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Teaching English For Business

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Many teachers of English will sometimes be required to teach elements of Business English. Standard course materials, particularly at the higher levels, often contain lessons about the world of work and business. Some schools include business related projects in their syllabus for older students. However, not all English teachers have much personal knowledge or experience of the business world, so where do you begin? What are the elements of English that are essential for students considering a future in business? 

In this article, we will highlight areas of grammar and vocabulary which are likely to be important in the business world and recommend some activities you could use to cover those areas and supplement whatever is in the coursebooks used by your school. For those who feel nervous about teaching ‘Business English’, we suggest ways in which basic English exercises can be adapted to a business context. Finally, we have prepared an exercise on Business Idioms which you can download and use with your students.

Office Vocabulary

Teachers of English are sometimes a bit nervous about teaching vocabulary that is new to them, but actually, a lot of Business English is quite basic. The office is a good place to start and is the first place where students may need to use basic business vocabulary such as desk, paperclip and photocopier. Some of our students may even have office-based summer jobs. This is a good opportunity to practice using prepositions of place to state where things are in a new context. For example, ‘The photocopier is in the corner of the room under the window.’ ‘The filing cabinet is on the desk next to the computer.’

Jobs and Employment

Vocabulary related to jobs and employment will be important to most people involved in any form of business and is usually found in general English coursebooks. To supplement what you find there, brainstorm and revise the English names for jobs. This will provide plenty of material to study in more detail. You could ask your students to talk or write about what jobs they would or would not like to do and why.  You could introduce concepts such as ‘duties’ and ‘responsibilities’. Then go on to discuss specific job titles within a company such as Managing Director, Personnel Manager etc. This may require a little research but there are plenty of resources available online or in the library. It is an opportunity for the students themselves to engage in research projects using whatever technology is available to them. More advanced learners of Business English will need to know and correctly use vocabulary related to company structure and departments, such as finance, marketing, sales, or management. 

Preparation For Job Interviews

Role-playing job interviews are a good speaking activity even if Business English is not a key focus of your curriculum. For your students, mastering job interviews will be an important life skill in their careers after school. You could get them to look at real job advertisements and ask how they would prepare for an interview for that job. Depending on their level, you could introduce them to the concept of writing CVs or Resumes as a written exercise which could then be used as a basis for role-playing interviews in pairs or groups.

It may be worth reminding students that in many jobs (business related or not) the ability to converse in English is increasingly seen as an essential skill.

Writing skills 

Strong writing skills are crucial for business professionals. Depending on their level, encourage your students to write clear, concise, and coherent emails, reports, proposals, or other business documents. In fact, you do not need extensive business knowledge for most of these activities. Instead, you can view it as an opportunity for revising (or in some cases introducing) basic grammar rules, sentence structure, punctuation, and effective paragraph organization in a real-life situation. 

Although most correspondence is conducted by email these days, secretarial staff and management also need to be aware of the conventions for writing formal letters. For example, they should know which salutations and closing remarks to use for particular purposes. (When you know the name of the person you are addressing a letter to, you should end with ‘Yours Sincerely’. If you don’t know the name and begin with Dear Sir or Madam, you should close with ‘Yours Faithfully). Other such conventions can easily be found online or in textbooks.

Formality 

Business communication often requires a more formal tone, especially in written correspondence. In some languages, the differences between formal and informal language are much more obvious and formalised than in English and include clear changes in grammar. In English formality is more often indicated by tone, register and particular phrases or vocabulary. Letters of complaint provide a good example of the difference between formal and informal writing. Your students could write letters of complaint about a product that didn’t work properly or a holiday that went wrong. They can do this as ‘themselves’. However, the replies should be written in a formal style on behalf of the company; a company that wants to keep the customer happy without giving too much away. It is a chance to contrast phrases such as ‘sorry about…’ v ‘we regret…’ 

Telephoning

For secretarial staff and students embarking on their first job within a company, using English on the phone is likely to be the first and most common situation in which they have to speak and understand English correctly. Don’t overlook basic skills such as spelling out addresses or dictating telephone numbers when you can’t see the facial expression of the person you are talking to. Back-to-back pair work is an effective way to practice this (or organise real phone calls between students in different rooms). Having established the basics you can go on to create dialogues and roleplays in which students make phone calls to book accommodation, place orders or make complaints.

