Teaching High Level Lexis to Business English Learners

This article looks at why learners of Business English might need a higher receptive knowledge of lexis than they possess productively. It also suggests that this type of lexis can best be taught using authentic materials, and suggests a schema for developing materials around authentic texts taken from the business press and TV.

Do business English students need phrasal verbs, metaphorical and idiomatic language, and the full range of lexis used by native speakers? Many learners will use English predominantly as a lingua franca (1) to speak to other non-native speakers : for example, the German sales representative on a business trip to China, or the Italian civil servant at an EU meeting with Norwegian, Dutch and Hungarian counterparts. The English used in these situations will differ radically from that used by native speakers, and in particular will involve a far more restricted range of lexis. One might argue therefore that these learners have no need of the extended lexical range used in Britain, America, Australia and so on, and that these features can be excluded from our teaching.

However, if the students are in frequent contact with native speakers – for instance if they are working for an American multinational or take frequent business trips there – then the situation changes. They may not need these expressions productively, but they will almost certainly need them receptively. And even learners whose main contact is with other non-native speakers may still want to read the business press, for instance The Financial Times or The Economist, or to follow the business news on international channels such as CNN or BBC World.
These publications and TV channels, despite being intended for an international audience, use idiomatic English frequently. Here are a few examples of phrasal verbs, idioms etc that I heard being used within fifteen minutes in the BBC World business news last night :
  • …it tried to fend off a hostile takeover
  • So do you think they’re up to scratch?
  • … there are some countries which will have to leave if we set the bar too high.
  • … the Chinese government will now have to rubber-stamp the deal.
  • …at the moment the company is flush with cash.
  • … the company will have to trim its workforce.
  • … the FTSE had a roaring start to the day.
And looking at just the first article on the Financial Times’ website this morning, you find :
  • …… a sweeping initiative
  • …. financial market regulations, ….. which many US-listed European companies feel are too cumbersome
  • She also spelt out her determination to …
  • Ms Merkel, who also holds the chair of the Group of Eight .. is underlining the importance she attaches to restoring transatlantic ties
  • … a similar move by the European Commission in 1998 petered out because of French opposition …
How should we deal with this type of language in the classroom? There are various things to keep in mind :
  • For all but the most advanced students, this type of language is far more useful receptively than productively, and can be left on a receptive level. This does not mean, however, that it can be introduced once and then forgotten. Each expression will need to be recycled a number of times if it is to be assimilated.
  • The number of expressions of this type is enormous, and we are never going to be able to cover them all. An approach which, at the same time as teaching them, allows students to develop the ability to infer their meaning from context is likely to be far more useful than a “Here’s the explanation, now memorise it” type of approach.
  • Where meaning is metaphorical (for example, as in the use of trim or set the bar too high above), understanding literal meaning can help the students infer the meaning in the specific context in which the expression is used.
  • Where the meaning of the words is opaque (fend off, peter out, up to scratch), meaning can be inferred only if there are sufficient clues in the context itself. (2)
  • Some expressions will have a high frequency in business English – a good example is the range of expressions used to describe trends. Looking at the second article on today’s FT website, you find amongst others : recover, edge higher, rally, gains were slim, and topped. However, others will be drawn from more general English, and are therefore likely to be less predictable – for example, up to scratch or to spell out
An approach based on frequent use of authentic materials can help with the introduction of this type of language. If items are high frequency they will naturally occur regularly, while the materials will also contain a more random selection of other, more general expressions. The materials used can be kept short. If you use the BBC business news, for instance, it’s not necessary to use the whole fifteen minute programme – you could just focus on one or two items. If your materials are on video, you can obviously prepare in advance, but even if you want to watch live with the student, you can also semi-prepare. One of the best things about BBC World is that the news is repeated constantly, and though the speakers are live the script remains more or less the same. It’s therefore possible to watch an item, take notes of the language and decide how you want to present it, then watch it live with the student a couple of hours later. I do this frequently with my one-to-one students, and have only once been caught out – an important story broke in the time between my preparation and the lesson, and changed the content of the programme completely!

If you do have access to videoed materials though (or if you’re using a written text), it’s obviously far easier. In this case I might use a lesson format like the following :

1. Vocabulary Presentation : the students have a worksheet containing the lexis they are unlikely to know presented in context, and have to infer the meaning. This can be done using a multiple choice format :

For the New Zealand tourism industry, the summer has got off to a roaring start with visitor numbers up by seven percent. 

a) started excellently 
b) started badly

If the expression in the text is metaphorical, I would present it in its literal context, focusing on the specific words liable to create problems, for instance :
The high jump competition was a disaster. They set the bar too high in the first round, and all but two of the competitors were eliminated immediately. 

a) jumped 
b) put

2. Warm up discussion : Students discuss what, if anything, they know about the topic(s) discussed in the text. For example : Bulgaria and Romania have just been admitted to the European Union. What do you know about the economy and/or standard of living of the two countries? What effect is their accession likely to have?

3. Gist Listening (or Reading) : Students listen to or read the text to find out if it makes the same points that they discussed, or deals with different issues.

