3 – Business English

Date: 06/09/2013
Class: Business English
School: The English Language Centre, Brighton, UK
Number of Students: 7

Some of my teaching in Germany involved working at law firms and finance companies and the lessons included vocabulary specific to these areas.  But although these were company courses they had requested General English (GE), so I haven’t yet taught a course specifically for Business English (BE).  It’s an area I’d like to learn more about – particularly as it would be a useful skill to have for teaching abroad – so, once I’d settled in at my new school in Brighton, I requested to observe a BE lesson, which today I did.


This was an unusual lesson in that it teamed together two groups so that the students could deliver prepared presentations to a larger audience.  I had chatted beforehand to the teacher I was observing and we felt it would be beneficial to observe his feedback and correction following the presentations, as well as a ‘social English’ slot at the start of the lesson so that the two groups could get to know each other a little.  Sadly I wasn’t able to observe the feedback stage as the presentations took longer than anticipated and I had another class to teach.  Nonetheless, I did come away with some useful observations.

The class began with the teacher briefly describing what was going to happen and introducing each student to the group, which immediately gave the session a more formal and businesslike feel to it (incidentally, I mentioned this observation to the teacher afterwards and he said with a new group he would always encourage self introduction but in this situation it was a more efficient way of introducing the two groups).

The introduction stage of the lesson was followed by an ‘international conference’ social English scenario in which students talked in small groups for around 15 minutes, as if meeting for the first time at a conference.  The teacher’s instructions were clear and concise and supported in written form by the second teacher on the IWB (interactive whiteboard).

Although 15 minutes initially sounded like a long time, in practice it felt good to really push students to maintain a conversation, and monitoring by both teachers was very unobtrusive so the onus really was on the students to keep talking: which they did.  Even at this early stage of the session, the students struck me as being very motivated to talk, especially about their respective areas of work – something I imagine is true of most BE students as their reasons for learning and needs are so specific in comparison to GE students.

Next came the presentations themselves, and I was immediately struck by how thoroughly prepared and rehearsed the students were.  Given that delivering presentations is a very real and regular requirement for some of these people, intensive work on this area is not only necessary, but also (I imagine) better received than it might be by GE students.

The first presentation was from a group of three Japanese employees of a car company, who were presenting the results of a street survey they had carried out near the school.  The presentation was clear, engaging and at times funny, and it was clear that a lot of preparation had gone into both the content and delivery.  I could also see that as a project this was extremely beneficial for the students (compiling and carrying out the survey, for example, would have involved far more language acquisition and practice than just delivering a presentation).

The next presentation (delivered by just one student this time) was also well prepared and delivered, and as I was watching I was suddenly and acutely aware that these students have so much knowledge and understanding which we as teachers may not have, but are lacking the language with which to share this knowledge.  How do we teach something we don’t know about or understand?  After my afternoon class I chatted to the second teacher  as I had some questions to ask (both about the session and BE teaching more generally) and this was a point that came up.  He referred back to something another teacher at the school had said the day before, which was that the students are the resource, and that in fact having to talk about their work and explain quite technical things in simple English is both valuable practice for them, and enables us to identify where they need help.  Needs analysis is crucial with BE students, and I’m beginning to see that teaching BE is less about specific topic vocabulary and more about interactive language – gambits, discourse markers, set phrases, etc.  (This is a very pleasing discovery for me as I have to admit I find these areas of language far more exciting than technical vocabulary.  Nonetheless, technicality does come into it, and I imagine as a BE teacher I might occasionally have to work quite hard to engage with the material.)

After each presentation I noticed that the other students immediately asked questions without prompting from the teachers (again an indication of the difference in motivation between BE and GE students).  Each question was also preceded by a ‘thank you’ for the presentation, and similarly answers were preceded by some form of thanks for the question.  There’s much more to this and this is far more interesting than I had imagined it would be.  I’ve done presentations with students many times and (perhaps because I have a theatre background) I find it impossible not to teach presentation skills alongside the language needed for the content.  As part of this I always brief students about etiquette – listening, asking questions, etc – but (perhaps because I haven’t taught BE) I hadn’t thoroughly considered the language involved in a Q&A session.

This brings me to another point that the second teacher mentioned in our afternoon discussion: English as a Lingua Franca.  If part of the student’s work involves interacting with British people then of course they’ll need language appropriate to that situation (diplomacy and politeness, for example), but their language needs will differ when interacting with other nationalities (as most of them are) and so we need to teach the ‘common core’: the most useful language.

During the Q&A stages I noticed remarkably little input from the teachers, who allowed ample space for students to think, resisting the temptation to jump in and ‘rescue’ when a student struggled.  Only when a student directly ‘requested’ (albeit unspoken ‘requests’) assistance with vocabulary or pronunciation did the teacher help, and students often helped each other (the atmosphere in the lesson was wonderfully respectful and supportive given that these were students from separate groups).  Although my students in the UK are generally younger, perhaps I still ‘hand-hold’ too much in my lessons (I have a nurturing trait in my personality).  If a student in my class struggles to answer another’s question, I’ll try to help.  But I’d like to try holding back more and making my students work harder.

Despite not getting as far as feedback and error correction, it was useful to observe this session and doing so has set me off thinking about a number of different things – some specifically related to BE and some which I can also apply to GE.  There’s a lot more I want to look at though, and I’d like at some point to observe a more input based BE lesson.

Points to apply in GE lessons:
-  Try longer speaking sessions for students
-  Q&A language for presentations
-  Hold back, don't hand-hold

Points to think about for BE:
-  'The students are the resource'
-  Look into English as a Lingua Franca resources 
-  Read some BE course/resource books

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