So you’ve been assigned your first Business ESL class.
And while you might be excited at this new opportunity, you may also be somewhat nervous, as most ESL teachers spend the bulk of their careers teaching either basic or academic ESL skills. What do you even do in a Business ESL class? Don’t worry; there is a business curriculum that will keep you busy all term while incorporating traditional ESL skills development of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Individuals involved in a business/corporate setting may not, in general, see themselves connected much to language, the bulk of their day seemingly taken up in the hard numbers of sales and demographics and so forth. In addition, by nature business people see themselves connected more to the world of commerce than of academia. However, there are several written and spoken business “genres” that have definite audience expectations and which those who work in a business setting should master. And teaching these different genres of reports, meetings, and presentations also involves teaching more traditional ESL skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation. As with most genres, there are definite expectations of structure and vocabulary in Business English.
Consider General Principles for Teaching Business English
Teach the vocabulary of business
Some general business terms students should know are “spreadsheet,” and “human resources”; acronyms such as “FYI,” and “asap”; grammatical structures such as the passive voice used through the business/academic world (“A situation has been brought forward…”), and formats such as the letter and manual.
Consider the audience
Most fields have their jargon, both to identify specialized subjects endemic to the field but also to define “insider” and “outsider status.” Consideration of how “inside” and “outside” an audience is therefore important in Business English. Are we communicating to coworkers, superiors, subordinates, clients? How much of the jargon will they need to know to understand the message? Teach students to error on the side of caution, using jargon sparingly and defining more rather than less: it is perfectly obvious to me that “TESOL” means “Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages,” and certainly many teachers will know that. Not all do, however, and to someone outside the field of education, the term is foreign indeed. This same continuum of familiarity/unfamiliarity applies to almost all professions and their jargon, so students will have to not only learn the jargon of their field but when to use it.
Teach students organizational skills in both written and spoken production. Using an expected and clear organization helps a lot toward reader comprehension. Readers generally expect to proceed from general comments to more specific subtopics, and then the subtopics are often supported in turn by specific examples. To further aid reader comprehension, the main and subtopics are bolded, and the reader can just skim the main points if in a hurry. Often the specific examples/details are numbered. In speeches and presentations, speakers are expected to proceed from general comments and welcomes to an overview of the main topics of the presentation and then to its specific details.
However, I’ve received business letters and reports that I struggled with and then gave up trying to understand, not necessarily due to the language but due to the organization—there was no apparent plan for organization, general comments would begin and drop off before reaching a main point, or the main point was buried deep into the report; subtopics were not highlighted; the material was told out of chronological order, and so forth. And we’ve probably all seen the ineffective speaker who gets sidetracked, dealing with side issues and not completing main points. While this might make interesting literary fiction—the story starting in the middle and then backtracking, no obvious “main point”—it is poor business communication. Teaching students to use basic expected organizational structure will help in them in clearly communicating to a business audience.
Specific Genres to Teach for Business English
It is almost a truism that business reports are poorly written, even when written by native speakers of English: dense, full of jargon and statistics, its main ideas buried under an avalanche of unfamiliar terms and numbers.
However, there is no reason a report should be poorly written and a number of ways for the writer to clarify and actually communicate to an audience. These skills can actually be taught in a Business ESL class. A first strategy, as mentioned earlier, is to consider the audience, how “specialist” they are, what they can be assumed to know, how much needs to be explained, what examples and issues are likely to resonate with them, as so forth.
Limit numbers and explain jargon. Consideration of audience necessarily entails limiting statistics and jargon, or at least explaining both and putting them in context. A few well-chosen numbers work well to support a point, and occasional use of professional jargon adds to specificity and audience interest. Too much of either, however, is overwhelming the audience with a shower of numbers and words that may be meaningless if not thoroughly explained and put into context.
Also, organizing by main topics and subtopics, with clear headings and subheadings, helps the reader keep on track.
Just as a report has audience expectations for clear organization, so there are also audience expectations for meetings. In fact, a meeting may rely on specific and expected routine more than written forms because it is oral and occurring in “real time,” with no or little possibility to go back and clarify misunderstandings. The basic organization of a meeting that participants are used to, and which should be taught, involves opening remarks and greetings, going over the minutes of the prior meeting, discussing and amending the agenda, welcoming any guest speakers, and having various participants give an update or brief oral report to the group as a whole on the status of their projects. There are usually some concluding remarks. The structure of a business meeting is generally casual; for example, sometimes participants leave briefly and then return; formal recognition is usually not needed by the meeting leader to speak, and so forth. However, there are still expectations within the informality—talking on unrelated topics is usually met with disapproval. Practicing meeting structure in groups, perhaps having students hold meetings on projects, will help students participate appropriately in business meetings in the future.
Many speakers rely on PowerPoint these days, which is an excellent tool for keeping the audience focused and aids in taking notes as the participant handouts are the same as the PowerPoint slides.
Even with PowerPoint, however, the presenter has to keep in mind some basic considerations: focus only on main points, not on details, during a PowerPoint. Use of key terms on slide pages, for example, is a way to keep the reader focused on important topics; too many detailed items on a slide is overwhelming and confusing. Rather, support, such as the example, anecdote, or statistics, can be delivered orally, and not part of the Powerpoint. These same principles apply when not using Powerpoint for a presentation: limit text on the page of any handouts, use spoken anecdotes or visuals as support, and to organize the presentation by some clear principle, such as chronologically or from general to specific.
The business world, as with all communities, has expected conventions for its genres. Teaching the genres of reports, meetings, and presentations will help your students communicate clearly and appropriately in the business world.
What are your experiences and thoughts about teaching Business ESL?
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