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How Students' Work Experience Contributes to Course Development: English Courses for Hotel and Tourist-Industry Personnel
by Peggy Leung

Communication in the workplace is increasingly recognized as a problem confronting employees (Huckin 1988; Schleppegrell and Royster 1990; Ray 1993). Language accuracy is not the sole problem; there is also the problem of mastering specific terms to fulfill the employees vocational needs, as well as using the language appropriately (Huckin 1988; Maier 1992). According to the report on Technical Institute Graduates, English and the Workplace (Cooper et al. 1992), a project financed by the Hongkong Bank Language Development Fund, English is the principal language of communication in Hong Kong business across a wide spectrum of work sectors. In larger firms, proficient speakers of English are utilized for client contact, and smaller firms can lose business because of inadequate English skills among their staff. To improve communication at work, employees will need to engage in more conversational activities, giving personal reactions to something heard, read, or viewed (Copper et al. 1992:12). Their ability to deal with different English accents, cultures, and acceptable norms for English communication are also in need of attention. There is also a need to take into account the changes in the workplace in order to help employees improve their communication skills.

Need for student input

In designing and developing English courses that aim to improve workplace communication, students can be a valuable source of help to course designers and teachers. Strevens (1988:42) points out that one area of difficulty for teachers of ESP courses is the gap between the learner's knowledge of the special subject and the teacher's ignorance of it. He recommends several techniques to tackle the problem, and one of them is to allow the students to put you [the teacher] right! Do not be above letting the students correct your solecisms in the subject (Strevens 1988:43). In fact, right from the planning stage of the course, students can help in identifying their own needs. Hutchinson and Waters (1987:60), who favour a learning-centred approach to needs analysis, think that in analysing the needs of students, it would be normal practice to ask both the lecturers and the students about their English needs. They also maintain that needs analysis is not a once-and-for-all activity. On-going, informal consultations with students help in this continuing process. Nunan (1984:43) also believes that there is a need for informal monitoring to identify changing needs and that it is essential to involve the learner in the decision making process through discussion and consultation. He suggests that curriculum design be seen as a negotiative process between teachers and students; in a learner-centred curriculum, information by and from the learners will be built into every phase of the curriculum process (Nunan 1989:19). Tudor (1993:25) points out that students may well have a closer insight into their communicative needs than the teacher, and thus they should have a say in content selection of the learning programme. Teachers can gather the students opinions through ongoing discussion and consultation with students on the basis of day-to-day teaching activities. Palacios (1993:44) also argues that teachers, being constantly enriched by daily contact with their learners, should learn continually from their students, with the purpose of incorporating everything they learn into their teaching.

Attempts have been made by teachers of English for Academic Purposes to actively involve students in the investigation of English language use in their disciplines (Dempsey Page 1987; Liebman 1988; Ronald 1988; Chase 1989). One of the benefits, as remarked by Chase (1989:4), is that sometimes they [the students] are more motivated to learn when they have discovered for themselves what their needs are rather than when they are informed of their needs by their English teachers. If teachers are willing to involve the students, they will not be in the uncomfortable position of being less knowledgeable than their students (Spack 1988:37), who are now cast in the role of consultants.


This article aims to report on the contribution made by students with work experience to the development of English courses for the Higher Diploma in Hotel Management and the BA (Hons) Tourism Management.

There are two different modes for the Hotel Management course, namely the Sandwich Mode for full-time students and the Mixed Mode for part-time day-release students who come into the Polytechnic once a week for English classes. It is the Mixed Mode that I would like to report on in this article as all the students are working in hotels and their experience contributes to the development of the courses. Under the present Credit Accumulation Scheme for the Mixed Mode, the students have to successfully complete English courses at two stages, namely the Foundation Stage and the Professional Stage. At each stage the students have three hours of English per week for a term of 14 weeks.

The BA (Hons) Tourism Course began in October 1991. About 40 percent of the first batch of students came from the tourism industry, and some are still taking part-time tourism-related jobs. In addition, they receive operational training in the tourism field at the end of Year One. I can draw on their work experience to build up this relatively new course. There are two hours of English per week for 28 weeks in Year One, and three hours per week for 14 weeks in Year Two.

Students take up a wide range of positions in hotels ranging from the relatively junior level of waiters, front office receptionists, and room attendants to the intermediate management level of assistant managers and assistant housekeepers. English is the predominant language of communication at work, as the clients are mainly tourists. Even those at the junior levels perceive a real need to learn English their medium for client contact. This is a different situation from that identified in the Hong Kong business report mentioned above, where the employers saw a need for their junior staff to know English (Cooper et al. 1992:10), but the junior staff themselves did not. This contrast between the hotel industry and business in general is probably due to the particular demands of work in hotels. As for the tourism field, English is also used widely for inbound and outbound travel and in client contact.

English for hotel management

One of the contributions that my students have made to course development is their involvement in syllabus negotiation. When I have doubts about the usefulness of certain topics in the syllabus, my part-time day-release students often make suggestions based on their experience in the industry. A couple of years ago when facsimiles appeared to have taken over most of the telex traffic in business communication, my colleagues and I doubted whether telex writing was still a valid topic. I checked with my students, who told me that telexes are still extensively used in hotels because they are cheaper and also legally binding. There were other occasions when students requested the teaching of certain topics that had never occurred to me, e.g., how to make entries in the log book. It seemed to me that making entries in a log book was a simple task similar to note-taking. However, my students suggestion made me realize that taking comprehensible and sensible notes was not an easy job for them. So to prepare for teaching the topic, I asked them to provide authentic materials from their hotels (with permission from their superiors), so I could analyse their problems based on these materials.

