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Transferability between Academic English and Business English

Young woman with laptopLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses the special language skills pre-work Business English students need. Louis will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 12th February.

It is often debated as to what the aim of Higher Education is. Is it to simply further knowledge or is its main aim to put students in a position to gain employment? Many universities now provide Academic and Professional Skills modules that aim to develop students’ skills that meet both their immediate study needs, and also develop skills that are transferable to their future work place. Perhaps the one area where this is most apparent is studying within the field of Business. Consequently, this can leave students and teachers in the position of trying to meet both current academic needs but also future professional needs.

The wide variety of options available to students can also lead to a range of learner needs in the classroom. When teaching in Germany I had classes in a University that focused on Business English; however, the students’ aims varied greatly. Some were intending to take a year in the UK as part of the ERASMUS programme, some intended to take a postgraduate course via the medium of English, and others were there to enhance their CV before entering employment. Although there are differing needs there are also areas where goals overlap.

If we compare EAP materials or Pre-work materials with Business English materials for those in work we find that all are determined by clear contexts and goals. All sets of materials tend to take a skills-based approach, but there is a greater emphasis on grammar development in the Pre-work materials. Additionally, the focus and time spent on each skill means that the pre-work learner is perhaps not having all their needs met if a General Business English course is used in isolation. The speaking skills focus on presentations and meetings is perhaps comparable to the EAP focus of presentations and seminars. There are also similarities in listening skills with a focus on interactive dialogues and extended monologues. Yet in reading and writing skills the approach differs significantly.

In terms of the language focus, the needs and aims differ greatly with a much greater focus on lexis in EAP rather than the wide range of tenses found in most General Business courses. Arguably, a pre-work Business English course can partly claim to meet students’ immediate academic needs but a significant amount of supplementation of Reading and Writing Skills development is required, and a change in focus on the language is required as well. My upcoming webinar will explore some of the commonalities and differences between the In-work and Pre-work learner needs with particular reference to Skills for Business Studies.

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Text selection for in-work and pre-work learners

How important is text selection in business English? Louis Rogers, co-author of Skills for Business Studies, discusses the challenge of choosing the right texts for pre-work and in-work learners.

Choosing a topic or a text for a lesson is a challenging task. It is especially difficult to strike a balance between the ‘needs’ and ‘interests’ of the students. This can be particularly true when dealing with two apparently similar groups such as in-work and pre-work learners. There are topic areas that quite clearly and seamlessly cross the boundary between pre-work and in-work learners, such as Marketing or Management. However, other topics, such as Logistics or Takeovers and Mergers tend to be much less accessible and of more limited use to a pre-work learner in an academic environment. So what makes these seemingly obvious business topics more or less accessible to each sector?

Essentially, it comes down to the sphere of influence surrounding the individual or group of individuals. A sphere of influence can be used to analyse many different concepts from politics, to market reach, through to leadership. For example, a shop’s physical sphere of influence would simply be how far are people prepared to travel to reach that shop. Factors such as reputation, price, location and competition all have an impact on a business’s physical sphere of influence. Or consider a country’s political sphere of influence which can be determined by factors such as economic, historical or military power. But how are students’ spheres of influence relevant to text selection in different teaching contexts?

If we reverse the scenario and place the learner at the centre of the sphere we need to consider the influence relationship from a different perspective. In other words, to look at not what they have an influence on but at what influences them. If we place the learner at the centre of a series of concentric rings, with each ring further from the centre considered to have less influence on the individual and therefore be of less interest and relevance, we can build a model for text and topic selection. In both the pre-work learner environment and the in-work learner environment, and arguably in any teaching situation, it is vital that texts are both relevant to the learner’s needs but are also of a broader generic interest and appeal.

Take the topics at the start of this post as an example. Successful Logistics is a key element to so many parts of a business. It impacts on the finance department in terms of costing, it influences the marketing department in terms of getting the product to market on time in order to run an effective marketing campaign, and it affects the customer relations department in terms of maintaining customer satisfaction. Yet for the pre-work learner the significance and influence of Logistics dramatically diminishes. It may have an impact on this kind of learner as an end consumer of a product, but the very process of logistics is an abstract notion that is happening behind the scenes in a company and does not touch on their daily lives.

So a new take on the topic or an entirely new topic needs to be found to engage the pre-work learner. Without a tangible relevance to the learner’s environment it is likely that motivation will dramatically diminish and ultimately impact on the success of achieving the course’s intended learning outcomes. As teachers we need to think carefully about our learners’ spheres of influence and ensure that we choose topics that will engage and motivate them, particularly if the text types are likely to be linguistically challenging.

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Meeting the needs of Business Studies students

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.

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