Reopening the case for learning styles


Recently I gave a workshop at the ESP Conference in Ulm on a topic which I regretted having put forward from the moment I clicked ‘send’ … Learning styles in ESP and technical English.  So why did I do it?  Well, I’ve read the bumph which sings the praises of learning styles, and I’ve read the scathing research which says they don’t exist – but my own personal jury is out.

We’ve all had good and bad learning experiences, haven’t we?  And what contributed to them?  If you ask yourself this question, probably what springs to mind is the kind of activities you received, the way the teacher spoke to you, the environment in which you learned and how motivating the class was.  So seemingly we have preferences which we feel dictate how we learn.  There are tonnes of models on learning styles – the University of Newcastle alone researched 71 different models!  The most famous ones though are those of David Kolb, the Felder Silverman model and Neil Fleming’s VARK model.  Felder Silverman created their model based on engineering education, and were able to demonstrate that learners had very individual leaning preferences, which teachers of engineering sciences should accommodate in order to maximize learning.  However all the models boil down to one thing – we think in different ways, we work in different ways, and we’re all very different to each other.

The question is, can we prove if we really do learn better if our teacher focusses on our preferred learning style?  Apparently not!  According to research, learning styles simply don’t exist.  There’s absolutely no categorical evidence which proves that, if a teacher adapts his or her learning style to that of the class member, that they’ll get any better results.   In fact, as a teaching tool, don’t learning styles actually encourage us to pigeon-hole our learners?  We categorize them to belonging to a specific, inflexible group and then we target the class’s strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  Learning styles therefore encourage exclusion rather than being a useful tool to get the best out of our students.

So, why on earth did I submit that proposal?  Well, because I think this whole learning styles debate gives us food for thought.  What about if we give our learners tasks in class which specifically do not target their preferences, or perceived preferences?  I see that as a pretty useful tool for encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.  My technical learners are usually fairly confident of their skills, and are therefore often more goal focused than relationship focused.  I believe that if we target a broad spectrum of learning styles, and use techniques and exercises aimed at a wide variety of preferences, we’ll be challenging our participants more and they’ll leave the classroom better equipped to take on tasks which they have to do in the real world.


Furthermore, let’s consider course evaluation.  How can it be that when we teach certain groups there’s such a variety of grades given when we hand out the feedback forms?  In my opinion satisfaction is extrinsically linked to motivation and if someone feels they were neglected, no tasks really engaged them, and they just didn’t get it, could that be because we didn’t consider teaching them in a style they felt more at ease with?

And finally, as teachers I believe strongly that we should be engaging in experimental practice.  We love teaching, and many of us are in it for the long haul, so surely pushing our own limits and giving ourselves challenges is par for the course – it’s just sound pedagogy!

So I’m embracing all learning styles and trying to create activities which I think my business, technical and ESP learners will all find interesting.  I’ve uploaded a lesson plan here based on the Dragons’ Den show.  It’ll appeal to visual learners who like to see diagrams and pictures, auditory learners who’ll listen to their colleagues describing products, readers and writers who can create a formal proposal for investors and the kinaesthetic people will have the chance to stand up and demonstrate how their product works.  I hope that by pushing my own boundaries in the classroom and trying to develop exercises that target all kinds of learners I’ll provide more motivating lessons and improve my teaching techniques.

Lessons in motivation – what do we really need?

Most of us are winding our ways back to the classroom now after a sunny summer.  I’ve prepared a lesson this week on motivation as it’s something I’m struggling to find at the moment!  For some of us the return to work will be exciting, for others there’ll be a sinking feeling as they put their holidays behind them and try and muster the motivation they need to get back into the swing of things.  However, motivation doesn’t come automatically.  For many of us we need a reason to do something, and if in doubt we ‘think of the money’.  But is that really the most important factor?  Of course not!

