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Meeting the needs of Business Studies students

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Business meetingLouis Rogers is co-author of Skills for Business Studies Intermediate and Upper-intermediate. Ahead of his talk at BESIG on 19th November, he discusses the challenges of meeting the needs of Business Studies students.

At a recent conference, ‘Engaging and Motivating Students in the EAP Classroom‘, a number of the presenters reached the conclusion that the more a specific course is tailored to student needs, the greater the level of motivation and engagement. To a Business English tutor who has conducted numerous needs analyses, and consequently chosen a book or written materials on this basis, this is perhaps hardly surprising. However, when teaching English to Business Studies students, what are the needs of these learners? How can we best use the Business English materials that are already on the market, and what gaps need to be filled?

Although Business English course books do not necessarily address all of the needs of a Business Studies student, they are certainly valuable. Presentations are to a large extent the same whether in an academic or professional situation. The language required to successfully participate in meetings and seminars is also similar. Both of these genres can quite clearly occur in both settings.

There are also similarities in vocabulary, especially in terms of subject-specific vocabulary. So if there are so many similarities between the two, can we not simply walk in with our favourite Business English course book and get on with it? Whilst there are clearly similarities between the two areas, and a normal Business English course book is still of great value, there is a need to supplement in order to meet the slightly differing needs of academic students.

Firstly, there is a need for a shift in balance between lexical aims and grammatical aims of a course. In spoken discourse a much wider range of grammatical tenses are used than in written academic English. According to Biber et al (1999) 90% of an academic text is written using just two tenses: the past simple and the present simple. So the teaching of tenses takes on a lesser role in this setting.

In addition, the length of texts students encounter means they are likely to be presented with a wide range of vocabulary. Studies and opinions vary in how much of the vocabulary a student needs to know in order to understand a text. Some place the number as low as 80% whilst others place it as high as 98% of the words in the text (Nation, 2000). In both cases the explicit teaching of vocabulary clearly needs to come to the fore in order to enable students to deal with these texts.

In terms of the skills balance, there should be a greater emphasis on developing reading and writing skills in an academic setting. In most countries’ university settings the vast majority of assessment involves undertaking extensive reading and writing. Increasing students’ lexical knowledge will help in comprehension of longer texts, but what other reading skills can be taught and practised that will be beneficial to students?

Firstly, texts need to be selected carefully that are a good modal of academic writing. In other words, texts that contain various discourse features, organisational patterns and academic style. We need to give students the strategies to identify the author’s overall aim and the main and supporting ideas in the text. A shift also needs to be made from simply understanding the text to critically thinking about the text by identifying viewpoints and arguments. Lastly, it is important to emphasise that reading is usually for a purpose other than just pleasure and that they will need to be able to use this reading in their writing.

This leads onto developing the second main skill of academic writing. All genres of writing differ in their expectations, and academic writing is no exception. Students need to understand the various question types. For example, how does changing the question word ‘describe’ to ‘discuss’ change the demands of the task and the expectations of style and structure. Gone are the days of simply giving an opinion. Students need to incorporate reading into writing by learning relevant skills such as summarising, paraphrasing and referencing to show that their opinion is well-informed.

So whilst we can still make valuable use of a Business English course in an academic setting, there is a clear need to supplement these books in order to meet the varying linguistic and skills aims of these learners. They might just be a bit more motivated if we do.

How do you accomodate the needs of your Business students?

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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