The Chairperson

By Glenn Huntley

A technique to give responsibility, and make English purposeful

This technique is probably an extension of what many Business-English teachers have already been doing for a long time when they teach meeting skills, though with a special emphasis on the chairperson’s role. This method can, however, be applied to a much wider range of situations and classes.

What is the Chairperson technique?
Essentially this approach uses one student at a time to lead a meeting, or another lesson activity, initially by using a fixed range of suggested phrases. Although this technique can be used to specifically teach meeting skills, it can be employed more broadly to replace many of the functions undertaken by a teacher. Why not get the students themselves to check their answers to text or homework activities, for example? Any lesson is a type of meeting, after all, with the teacher playing a kind of chairperson role, so why not give some of this responsibility to the students?

The advantages of this technique include the following:

  • the focus of the lesson moves away from the teacher, to the students
  • students have greater opportunities to speak and use target language purposefully, while accepting real responsibility
  • students gain confidence in a ‘safe’ environment, without the higher stakes of a real-life business meeting or similar position of responsibility, and this also helps them to speak up in a range of other situations
  • the technique can be modified easily to take account of different language levels and teaching purposes

Step 1: Pre-teaching the language
Firstly, assuming a Business-English focus initially, compile a list of phrases that are commonly used by the chairperson of a business meeting. Provide phrases used for starting a meeting on one side of a page, in categories such as Welcoming, Starting Discussion, Stating Objectives, Timing, and Moving to the First Item/Speaker. On the other side of the page, write phrases used for closing a meeting, under the headings of Checking for Final Comments, Summarizing/Confirming, Plans for the Next Meeting and Closing. Include a number of phrases in each category, to give students a choice of expressions, with different formality levels. Most business-English texts offer a wealth of useful phrases, if in doubt. With higher-levels, the students themselves can suggest phrases, as a brainstorming activity.

In the class, get the students to read through the phrases and check for
understanding. Lower levels may need more careful controlled practice, reading through the phrases one by one to ensure appropriate delivery.

Providing a topic
Students also need some material or topic/s that they can use to discuss in their meeting. This can be an article that students have read for homework, a list of conversation topics, or anything else that generates discussion. It could simply be the organizing of a class BBQ or trip to the pub!

Starting and ending the meeting
Choose one person to be the chairperson. Instruct this person to choose one phrase from each category on their sheet to start the meeting. After thus commencing the meeting, the chairperson will manage the discussion by asking each participant to express their opinion about a chosen topic.

Of course, the meeting need not be restricted to a single topic, and a number of issues may well be brought up for discussion, as with a more formal agenda. With lists of discussion topics, each student could be asked to choose a different topic, and all of these could be discussed by a small group of 3-6 people.

Once everyone has contributed, the chairperson will close the meeting, using the fixed closing phrases, and hand the floor back to the teacher. Here, an extra phrase may be useful: ‘over to you (teacher’s name)’. When the meeting has finished, the teacher can provide the students with feedback about their performance, including
relevant error correction.

Stepping in when students get stuck
Inevitably, there will be times when students will hesitate and stumble, or when they will make mistakes with the aforementioned homework / text-activity checking. There is no reason, when that happens, why the teacher cannot step in and provide the right cue for things to continue smoothly, or to suggest the right answer to a lesson task when no-one in the class has been able to suggest it. Indeed, the chairperson should be encouraged to ask the teacher for assistance when required.

Next steps
Once students are comfortable with the basic idea, and particularly with more advanced learners, additional phrases, such as those used to move between speakers, giving and eliciting opinions or interrupting may also need to be introduced. The range of phrases initially provided can also be expanded, for greater variety. Additional phrases can be introduced in separate and comprehensive lesson activities, or as needs dictate during feedback sessions.

With basic functional skills under control, a greater focus can also be placed on content material that can also be aimed more towards specific business (e.g. case studies) or general topics, as needs dictate.

Other applications
After students are more used to taking charge of meetings in this way, and when everyone has taken their turn to play the chairperson role, the next step is to extend the process so that students can use similar language to take responsibility for a variety of other lesson activities, such as homework-checking.

During listening exercises, I also get one student to take charge of the CD player, a process that includes its own set of specific phrases, such as ‘Are you ready?’, ‘Is that enough?’ and ‘Let’s listen again.’ Once students have had a sufficient chance at listening, the student in charge of the CD player can choose another person to check listening tasks, using a phrase such as ‘(student name), could you be the teacher please?’.

Fine-tuning to meet different needs
For each different context where this language is used, students can be taught to fine-tune the language and formality level accordingly. For example, the full extent of chairperson phrases, including welcoming, would not be needed if the goal is to merely discuss a topic from the text midway through the lesson. Similarly, there would be no reason to look to the ‘next meeting’ in most cases. Indeed, in most applications, this method requires quite a commonsense and simple range of language, and an adapted list can be made up accordingly.

Potential Problems
Despite the versatility of the Chairperson technique, it may prove difficult to establish with the very lowest levels. There’s also a greater likelihood of lower-level students simply repeating memorized phrases, without much sense of their meaning, rather than using them with full understanding or personalizing them.

Occasionally, teachers may also encounter resistance from students who believe that direct contact with a native-English speaker offers the best chance of improvement, rather than speaking to other students whose English contains ‘errors’. These students may see the teacher’s apparent removal from the classroom communication loop as a negative innovation. In this case, students ought to be advised about the benefits of interaction with other students, particularly as a means of maximizing speaking practice.

Related language and ideas may found in many business-English textbooks, The following are two good examples:

  • Sweeney, S. (2000). Communicating in Business, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Goodale, M. (1987). The Language of Meetings, Hove, Language Teaching Publications

Example sheet that may be given to students:

Starting the meeting

Hi everybody!
Good afternoon and a warm welcome to everyone here today!
Well, a warm welcome to everyone here.
Hello everyone and I hope everyone is well today.

Starting discussion
Let’s get down to business.
Well, we’d better start.
Ok, shall we make a start?
Right, let’s begin.
If everyone is ready, perhaps we could commence.

Stating objectives
Ok, what I want to do today is…
We’re here today to…
The purpose of this meeting is…
As you know, our objective today is…
Our aim today is…

This should take about…
I would like to finish by…
We’re under some time pressure, so we’ll need to finish by…
The first part of the meeting should take about __________. Then we can take a short break and conclude by __________.

Moving to the First Item/Speaker
Ok, let’s start by looking at…
Why don’t we begin with…
Let’s start with…
Right, well the first thing we need to consider is…

Closing the meeting

Checking for final comments
Ok, does anyone have anything else to say?
Would anyone like to make any further comments?
Any final contributions from anyone?
Anything else?

Let me run through a quick summary of what we’ve discussed.
In summary, we’ve talked about…
Very briefly, what we’ve decided is…
To summarize,…

Plans for the next meeting
Next, we have to…
At the next meeting we’ll…
At the next meeting ____________ will prepare a short presentation about…
Before the next meeting,…

If there’s nothing else, I think we should wrap up here. Thanks everyone.
Ok, let’s finish here. Thanks for everyone’s contributions.
I think that’s all we have to talk about so let’s finish here.
Ok, let’s call it a day. Thanks everyone.

Passing back to the teacher
Over to you, (teacher’s name).

Written by Glenn Huntley for September 2007
Glenn taught English in Japan for nine years.

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