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The only three questions you’ll ever need for a Business English needs analysis




Business meetingJohn Hughes is a Business English author. He also has his own blog, TrainingELTeachers. He’d like to acknowledge Regent Schools who ran the training course referred to in the article.

Formally or informally, Business English teachers carry out needs analysis all the time. It might take the form of a questionnaire at the beginning of a course or it can emerge out of a simple social comment at the beginning of a lesson such as: “So, what are you doing at work this week?”  Typically, the student happens to mention that he has something going on which requires English which he hadn’t bothered to tell you and so you put all your other lesson plans on hold while you prepare him/her for that.

Whatever your approach to needs analysis, there are three simple questions which you need the answers to.  I learned them on a particularly beneficial training course early in my career. You might well already ask them, though word them differently.

Question 1: WHO do you communicate with?

If you can find out from the student the type of people they communicate with then you know the level of formality required. It also affects the listening and pronunciation practice. For example, a student who communicates with US speakers needs appropriate listening and so on.

Question 2: WHAT do you communicate about?

Find out the subject matter, the student’s area of business, and what type of subjects s/he is interested in at a social level.

Question 3: HOW do you communicate?

This tells you if the student talks about his/her subject matter by phone, at meetings, in the bar etc.

However, the who, what, how questions aren’t just limited to needs analysis. You can also apply them to assessing if a business English lesson aim is measurable and achievable. For example, if you had a lesson aim which was: “To teach the past simple”, there is an inherent problem. It doesn’t answer the WHO, WHAT, HOW questions. If on the other hand your aim was: “To enable the student to present his/her company history to a group of potential clients” then working on the past simple might be useful but your lesson aim has much more of a real focus.

Your Turn…

Try it for yourself in your next needs analysis or assess your lesson aims by asking WHO, WHAT, HOW. Find out if it works for you…

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  1. […] You may have arrived at this blog from the OUP blog which has my post about the three questions you need answers to in a needs analysis: WHAT do you communicate about? WHO do you c… […]

  2. Sounds nice and concise for a first meeting. The manager on the go will like the 1-2-3-ness of it. Of course you’re dealing with multidimensional personalities, though. They might well not be able to answer “how”. I find out “how” they communicate by playing or assigning the role of the counterparts they talk about.

  3. Hi Anne
    Absolutely agree and perhaps I’ve oversimplified. With lots of students asking directly ‘How do you communicate? might received a confused look and then the reply ‘with my mouth”!! What I was trying to say was the questions like “Do you speak in English on the phone?” or “Is this something you discuss in meetings?” all indirectly come under the umbrella of finding out ‘how’ they communicate. As with all these things, meaning is negotiated. As you say, trying out a role play etc is one of the most effective ways of getting to the bottom of what they actually do and how they communicate.

  4. […] I wrote another piece about checking lesson aims through three questions at the OUP Global Blog that might also be helpful in this area. […]

  5. The article seems like a gift for those who want to know about business English. I am extremely impressed and motivated on the same. Keep writing!

  6. Love the simplicity of this. Will definitely use it during the onboarding phase of my work. It’s good for generating the more detailed questions that make up the overarching who/what/how

  7. It makes sense to me. I’ve been taught to do all sorts of things. First, go to the company or the person who will sponsor the course. Ask specific questions: how long, venue, times available. Expeditions of the outcome of the course. One would go on and on, but part Two is to interview the student. Have a check list and forms. What level is the student at in their English abilities. What are their expectations. This is not very comprehensive, but give on a starting point. I liked the three things needed, but it needs to be much more comprehensive.
    Teaching present progressive I can already see that using the three criteria, Who, What, And How. Demonstrations also help.

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