What I’ve learned about approaches to teaching Business English

I’ve enrolled on a course called ‘Breaking into Business English’ at iTDi.pro where wonderful Vicki Hollett shares her expertise in teaching Business English.

In this post I would like to tell you what I have learned and already tried out with my students and what my impressions are.

Before the course I had a very limited range of approaches to use teaching Business English. Task based learning was the king at my lessons because I just love this approach especially for teaching business communication skills. And there was some variety in teaching vocab and grammar.

After the second session I was lost because I wanted to try all of the suggested models or approaches.

I settled on one of the most challenging for me which is called Project Based (at least what I’ve done looks more like this one)). The idea of the approach is that a teacher elicits or suggests (I think it’s also possible) a project to do. We had just finished the topic of staring a new business, so I decided to offer my students to discuss their own start-up.

To do this I asked them to brainstorm some business ideas and then discuss them and persuade each other to choose their idea. Fortunately, it went rather quickly and I also asked them to use phrases for negotiating from previous units in the book.

Then I made students suggest what they need to start off and they brainstormed and discussed a lot of related issues. By the end of the lesson they had plenty of points to look up on the Internet and to think over, they distributed these tasks among themselves and we agreed that at the next lesson we would discuss a business plan. I also provided some content and language feedback.

Some benefits: we revised negotiating language and vocabulary related to start-ups, it was materials-free and low-prep lesson, so I had a chance to have some rest. Actually, it is a great opportunity to speak and a wonderful alternative to Case Studies, which are also great but a bit hackneyed. Another advantage is encouraging learners’ autonomy as they are in charge of deciding what they will do. Also the situation is real and they may well do the same in their native language. Moreover, the idea of a project implies some varied components which enable students to practice different language.

Some drawbacks: I think I might have chosen a wrong project as my students looked really threatened when they heard what they were to do. Being in that condition some of them didn’t speak enough. They were really afraid to express their ideas though they had ones but were too shy considering themselves too unexperienced (and frankly it is right).

Despite and due to the latter, I got a lot of food for thought about using this model. I see such kind of a lesson as a revision and speaking practice lesson where students can use language and ideas (!) they have acquired during previous lessons and thus applying their knowledge in developing real projects.

So, the possible limitations I see in this approach are the lack of knowledge and risk aversion from the students’ side and I would ensure that a project you’re going to offer to your students is based on some language you want them to practice otherwise feedback becomes a bit vague as you don’t have a particular aspect to concentrate on and students as well don’t know what language you expect them to produce.

Thus for the next lesson I could try out another model described by Vicki. It is called Genre Analysis and the idea is that students look at some examples of a text and figure out layout, content and language issues characteristic of this type of texts. For that lesson I brought some examples of executive summaries, we discussed them and then distributed the parts of executive summary between students, they helped each other with ideas and wrote their parts. I took pictures (yes, I did) of their work as we were short of time and I told them that I was going to put their extracts together (with mistakes corrected) and their home task was to compare and analyse their mistakes and to make suggestions on improving their executive summary (I mean content). So, I created a Google document and gave the students the right to make corrections right there. They haven’t done it yet, so I’m waiting impatiently for the results. Hope they won’t ignore it. What if they will?

Benefits: students got clear idea of what and how to write (though they looked really scared at the previous lesson), the result of their writing was rather good in terms of content but there were some minor mistakes. So, it is a good way to teach (or rather elicit) how to write a text regarding content, organization, style and language used.

Drawbacks: I suppose, if a type of text is completely new it might be too much information on language, content, style and layout, so no wonder students may make a lot of mistakes and have a mess in their heads.

Ideas: 1) dividing a text into parts and distributing them between students encourages peer-teaching and developing of some organizational skills together with use of language for negotiating; 2) at the end there is a good opportunity for peer-correction.

This approach isn’t completely new but having several model texts gives students a more solid idea of how to do it themselves, I guess.

I would like to dwell shortly on other methods which Vicki told us about.

CLIL known as Content and Language Integrated Learning seems to be really interesting and (I’ve never thought about that) it might be the approach I was looking for to teach Business instead of Business English. The idea is to teach students to do something (some important skills in business as I see it) through the English language and in such a way both the subject matter and English will be improved equally well.

Frankly speaking I don’t see myself going to the classroom tomorrow and teaching this way. It requires some methodological preparation for me as I need to understand perfectly what I shall do to make students engaged and how to introduce target language (scaffolding is supposed to be the method) and make students use and remember it. Still I keep placing my hopes on this approach as a way to make my students interested in business.

The lexical approach looks like a perfect tool to teach vocabulary (unexpected conclusion!). A teacher provides students with a text crammed with new words and students learn the words in collocations or lexical chunks that actually helps to improve fluency (both receptive and productive).

Another approach or idea to teach vocabulary is through using Corpora which allows students to look at words in context and they can deal with specific and close to their field vocabulary. Great benefit is that such an approach promotes learners’ autonomy, though it’s not suitable for all students.

Using frameworks is one more model we looked at. It is used to teach students to present or explain a complex issue using diagrams or minimal texts to make their speech clear and structured. One of the frameworks which looks really universal is called SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This is a great means of encouraging critical thinking and moreover, it’s applicable to almost any topic: discussing new ideas, perspectives, employees, products and the like.

Vicki also told us about Dogme, which for me looks really scary. When I go to a lesson I hold onto a pile of materials with both my hands in the fear of being left there kind of naked without a plan or something to at least occupy students with.

So, this is a sort of a review with my own commentaries and experiments (or exploration). I am as always willing to know what you think about it and I guess there is a room for discussion about each of the ideas listed.

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