Widgets Inc.: A task-based course in workplace English
Widgets Inc. is an ESL/EFL course employing a communicative language teaching approach called task-based learning (TBL). Widgets employs a ‘strong’ version of TBL, which makes it unlike other language coursebooks you may have seen before. For instance, lessons are organized according to task complexity rather than by language forms, and their primary goal is to develop communicative competence rather than grammatical accuracy. Self, peer, and teacher assessment is based on the appropriate completion of tasks.
Something else that makes Widgets different from other courses is its focus on creating a “real-life” English-speaking environment in the classroom. Students simulate being interns at a technology startup called Widgets Incorporated, where they work together in small groups to perform workplace and business related tasks. In this way, all classroom activities are realistically connected; all conversations, discussions, presentations, video calls, and interviews have a contextual purpose, and build from one to the next.
This has several advantages:
It recycles useful language and situations: Relevant vocabulary and sentence patterns, as well as communicative situations, naturally reappear again and again. This implicitly builds confidence and language proficiency.
It is well-suited for mixed-level classes: Since the course is organized by task complexity, clearly contextualized, and assessed on appropriate communicative goals, students at a range of proficiency levels can achieve meaningful task outcomes.
It’s easy to understand the purpose of activities: Because all tasks are realistic, contextualized, and clearly connected to each other, even less proficient students can follow what is asked of them. By drawing on their prior knowledge, they may even predict what’s next.
It is motivating: Students appreciate the practical aspect of tasks, because more than just practicing English, they are also applying real-world skills. In our experience, this leads to greater participation, less use of L1 in the classroom, and a marked decrease in absenteeism.
Where to Start
Teachers will find that Widgets is easy to use and satisfying to teach with. However, we strongly recommend that you consider the entire course as a whole before beginning. Widgets is not the kind of textbook that you can flip open on the first day of class and figure out as you go along.
Generally speaking, we find that the course works best in a class of 16-20 motivated young adults who meet for a minimum of about thirty 90-minute sessions. We have used it successfully with classes with as few as 12 students and as many as 40.
Since much of the work is in the form of in-class discussions, project preparation, and presentations, it’s a good idea to think carefully about the timing of the full course: A class with 40 students may take up to three times longer to hold discussions and give presentations than a class of 16.
Also, since the stages are connected and build to a conclusion, it may be less satisfying to teach them out of order, or to skip one. See below for an overview of the six stages of the course.
In short, in order for you and your students to get the most out of Widgets, please take some time to read over this wiki teacher’s manual, and to familiarize yourself with the Widgets Inc. student book. See our suggested lesson plans in the main menu for ideas – or develop your own and add it to the wiki!
The following course concepts are important in guiding the simulation aspect of the course:
Teams: Students in the Widgets course are placed into small teams of 3-5 members, with 4 being the ideal number. Teams remain together from Stage 2 to Stage 5, and cannot be changed easily. Teams generally work best when they have a good mix of personality types and abilities, giving different students a chance to shine as the different projects come around.
Project Manager: For each stage, a different team member is selected to act as project manager for that stage. One additional task which adds to the simulation is to schedule a “debriefing” interview between the teacher and the PM after their stage is completed. This allows the teacher to provide one-on-one feedback to each student in the class over the course of the semester, and helps to track how each student in the team is (or maybe isn’t) participating.
“Paperwork”: Students are assessed in part via can-do statements which are built into the simulation as “employee evaluations” on pages titled “Paperwork!”. Within the Widgets course, other assessments may include self assessment, peer assessment, and instructor assessment. Please see TBL Assessment in Widgepedia for more information, and for the forms themselves in the Downloadable Forms page.
Video calls: Widgets Course Videos can be streamed or downloaded. The course video comprises about 15 clips which total about 30 minutes. Most of the videos simulate conference calls made by Widgets executives instructing teams on their next project. Some videos model how certain tasks can be performed. All videos are at an authentic level of English, and are meant to be initially viewed for gist, and then discussed by the teams or the whole class. NOTE: The videos are not DRM protected, and are provided under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. This means that they may be copied and shared for non-commercial purposes without modification. Please credit “Widgets: A task-based course in workplace English, by Marcos Benevides and Chris Valvona” and link to widgepedia.com when sharing the videos.
Watercooler chats: The watercooler chat is an optional and informal ongoing task in Widgets, helping students to get used to using English in casual situations. Use the example cards in Appendix A or download the PDF from Downloadable Forms.