4. Detailed Listening (or Reading) : Students listen or read again, this time to answer a detailed set of questions which, amongst other things, tests their recognition and understanding of the lexical items focused in stage 1. For example :
Why does the speaker think some countries might leave the EU? 

a) because of conflict with other member states 
b) because they don’t agree with the Euro 
c) because they are unable to meet the requirements imposed by Brussels.

5. Vocabulary Focus: Students have a gapped transcript of the text. They either listen again and complete the gaps (which among other things will include the target expressions) or, if they have previously read the text, try and complete it from memory (if this is too difficult, the missing words can be given in scrambled order.)

6. For homework, and in lessons to come, the students will be given consolidation activities which recycle the expressions taught on the course so far. These might include :
a) Type the expressions into Google and find two or three more sentences using each one.
b) A set of sentences using synonymous expressions. The students have to pair them with the target expressions which are given in scrambled order.
c) Gapped sentences – what’s the missing word (with or without the words provided in scrambled order.)


(1) For an excellent discussion on English as a Lingua Franca, see this collection of articles from The Guardian. The article by Jennifer Jenkins and Barbara Seidhofer is particularly interesting.
(2) For a discussion of what makes meaning inferable from context or not, see the article Inferring Unknown Words from Context : Part One and Part Two
Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Michael Stamenov via flickr

Further Reading ...

Emmerson, P. Five-Minute Activities for Business English, Cambridge

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Inferring unknown words from context (Part One)

It is very unlikely that any of our learners will ever know all the words they need. English has an enormous number of words - on the Oxford University Press website they estimate it at a quarter of a million words. Even advanced learners, who may have more than sufficient productive vocabulary for their needs are unlikely to be able to read something like a newspaper feature article without finding a word that stymies them (and if you’re a non-native speaker who I’ve just stymied with the word stymy – it means block or confuse). And even native speakers are going to come across a vast number of words that they don’t fully understand – if you doubt this, take a look at Oxford’s Word of the Day. As I write, the word is chrominance. It’s a technical term, but don’t ask me the meaning because I didn’t even understand the explanation. From chrom I can deduce that it’s something to do with colour, but that’s as far as I got.

On the other hand, when we meet new words in context, the contextual clues often allow us to understand what the word means. What’s the word which I’ve represented by XXXX in the next sentence? We had forgotten to close the XXXX of the field, and the cows got out. No prizes for coming up with gate. Learners, however, frequently block when they meet a word like this which they don’t know. They reach for a dictionary, panic and lose the thread of what they were reading about.

As you’ve been reading this, you may have thought Yes, but I always ask my learners to guess unknown words. But notice that I’ve not used the word “guess” at all. You can’t guess the meaning of a word, you can only infer, or deduce, it. And to enable you to infer the meaning of the word, there have to be clear clues in the context. A lot of lessons go horribly wrong because the teacher asks students to “guess” the meanings of words without checking whether or not they are inferable. It’s easy enough to do. Take the word out and replace it with XXXX. Reading the sentence or paragraph now, is it clear what the missing word is, or are there various possibilities? What are the clues which point you towards the meaning?

Let’s take an example. I doubt whether many of you have ever come across the word bonxie, so that puts you in the same position as the learner if I use it. Now if you read it in this sentence - There were a lot of bonxies around this year - you are not much the wiser. You can work out that it’s a noun from the sentence and word structure, but there are no clues whatsoever as to the meaning. If this is all the information that the text contains, then there’s no way you can “guess”.

Here are some examples of extracts from authentic texts where I suggest it’s impossible to infer the meaning.

a)But as Professor Weeks points out, those characteristics are dangerously elastic: an "adventurous" company that fails suddenly becomes a "XXXXXX" company; a "bureaucratic" company that succeeds is seen as "disciplined".
b) The British talent for self-deprecation is well known; disciplined Japanese companies and XXXXXXXXX Americans may not appreciate the subtleties of the issue, he says.
c) To people who have just joined Nutzwerk, the friendly atmosphere is XXXXXXX.
If you want to check that there's really no extra informatiopn in the text that helps comprehension, you'll find extracts a and b here, and extract c here.
You can probably work out from the sentence structure that they are all adjectives – and that in the first example that it’s probably disparaging, but I suspect that’s as far as you can get. Of course, you can easily fill in the gap with a word that fits – for example in the last extract stimulating would be fine. But that doesn’t mean that that’s the correct meaning. It could just as easily be disconcerting, which changes the meaning completely.

So when you’re analysing a text prior to using it in the classroom, that’s your first question : of the words which the students are unlikely to know, which are and which aren’t inferable? Once you’ve decided which aren’t, you then have to decide what to do with them.

Your answer will probably depend on another question : how important is the word for an overall understanding of the writer’s meaning? In example b for example it probably isn’t. You can understand the writer’s point without knowing exactly what he thinks of Americans. But in example c it’s much more important. Because both derogatory and positive adjectives would fit, it’s not possible to understand what the writer is trying to say without understanding the word.

This type of word – unknown, uninferable but important to the text needs to be dealt with in a different way, which we’ll look at in the continuation of this post tomorrow - and I’ll also tell you what bonxies really are :)

Click here for Part Two of this article .