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Teaching low level Business English

Businessmen shaking handsJohn Hughes is an author of Business Result. The new Starter level of this series will be launched in November at the BESIG 2013 conference in Prague. John will also be running a workshop on teaching low level Business English at BESIG called ‘Communicating much much more with a whole lot less!’

As a new teacher in the early nineties I often used to hear the widely-held view from more experienced colleagues that: “You don’t teach Business English at lower levels. The students just need to learn the basics. It isn’t business.” By the late nineties this view had rapidly altered; it soon became accepted that students at Pre-Intermediate level did in fact need English to help make telephone calls, write emails, meet people and make brief presentations. Logically, it then followed that Elementary students in companies also needed lessons with work-based English that focussed on ‘getting the job done’. And nowadays, Business English courses for beginner students are the norm rather than the exception.

However, even if we now agree that Business English can be taught at any level, teaching lower level Business English still presents us with its own set of challenges:

1. Teach to your student’s real level

When your school placement test puts a Business English student at a low level such as Elementary, it’s easy to forget that this same student is at a very high level in terms of their own subject-knowledge. Your business student might not be able to talk about what they had for breakfast in English but they can often describe quite complex aspects of their work in English. Whatever course syllabus or book you are following, give every opportunity for the student to make use of his/her existing job-related English.

2. Be economical

Business people by definition are people who appreciate efficiency. They want to get the job done in the quickest, most cost-effective way. Your approach at lower levels can be similarly economical. If there’s one word or phrase that will get the student’s message across, then – in general – teach that one way; avoid spending any more time on teaching five or six other ways of saying the same thing.

3. Repackage the language

Students at this level need so much recycling and revision of language. However, when we re-present language from the previous lessons, there’s a danger that students don’t feel they are making tangible progress. The trick is to ‘repackage’ the previously taught language. In other words, make sure the language reappears but within a different form; for example, that it reappears in a business text or re-present it the second time by using video.

4. Less is more

Having 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 and 40% focusses on new language. In fact I’d take this further and suggest that for many Business English teaching situations the balance is more like 70:30 or even 80:20 for classes where – due to work pressures – students have limited time for study.

5. What’s the ‘takeaway’?

In business, ‘the takeaway’ from a meeting is what you learned or ‘took away’ from the discussion. Similarly, students will feel more motivated if they leave your lesson with something tangible that they can take away and use. One way to do this is to find out when your student is next using English at work and give them something to use. For example, if they have a meeting, provide some useful language – even a single phrase – for them to try out at that next meeting. In the following lesson, find out if your student successfully managed to use the new language.

Can you add any more tips on teaching lower level Business English?


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10 attack strategies for teaching the text in Business English

Business woman reading reportAhead of his webinar on the same topic (click on Adult > Teaching the whole text in Business English), Business English expert John Hughes shares his top tips for approaching a piece of text in Business English or ESP.

If you are teaching Business English or ESP students, then analysing a text from their place of work is an invaluable part of determining their needs. You can also turn such texts into classroom materials which will help them to read and possibly write similar texts. It’s a fundamental skill for any teacher of Business English or English for Specific Purposes.

When I first look at an authentic text, I analyse for it ten features and decide which ones are most prominent and lend themselves to classroom exploitation.

1. Visual clues

The first thing we notice about a written text is any kind of accompanying image. For example, it might have a photograph, a chart, a graph, a map or even a table of figures. This will often act as a useful point of focus for students as it helps them predict what the text will be about.

2. Shape and layout

I also look for a shape or layout to the text type. Texts with an overt shape (typically formal texts such as letters and reports) help students to recognise what kind of text it is, which helps build their schema before reading. It also allows for exercises which draw students’ attention to the conventions for layout or to how the writer organises the content.

3. Overt title

A text with an overt title is like a text with a good photograph. You can use it with students to make predictions about the content of the text. In business texts, an overt title might be title to a company report or the title to a set of instructions. In emails, a clear subject line is the equivalent to an overt title.

