesting replies get upvoted). For example, if you ask a question about the International Space Station, chances are you’ll get a reply from an engineer who designed it. Questions are grouped by areas of interest (e.g. jobs, professional areas, learning languages, etc).Pairs s/s up, hand out page 1 to Student As and page 2 to Student Bs (folded so that they can’t see the text). S/s read the Quora question in the speech bubble and then discuss questions 1-2. Then they read their texts, retell them to each other and discuss.Follow-up question: do you generally find it easy to say ‘no’?
  2. Task 1. 3-5 mins
    Get the students to brainstorm requests and board them. S/s discuss in pairs how they’d feel about the requests on the board and how they’d reply.
  3. Task 2. 10 mins
    My students came up with:
    Business Analyst: [I’m on holiday for the next two weeks. If something comes up, could you contact the customer directly?]
    The customer: [That’s not exactly what we want. Could you change this functionality? No, we can’t pay for that.]
    The TL: We need someone to work on site. Could you go?
    The PM: Your project is over budget. You’ll have to take an unpaid vacation.
    Other team members. Could you help me RIGHT NOW?
    The receptionist: Could you help me to carry some boxes from the ground floor to the HR’s office?
  4. Task 3. 10 mins
    Ask the s/s to cover the expressions. S/s fill the gaps with their best guesses for 1 minute and then uncover the expressions / fill the gaps. During class feedback, discuss both suggested answers and the students’ initial ideas.
  5. Task 4. 10 mins
    Use the second table to work on pronunciation (mark linking, chunks, etc).
    Get students to compare in pairs orally (pronouncing linked sentences and listening to each other).
    Suggested answers (linking):

    1 Sorry, I’ll be away_on [business/holiday] [then/when you need me].
    2 Listen, I’m_afraid_I don’t have_a lot_of time_at_the moment.
    3 I’d love to help, but I’m really snowed_under_at_the moment. Can this wait?
    4 It may be a bit problematic. The thing_is, I’m_up to my neck_in these reports. Have you tried Peter?
    5 Try me again when_[I’ve finished the report / I’m back from holiday].
    6 I suppose I could look_intowit.

    . For better connected speech and natural stress patterns, work on chunking (there’s a great blog post about this on Olga Samsonova’s blog:

  6. Task 5. 20 mins
    If you don’t have dice, get s/s to roll dice on their mobile phones using
     For more controlled practice, start this out as a written activity: the s/s bombard each other very short (one-line) emails with requests from various roles and reply explaining why they can’t do what they’ve been asked to do right now. Here’s a great worksheet that my colleague Anastasiya Chernetskaya created: written practice. Here’s a great three-line template for saying ‘no’ that would be ideal for this activity.
  7. Follow-up [an activity by Mario Rinvolucri] 10 mins
    While the students are playing, listen in and write (on slips of paper) 5-10 examples of good sentences that you hear from them and 5-10 examples of sentences with mistakes (preferably, focusing on language associated with saying ‘no’ to requests). After the activity, distribute the slips. Allocate two areas on a table: ‘Perfect English’ and ‘Could-be-better English’. Get the s/s to put their cards on the table. Then comment on each card (where ‘Perfect English’ cards were put on the wrong side, use this as an opportunity to encourage students that their English is better than they might think; when there’s a mistake, either comment yourself or invite the group to correct.)perfect_english
    I’ve tried this activity a lot of times, and it normally produces a lot of happy chuckles (and often there’s someone who wants to take the cards home). Students really like to see that some of what they’ve said is Perfect English!
    Tip: take a picture before and after feedback and share the pics with the s/s so that they can revise.
  8. [If time] After mistake correction, s/s could repeat the activity in new pairs.
  9. Follow-up / homework (for IT English / Business English) How to say ‘no’ to feature requests for software products, and to customer requests in general? Check out this excellent reply on Quora which comes with an email template: (also, the free e-book of Business email templates linked to at the end of the post is one not to miss). Looks useful even for learners not involved in IT: with other lines of business, elicit customer requests that might have to be refused, and then get the students to look through the article and discuss which tips are applicable to their setting and how the remaining tips could be adapted.

In the previous post  I wrote about some difficulties I’ve been facing in tailoring Business English courses to the needs of my students, who are IT professionals. As I mentioned there, the main problem is that it’s difficult to pinpoint what language is used in workplace communication in IT but under-represented in BE coursebooks.

To address that issue, I started using, a web concordancing tool to retrieve concordance lines from, the main forum for IT specialists. Therefore all examples here can only be directly used with IT groups, but there are professional forums for almost every profession out there, so I hope that this might be useful in other contexts too. (If you clicked the link and the tool is not loading, just check it out a bit later: it is down sometimes, but when it stops working it generally goes back online in a few hours).

concordanceI’ve been using the forum for three weeks now and lessons that use this material seem to be giving my students exactly the language they need. Students especially at lower levels find this very motivating. It’s also been a lot of fun for me, because I enjoy exploring the language so much.

