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Teaching Business English to Beginner Learners




Two businessmen shaking handsTo mark the launch of International Express Beginner, Andrew Dilger writes about the main challenges involved in teaching Business English to beginner learners and suggests possible solutions for overcoming them. Andrew is a freelance teacher trainer and editor, and has been involved in ELT for over twenty years. 

First of all, it’s useful to clarify exactly what we mean by Business English (or BE). One of the simplest, most effective definitions I’ve come across is ‘the English you need to get the job done’. And that’s any job! We might be confronted with a class full of sales people, admin assistants, finance officers or even good old-fashioned managers. These days, almost all employees in an international organization are expected to have some ability in English. That leads on to the first of four main challenges I’ve identified.

1) Context

Finding out exactly what English our learners actually need to use at work can be surprisingly hard. They may be already working (‘in-service’), or in training or not yet in work (‘pre-service’). In both cases, we should start with a comprehensive needs analysis. This is usually in the form of a questionnaire about what learners need to speak about and listen to, as well as read and/or write about. It should also cover who they need to communicate with, how often, and using what media (e.g. phone, email, in person, etc.) Because of their low level, it’s far better to cut to the chase and do this in learners’ L1. At the start of my teaching career, I sometimes only discovered what learners needed to do in English part-way through a course. Too late!

2) Learners

Generally speaking, beginner learners of BE (unless they’re ‘pre-service’) will be older adults, with an average age of between 35 and 55. Younger learners of BE are ‘digital natives’, tending to have tuned into the global importance of English and already managing to have acquired the basics to lift them above beginner level. Older students may not be particularly ‘internet-savvy’ (though they won’t want to lose face by confessing this), and may even have negative associations with learning English or another language from their school days. The thing that works in our favour, however, is that BE is about communicative competence (‘getting the job done’). Most beginner learners of BE will be less concerned with how we teach them English (i.e. the methodology) than how fast and effectively we can teach it them!

3) Time

In-service learners will typically enrol on a language course for a limited period and expect results quickly. What they sometimes don’t take account of is the amount of effort they need to put in, or their language learning capability. It’s often helpful to agree a brief contract (again, in learners’ L1 – and businesspeople like contracts!) about what their expectations and goals are in the given timeframe. This can also include how much work they’re prepared to do outside class. Also, we shouldn’t forget that beginner learners need to review regularly, particularly if they’re out of the habit of language learning. I’d suggest a ratio of new to review material of 60:40, which is what happens in International Express Beginner, for example. The trick is to make the review material feel sufficiently different so learners don’t feel like they’re going over old ground!

4) Motivation

While beginner level learners can improve rapidly, they can also get demotivated by how much there is to learn. As part of the needs analysis, it’s important to establish who the stakeholder is. Are they learning because they want to (‘intrinsic’ motivation), or because the company or their boss requires it (‘extrinsic’ motivation)? If BE learners feel their job is on the line we need to take that into account by making sure our lessons have an appropriate degree of seriousness. This means the practical application and relevance of activities to their working context must be clear at all times. But that doesn’t mean lessons should be dull – liveliness and variety is particularly important for beginner learners!

So what’s your opinion? Teaching BE to beginners varies according to the exact context and profile of the learners concerned, so it’s always interesting to hear a range of viewpoints.

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  1. Thanks for the insight. I agree; business learners can be great because they are task focused but they also tend to have less time for homework and expect a lot of their learning to come from the teacher. Many are out of the habit of learning and see English as a bit of a chore. My tip is the needs analysis is crucial, just as the author says. Don’t leave the first lesson without having a good idea of what they need to be able to do in English. I think once you’ve done the needs analysis, go back and have them number their needs from 1-10 in order of priority and then keep checking this over time. Their needs may well change if they have a sudden presentation to make or a meeting to conduct in English that was not on the original plan.I love the idea of a contract with the learner that the author suggested to make sure they are actively reviewing English outside of lessons. To keep homework relevant, make it reflective of real life English situations. For example, I might ask them to write 10 lines of a typical phone dialogue they might have in English. We could then refine and extend in class.

  2. I’ve been teaching English as a second language for more than 30 years now. I’ve always started any new program with a kind of diagnosis class, and then I can prepare the course contents to be working with. I totally agree with those suggestions from this article, and I do congratulate the author, for the advices on motivating. Thanks a lot!

  3. I’ve been teaching BE for some years now and I found it quite difficult as regards covering the students’ needs or, what is worse, the students’ expectations. The point is that they don’t do anything at home and devote to English only the time they are class. So it’s not easy to make them internalize the language. From another point of view, their interest in the new language change according to their job development, so, they start with some desire to learn English for some specific purpose and then, all of a sudden, they want another thing. One of the points I found in this is that students only want “conversation” and don’t understand that they need vocabulary and some sort of structure to speak. I have also tried “in company” teaching and “out of company” teaching; and I learnt that it is better to make them learn out of their work environment, because they are more relaxed and don’t depend on what they are doing or have to do in their office or place of work.
    I totally agree with the author of the article when he says that it is important to have a diagnosis first class. Another thing is that students want to learn through real material as much as they can and that you, as a teacher, have to help them solve every day matters at work, such as presentations for foreigners or call conferences. All in all, I love teaching BE lecause I love Business and I learn a lot from my students!

    Irma, from Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

  4. As the Academic Consultant for the language teaching company I work for, I have been confused about choosing the right materials for BE especially for students with low fluency levels. I thank the author for giving very useful tips for making choices easy.

  5. Teaching Business English to Beginner Learners « Oxford ... | Business English Toolbox | Scoop.it

    […] To mark the launch of International Express Beginner, Andrew Dilger writes about the main challenges involved in teaching Business English to beginner learners and suggests possible solutions for overcoming them.  […]

  6. Very sound and wise advice and tips – thanks, Andrew! Am particularly taken with the 60:40 revision ratio (time I built that in too!). Will look forward to seeing a copy.

  7. Hi Andrew, I found reading your article engaging and informative. I am a classroom teacher currently teaching English to 11-18 year olds and have been a teacher for several years. Over the last year I have been considering a change of direction; and I have recently been researching BE. Do you have any tips or suggestions as to how to make the first steps into this field? Kind regards, Helen.

  8. This is indeed an insightful read that speaks of the truths that go on in the classroom. Sometimes teachers get caught up in teaching and we need reminders like these to make us take a step back and review how we are doing.

  9. With the book in hand to analyse and most probably use with my students I can say that I agree with you in every point of the article and mostly when you talk about motivation. Thank you!

  10. […] repackaged the previous language, we need to introduce new language alongside it. In an OUP blog post by Andrew Dilger on a similar subject, he suggests the balance is 60:40. So 60% of the lesson is recycling language […]

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