When I first started teaching Business English twenty years ago, the approach to writing was essentially genre-based. What I mean is that we – the teachers (and the course books) – generally started any lesson by presenting a model version of a text. So we’d show students a copy of, for example, a letter or a report. Then we’d analyse the features of the text type in terms of layout, conventions, fixed expressions etc. And finally we’d ask students to try and reproduce a similar text type. The approach, which has been referred to as a genre-based approach, has always served us well. It’s especially effective when teaching exam courses such as BEC because the written text-types are so clearly defined.
However, in recent years it feels like the world of business writing has been thrown into a state of flux. We rarely write into a neat A4 sized template in the real world. Instead we write shorter messages by email or even shorter sentences and utterances if we use Twitter and text messaging.
So how do we prepare students to cope with the current trends in writing? Given that we can’t even predict what kinds of texts we might be writing in the future as technology changes so quickly, perhaps the best we can do is to help students develop certain sub-skills. Here are the sub-skills I suggest we focus on.
Firstly, students need to express themselves in far fewer words. They need to be able to sum up a product in three or four words rather than in a longer paragraph.
Secondly, every word a student chooses needs to count because there is no space for excess in a world where you are fighting for your reader’s attention among the deluge of messages.
Thirdly, students also need to become even more flexible with regard to formality. In other words, after years of training students to use formal expressions in written texts, our emphasis should now be on knowing how to write less formally and more directly.
Such skills will require teachers to take an approach to writing that deals with language at word-level and sentence-level rather than taking the traditional approach of dealing with the whole text type – simply because we can no longer be certain that those texts will even exist next year!
John Hughes will be running a workshop on this topic at the BESIG conference in Bielefeld this month. He will present some practical classroom activities that address the issues mentioned in this article.