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Occupation Specific Language Training - By: Adair Meehan
May 2, 2011

I have been teaching a variety of OSLT classes at Fanshawe since August 2009. The objective of Occupation Specific Language Training is to not only work on fluency in the language of a particular workplace, but to deal with the process of transferring skills from one culture to another. For most of my business OSLT students, the focus of their learning has been less about grammar and automaticity, and more about confidence. Accordingly, the exercises we do in class aim to solidify specific sets of communication skills within simulated workplace scenarios. One of the best tools I have been able to apply in my OSLT class  is the Business Case Study. 

When I did my business degree in the early ‘90’s, the Case Study Method was emerging as the favoured method of instruction in North American business schools.   Case analysis means using a real-world situation to illustrate teaching points, requiring from the student a more inductive and participatory frame of mind.  The case approach is particularly well-suited to a discipline like business that doesn’t lend itself well to traditional lecture methods  -- in fact, old-school entrepreneurs have always scoffed at the notion of academics teaching business, arguing that real world experience is always better.  This should sound familiar to ESL teachers.

In the business classroom, a number of standard practices have been adopted when using cases. It is crucial, for example, that the case be non-fiction, complete with all the messy details, red herrings and loose ends that real life tends to provide. Coping with imperfect input – that is, having too little or too much information -- is a skill that the case approach seeks to develop. Also, students are expected to do a lot of preparation on their own before participating in a group discussion, aiming to not only understand the narrative but to be fluent in using the terms of reference for a particular industry. Similarly, students need to be ready to present a point of view, and a proposal for an ‘action plan’. Business profs seem uniquely obsessed with the question ‘What are we going to do NOW?!’, preferring students to present a clear and practical course of action in plain language, avoiding the idle speculation that fuels a lot of academic assignments.

As it turns out, the target skills in a business class – information triage,  vocabulary assimilation, thinking on one’s feet and  saying what you want to say – are not  unlike the skills we seek to cultivate in a new speaker of English. This observation supports the recent wave of ESL methodology that values practical application  over rote learning. Like an immersion program, a case study class applies language as a tool rather than as an explicit target of study,  and this is what makes it fun.

Whether it is an ESL class or an MBA class, The challenge of a good case is not to figure out the answer, but rather to figure out the question. My students start a case by reading it alone, then confirming their understanding through an additional group reading, then group discussion and exercises.  The final stage of case analysis requires the class to decide whether there is a problem, and, if so, what to do about it.  By reaffirming that there is no one right answer,  we enable free communication.

In my recent OSLT Finance/Accounting class, we took up the case of a small businessman in Dartmouth Nova Scotia who was trying to decide whether to buy another gas station. ( My old school, Acadia University, has a freely accessible collection of short cases online, so my landlocked students here in London have acquired a disproportionately informed view of the Maritimes. I’m pretty sure I heard Great Big Sea on one of their iPods.)  Along with a quick geography lesson, we touched on several topics of interest as we read the case, including the struggles of small businessmen,  the plight of the fishing industry, the Canadian taxation environment, the challenges of selling gas in a post-Katrina world, and  the wisdom of letting a spouse do the books.  These are not daunting topics for engaged adults of intermediate ability, particularly when the narrative of the story provides background and focus, and we take the time to ensure comprehension. Like most cases, the gas station case was well grounded in everyday reality, with a manageable set of new expressions – for this group in particular, this case was a safe forum to apply familiar accounting concepts using the unfamiliar jargon of Canadian business. There was even some math! The class developed and enthusiastically presented at least four completely different action plans. Sadly, after  well-reasoned arguments from accountants from Colombia and West Africa,  our gas station man is more confused than ever.

The inevitable divergence of opinion makes a case study class a lively one, and the struggles of using a new language become secondary to the urgency and satisfaction of making one’s point. Young MBA’s will speak of their case analysis classes in the same way, recognizing the value of a simulated environment where new communication skills are tested, ideas are put forth,  and confidence is forged. For ESL teachers, this should sound familiar too.

About the Author:  Along with contract work at Fanshawe College, Adair and his wife Susan run Applied Language Associates, a small English training service in London specializing in English for Specific Purposes.


On Wednesday, June 1, 2011, Kristibeth Kelly said
Have you ever tried the layered case study approach? That is where you only give a certain amount of information at one time, then after small group and full class discussion, you give the students more information about the case. You can keep adding layers to the discussion which allows students to ask questions, and think about possible solutions without knowing what information they'll get next. Once they get new information they often have to adjust their solutions and ask more questions. It's quite effective in engaging students and developing higher order thinking skills.


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