Teaching English For Business
Time to read 7 min
Time to read 7 min
This article is intended to help TEFL and ESOL teachers who are used to teaching standard English courses adapt their style and materials for teaching Business English courses.
Many TEFL and ESOL teachers will sometimes be required to teach Business English. These assignments could include ‘In Company Training’, specialised business courses for adults in private language schools, or working with school age students on business focused vocational courses. Not all TEFL and ESOL 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 people in the business community to know?
In this article, we will highlight areas of grammar and vocabulary which are likely to be important to businesspeople and recommend some activities you could use to cover those areas. We shall also 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.
Learners of Business English will need vocabulary related both to their particular industry and to the business world in general. It is important to do a little research into the line of work your students are involved in or studying for. If it is not easy or possible to do this in advance, it is worth dedicating your first lesson to some form of needs analysis. Get your learners to tell you precisely what their job involves and make a note of any specialised vocabulary you might need to research yourself.
Most business employees work in an office so make sure they are familiar with basic office vocabulary such as desk, paperclip and photocopier. This is also a good opportunity to practice using prepositions to state where things are in relation to each other. These elements could form the basis of the first or second lesson for beginners or even intermediate students. There are plenty of textbooks and online resources that can help with this.
Vocabulary related to jobs and employment will be important to most people involved in business. Your students will need to know the English names for jobs and specific job titles within a company. Practicing job interviews will be an important element of their careers from getting their first job to interviewing candidates for other positions as their own careers develop. They may need help compiling CVs or Resumes, and then role-playing interviews in pairs or groups.
More advanced learners of Business English will need to know and correctly use vocabulary related to the departments and structure of the companies they will work for, such as finance, marketing, sales, or management. They will need to explain diagrams of company structure and understand the relationships between various departments and the hierarchy of staff within their company.
Strong writing skills are crucial for business professionals. Depending on their level and line of work, your students may need to write clear, concise, and coherent emails, reports, proposals, and other business documents. This will mean revising (or in some cases introducing) basic grammar rules, sentence structure, punctuation, and effective paragraph organization. Although most correspondence is conducted by email these days secretarial staff and management also need to be aware of the conventions of 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.
Business communication often requires a more formal tone, especially in written correspondence. It is worth spending several lessons on this. In some languages, the differences between formal and informal language are much more obvious and formalised than in English. Stress that understanding the appropriate use of formal language and the nuances of professional etiquette can help your students convey their message professionally and maintain a polished image for the company they are representing.
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.
The business world is filled with jargon and acronyms. Understanding and using them appropriately demonstrates familiarity with the industry and helps your students communicate efficiently with colleagues and clients. However, it's important to strike a balance and avoid excessive use of jargon, as it may hinder effective communication with those outside a given field.
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 build rapport with contacts, convey ideas naturally, and demonstrate cultural understanding. 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 writing 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?
Effective oral communication is essential for business presentations, negotiations, meetings, and networking events. Grammar and vocabulary play a significant role in expressing ideas clearly, engaging an audience, and presenting yourself confidently. Give your students lots of practice with this, emphasizing structure and planning. Look at examples of good and bad presentations (which are easy to find on YouTube).
English is often the lingua franca of international business, and understanding cultural nuances is crucial for effective communication with colleagues and clients from different backgrounds. This is particularly important for students at the middle management level and above who may be required to travel for business purposes quite frequently. While delving into international business and social conventions may seem to be outside the remit of teaching English, it provides a rich source of research and discussion to engage your students in reading and speaking English.
Business professionals often engage in negotiations, persuading clients, partners, or colleagues to agree to their proposals. This requires an intermediate to advanced level of English. Developing a wide range of vocabulary and persuasive language techniques can help your students articulate their arguments, address objections, and achieve successful outcomes. Try to pre-teach some of this vocabulary whenever you set your students the task of preparing a persuasive presentation or a negotiation roleplay.
No matter how well your students know the specialised vocabulary associated with their line of business you may find that they lack some basic English skills. Indeed, with lower-level students, revision of basic use of English, grammar and vocabulary might need to form the core of your lessons even if it is designated as a business course. You can do this by 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 cars. They 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. Students whose company is 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. Once you have mastered teaching Business English you can employ similar methods of adaptation to teach other specialised areas such as medical or legal English.
Good luck and don’t forget your free download!