4. Overt openings

Some texts don’t have overt titles but they do use opening sentences or phrases that indicate what kind of text it is and its purpose. A phrase like ‘I am writing to inform you…’ suggests that we are about to read a semi-formal letter from someone we haven’t met before or don’t know very well.

5. General meaning

Before any further textual analysis, I see if the text lends itself to reading for gist so that I can set some general gist comprehension questions. This is particularly necessary if the text doesn’t contain an overt title or overt opening (see 3 and 4).

6. The writer and reader

With some texts it’s useful to ask students to identify the writer and reader. For example, in the case of a departmental report, students can say who wrote it and who received it. With less obvious texts such as an informal message from a social media site, students might need to speculate who posted the text and why.

7. Detailed information

Having analysed the text for its general purpose and meaning, I start preparing comprehension questions to help students search for and understand more detailed information within the text. This is especially true of long texts.

8. Fixed expressions

Having understood the content of the text, I can start to analyse language which students might be able to use in their own writing. Formulaic texts often make use of fixed expressions. For example, reports might include expressions such as ‘The aim of this reports is to…’, ‘Please refer to figure 8.1…’, ‘It is recommended that…’.

9. Lexical sets

Texts that are related to very specific areas of industry may not fit into a typical pattern or fixed expressions but they will usually have their own specific lexis. For example, within a text related to shipping you might come across terms such as lading, container, pallet, abatement, in bond and ship demurrage. Once you identify a lexical set, you can create vocabulary exercises to help students with them.

10. Grammar

As with lexical sets, certain texts might contain frequently-used grammar. For example, in the recommendations section of an internal company document you might see the it is +passive form structure commonly used; i.e. it is recognised, it is recommended, it is advised… Help students to discover this grammar in the text and identify its form, meaning and use.

So those are my ten strategies for attacking a text in Business English or ESP. Do you have any more to add?


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Teaching Presentation Skills

PresentingJohn Hughes is the co-author of a new video course from OUP called ‘Successful Presentations’. On 25th January, he hosted a webinar on this topic. In this post, he sums up the key points of managing presentations in the classroom.

Preparation before the presentations

Among most people’s list of most stressful situations, speaking in public comes at the top or close to it. This level of stress is magnified when a presentation is being delivered in another language. So the preparation stage is crucial. Use it for students to check their English and to build their confidence. You’ll need to input useful phrases such as ‘Today I’d like to talk about…’ and ‘Now let’s move on to…’ but language input also means providing individual students with key vocabulary for the topic of their presentation. Next you need to give students preparation time including rehearsal time at outside of class. Remember that students might need strategies for preparation at home. One useful technique is for students to work in pairs and practise in front of each other.

During the presentations

On the actual day that students give their presentations, prepare the classroom beforehand. Make sure students have all the equipment and technology they need AND that it all works. As the teacher you need to make notes for feedback but also sit back and enjoy the presentation as an audience member with the rest of the class. The other students who are listening in the audience should also actively participate. That means more than sitting quietly. They should think of questions and comments for the speaker. You can also focus their attention by giving them a task to do while listening; for example, they can write down one thing they like about the presentation and one thing they think the speaker needs to work on.

After the presentations

Students need feedback and there are different ways to handle this. One option is to meet students individually and give comments. If you have filmed the presentation, then you can also pick out certain sections for feedback or the student could study the video after class. Using a formalised feedback form is also useful at this stage so that there is a clear focus to the feedback. Alternatively, you could talk generally with the whole group about all the presentations and discuss any common issues that reoccurred; this will obviously work well with groups who are familiar with each other and have a good rapport.

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Seven tips for successful case studies

John Hughes offers his advice on using case studies in the classroom. John hosted a webinar on the topic of Case Studies in the Business English Classroom on 6th November 2012 – watch it here.

Case studies are a popular tool in business management training. They allow companies to put managers into credible business situations and see how they respond. It helps the individual prepare for the ‘real thing’ and encourages them to consider different ways of responding to events in business. In the business English classroom, the case study also provides the student with valuable language practice. It’s an opportunity for students to try out the language they have been learning in lessons in a realistic situation.

