Teaching Business English

This article, based on material from our Delta Courses, focuses on teaching Business English and looks at:

a) how BE classes differ from general purpose classes

b) the problems that they raise and how these can be overcome


a) Differences from GP courses

1.  BE learners have clearer needs than GP learners. Whilst learners in GP classes may have specific needs (to be able to use English when on holiday abroad; to pass CPE etc) they often don’t. They may be eg teenage learners for whom English is part of their general education or, like a group I teach regularly, retirees who have no need at all for English but see lessons as a way to keep their minds active, to get out of the house and socialise with others. BE learners on the other hand generally know that they are studying to be able to communicate more effectively with clients or suppliers, to attend meetings held in English with other employees of their multi-national company, to conduct effective recruitment interviews etc.

2. This means that the content of the course will be different. Topics will be business oriented rather than of general interest, and/or specific communication skills (presentation skills, negotiation skills, meeting skills etc) may be the main or only focus of the course.


b) Problems and Solutions

3. BE courses can range from 100% needs oriented (eg English for Sales Representatives) to “general” BE courses where there may in fact be participants with a wide variety of needs – a sales rep, an HRD manager, and the PA to the CEO may find themselves in the same class because all are at B2 level despite their differing needs. Problem: Although the needs are apparent, this sort of class composition makes it difficult to cater for them.

4. Solution: Most BE text books attempt to solve this problem by including “a bit for everyone” eg, a unit on sales and marketing, a unit on HRD etc.

5. However, this creates the further problem that at any point in the course, many of the participants will not be engaged with the material because it does not reflect their own job or needs. And although they get “their turn” at some point, the language taught may not be recycled adequately as the course passes on to a different topic/communication skill.

6. Solution a: These “general” BE books are most effective when used with learners who are studying Business at university, or are at an early point in their career,  and have not yet decided what their specialist area will be. This type of learner can benefit from covering “a bit of everything”.

7. Solution b: Later, learners ideally need to be divided by job function or other communicative needs (eg negotiation) so that material can be provided (including authentic materials provided by the company or found on the internet) which is relevant to all of them all of the time.

8. Problem: Work commitments – eg business trips or important meetings – may lead to irregular attendance, meaning that when the learner returns to the course, they have missed important work. Thus they either find themselves “lost” or the T. has to spend time going over things again – potentially wasting the other learners’ time and causing the course to drop behind schedule.

9. Solution: A “flipped classroom” format for the course means that absent learners can cover the important input and do some controlled practice before they rejoin the group. Their progress will still be affected as they have missed the freer practice and consolidation done in class, but they will not hold back the course in the same way.

10. Problem: As stated in point 3, BE courses are often held in-company, and this may mean that participants of different hierarchical levels are placed in the same group because of being similar in level or needs (eg all B2 or all members of the marketing department). This may affect the participation of different members of the group. Even in Italy, which is not a particularly high power distance culture, I have found that in company courses where mixed hierarchical levels were included in the group, other participants tended to defer to “the boss” and be less likely to agree, disagree or self-select for turns.

11. Solution a: Group organisation - if there are “high status” participants in the group these can (numbers permitting) be grouped together rather than with the “lower status” participants.

12. Solution b: Allocation of specific roles in discussions can resolve the problem of not wishing to disagree with the “boss”. The highest status participant can be given the role of “chair” and told that they must not give their own opinion, but must find out the opinions of all the other group members which they will be asked to summarise in the follow-up. They may ask for clarification but not say if they agree or disagree. Other members are free to interrupt, agree and disagree as they wish.

13. Problem: Many of the skills the Ls need (eg negotiations, chairing meetings) overlap with areas of management training, and the T. may not be an expert on any of them. Similarly, the specialist vocabulary associated with specific business areas may not be understood by the teacher (eg a Bill of Lading in Logistics).

14. Solution: Inexperienced teachers can learn a lot from using a textbook which specifically teaches business communication skills (eg Business Partner – Pearson) or focuses on specific business areas (eg the Market Leader (again Pearson) specialist titles series which include books for areas such as Accounting and Finance, Logistics Management etc). In addition they can read business books, or watch videos on business topics on TED TALKs or similar in order to improve their own knowledge. Alternatively they can follow a specific training course for teaching Business English


Also on the notebook...

Teaching Business Communication Skills

What brought you here?

If you're currently working towards the  Delta Module One exam, you'll notice that the article is written in the type of format needed in the exam for Paper 2/3 - a succession of points which directly answer the questions set. Each point generally starts with a summary of the basic point, and examples, explanations etc are then added.  You'll find a lot of articles on the Notebook in this format, and can use them to practice for this task by first looking at the questions, then writing your own answers, and finally comparing them with the points included in the article.

Notice that many of the points could be included in an answer to a task focusing on another topic. For example, points 3-6 could be condensed and included in a task focusing on motivation or engagement. Points 8-9 could be suitable for a task on the flipped classroom.

If you are working towards Delta Module One, check out our Module One Exam Preparation Programme. It's ideal for anyone who...

  • is self-preparing for the exam
  • has previously done a full M1 course, but needs a "refresher" before the exam
  • has failed the exam and needs to retake

You'll find help and guidelines for each task on the paper - and access is available for only a €50 donation (or a rough equivalent in your own currency) to a charity of your choice.