Learning Legal English, Teaching Legal English, Writing & business

The 2016 English at Work Survey – Employers *don’t* know what is the most important English skill

In 2016, Cambridge English and QS presented “a global, cross-industry overview of English language skills at work”. One question the survey asked was “What is the most important language skill?” The answer was reading closely followed by speaking. You can see this in the breakdown here (taken from slide 11 of this presentation):

As you can see, reading and speaking are close in terms of perceived importance. This was also reflected in a more detailed breakdown of the results. For example:

Industries: the most important skill for employers was either reading (12 industries) or speaking (8 industries).

Industry size: reading more likely to be more important in larger companies, while speaking was more important in smaller companies.

(This data was taken from p.17 and p.18 of the full report which you can download here or Cambridge’s webpage here.)

However, I believe that the conclusion of reading and speaking being the most important skillsets – as reached by a worldwide survey involving 5,000 businesses – is incorrect. In his post, I’ll explain why I think that the results are wrong based on the data I collected from my small-scale survey.

Ask the wrong people, get the wrong answer.

In my opinion, if you want to find out what the most important English skill is, the best people to ask would be the employees directly, not the employers. However, the survey included “questions about English language skills [that] were answered by 5373 employers, in 38 countries/territories and 20 different industries” (my emphasis)(p.5 of the report).

Asking the employer, who may be distant from the day-to-day work for all employees in the company, which English skill they think is the most important for their company will not allow you to get the “real” answer i.e. what issues employees actually have to face.

I understand and agree with you that there might be employers of small companies who would know; so, let’s take them out of the equation.

Over 60% of the survey respondents – a sizeable majority in terms of the survey’s findings – were from businesses that had 100+ employees (see Table 4 below, p.9 of the report). This leads me to suggest that the majority of responses were from employers, which perhaps, might not know the exact English demands of the 100+ jobs that he/she is responsible for. And, in answering ‘reading or speaking’ as being the most important English language skillsets, this might not accurately reflect the real English language demands employees have.

Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer

Only one question in the survey attempted to identify the most important skillset – Q4 (p.37 of the report).

The general nature of this question can, of course, be criticised:

  • how can one question accurately reflect the English language demands across 100+ different jobs? and
  • if you can determine the most important skillset, how do you reflect how close all of the skillsets are in terms of importance?

There’s little point going into a detailed discussion regarding why the question was drafted this way or why there weren’t more specific questions as the questionnaire only had six questions. Evidently, one question had to deal with this issue, so in fairness, this question was probably the only one that could have been asked.

Once again, in fairness, you could argue two more questions pointed towards specific English language skills, albeit in a vague way i.e. Q2 and Q3.

In Q2, as you can see, it is possible to identify English skills to some extent, e.g. the first and third criteria are clearly aimed at writing, the fourth at reading, the last two at speaking and listening. However, even if we could agree on that, the answers of “basic / intermediate / advanced / native” still only allow an employer to take a global view of English language demands, not make a micro (and more accurate) analysis.

Q3 is even vaguer at drawing any meaningful conclusions re: specific skillsets.

Therefore, in my opinion, due to the limitations of the survey, the questions asked didn’t allow for an accurate analysis of which English language skillset is the most important. At best, you could say that the results show a ‘global’ understanding by employers that perhaps might not know the exact English language demands facing their large workforces.

What do the findings mean for the future?

Although the results are, in my opinion, vague, I think it is common sense to assume that these findings will influence publishers and language schools. The results from the survey are being presented as clear and definitive results (at least, this is how it appears to me) and that means that future books will focus on developing these skillsets. Expect to see more speaking exercises and more reading exercises in coursebooks, and more focus on these areas from schools. However, in my opinion, this is going to lead to a worsening of English-language preparedness for the workplace, not an improvement.