How a case study works

In general, a case study works like this: Firstly, students receive background information about a real business situation. This might take the form of a reading, a listening or a video. During this time, they’ll need help with vocabulary and understanding the key content. The teacher also needs to check that students have a thorough understanding of the problem or issue that needs to be addressed. Next students work in groups or pairs and try to respond to the problem authentically. This is clearly the stage where lots of language is generated and the teacher’s role is to monitor. After the problem has been solved, students reflect on what happened in the case study and how successful the process was. In a language classroom, this includes feedback on language use.

Tips for successful case studies

Despite being useful teaching tools, case studies can end with student dissatisfaction and the teacher can be left wondering why the case seemed to fail. Here are some ideas and tips to ensure that case studies work well in your lessons.

1: Raise interest

Make the case relevant to the students. Allow time for them to share what they already know about the topic and find out what experience they have in a similar situation.

2: Get everyone to take part

Some students will talk more than others but try to involve all your students. Vary interaction patterns (i.e. using pair work and group work) so everyone has a chance to contribute.

3: Concept checking

Throughout the case study, check everyone understands the instructions and aims of each stage

4: The language

You can input useful language before you start and it’s also helpful to ask students to suggest expressions they that will be useful for the task. After the case study, set aside time to talk through common errors or examples of correct and effective language.

5: Navigate the students

Sometimes in case studies, students go down the wrong track. It’s your job to get them going in the right direction again. Prompt them during pair work or group work and don’t be afraid to make a suggestion if necessary.

6: Reach a conclusion

It’s not crucial that everyone agrees on a final outcome since language practice is the primary goal. But students will feel more satisfied if everyone manages to agree on a final outcome.

7: Feedback and reflection

Allowing students to reflect on and discuss what went well and what didn’t go so well in the case study provides another opportunity for language practice.

Click here to download an example case study from Business Result Upper Intermediate. You can view more sample pages from Business Result on the Teacher’s Site.


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Why teaching culture is part of teaching Business English

John Hughes looks at how to approach teaching about culture in business English. John hosted a webinar on the topic of Intercultural communication in Business English on 17th October 2012.

I once taught a German student who needed to make regular telephone calls to counterparts in the UK. To help him, I introduced some language for making small talk at the beginning of the call. He accepted what I was suggesting but admitted: “I don’t like making this conversation on the phone. It isn’t efficient.”  Like my student, many of your business English students will also have lots of experience of working with many different cultures so it’s a ripe and useful topic for classroom discussion.

It’s also a crucial area. Many business relationships struggle, not because one person has lower level English but because there are misunderstood cultural differences. For example, take the business person who arrives at the exact time printed on the agenda and is kept waiting by another person who assumes that the time on the agenda is approximate, not rigid. Then, once these two people are in the meeting room, one of them wants to make plenty of small talk but the other wants to get down to business. One of them wants a working lunch with a sandwich while the other would prefer a three-course meal at a good restaurant that will extend through to the middle of the afternoon.

As well as working WITH different cultures, more and more of our business students are working FOR different cultures. In other words, different companies have different company cultures and different ‘ways of working.’ One company might have a top-down structure where people wait for decisions from head office. Other companies reward initiative and decision-making at the local branch level. Like moving from one country to another, there is a kind of culture shock that follows a move from one company to another. These company cultural differences also affect the language used. For example, the internal report written in English at one company might require a much more formal register than a similar report at another.

As teachers, how we approach ‘culture’ can vary. In the past, business English course books tended towards a ‘prescriptive’ approach. They included lists of tips for students that state rules like: ‘In country X it’s polite to use your host’s full title and don’t ask about their family.’ Personally, I’m not convinced by this approach.  It implies that within one country or one company, everyone responds uniformly. But this is not the case. Regions within a country will have different customs and people within companies will have different personalities and expectations.  I think we should take a more ‘descriptive’ approach. Students should be encouraged to describe how cultures vary in their experience and talk about their strategies for coping and dealing with different cultures. Into this, the job of the teacher is then to input the kind of language that will be appropriate for such situations.

I will be looking in more detail in the issues raised in this article and suggesting classroom activities you can use to teach language for intercultural communication in the forthcoming webinar on 17th October.

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