Product Catalog pages Appendix B in the student book comprises pages from the Widgets “catalog”. These are intended to be used as information gap pages, where students each look at a different page and describe their product to another student. They may be used at will at any stage throughout the course. In the first edition of Widgets, they were included in the main text; however, we have found that including them in an appendix gives teachers better flexibility in deciding when or if to use them.
The Widgets Inc. course is divided into six stages. Note that these stages are not of equal length or importance, and that it is expected that teachers will adapt them to the requirements of their own class. For example, it is possible to reduce or combine parts of Stages 4 and 5, or to skip most of Stage 6 depending on time constraints or curricular aims.
Also note that the stages increase in task complexity, so although the course starts out quite easy, it becomes increasingly more challenging.
Stage 1 is the orientation stage. It introduces the company and a cast of fictional characters who interact with the class via authentic video scenes. There is no major task in Stage 1. Orientation tasks include: Shake hands and introduce yourself to a co-worker, Watch a video about the company, and Read and discuss a product catalog. At the end of Stage 1, students are put into project teams where they will remain until the end of Stage 5.
Stage 2 is the research and development stage in which students brainstorm product ideas. Teams work on two major tasks: Write a product proposal form, and Present an elevator pitch. Although they are in teams, it is important to note that each student is responsible for completing their own different product proposal form and an elevator pitch. At the end of Stage 2, teams submit their work, and each student completes a self-evaluation form. Project managers each have a one-on-one interview with the teacher.
Stage 3 is a management decision stage. Teams are now given several product ideas from a different team, and must select the best one to go into production. They do this by using a business decision-making tool called a SWOT analysis, which is a simple framework for outlining the pros and cons of a product. There are two major team tasks in Stage 3: Write a business memo and Give a poster presentation. At the end of Stage 3, teams submit their work, and each student completes a self-evaluation form. Project managers have a one-on-one interview with the teacher.
Stage 4 is the market research stage. The product which was selected in Stage 3 is rotated to yet another team, and the new team must now perform market research on it. As a preliminary task, they Organize and run a focus group. Once they have gathered feedback on the product, the teams Write a business report on focus group reactions and Give a formal presentation outlining the team’s recommendations about the product. Optionally, teachers may wish to consider the focus group task as the main speaking task, and skip the presentation. At the end of Stage 4, each student completes a self-evaluation form, and project managers have a one-on-one interview with the teacher.
Stage 5 is the advertising campaign stage. Products are again rotated to new teams, along with the reports prepared in Stages 2, 3, and 4. Teams now consider all of this information, and prepare a proposed advertising campaign to sell the product. The major tasks in Stage 5 are Prepare a slideshow and handout, and Give a multi-media presentation. At the end of Stage 5, each student completes a self-evaluation form, and project managers have a one-on-one interview with the teacher. This is the final team-based stage.
Stage 6 is the job interview stage. Having completed their internship, teams are disbanded, and students must now Prepare a resume and cover letter, and then Interview for a promotion within the company.
The course video in Widgets Inc. is at a near-authentic language level, and serves several purposes:
1. It models language and situations for students. This is especially true of the sample task videos, in which the stage tasks are literally performed (for example, Video 5 or Video 8). Lower language proficiency students may want to follow these models almost word-for-word, whereas higher proficiency students can look at them as just one possible way of performing the task. In fact, teachers may want to elicit discussion about good and bad points of these examples – certainly none of the videos is perfect!
2. It helps to develop an authentic context for the course. That is, the videos help make the students “feel” like they are in a real workplace. That’s why we’ve added features which you may not expect (for example, Titus having recurring technical problems in Video 7). Another aspect of authenticity is that the characters may display likeable or unlikable personality traits. We encourage students to form an opinion on whether they like or dislike the boss, and perhaps talk about their opinion in appropriate ways.
3. It provides opportunities for discussion, note-taking, and other classroom activity. This is especially true of the conference-call videos in which one of the company founders is addressing the teams (for example, Video 4 or Video 7). It is not expected that most students will understand 100% of the language used in Widgets Inc. videos; in most cases, students are meant to watch and take notes in their team, then turn to each other and ask, “What did the boss say?”, “What does she want us to do next?”, and so on. In other words, the ideal post-viewing activity is for the students to work together to reconstruct the message from key words they may have caught.