Employability – an exercise in more than just vocabulary

Amid dwindling further education funding, courses which support learners to become economically viable members of society are becoming more widespread. Employability courses are an example of this, which, in the case of ESOL learners, are commonly incorporated into a combined employability and ESOL course. So, on being presented in September 2011 with the task of teaching Employability (and ICT!) as well as ESOL to a new group of learners, I felt a great sense of trepidation. A lack of experience and materials on my part and the desire to be learning ‘just ESOL’ on the part of my learners created a rather ominous start to the year.

However, having now almost completed the year I find my sanity intact, my resources folder bulging (well, almost) and my learners still attending. This article is about the lessons I’ve learned in the process.

Vocabulary

My first consideration on planning this course was the amount of new and contextual vocabulary that learners would encounter.  To address this issue, I put in place teaching strategies from the outset to recycle this vocabulary. I’ve used some of the following techniques:

Vocabulary bag:  writing key vocabulary on flashcards as the words occur in class and then, in subsequent lessons, selecting words at random from the bag and asking learners to give a definition. As an extension activity, learners write information about the word on the reverse side of the flashcard, e.g. a definition (copied from a dictionary if necessary), the word used in a sentence, common collocations, synonyms, antonyms, word family etc.

Producing a simplified glossary of key terms used in the assessment materials:   this could be made more ‘interactive’ by providing a definition next to a blank space, which learners fill in with the appropriate word once that item/s had been covered in a lesson.

Making explicit links between learning in different units and asking learners to recall previous knowledge kept both the learning and the vocabulary fresh and relevant.

In addition, many well-known vocabulary recall games were also useful and injected some energy into the classroom. For example, games that proved popular with my learners were:

Call my bluff: learners choose one vocabulary item and write 3 definitions, one the true meaning and two made up. The learner reads their word and definitions to the class, who must guess which definition is true. This can be done as a team game, with points awarded for correct answers.

A to Z: list the alphabet on the board and learners find a piece of contextual vocabulary for each letter. This can also be done orally, round the class.

Wall displays: putting relevant material up around the classroom keeps key language current and allows a brief gesture from the teacher to remind learners of relevant items.

(See ‘Try – vocabulary’ section of the TeachingEnglish website for lots of other ideas and an interesting discussion on the merits of a ‘lexical notebook versus vocabulary cards’)

Cultural context

To engage with and succeed in the workplace however, learners need to know more than just a new set of vocabulary.

 The wider issue of communicating cross-culturally, especially in the workplace, is a key consideration when equipping a learner with ‘employability skills’. Learners need the opportunity to develop a cultural competence that would enable them to connect with, respond to and interact effectively with the UK as a workplace. And in turn, this contextual information helps learners develop a deeper understanding of the new vocabulary.

A useful place to start is by identifying cultural values. I did this by using values cards; these use selecting, ranking and discussing activities to provide the opportunity to examine what a cultural value is, explore values present in a learner’s culture and contrast these to UK cultural values.

Once established, this knowledge is used to inform the following activities:

Scenarios from the workplace – learners discuss a ‘critical incident’, (presented in  a text or a video) then answer questions written to direct learning towards the cultural issues involved, how cultural misunderstandings occurred and consider how such incidents could be resolved or handled differently,

Comparing and contrasting – learners talk about their experiences of working in the UK and/or abroad – through directed discussion activities; examining how cultural values affected these experiences.

It is important to remember that the emphasis of such activities is to develop an awareness of the differences that exist between cultures and not to promote or dismiss any set of cultural values and beliefs.

All of these strategies were based on using learners’ knowledge and experience to explore and critically examine cultural issues within a workplace context. Using learners’ experiences as a resource provided authentic examples of cross-cultural learning, helped personalise the course (making it more meaningful) and acknowledged and respected the diverse range of experience that adult learners bring to the classroom. In linguistic terms, it supported learners in understanding both new vocabulary and assessment materials written for native speakers, which assumed a level of cultural knowledge that learners may not possess.

An interesting discussion of teaching ‘cultural skills’ can be found in Barry Tomalin’s articles and blog. He highlights the difficulty of finding materials which address this subject, which I readily agree with. See http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/making-culture-happen-english-language-classroom

Some of the best resources I found were on American websites, from which I could select certain activities and adapt others. See http://www.sbctc.ctc.edu/docs/education/abe_pds/curriculum/cultural_gaps_intro.pdf and http://www.valrc.org/content/esol/esol_resources.html for financial/budget activities.

Motivation

Initially, some learners had been quite unenthusiastic about attending an employability class (as they were required to attend all the strands of the ‘ESOL for Work’ course), due to considering themselves either already suitably experienced in the workplace, or through having little opportunity or desire to work outside the home.

To address this lack of motivation, (whilst also trying to demonstrate how useful this course could be in its own right!), I explicitly stated how different activities in class were helping to practise learners’ English skills. For example, the assessment materials asked learners to consider the personal problems associated with debt, which naturally leads to the production of structures appropriate to giving advice.  As this language had already been covered in our ESOL class, here was an excellent opportunity to practise it in a new context. Listing personal attributes was useful for highlighting the common mistake of confusing adjectives and nouns (e.g. I am punctuality).

Obviously, the fact of participating in a class conducted in English improved learners’ language ability, but making explicit links to certain language points that they recognised from ESOL lessons increased learners’ engagement with the tasks and helped to motivate their interest and participation in classroom activities.

Conclusion

Looking back, stepping out of my teaching comfort zone has improved my practice and positing learners’ experience as a key teaching strategy has maintained their interest in the subject.  Ten months on, I can honestly say that if employability is on my timetable next September, it will be with enthusiasm and resourcefulness, not in trepidation, that I enter the classroom.

 

The author of this article, Charly Ramuz, teaches in a small community education college which is part of the City Academy, Bristol. They offer ESOL and ESOL for Work courses to a cohort of learners who bring a wide range of educational backgrounds and personal circumstances to the classroom.

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