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ESL Training Resources

User-friendly training materials for intermediate to advanced ESL and Business English

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‘Cultural Think Tank’ Activity for Corporate Settings


Several years ago, I attended a networking event held by the Organizational Development Network of Oregon - - which led attendees through a Think Tank activity. This was a new experience for me, coming from a language and communication training background for non-native English-speaking business professionals. The purpose of the Think Tank was to generate a meaningful list of ideas for improving the way the organization supported its membership of, primarily, business consultants. However, I quickly realized that the activity could hold great significance in my work as a language and communication training provider by helping participants:

  • engage in complex discussions about a topic that matters to the team, while fostering empathetic listening
  • generate sophisticated use of language for non-native English speakers and
  • produce a useful action list to address issues identified by the participants

Over the past few years, ProActive English has used “Think Tanks” at numerous companies and below is a description of the activity as I have developed it.  It is timed here for about 60 minutes but I recommend setting aside 90 minutes for this where possible to allow for greater discussion of possible Action Steps and a more thorough Debrief. 

Think Tank Activity

Materials required: Flip Chart paper (one per group) and either an additional Flip Chart, white board, or ability to project a document


  • Develop a set of action steps to address the key issue identified by participants
  • Better understand, among activity participants, the opinions and positions of colleagues about the issue they have identified
  • Improve fluency when discussing complicated and possibly sensitive issues


  • Review and understand an article addressing a work-related issue that matters to participants
  • Generate a list of relevant questions about the issue after reading the article
  • Identify options for action steps to address the issue being discussed

Activity Sequence:

Step 1: Pre-reading: Selected Article

For a ‘Cultural Think Tank’, an article focused on an issue related to diversity can generate  dynamic engagement.  Sujin Jiang’s 2018 Harvard Business Review article “The Most Creative Teams Have a Specific Type of Cultural Diversity” work very well:

Jiang’s identification of “cultural brokerage” as a key element for high performance among diverse groups provides powerful insight for teams to consider and can be readily applied to concrete actions the team/company might take.  The study is also a quick read (keeping preparation minimal) but still provides a link to her in-depth study on the topic in Organizational Science for those who want to dig deeper.

Step 2: Generate and Select questions – 10-15 minutes

Ensure comprehension: After reading the article, the trainer takes a few minutes to ensure comprehension of the study among participants and confirm that there is a generally common understanding of what the article is about.  For groups with non-native English speakers, this might include a review of difficult vocabulary or colloquial expressions that were used in the article.

Generate Questions: Then comes the most important piece: brainstorming questions. Participants are asked to generate any and all questions that the article provokes in them – and those are then listed on either a white board, large paper, or projected as they are asked.  Questions can be lofty and philosophical or practical about process and impacts.  The only rule is that no question is omitted unless it virtually repeats a question that has already been asked.  In our experience, once groups get warmed up, they relatively quickly generate a list of 10-20 questions.

Rank Questions:  Participants are then given three markers (I used three different colors to make the tallying easier) and asked to rank the questions according to the ones they think are most interesting and worthy of discussion.  They go to the board and mark their three most interesting questions (first choice with a 5, second most with a 3, and third most with a 1).

After everyone has ranked their top three questions, a quick tally is made and the top three, four, or five questions are left on the board (with smaller groups, pick the top three or four).

Step 3: Discuss Questions in Small Groups – 15-20 minutes

Participants self-select which question they will discuss.  Each discussion question gets its own flip chart paper and is placed in a different area of the training room.  The flip chart paper has three columns under the question, which is written out:  Points of agreement, Points of difference, Actionable suggestions.

Participants head to their desired question.  A scribe takes notes.  Participants address the three columns in the course of their discussion.  The discussion of actionable suggestions is strongly encouraged.

Step 4: Present Discussions and Highlight Action Steps– 10-15 minutes

Reporters from each group present a summary of their discussion, focusing on the Action Steps the group has identified.  The reporter can field questions from the other groups, but the entire presentation should be no more than three minutes.

Step 5: Debrief – 10 minutes

Over the last few years, ProActive English has simplified our activity review debrief by boiling feedback or discussion down to three key questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • How can you apply this to your work?
  • What would you like to see more or less of, based on your experience with this activity?

We encourage you to share your thoughts on this activity either through the comments on LinkedIn or by e-mail at - especially any suggestions you have that will improve it or expand our understanding of how and why it works!


Contact us about access to additional ProActive English learning content for your training environment.


Picture Story Cards

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ProActive English proudly offers Picture Story Cards - a simple resource for engaging adult learners in ESL classrooms!

These 4 x 6 inch cards come in sets of 8 stories with 6 pictures to a story.  They work well with adult learners in English second language classrooms, including Business English training.

Each Picture Story is rich with discussion topics that draw on cultural norms and expectations.  They easily lend themselves to speaking and writing activities.

ESL teachers can receive a Business English Web© password that enables students to record audio describing the picture stories.  Teachers can give text and audio feedback to students on each recording.  Watch the demo.

A complete set of eight Picture Stories (six pictures in each story) costs $15.  Buy NOW.

Contact us about access to The Business English Web© as a supplement to each Picture Story activity.

The Business Lunch

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