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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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