How to address royalty also poses a problem for some of my students who work in deluxe hotels. The problem is more difficult when royal families from Southeast Asia have titles that are unfamiliar to us. I had difficulty solving this problem myself, but fortunately one of my students provided me with a handout given by their own training officer. This kind of sharing has enabled me to adjust the course to the needs of the students.

My part-time day-release students often raise problem situations in class and ask me to help them with the appropriate language. An interesting problem, especially for female staff, is how to reject unwanted invitations. In such situations they need polite but firm language to deal with the guests. My approach is to ask the class to do role simulations in which they have to apply their problem-solving skills to the situation. Other interesting situations include how to ask the guests to follow the dress code without embarrassing them, how to ask children not to run about in the restaurant, and how to stop the guests from taking away properties of the hotel (like ivory chopsticks, etc.). Often, useful solutions can be worked out from role simulations, when the students share their own experience with their peers.

The above are isolated incidents showing how the students help in the design of a needs-based course. A more important overall contribution to course development is the information the students provide on changes in workplace culture. Hotel staff are expected to be polite to their guests. The standard for politeness in the past was submissiveness the customers are always right. However, this kind of subservient politeness is giving way to a more outspoken, decision-making politeness. Hotel staff are now expected to be able to explore alternatives with the guests, to take initiatives and make decisions whenever necessary. In some local hotels, even junior staff are given the authority to make decisions relating to the guests needs. A well-known incident in the local hotel industry a couple of years ago involved a junior staff member who made a decision to buy a vase for a customer when the vases available in the hotel were not of the right size. The employee was not only reimbursed for the cost of the vase, but also awarded for his initiative. In general, hotel staff are expected to be able to converse at ease with the guests, to chat about Hong Kong generally while offering personalized service. This implies that the course should help students build confidence to carry on a general conversation with guests, besides teaching them specific terms and phrases for work (e.g., language to describe food, English for the front office). Such information about the changing demands on hotel staff is essential to designing and modifying English for Hotel Management courses.

English for tourism management

Since Tourism is a new course at the tertiary level, it is quite a difficult task to write the English syllabus and develop the course. Fortunately, the first batch of students helped us by sharing their rich experience in the industry. They made suggestions in class as to what has to be learnt in order to cope with real-life vocational needs. On the topic of itinerary, they pointed out that there are two kinds. One is for individual customers, simply stating the time and place of arrival and departure with a brief list of excursions; the other is for package tours, containing detailed and vivid descriptions of places to be visited. In the course book we are using, only the first type of itinerary is mentioned.

Teaching the topic replying to a letter of complaint, I also learnt that in some companies, often two replies are sent out to a letter of complaint. The first reply acknowledges receipt of the letter and informs the recipient that immediate action will be taken to deal with the matter. The second reply is sent out later informing the recipient of the result of the investigation, and (if necessary) of the compensation the company is ready to make. A student also told me that it is dangerous to put down in black and white It is my fault . . . because it induces legal liability. The class then had an interesting discussion on the different kinds of compensation paid in complaint cases.

There was also considerable sharing of experience among the students on the topic disciplinary interviews. I had had no experience either attending or conducting a disciplinary interview, but one of my students who worked for an airline company had a lot of experience conducting such interviews in English with his junior staff. Naturally, he was the ideal person to roleplay the part of the interviewer for the class.

On the topic coping with tourists questions about Hong Kong, I prepared an initial list of questions that tourists are likely to ask. But I was able to enrich the list every time I taught this topic as I elicited from the students the questions that they had encountered on the job. Questions like where and how to hire a helicopter or a boat, and where to get acupuncture or chiropractic treatment are very common. Students also pool their knowledge to give good answers, as they know much about Hong Kong and are familiar with the tourist literature. They are also able to take note of the constant changes in Hong Kong and supply up-to-date information. In these ways, the work experience of students can inform both the immediate learning environment and subsequent course planning activities.


To help improve communication in the workplace, course designers must be well informed of the workplace culture, the vocational needs of the workers, and the constant changes that are taking place. People with first-hand experience in the travel/hotel industry can inform the course designer and the teacher about their vocational needs and the changes in industry demands. This will enhance the awareness of the course designer and allow him/her to design better courses. Teachers should encourage an open atmosphere in the classroom to make participation possible and negotiations central. As it is important for students to explore alternatives with their clients in workplace culture today, it is also essential for the teacher to explore alternatives with the students about their learning programme.


  • Chase, M. 1989. Students and teachers as co-researchers of language use across the university curriculum. Paper presented at the Institute of Language in Education Conference, Hong Kong.
  • Cooper, A., J. R. Devereux and L. G. Ng. 1992. Technical institute graduates, English and the workplace: Executive summary and recommendations. Project funded by the Hongkong Bank Language Development Fund. Hong Kong: Institute of Language and Education.
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  • Palacios Mart!nez, I. M. 1993. Learning from the learner. English Teaching Forum, 31, 2, pp. 44 47.
  • Ray, E. B. 1993. When the links become chains: Considering dysfunctions of communication in the workplace. Communication Monographs, 60, 1, pp. 106 11.
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  • Schleppegrell, M. and L. Royster. 1990. Business English. English for Specific Purposes Journal, 9, pp. 3 15.
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  • Strevens, P. 1988. The learner and teacher of ESP. In ESP in the classroom: Practice and evaluation, ed. D. Chamberlain and R. J. Baumgardner. Hong Kong: Modern English Publications and the British Council.
  • Tudor, I. 1993. Teacher roles in the learner-centred classroom. English Language Teaching Journal, 47, 1, pp. 22 31. }

Peggy Leung is a lecturer in the English Department, College of Degree Studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic. Her recent research projects explore communication problems in the Hong Kong hospitality industry


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