Why focusing on reading and speaking is not the right thing to do

Reading:

Reading is really a combination of two skills – the ability of one person to read a text, but also the ability of a different person to write the text that was read. After all, to be able to read, something has to be written. It is also clear that writings that are written well and clearly are read easily. The whole debate of ‘legalese’ or understanding legal writing is a testament to this, and many studies have shown that writings that are written well (about complex legal issues) are read more easily. Further, the reader also likely to think the writer is more educated or experienced (please read the short conclusion to this study by Benson & Kessler). So when we think of ‘reading’, we should really think: reading = reading someone else’s writing.

However, if we bring this back to the conclusions of this study – that reading is the most important skill – this will mean more reading exercises in business English coursebooks. But these reading tasks are different to real-world reading tasks. In an English coursebook, the reading tasks are tailored to the level of the learner. Beginners read texts for beginners, intermediate readers read intermediate level texts, it’s really only upper-intermediate or advanced students that get access to normalised written texts.

But even then, those ‘advanced’ texts are written by professional writers in organisations that use editors to make sure that the written message is easily understood. The BBC, the Economist, Macmillan or Pearson Education would not let a text be published without making sure the text achieves its aim – that it can be understood. This means the writing has to be of a certain level of professionalism and expertise. This is unlike most everyday business writing communications.

As such, reading tasks in English coursebooks don’t reflect reality in that:

1) the reading that most people do in the workplace is not writing written by a professionally trained writer, and this means

2) the process of reading is not the same when you compare the activity of an English language reading task to reading real-life business writing.

Therefore, it would be unfair to expect a worker to improve their reading skills by giving them coursebook reading materials, and then expect improvement when understanding work emails or texts written by colleagues not professional writers. This is further compounded by the fact that the writing errors that appear in a work email rarely appear in an English coursebook reading task. For example, in an English coursebook,  a ‘spot the mistake exercise’ would commonly ask the reader to identify a spelling mistake or grammar mistake. However, in real life, a grammar mistake in a business email rarely affects a reader’s ability to understand the general message, much less a spelling mistake. The real writing errors that do affect a reader’s ability to understand, e.g. bad structure, confusion of thought, poor organization, unclear antecedents, modifier issues, are rarely tested in the coursebooks. Certainly, I’ve rarely seen exercises of this type in Market Leader or any of the other business English coursebooks.

In summary, there are two points here:

  1. reading has to be looked at in terms of writing as well, and
  2. the English coursebook reading exercises are not good preparation for the workplace.

Speaking:

For this, I will only focus on the areas in which I teach English – in the legal and some business sectors. I fully accept that in other sectors, speaking might be a skill that should be focused on.

So within that narrow focus, particularly of law, at the beginning of an employee’s career, speaking is not a skillset that that person will use; certainly not enough to warrant the current level of focus that it’s afforded in popular textbooks. The beginning of someone’s career is typified by working long hours in front of a computer, researching, listening, and most importantly writing. Speaking to clients normally happens when an employee has reached a certain level of seniority.

Preparing a young lawyer, businessman, engineer, or someone from another profession to be able to negotiate, present, use small talk, etc. is largely a waste of time. Yet, this seems to be the focus of popular business English coursebooks. The focus of ‘let’s talk’ as you see in the old (but still used) ILEC coursebook and Business English coursebooks causes considerable confusion (as I’ve observed) amongst younger lawyers when they find out they don’t get to talk much at the beginning of their careers.

If speaking should be a focus, the speaking exercises should focus on areas such as: investigation and deduction, analysis, reporting, problem-solving, or explaining. These speaking skills should be practiced before joining the workplace as these skillsets will be the first to be used – not pretending to negotiate ‘big’ contracts with multi-million international firms.

Importantly, however, the number of speaking exercises should be assessed in light of the number of writing exercises. Why? In improving your speaking skills, you don’t improve your writing skills. But, in improving your writing skills, you do improve your speaking skills.