Business idioms and expressions 

English is rich in idiomatic expressions that are commonly used in business contexts. Being familiar with these idioms and knowing when and how to use them can help businesspeople build rapport with contacts.  Encourage your students to learn these phrases in the same way they would learn and memorise any other new vocabulary. Some may be used to write words on one side of index cards with the meaning or translation written on the other. You will no doubt have your own vocabulary learning methods which can easily be adapted to a business setting. Using games can be more fun. For example, why not play ‘Call My Bluff’ in which students have to invent false meanings for business expressions in addition to the real meaning, and other students have to guess the correct definition? 

We have compiled a gap fill activity to practice Business English expressions and idioms which you can download at the end of this article.

Presentations and public speaking 

In the business world, the ability to make effective presentations is very important. Give your students lots of practice with this, emphasizing structure and planning. Their presentations don’t always have to be strictly business based since the aim principally is to be able to convey any information clearly and logically. Look at examples of good and bad presentations (which are easy to find on YouTube).

Negotiation and persuasion 

Business professionals often engage in negotiations, persuading clients, partners, or colleagues to agree to their proposals. As an exercise tell your students they are going to have an immediate graded test in the classroom unless they can convince you that this is not a good idea! Set up role plays or discussions in which students need to persuade and convince other people. Or more simply set up a role-play activity in which students have to barter for goods at a market.

Adapting Basic English For Business Contexts

Often revision of basic use of English, grammar and vocabulary forms the core of lessons even in a business course. It is simply a matter of attaching business vocabulary and contexts to basic grammar structures. Some examples are listed below.

Tenses

Teach or revise tenses within a business context. What is their daily routine in the office? (Present Simple) What did they do yesterday? (Past Simple) How long have they worked for the company? (Present Perfect) What is on their agenda for next week? (Present Continuous for Future) What do they see themselves doing in five years? (Will Future) Etc.

Nouns. Articles. Singular/Plural

The keys to the company car are kept in the reception area of the logistics department. You have to sign them out using a form obtained from the Secretary. The company has eight carsThey are all Volvos. Each car has a colour coded key.

Prepositions

Use prepositions to describe where things are in the office or in the company complex. The photocopier is in the corridor next to the Secretary’s office. The Marketing Department is on the first floor between Sales and Administration

Conditionals and Modal Verbs  

If we don’t lower our prices, we will lose the order. If this negotiation goes well, we could expand our business in Germany. If we don’t invest in green energy, we might lose out to our competitors. We need more staff. We must have an effective advertising campaign. The company should invest more. We can’t hold a meeting on that date.

The Passive

People who work in businesses involved in production or factory work might need to use the passive more than most people do, in order to describe processes. The coffee beans are grown in South America. They are transported to a local production centre by lorry. In the factory, the beans are roasted. The outer shells are removed. The inner beans are crushed and pressed…

In short, all the key aspects of English that you would teach on a standard course can easily be adapted to a business context, and for many of your students, basic use of English will be the key to progress. Moreover, once you have become confident teaching Business English, you can employ similar methods of adaptation to teach other specialised areas such as medical or legal English.

Useful Links

The UK National Careers Service website is a brilliant source for job descriptions, required skills and qualifications, duties, lists of typical daily tasks, typical pay, etc. Just click on ‘search job profiles’ and enter any job title to find out about it.

This download consists of some activities on Business Idioms that you can use with your students including flashcards of 20 Business Idioms, a Gap Fill Activity and a reverse ‘Call My Bluff’ Activity.

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