8 Keys to Effective English TrainingMedia Team
What You Need to Know to Get Results
8 Keys to Effective Language Training
In my 20 years in the language training business, I’ve seen many companies attempt language training – some successfully, many not so successfully. In this article I’d like to highlight some of the success factors that contribute to an effective training program. Although these principles are specifically about language training, they also apply to other types of training.
1. Have a clear objective
If you don’t know what you want your training to accomplish, it probably will not accomplish much. You might think that, obviously, the goal of English training is to improve English! However, that is really not a clear enough objective because it does not provide any guidance on how to structure or measure your program. Here are some better examples of training objectives:
• Enable our customer service team to deal with English language phone inquiries.
• Improve average TOEIC score of our staff by 100 points within a year.
• Improve English ability of our staff by one CEFR* level in one year.
* Common European Framework of Reference– a language proficiency scale
These objectives are specific enough to let you measure your program’s performance and to develop a timeline to achieve your objective. Notice that the first objective focuses on a work skill, whereas the second two focus on developing language skill. You need to decide which of these types of objective suits your organization – because the work skills may be improved with a short course, but general language skills require a longer term program. And that brings us to point number two.
2. Have a realistic time line
You need to have a realistic time line to achieve your objective. The time line keeps the training focused, and you might be surprised at how unproductive training can become when there isn’t one. If you focus on a particular work skill, you may achieve your objective with a short course of 30 hours. Thus, you can plan for all new hires who need that skill to participate in a 30-hr training course. If your objective is to improve the overall language skill of your staff, then you’ll need a longer time line. For example, to improve average TOEIC scores by 100 points requires 100-120 hours of focused training (but it could be much longer if the training is not focused on both the objective and the time line).
3. Use the right measurement
In all types of teaching, the test that’s used to evaluate learners has a big influence on the course itself. We call this the ‘wash back’ effect. Here’s an example of negative ‘wash back.’ One company decided their staff needed to write better emails and participate more effectively in meetings. So, they set up a large-scale training program to develop these skills. However, they decided to use the TOEIC test as a progress measurement, and they set unrealistic targets for every participant to achieve within 6 months. Well, after about two months nearly all the email writing and meeting skills content had disappeared from the course… replaced by TOEIC test preparation (at the request of both the trainees and the training manager). What a shame, because TOEIC preparation does almost nothing to improve email writing or meeting skills, which were the initial aims of the program.
If your objective is a particular work skill, then your measurement should be based on that skill – i.e., if your objective is telephone skills, you should evaluate by telephone role plays; if your objective is email, evaluate by email writing tasks. By using the right measurement, you turn the ‘wash back’ effect to your advantage.
4. Get feedback from trainees – and then use it
Adult learners are not just big kids, and they don’t want to be treated the same way their schoolteachers used to treat them. Adult learners need to feel motivated, and they need to feel the training is worth their time. They will dislike pressure situations or anything that makes them risk failure in class. Most importantly, an adult learner who feels negatively about a training course will not learn. So it’s important to know what trainees think about their training program and, more importantly, to respond to their views.
The three best questions to ask your trainees are:
1) What is the most useful part of the course?
2) How can the course be improved?
3) Do you have any other comments about the course?
Most importantly, once you’ve collected the feedback, use it to improve the training. Try to fix any problems that are revealed, but also be sure to note positive aspects and build more of these into the design of future courses.
5. Personalize it
Learners respond better to examples that they can relate to. For example, a group of accountants will be bored by an email lesson about requesting a hotel booking because they never do that. How much better it would be if the instructor, who has been provided with numerous authentic emails from the students before the course, instead presents a realistic example of requesting an overdue inventory report. And he highlights some errors that he has seen in their actual emails! It’s an unfortunate fact that many of the situations presented in English textbooks are irrelevant to your trainees. It takes effort on the part of the trainer, the training provider and your company to personalize the training content as much as possible. You should expect that effort from your training provider but also do your part by providing as much input as possible, e.g. email/report samples, product information, etc.
6. Focus on skills, not on knowledge
The ability to use a language is about practical skills, not knowledge. I know Thais with TOEIC scores over 800 who cannot participate effectively in a meeting or write a professional email in English. They know English, but they can’t do English. So focus your training on doing English. Do not allow it to become simply a series of grammar and vocabulary lessons. Make sure that these inputs always lead to speaking or writing tasks, not just gap-fill exercises, and that the inputs help trainees to do the tasks better. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time and money.
7. Increase the frequency of lessons
A 30-hour course completed in five weeks will be more effective than a 30-hour course completed in 10 weeks. The frequency of training sessions increases the effectiveness by allowing more ‘scaffolding’, a process where each lesson builds on the learning of the previous lesson. The longer the gap between sessions, the more learning is forgotten during the gap. To avoid the problem of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ a class should meet at least two times per week (three is even better). If it is not possible to conduct classroom training this frequently, you should consider combining self-study or online learning methods with your classroom training. And that leads to my last point.
8. Consider requiring homework
I say consider homework, because in my experience about 90% of adult learners do not want to do homework. They are busy, and it makes them feel like they’re back in school again. Nevertheless, any additional exposure to the training content outside of class will improve its effectiveness. This is especially true if the classroom sessions are infrequent (less than twice per week).
So, it’s worth discussing whether your trainees will do a limited amount of homework as a part of their training (it needs to be a requirement; otherwise it will not be done). I would recommend not more than 15 minutes of homework per classroom hour. The following are some useful types of homework:
• Revision of grammar/vocabulary. Typical activities can be found in self-study workbooks, DVD-ROMs and websites that come with many textbooks.
• Personalization. Students apply language presented in class to personal contexts in short written assignments (may be presented orally in the next class).
• Emails to the instructor. Each trainee emails the instructor during the gap between classes (may be an assigned task as mentioned above or free writing).
• Prepare short class presentations. Trainees prepare to present something to the class (a news item, personal story, recipe, instruction, etc) for 3-5 minutes in next class.