In summary, this leads to three further conclusions:

  1. writing exercises must come before speaking exercises,
  2. the speaking (and therefore writing exercises) should be based on real-life skills used at the beginning of careers, and
  3. there have to be more writing exercises than speaking exercises as writing is a more practiced skillset in the workplace.

What’s the most important English skillset? Writing

It’s not enough just to criticize and hypothesize about a study’s findings, to prove a point, you have to gather data – so that’s what I did.

I created a questionnaire with 10 questions that asked people to think about how they use English in the workplace. You can find a link to the questionnaire here.

As of writing this article, the results unequivocally show that writing is the most important English skillset.

The results from my questions speak for themselves:

Interestingly, however, I was surprised by the answer to one question. Formal studies done in the past and anecdotal evidence have suggested that people view their own writing skills as being good (confirmed in Q7) and view other people’s writing negatively. However, the results to Q8 show a different result.

However, anticipating this (based purely on my experience), I wrote another question to look at this from a different direction, i.e. trying to move the focus away from completely being on the writer to being on themselves as the reader. My thinking was that the answers to this question would either support or act in contrast to Q8. As you can see, almost 70% of respondents seemed to point the finger at other people’s bad writing skills, rather than their own ability to read.

The findings to my questions seem to show that, irrespective of what employers think, employees think that writing skills – either that of their own (Q10) or others (Q9) need improvement. This is what the focus should be for Business English coursebooks. This is why I think writing is the most important English skillset in the workplace.

Effective business writing is easy to teach

The good news is that effective business writing is easy to teach if we consider two things.

We already know what makes good writing

Over the last 40-50 years, lots of time and energy has been spent deconstructing bad writing and developing a set of simple guidelines to help people write better. In fact, these guidelines are already in place and being used by governments, public institutions, and private companies in an attempt to better communicate with the reader. The result of this is that the focus has changed from admiring the skill of the writer to thinking about the reader and if they can understand the message. This is the correct focus – writing should be thought of as a reader-focused activity.

The guidelines are also freely available on the internet if you would like to find out about this by yourselves, e.g. plainenglish.co.uk, or PLAIN, or on self-study courses like mine.

The difficult part comes in reading, learning, and practicing your skills.

There has to be a change in focus in Business English coursebooks

No-one, not students nor teachers enjoy an hour-long writing task. Further, there is no need to do these exercises. Writing exercises should be short, focused, clear, and have instant feedback – this is what we hope for re: most of the emails that we send. Writing exercises should be done mostly in class and they should reflect real-life situations. This is do-able as most work emails are generally short and quite easy to classify in terms of topic. Writing exercises should not be a hopelessly long-winded exercise asking someone to write about something they would never write about as they start their careers. All it takes is a little research and imagination.

Conclusion

Writing allows you to do two things better:

  • get better results from your writing, i.e. making it easier for someone to read and therefore make your writing successful, and
  • get better at speaking as in the process of writing you have to learn organisation of thought, which then allows you to organise your speaking.

However, I fully accept that writing is the hardest skill to develop as it takes the most amount of time and energy – both for the student and the teacher. In the past, I hated teaching writing because I didn’t know how to teach it, and students hated writing exercises as they didn’t understand the value of it and the exercises didn’t inspire them. However, now with 1) the experience I have, and 2) the available evidence of the business benefits of good writing both for the company and the employee, it is clear that the more hard work you invest in developing your writing skillset, the more it pays dividends in the future. Coursebooks need to change to reflect this.

Returning to the survey, it seems that there was some awareness of the importance of writing. The survey gave employers the opportunity to give ‘additional insights’ about their views of English in the workplace, and in this, there was recognition that writing is the most important skillset. Here are two comments that support this:

This last quote is of particular importance as it focuses on the most important issue – the measure of outcome. This summarizes the issue of why it is writing not reading that is the most important English language skill, as the understanding of outcome in the context of reading should not be, “is the person’s reading skills good enough?” But, “was it written well enough for the person to read and understand it?”

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