70 years ago Abraham Maslow published a paper called ‘ A theory of human motivation’.  Here he suggested that there are five levels of motivation which all humans need, and which come in a specific order.  Basic physiological needs (food, water etc), safety needs, social needs (e.g. love and friendship, self-esteem needs (recognition and respect) and finally self-fulfillment – do we feel satisfied with ourselves as a whole?  This model has been heavily discussed and debated for a number of years and is often a major theory covered on business courses.  What’s more, there are many discussions on how teachers should implement Maslow’s theory in the classroom, ensuring that we create optimum conditions for learners in order to help them achieve their potential.  But what about us teachers?  To what extent do our employers consider our motivation?  The TEFL market appears to have a never ending queue of young and enthusiastic people waiting to sign up to teach English, but to what extent do our employers consider our motivation needs?  I looked at Maslow’s pyramid of needs and have adapted it, reflecting on what I believe our motivators are when teaching English:


The question is, to what extent are we being motivated?  I’m lucky to say I work in a wonderful organisation where I receive support from great colleagues, am encouraged to partake in career development opportunities and my employer fulfils all my basic teaching requirements.  I wonder, however, how many of us can say that today.  In a relatively saturated market, to what extent are English language teaching organisations trying to motivate their staff?  Please take a moment to complete the poll below and share your experiences here:

As motivation is a key topic for us all today, I’ve prepared a lesson which you’re welcome to download and try out in your business English classes. It uses a video from Dan Pink who has written a bestseller on motivation in the work place as well as looking at Maslow’s theory and discussing how it applied to the workplace.  I hope it’s thought provoking and would love to hear what ideas and experiences your learners shared.  If you’re back to work this week have a good one, and keep focussed!

How dealing with conflict led me to success

A while back I was teaching a group of sales executives who had recently attended a training seminar with a clinical psychologist.   The theme was conflict management and my participants were so motivated by what they had learned that they spent an entire session trying to explain different strategies and the rationale behind why they were effective.  Conflict occurs when two or more people oppose one another because their needs, wants, goals, or values are different.  Frequently it causes an emotional response, triggering fear, anxiety, anger and frustration.  To some extent, conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but it can quickly be diffused with the right techniques.  If a suitable approach is used then the situation can be quickly resolved and all parties can move forward.  If conflict is mishandled then chaos is likely to erupt!  So what kind of conflict are we talking about?  Lack of resources, a breakdown in interpersonal relations, a clash of interests and cultural differences are but a few of the reasons why colleagues can find themselves in a dispute.

As my course participants are involved in projects at an international level, it seemed to make sense that we exploit their materials a little and work on how to practice the same techniques in English.  We worked through the seminar materials, translating language into English and discussing the ways in which culture affects language use.  For Germans, for example, saying sorry is an indication that one accepts responsibility for a situation.  For British people – like me – it’s often an automatic response, intended to appease the situation rather than to admit fault.  The psychologist who they had worked with is a specialist in brain research, which I found fascinating.  Seemingly she analyses brain patterns and behavior and uses this information to support companies wishing to improve the interpersonal skills of their staff.  She believes that by following certain behavioral patterns we can positively influence those around us, even in situations of stress and conflict.

A couple of weeks after working on this topic, I noticed that BESIG (the Business English special interest group of IATEFL) was running a lesson plan competition in conjunction with Cambridge University Press.  I had just read Tsedal Neeley’s article on the domination of English as the worldwide corporate language and had pondered the topic with my learners working in international organizations. I decided to get in touch with Doris Gunsch who had worked with my own learners and ask her if she’d allow me to interview her as part of the lesson.  She did indeed and came up with some fascinating advice and explanations on how to deal with conflict, especially when presenting controversial strategic decisions in the workplace.  After numerous drafts I entered the lesson and won!  You can download and use my lesson plan via the Cambridge website here – I’d love to hear how you found it so feel free to drop me a line.

What did I learn from this experience?  Well we often talk about using the learner as a resource, and it’s clear that also activities with no connection at all to English can stimulate discussion, language use and linguistic development.  Furthermore ‘experts’ are more accessible than we think, and are often willing to share their knowledge (occasionally in return for a little name dropping!).  This can create challenging content and motivating lessons.  Finally I’m hoping to take part in some one-to-one training with Ms. Gunsch as I was so intrigued by the work she does.  This means my learners have influenced my own professional development, rather than it just being the other way round.

If you have had any similar experiences or want to share your thoughts then get in touch!

Ten top lessons using mobile phones

Last week I had class with the CEO of a company who comes to me for weekly training.  We hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months and so I asked him to give me a run down on what had been happening since our last class.  He told me about his various trade fairs, business trips and customer visits, but with even more enthusiasm, he showed me his new mobile phone.  I asked him to explain the features of the phone to me and I was very amused by how delighted he is about it.  I’ve been reading a lot lately on how to use mobile devices in language teaching, but thought actually teaching via a mobile device, where access to information stored on the device is central to the lessons aims, would be a great idea.  So I’ve compiled a list of ten activities which you can teach, using a smartphone or tablet computer. 


