So you’ve just been assigned your first Business ESL class. You’re feeling that excitement that comes from teaching a new curriculum and class, but you’re also nervous.
You know how to teach a “regular,” more traditional ESL class: you focus a lot on grammar and perhaps structure the class around it, with auxiliary attention to related vocabulary, conversation, and pronunciation, with everything tied neatly to a prepackaged ESL text and DVDs. You know what the students need, how to preassess them and where to start them in the text. But what about the Business ESL class? It’s not so clear-cut, and your institution may not have a suggested text or curriculum and may be relying on you to make most of those decisions. So what does the Business ESL student need and how do you teach her?
Top 5 Needs for Business ESL Student
This may seem elementary, but it’s often forgotten that the most critical need of ESL students, even those that seem relatively advanced, is the ability to speak to native speakers of English with clarity and confidence. And the conversation that occurs in the workforce—impersonal, work-related—is widely different from the more everyday conversation that occurs in class and neighborhoods. This conversation has its own etiquette, a careful balance between the casual and too casual: you would not address your boss as “Dude” but nor would you call him “Sir” in most circumstances outside of the military.
Business English is replete with specialized “work” terms, even if it is not really technical to a specific field: timesheet, desktop, mousepad, W-2, job description…all are terms that the native speaker of American English began learning upon entering the workforce at sixteen or eighteen and has been using for years; these terms may be entirely new to our ESL students. Sometimes these words and phrases change and confuse even the native speaker: sometime about ten years ago, for example, the office I had for years called “personnel” became “Human Resources” or “HR,” that department charged with hiring, firing, staff-related complaints, and other employee concerns. Developing the vocabulary needed for the workplace is an ongoing process.
Workplace idioms are separate from idioms used in more everyday conversations. Because the focus is often on goals and outcomes, a lot of workplace idioms are sports- related: from baseball’s “to hit it out of the ballpark” (to have a great success) to basketball’s “a slam dunk,” (a quick, unopposed score) and American football’s “to do an end run around” (to go around the usual rules or procedures in pursuing a goal), the workplace is replete with these terms. Without knowing these and the relationship to the sports they are drawn from, it might be hard to take part in some workplace conversations in the U.S.
Phone and Email Etiquette
Phone and email etiquette are also both areas that require practice even for native speakers. Phone is courteous, fast, and impersonal, with a focus on outcomes—getting the appropriate message to the appropriate person--rather than relating to the caller, while at the same remaining polite. Have students practice taking and leaving messages both in and out of class.
There are a lot of workplace documents specific to the workplace: resumes, memos, letters, reports, proposals…all are documents students might reasonably be asked to write in their future professions. Again, they comprise a specific genre of “workplace writing,” which is concise, goal-oriented, and impersonal with expected features for each document: for example, memos come with an expected heading of who the memo is for, who it is from, and what it is regarding, much like an email.
Teaching Business or Workplace English
So there is this different genre of English related to the workplace. How do we go about teaching it to our ESL students?
Take a Needs Assessment
Find out what your students are interested in. While they all might be interested in workplace English, some might be more interested in the English for engineering, for example, while others are interested in English for information technology—both types of workplace English, but with their own specialized vocabularies and written forms. Often in a class most of the students are in similar majors, like pharmacy, which will make the instructor’s job a little easier in that the focus is narrowed, and the instructor will know what kind of vocabulary and writing students will need to use in English.
Contact the Departments that Represent the Common Majors in Your Class
If you contact the department chair or professor of a department the students study within, you might be pleasantly surprised at your reception. For example, the chair of the business department at the university I teach ESL students took the time to have lunch with me and discuss some of the concerns ESL students typically had in business classes, while I talked about the concerns ESL students face at the college level. We both left with a stronger understanding of what ESL students needed to learn in ESL to survive in their business classes.
See About the Availability of a Strong Textbook in Workplace English
For an online writing class I’m teaching in nonfiction, I found an excellent, classic text On Writing Well by the great William Zinsser, online, downloadable, and completely free as it’s out of copywrite. Not everyone can be so lucky, but there are many good, and free, materials online, and once you locate them, they help you in structuring your course.
Most students have an intuitive sense that language learning is about words, not grammatical structures. And research supports that: one of the best ways to improve a student’s academic and professional aspects is to help increase her academic vocabulary. Find out through books, the internet, and asking people what terms students are most likely to use in their fields (e.g., “dialysis” in medicine is treatment for kidney failure) besides the more common terms used in most workplaces.
What do you say when you have to ask to borrow something from a coworker? Ask the boss for time off? Show a colleague how to do something? Practice different and common workplace conversations. Make up sets of index cards with just the addressee and the concern on them (e.g.: Your boss; the copy machine is jammed again) and have students roleplay in pairs.
Set time aside each day to practice writing skills, again focusing on the genres students need for their majors. So perhaps they will do one less essay than usual and will instead focus on writing a report. Or instead of writing journals in which they reflect on an assigned topic, they can write memos, focusing either on assigned workplace topics (e.g., fixing the copy machine) or ones they have devised themselves (the parking situation in the back lot). After all, few students except English majors will write essays, stories, or poems after college, so it makes sense to focus on the kind of writing students will do.
So while you may have started out the semester not quite knowing what to do in your business English class, before long, you have too much to do.
With expanding their workplace vocabularies, practicing conversation for the workplace, and working on their business writing skills, students will be busy all semester long and soon ready to communicate with ease in the workplace.