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Something I learned from my Business English students

6 Comments

Written by John Hughes.

I’ve always had a theory that the real reason Business English is called ‘Business English’ is because the student learns English while the teacher learns a lot about business. One-to-one lessons with high-level managers are especially good for learning about different management theories, so the last 18 years of working in ELT has also been like my own personal MBA.

One business theory that’s always struck me as relevant to both manager and teacher is the Deming Cycle. Deming is probably most famous for his work on quality and TQM, but his ‘cycle’, which defines  the process of management, is still massively influential on basic management training and certainly applies  to what English teachers do in the classroom.

Here’s the basic idea:

Plan > Do > Check > Act


Managers plan a project including the stages, who will do each stage and by when etc. Then this is put into action in the ‘Do’ stage. Both during and afterwards, the stages, or the entire project, are checked and then it can be evaluated. Based on this evaluation, the manager takes necessary action and begins planning again.

Clearly, this cycle can be easily applied to the classroom. We plan a lesson, do it, check our students’ progress and follow up with necessary action. As with management, failure to implement any one of the four stages in the lesson cycle can often explain why lessons go wrong.

Having trained and observed many teachers on courses, my impression is that most problems occur at the ‘Check’ and ‘Act’ stages. The reason is that during the ‘Do’ stage, the teacher hasn’t incorporated enough tasks which will demonstrate outcomes and produce tangible results which will allow us to be able to check or evaluate and give useful feedback to act on. In Business English classes in particular this is especially important as our students (and companies) want measurable successes. Without these last two stages, students will be left wondering what the point of the lesson was.

Role-plays are probably the most obvious example of a task which produces tangible results. Students speak, we monitor, and so the teacher is in position to evaluate. Using case studies is another way to see how well a student can integrate different language skills. Other than having ‘tangible tasks’ you need criteria by which you can check and evaluate. One way to do this is to use a checklist which includes stages of a spoken interaction. For example, if a student is role-playing a telephone task which involves taking a message, your checklist might look like this:

1.  Answer the phone  □

2.  Offer to take a message  □

3.  Check details such as spellings and numbers  □

4.  Ask if the caller needs anything else  □

5.  Say good bye  □

As you listen to the student, you tick each stage if it is done successfully. As students become familiar with this format they can even use the checklist to evaluate each other.

So next time you reflect on your lesson, apply Deming’s cycle and see if you can identify the four stages of the cycle in action.

William Edward Deming wrote many papers and books. One of his most influential is Out of the Crisis, MIT Press (1986)

John Hughes is co-author of OUP’s Business Result Elementary and Intermediate and developed the teacher training DVDs which accompany the teachers’ books. You’ll also find more photocopiable speaking tasks with checklists as outlined above in the Business Result Teachers’ Books.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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6 thoughts on “Something I learned from my Business English students

  1. Hi John,
    I totally agree with your definition of what business English may really mean, and I shall probably mention it from now on in my TEFL certificate course. And also your Plan-Do-Check err, what was it..? the other one anyway is certainly applicable to teaching as well as management. I recently had to have a serious read at that group formation model – you know the one where there’s forming, storming, performing and mourning. That helped me get through a conflictual situation in one of my classes recently.
    Good luck with the OUP blog!

  2. Hi Sab Will
    Thanks for your comments. Perhaps my definition is a good one to give inexperienced teachers on a TEFL certificate course as they are often afraid of teaching business English. Maybe it will help reassure them!
    Best wishes
    John

  3. Hi John!

    What you wrote on the mutual benefits of students and teachers on a business Englsh course is very true. That’s what actually makes us facilitators rather than teachers. The more we teach at Business English courses the more reliable we are in our adventure into “business life”!

    Best wishes

    Katona Zsuzsa

  4. Pingback: Summary of talk: A TOTAL approach to teaching Business English | elteachertrainer

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