  1. Use the calendar which is synced to the participants’ office calendar, in order to practice the language of making appointments.  Discuss who these appointments are with and what the purpose of each meeting will be. 
  2. Extend this idea to elicit language for making polite requests.  Brainstorm and simulate situations in which learners will need to make polite requests. 
  3. Discuss communication styles with business contacts – ask partners to look at their email and tell you who the last five people were with whom they exchanged emails.  Alternatively ask them to look in the phone list and explain who the last five people were who called them.  Ask them to recall what the conversation was about.  Practice past tenses, reporting verbs and contrasting direct and indirect language, where communication styles with the contacts vary greatly.
  4. Practice writing concisely and clearly.  Prepare a long email and ask participants to reduce it to a text message sized piece of writing.  Then ask them to text it to you, or each other.
  5. Before class, ask participants to take two photographs of anything they like.  When they get to class teach/review prepositions of place.  Then ask them to describe a photo to a partner who listens and draws what he can hear.  Teach phrases for confirming and clarifying (Did you say…?,  If I understood you correctly, you said…).  Ask them now to describe the second photos, using the phrases.
  6. Ask learners to present the apps which they have downloaded and describe why they are useful.  Ask them to discuss together if they could collectively only keep 4 apps from the group on each participant’s mobile phone, which apps would they want to keep and why.  Ask them to invent their own app – how would it help them and who would it be aimed at.  Discuss apps they have downloaded but then removed, and why.  Practise using the phrases ‘spend time do+ing and waste time do+ing to discuss their work, habits, and – if they are comfortable – their colleagues!
  7. Participants should download the Google maps app onto their phone before class.  Pre-teach or review the language for giving directions.  Then ask participants to use the Google maps to practice asking for and giving directions, by entering street names or places into their phone.  They can explain how to get there by foot or by car.
  8. Text a message to your participants using an exaggerated number of smileys and abbreviations, the more obscure the better.  Discuss with the participants how they view abbreviations and smileys.  Practice writing messages with different levels of formality.
  9. Pre-teach language for demonstrating how something works.  Ask participants to show you or their partners how to use a particular app.  Elicit sequencing language and then ask them to describe a more complicated process in their work.  Ask them to explain this to someone information over the phone – perhaps put another learner in another room and have them call each other, taking notes and checking back on what they have understood.
  10. Give the participants a 5 minute reading project.  Give each participant five minutes to find out about a particular topic – something from the business news, a prominent person in the business world, a new invention, a company making the headlines, and ask them to then present the topic to the rest of the class.  Ask them to choose 5 words each from their article, record them on the flip chart, and discuss the language as a group. 

I’ve put together a lesson plan which connects the first two ideas: discussing business appointments and reviewing the language of making requests.  If you’d like to give it a whirl, click here.  I tried this out with my one to one learner this week and we had great fun.  He was both prepared for a number of conversations he would be having in English that week AND he was able to get out his new mobile phone and show it off again!  I’d love to hear of you have any experiences of teaching using your learners’ mobile phones: what language did you teach and what kind of activities did you create?  Drop me a line and tell me all about it!

My 30 day teaching challenge

A year or so back I watched a hugely inspiring TED video by Matt Cutts.  He invited us to try something new for just 30 days, in doing so to shake up how we think, how we live and how we perceive things – a personal and highly motivating challenge.  He cycled to work for 30 days, wrote a novel in 30 days, gave up sugar for 30 days and took a photo a day for 30 days.   For any of you who haven’t seen it, the video is a great watch, and leads to all kinds of discussion on motivation, behavior, needs and challenges.

It’s so easy to fall into a routine, and become lethargic, complacent and unfocussed.   As teachers we’re expected to be the entertainers, the performers and the motivators who keep the learners coming and keep them learning.  I don’t know about you, but at this time of year when I look out of my window and see nothing but sleet and drizzle, I start to feel, well, let’s say not exactly my normal, inspired self.  My lesson ideas seem fewer and further between and the atmosphere in class seels a bit dull too.


