Teaching Receptive Skills to Business English Students
2019-03-20 Mark Crocker Alumni Experiences
Being able to listen and read is an indispensable part of being a fluent user of the English language. I have been teaching business English since 1993 and know that the primary tasks of my students are acquiring exposure to the English-speaking business environment, immersing themselves in anglophone culture and being able to comprehend complex ideas in their professional fields through different media. As broadband Internet connection becomes ever more pervasive, students are switching from printed information sources to video and text content available online. Learners’ increasing demands represent an even greater challenge for me as an EFL tutor. The question then becomes, how do I tackle this challenge in my everyday teaching practice?
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Igor K.
Why teaching receptive skills is important
At the very beginning of my teaching career I realized that most of my students were able to express their ideas and even pose questions to foreigners but were unable to comprehend their answers. This discovery therefore became one of the many good reasons for me to task myself with teaching reading and listening in the first place. When I first started teaching a quarter of a century ago, Soviet-era tutors lacked the necessary knowledge of contemporary learning techniques, therefore I had to find appropriate approaches by means of trial and error. At this earliest of junctures in my career, I found that the key to teaching receptive skills effectively is exposure to what native speakers say and write.
Problems for Russian students
The main challenge was (and is) that the Russian language is totally different from the English language in terms of phonetics and syntax. Moreover, the two languages have very few common words. Thus, students require a relatively strong level of English to be able to understand even the simplest of phrases. To make matters worse, business professionals came to my classes late at night, exhausted after long working hours, thereby forcing me to confront very short attention spans.
The solutions I have found
My solution was to make exposure to the English language as enjoyable and level-appropriate as possible. In order to motivate my learners and to develop fluency in reading and listening I used materials tailored to their professional interests, e.g. sales, accounting, web design, marketing, etc. Once I gained their attention we started practicing receiving and interpreting messages within their professional vocabularies. This increase in attention spans enabled me to generate improved fluency through classroom language learning experience. My learners extensively practiced both top-down listening and more conscious accuracy-focused listening without even realizing it.
As I gained experience and learned more about the psychology of teaching and the way memory worked, I implemented more sophisticated methods based on skills and strategies my students had already developed in their native Russian language, such as inferring, predicting, skimming, and scanning. A few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain more British-made learning materials became available, thus greatly enriching my professional toolkit. Through a good deal of repetition, exposure, imitation and drilling with those newly available and highly desirable materials, fluency was the final outcome.
Teaching strategies that I use today
As my students progress from Beginner to Intermediate levels, my main task is to familiarize them with the different types of listening and reading activities that exist. In the case of listening these are: understanding the key structures, looking for subject and predicate in each sentence, listening for key figures and/or facts, and following the speaker as he or she switches from one topic to another (e.g. in news). In the case of reading these activities are: scanning, skimming, receptive reading, intensive reading and extensive reading.
Intensive reading activities develop the skill of careful reading that helps the learner to uncover the exact ideas the author seeks to convey. Financial executives and lawyers are usually taught reading for professional, informational purposes; they need to understand semantic and linguistic detail and to be able to focus intensely on the text. The most proficient skill is extensive reading, through which students should understand all of the details contained within a professional text (financial, legal etc.); at this stage their speed and skills in grasping the general idea become the most important factor.
The results of my teaching strategies
Now I am able to teach my students to the level at which they become very fluent in reading and listening; fluent to the extent that many of them have been asked whether they had previously lived in the UK or North America. They achieve this level of fluency, despite having never been immersed in a native English-speaking environment. Instead they benefit from immersion in listening during my classes and by making use of the entire array of media available today: listening to business conferences, major TV channels, YouTube, vlogs and social media.
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