So far I’ve used the tool and the forum to

  • follow up on lexical and grammatical areas presented in the coursebook by exploring how it’s used on the forum
  • focus on grammar structures the students tend to confuse (e.g. should, must, have to and be supposed to) by supplying them with lots of examples from the forum and asking them to figure out the difference in meaning
  • provide the group with grammar drills contrasting two or more structures
  • look for discussion topics that would appeal to my students

Here are some examples.

Vocabulary area >>>>> specific vocabulary, patterns and contexts

Here is an example of an area we looked at with a pre-intermediate group. With the coursebook we’d looked at the topic of change: we started off by looking at some simple verbs like fall and rise, matching them with graphs and discussing the changes the students have noticed in the amount of traffic, prices and so on in the past ten years.

After that I elicited some modifiers (e.g. considerably and slightly, which had come up in on-the-spot feedback) and focused the group at the  word ‘dramatic’. We looked at concordance lines from stackoverflow and noticed the expressions containing the word ‘dramatic’ in the first four lines (a dramatic speed difference between … and; might be causing the dramatic increase in time; a dramatic increase in server response time).










The students underlined the expressions in the remaining lines (I monitored encouraging them to look both to the left and to the right of the word) and then we organized these expressions into a table (initially working as a whole group, and then the students completed their tables individually):


Finally, the students

  • tried to reproduce their tables from memory – when they were stuck, I referred them back to the worksheet with lines
  • wrote two or three examples from their own professional experience using target expressions and then shared those expressions in a mingling activity without looking at their notes
  • for homework, wrote a few more examples and emailed them to me.

Another search (e.g. ‘cause [a|an] [*] increase‘) retrieves other adjectives commonly used in this context.

The big advantage I see here is that all grammar and vocabulary associated with the situation comes up. A similar search on an accounting forum ( might well return the same verbs used with ‘dramatic’, but there’s no question that the last column will be different. I think that that is the vocabulary this language needs to be practiced on (to me this looks much more natural and useful than describing graphs, a task this language is practiced on in quite a few BE coursebooks – unless the students do need to describe graphs).

Chunks containing a structure >>>>> Patterns and contexts

We tried the same procedure with B1 and B2 groups with the chunk ‘it’s supposed to’. Again, it is clear from the concordance lines that there are distinct recurring patterns.


We ended up with the following table:





Again, after the students underlined expressions in the concordance lines, organized them into a table and reproduced the table, they shared a few examples from their work experience – this time talking about situations when something wasn’t working the way it was supposed to and sharing what this led to and how they overcame the problem.

Grammar presentation: topics and texts

Because webcorp allows pattern matching, it can be easily used to find forum threads that contain a lot of examples of a specific grammar point. As on forums each page is centred around just one question, it might be possible to choose a general enough question, centre the lesson around that topic and use the forum thread for grammar presentation and/or grammar exercises.

For instance, this search [was|were|am|are|is|be|being|been] [*]ed returned several pages that have more than 10 instances of the passive with regular verbs (the question is too technical to centre a lesson around, but so I’d use this page for follow-up exercises).


On stackoverflow it’s also possible to search for questions that received a lot of replies and are thus clearly appealing to wide audience: returns all topics with 100 to 1000 replies.

There are quite a few questions there that are general enough and can be used as a warmer or a lesson topic and they might naturally call for certain grammar, which will be evident from the replies.

For instance, here’s a topic in which people share ‘the toughest bugs they’ve ever found and fixed’.  This particular page features dozens of instances of ‘would’ used for past repeated action:


Grammar drills 

I’ve also used concordance lines with an elementary group, simply to give them some practice in using correct auxiliaries (we focussed on ‘are’ and ‘do’). The group told me that they go to the forum and read it using google translate, and they were clearly motivated because they understood quite a few lines. Also, the task exposed the students to some very relevant vocabulary. In the next few weeks I hope to get the students to produce such exercises for themselves and do them autonomously.



If you teach in an IT company and would like to use or adapt some of these materials, here is a Microsoft Office document with these concordance lines and tables.

Some tips

I’ve found it useful to

  • look for the typical patterns containing target language before the lesson, using the ‘show collocations’ option at the bottom of the page and then running a few more searches to see how typical these patterns are
  • don’t forget to delete the http:// part of the url when you specify the site to search; use the word filter if the word/structure you’re looking for comes up in someone’s signature on every page they comment on – this will exclude those pages (e.g. in the following search, the pages containing the word ‘loud’ will be filtered out).
  • retrieve concordance lines a day or two before the lesson as webcorp is sometimes down for a few hours
  • edit the lines: make sure that all typical patterns are represented with enough examples; proofread for mistakes in target language
  • use pattern matching and keep a record of the queries.  Here are some sample queries:
    [have|has] [[*]ed|known|done|seen|been] – to retrieve examples of present perfect
    [was|were|am|are|is|be|being|been] [*]ed – passive with regular verbs
    [am|is|are|was|were] [*]ing –
    continuous tenses