So, this morning I thought – why not give Matt’s suggestion a go?  Perhaps I should give myself a 30 day teaching challenge?  It’s risky – I’ll have to be consistent.  I’ll have to try things out which might not go down well.  If that happens, will I be able to turn things around?  Will my learners be shocked or confused by what I’m doing and how will I deal with their reactions?  Well, I’ll never know if I don’t give it a try…

So my first 30 day challenge is this: can I teach each class for the next 30 day by using only pictures?  For the next 30 days  I’m not going to give out any worksheets to any of my classes.  No photocopies, no articles, no transcripts nothing.  No videos, no listening, no iphones.  That goes for the ESPers and the beginners too.  Will I manage it??

For next week I’ve prepared this lesson based on the business news this week.  I’ve got a framework of how to teach a class using only pictures – the type of activities I’m planning on carrying out and how I’ll set the class up.  In fact, I could possibly vary this tasks and use this as a framework for the whole 30 days… If you’d like to join me and give yourself the challenge to teach using only pictures, then feel free to download the complete lesson.  But remember – it’s for your eyes only – the learners just get the pictures!

As always, I’d love to hear your experiences – how do you challenge yourself?  Could you manage to rely on one single medium for 30 days?  Do you have any challenges for me to try out in my business English classes for 30 days?  I can’t promise I’ll take you up on it, but I’ll certainly ponder it for a while.  Have fun!

Understanding Communication Styles – gaining respect and building rapport

I’ve been teaching English for nearly 13 years now.  Although I think I’m a fairly easy-going person, approachable and friendly, I have had a few groups over the years who have been really difficult to get on with.  I remember once giving a technical English course at a printing company – I had been teaching for just over two years and was still relatively unperceptive to how different people communicate.  I found the participants terribly unfriendly, and interpreted their silent reaction to my questions and reluctance to participate in discussions as rude.  Imagine how surprised I was at the end of the course when they gave me flowers and told me what a great job I’d done!

As a more experienced trainer today, and – I hope – a better communicator, I recognize that different people communicate in different ways.  It’s clear to me that good communication influences opinions and makes listeners receptive to your ideas and suggestions.  In companies it plays a major role in work-related tasks such as meetings, phone calls, negotiating and teambuilding.  Ultimately, communication plays a very significant role in the smooth running of any business.  Good communication skills demand a high level of self-awareness. If we can understand our personal style of communicating, and how others perceive us, we can adapt our behaviour in order to make other people more comfortable.

Recently I was discussing new students with a colleague and she told me she had one lady in a class who was really frosty.  She didn’t have any time for small talk, she wanted to get straight to the point, and pretty much damned any opinions which she disagreed with or tasks she couldn’t relate to.   The atmosphere in the group was rather awkward, and my colleague didn’t know what to do with her.  I asked if the lady knew how her behavior was affecting the others, and unsurprisingly, she didn’t.  “It’s just how I am” was her response…

Last month I gave a workshop in Frankfurt in which we discussed communication styles.  This is basically a concept which looks at our personal preferences for the way we communicate information to other people, as well as the way we interpret the communication we hear.  There are lots of different models which allow people to identify their preferred communication style and to develop strategies for dealing with other people more effectively.  It appears, however, that it all boils down to two basic aspects.  Firstly, how receptive someone is – do they embrace opportunities to interact and share with others, or are they very reserved?  Secondly, how straightforward are they?  Do they take charge of a situation and steam in with ideas and suggestions, or are they very risk-averse and need to plan everything carefully?

I gave the workshop participants a questionnaire which we all completed, identifying our own personal communication style.  We then discussed how accurate we felt the results were.  A few people were skeptical, as their preferences came into more than one category.  This was also the case for me, but I believe it’s the result of years of dealing with different kinds of people, and needing to adapt my own style accordingly.  We discussed how we might use communication styles questionnaires with our classes, and brainstormed different approaches to teaching it.

I’m sure this kind of exercise will be of interest to any of you teaching business English, so I’ve taken some of the ideas we discussed and put together a complete lesson, which can be found here.  You’re free to download and use it, and it would be great to hear your feedback and to hear the experiences you have had with communication styles both inside and outside the classroom.  If you have any more suggestions on how to extend the lesson, and would like to share them here, then your input would be very welcome.  Have fun!

Forcing business English?

I just came across a very interesting article in the Economist, ‘Business English: Useful, yes. But mandatory?’.  You can read it here:


Ok, so an ability to speak pretty good English can help close a deal, it can facilitate better relationships with international clients and contacts and it can ensure better service.  However making the transition to using English as the exclusive corporate language requires a clear strategy and can quickly lead to conflict and confusion… What do you think?