First Time Teaching Business English? 4 Things You’ve Gotta Know

There are seven words that have the power to send shivers down the spine of ESL teachers who are generally quite comfortable teaching English.

Those words are, “You are teaching a Business English class.”

Don’t freak out—suit up.

You might be thinking, “but teaching Business English classes requires special qualifications, doesn’t it?”

Not necessarily. You may well find yourself, with no business-related experience or qualifications, teaching English to already successful businesspeople in high-powered corporate offices, students of business at universities or future entrepreneurs with a budding interest in Business English.

The demand for English teachers in the business world is high, and if you know how to teach English at all, you can fill that demand.

You can have lively and effective classes using the pieces of knowledge I’m about to give you.

The 4 Pieces of Knowledge That Will Help You Teach Business English

1. Knowing Your Students’ Expectations Improves Student Happiness and Success Rates.

All students have objectives when taking an English class, but this is especially true of Business English students.

Whether their objective is set by their company or by themselves, it commonly involves learning the English they need to get ahead at work, connect with international clients, earn more money or maybe even keep their job.

In order to achieve these goals, they need specific types of knowledge. It may be how to talk on the telephone, handle complaints, make and deliver a presentation, read analyses or write reports. Whatever it is, your students will not be successful unless you focus on what they need to know.

But how are you supposed to know what they need if you’ve never worked in a business role yourself?

You don’t have to come in with a bag of tricks. Simply ask your students. They know their business and they know what they need.

Find out by performing a needs analysis. Don’t use a cold piece of paper with square boxes. Open a dialog with your students instead, and take notes along the way. Business English students are business-oriented, so they value time and appreciate cutting to the chase. By the time you’ve finished talking with them, you will not only know their objectives, but you will have established rapport, learned more than the average person about their jobs and business and may have even mapped out your lesson plan.


Oh, and keep your findings visible. Tie your lessons to them, and make it obvious that you’re targeting their needs and interests. After all, even if your students are experts (or are training to become experts) in their field of work, you are the expert in English. Show your students that you have listened to them and that they need to do the specified activity if they want to achieve their goal.

Okay. All of this may sound great in theory, but how do you apply it? Here’s an example.

Let’s say that your students have told you that they need to learn how to handle customer complaints in English. They work with the help desk of a technology company. You have no idea what the company does, but that is okay. Because the students do.

So, you create a lesson that introduces the language of handling complaints and then create a role play in which your students provide the complaints. They can each write a sample complaint on a piece of paper and hand these in to you. Then hand them back out, making sure students get complaints that they didn’t write themselves. Have them practice handling the complaint they are given.

There you go. They now have a skill that they can apply as soon as they walk out the door. And your students will love you.

2. Combining Grammar with Business Topics Significantly Boosts Learning.

Business English involves more than jargon. Students have to be able to string that jargon together to make comprehensible sentences. So they are going to need to learn English grammar along with Business English vocabulary and phrases.

An obvious fact, you say. Well, this is not obvious to some students who think that they just need to know the translation of this phrase or that word and with that they are going to be able to make the winning sales call of the century.

So, here is how you can go about boosting their learning by combining Business English with essential grammar. You are going to feed it to them as you would feed vegetables to a kid—mix it in with something they like. For example:

Combine adverbs of frequency with Sales — “We sometimes offer discounts.”

Combine connectors with Finance —” We’ve made a profit this year in spite of the drop in sales overseas.”

Combine must and have to with Human Resources — “In order to qualify for this job you must have a PhD.”

See what I mean? And do you see how much richer their Business English sentences are by adding such grammatical elements? Believe me. You won’t be the only one. When your students start impressing their bosses, coworkers and customers by talking like this, they’ll be encouraged to learn more.

3. Using Outside Sources Can Create a More Realistic Environment for Students.

Textbooks can be the kiss of death in Business English classes. Okay, I am being a bit dramatic, but there is some truth in this statement.

The thing is, just as you cannot know everything there is to know about every single type of company and industry that exists, a textbook cannot meet the needs of each and every Business English student.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some excellent ones you can use to provide inspiration and structure!

Still, the business environment changes so quickly these days, you may find information to be out of date (how embarrassing) or it may not be relevant to your students (how boring). Even if you use a textbook as a base, add authenticity to every lesson by using outside sources that you identify using your needs analysis and the information your students told you about their company (I told you it would help you create your lesson plan).

Oops. What did you say? How do you find such material without being guilty of espionage?

Bring in the news.

Use newspapers, magazines, trade journals, technical texts, sources from the internet, leaflets, brochures, company information, radio, TV and company videos.

Let’s say, for example, that you have a group of students working in the technology sector. Engage and teach your students with current articles from the tech section of the The Wall Street Journal or USA Today. Delve even deeper into the tech world by bringing in articles from sources like Wired or CNET.

If your students are in the advertising field, articles from Advertising Age provide an excellent news source. You get the point. Almost every industry has some type of material oriented towards its members. A simple online search or perusal of the newspaper stands will reveal a wealth of material.

A subscription to The New York Times is a good general resource to have on hand, as it gives you access to a wide range of regularly updated content that can be dipped into for a variety of business-related information.

Your students will love using information that is not only up-to-date, but also relevant to their business. And it’s a good way to get them talking and help you learn more about the company which in turn will help you obtain more relevant material.

You can also use FluentU’s program if your students want to learn with authentic videos but want more variety.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

4. Make Discussion Central to Your Classes.

Want your students to talk? What ESL teacher doesn’t? Base your classes (and maybe even your grades) on discussions, and you’ll see results in the conversation department.

What are they going to talk about? Their interests which you discovered in your needs assessment, of course.

Plus, the fact that you aren’t an expert about their business makes it easy for you to play dumb and ask them questions about things that you really want to know. Your genuine interest will keep them talking.

Another great source of discussion topics are controversial subjects. If you are teaching students in the information technology field you can discuss the role of robots in the workplace and their influence on human employment in the future or Internet security/freedom. Hold open class discussions or debates.

If you find some students to be too shy to speak in the front of the class, break them into groups, give them a problem to solve and then bring the class back together. The shy person may not speak in the presentation of ideas session, but they had to speak in their group.

Having class discussions means that you may have to be flexible and go off your lesson plan. Some discussions may last longer than you planned, and some not as long as you had hoped for, but it is the perfect way to ensure that everyone gets a chance to talk.

So, there you have it. The next time you hear the words, “you are teaching a Business English class,” you will not go weak at the knees.

Armed with these four pieces of knowledge, the next Business English class you teach will not only be a great learning experience and fun for your students, but it will be fun for you as well.

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