Some issues

Ideally what I’d like to be able to do is use in my setting the approach suggested by Michael Handford in his book The Language of Business Meetings. He analyzed 64 business English meetings from Cambridge and Nottingham Spoken Business English Corpus by

  • identifying and categorizing potentially important linguistic features, that is, words and clusters that are more frequent in business meetings than in other contexts (e.g. we’ve, customer, if, which; and then; you know, sort of, the rest of it)
  • understand the specific meaning and use of those items in their contexts (he finds that chunks have varying meaning, depending on who’s using them and the context, e.g. that in external meetings  you have to rarely expresses any sense of obligation, ‘with speakers instead offering non-face-threatening and sometimes general advice, as in Mm. what you have to do is get the paper and twist it round)
  • infer what discursive practices they realise and what goals they serve (e.g. and then is used for linking; sort of, for softening)
  • interpret what communicative activities are enacted through these linguistic features (page 39)

Right now I’ve got little idea how to find language that features more prominently in IT related communication and therefore need to be focussed on as a supplement to working with the coursebook, and the task does seem daunting. Running searches and looking for recurring structures on specific pages is a lot of fun, but it’s unlikely to produce comprehensive results; I’m going to look into WordSmith Tools but I don’t expect it will be easy to figure out how to use it with a huge forum, which is not a neatly cleaned up corpus.

Also, while some chunks clearly tend to occur in patterns, others don’t. This makes it even more time-consuming to look for language that can be explored in this way.

Over to you. It would be great to hear some other ideas how to use webcorp and forums in teaching. I’d be also greatful for pointers to other useful tools, as well as for suggestions what other chunks and lexical areas to explore and how to approach this in a more systematic way.

When I started teaching Business English, my biggest nagging worry was that I had never heard the language I was supposed to teach. It’s been written in a lot in publications about corpora that close analysis of real language in use has shown that quite a few of our intuitions about language use are incorrect and so some staple teaching practices and grammar rules need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Now, what really strikes me is that this is related to General English – that is, the language we’re exposed to on everyday basis. What about intuitions about workplace communication? How could I even have any intuitions if I’d never participated in a business meeting in English or made a telephone call in English to a supplier? And what about workplace communication in a specific sphere (I was mainly teaching in IT companies)? How much did my coursebook, my only source of information (apart from the students), represent that?

Another problem I was facing was that, time after time, my students failed to incorporate the functional language I was teaching into their speech. Having partially solved that problem now, I believe that it at least to some extent originated in my teaching, but I’m not sure it was one hundred percent down do my teaching. For example, one thing that has always frustrated me is teaching functional expressions for handling interruptions (e.g. Can I come in here for a moment?) What was happening was that, as soon as my students moved on to a genuinely communicative tasks, they stopped using the target language because it struck them as unnatural. However, I’m not really sure whether this problem lies in my teaching or whether the students actually just do what’s only natural to do. For instance, I chanced upon an article which suggests that the expressions for interruption presented in textbooks aren’t actually used that much in real life – maybe for exact same reasons my students tend to avoid them in communicative activities?

textbook vs realdata

from ‘Using textbook and real-life data to teach turn taking in business meetings’ by Jo Angouri

But then, this is data about face-to-face meetings and my students mainly participate in skype meetings – surely in that case they’d need more explicit strategies for interrupting? Again, how do I find out, having never heard a single meeting by skype?..

This year I’ve been lucky enough to have access to recordings of some IT meetings and I’ve been squeezing them for at least some insight into real language use in this sphere. I’ve learnt a lot and incorporated a lot of insights into my teaching, but there have also been a number of problems, not the least one being that it’s much easier to analyze a meeting if you’ve got a complete transcript, but transcribing is a terribly long process and I was finding it difficult to find time for that between teaching and other commitments. Other obvious issues are that I have the enthusiasm to analyze this data but not the skills and that my ‘corpus’ of 10,000 words in transcripts and a few dozen emails is not enough to do statistical analysis anyway.

Three weeks ago it finally occured to me that there’s actually a huge pool of IT communication freely available on the internet – that is, IT forums, for instance Of course it won’t examplify a large proportion of business related functions, such as turn taking, but nevertheless it’s a great resource that represents a lot of aspects of workplace communication in IT. It’s conversational in style, so it can probably give insight into spoken as well as written communication. A forum is also a great source of topics to discuss in class. Moreover, most of my students know and use that particular forum and so far they’ve been reacting extremely positively to the idea of looking at language through that lens.

This is another idea that I can’t believe I’d been missing for so long. I’ve been using  to retrieve concordance lines from stackoverflow and for the past three weeks I’ve been totally hooked on playing with this tool.

In the following post I’ll write about some interesting examples of language I’ve discovered in the past three weeks and describe the associated activities that I’ve used with my students.

I’d also love to hear about other people’s experience tailouring their business English course to their students’ needs. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few more ‘elephants in the room’ and that this journey is only beginning.