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IATEFL Liverpool: Pete Sharma and Louis Roger’s Dealing with Differentiation

11 Apr

Pete related to the audience immediately by presenting a typical business English class: several learners within a company, several different needs, varying levels of attendance, motivation, and effort. Meet Ursula, Leandro, Dieter, and Daphne.

We looked at a few scenarios, or case studies, typical of the business English classroom and how they would suit (or not) our four learners. Louis reminded us that when working with case studies, it’s important to choose situations that learners can relate to, situations that become meaningful to the learners.  These could be sharing office space, work-life balance issues, planning meetings, etc. as long as they are situations that can appeal to your learners. Often though the case studies found in business English training materials may only appeal to one learner in the group. If the others can’t relate to the scenario, they’ll likely be less motivated.

The speakers then asked us to reflect on how we engage our business learners to read. In reality, we don’t always do as much extensive reading as we could in the business classroom, perhaps for time reasons, perhaps for learners’ desire to do as much speaking as possible.

They suggested business mazes for reading in business contexts. A business maze is an interactive paproach to reading and Business Mazes by Jone Farthing and Hart-Davis (1981) is one way to do this. Learners read a short passage, and then must make a decision to know what part of the book to go to next. Basically they can’t continue until they’ve read and made a decision.

Doing this in a more modern form, a digital business maze, which is available from Richmond ELT. These activities allow learners to recycle language, practice functions, and and enagage extended reading. Much research has suggested that extended reading is crucial for building one’s vocabulary.

To support this claim, Louis cited several studies that mentioned focal and perifpheral attention, deliberate and incidental vocabulary learning opportunities, the notion that explicit focus on learning vocabulary doesn’t impact learners’ retention, and the role of reading in second language aquisition. 

Virtual Learning Environment

These are web-based, password protected virtual spaces that host course materials and allow asynchronous and synchronous interactions. You can often customize them and make them look like the product that you are offering. VLEs also allow you to get into deeper conversations with your students (or encourage these among students), perhaps better so than in the classroom. Students can read the question, think about it, maybe even do some research and then respond. This stimulates more critical thinking than simply asking a question and expecting a student to respond immediately.

Teachers can deliver course elements appropriately and better handle differentiation. Students can study at their own pace, wherever they like, and personalize their study.

Going back to our hypothetical group of learners, we saw that only one person needed English for emails. The VLE gives a platform outside your email inbox where email communication can be had. In business English, this means keeping in contact with learners who may not make it to every class or who schedule one class every month.

VLEs also give students the opportunity to work on listening skills at their own pace. Rather than listening to an extract twice, it may be more effective to let listeners hear fast speech with the possibility of pausing it to have only short extracts. 

They offer interesting components in a blended approach in which we can monitor who has done what and when. VLEs and blended learning can offer the best of both worlds–face-to-face and online learning. 

However, we have to be careful of avoiding the eclectic mish-mash of multimedia mayhem. Pete pointed out that he’s rarely seen good blended courses. It’s often a bit of this, a bit of that, an app here, and app there. 

The teacher also has to be sure to have a positive attitude to the blended aspect of the course. Enthusiasm will carry over to the students. At the same time, it is important to integrate the VLE into the course so that learners (and teachers) can concretely see how the face-to-face element supports the online element and vice versa.

To conclude, Pete advised us as teachers to take a blended or online course to find out what learning online is all about. For example, a school could create an online training day where the teachers are trained how to use a platform via a platform. 

You can read the blog  of Pete Sharma Associates at http://www.psa.eu.com

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