How many years have you been teaching?
If you’re in your first or second year, you probably remember a lot of what you have done in the classroom. Everything is fresh and new. But picture yourself a few years down the road. After ten years of teaching, what will you remember? Fifteen years? I spent twelve years in the ESL classroom, and I have to be honest. One day teaching the present progressive kind of blends in with the rest of them. But there are some lessons, some experiences I remember very vividly.
One of my favorites was when I took one of my business English students to Church Brew Works, a local microbrewery. No, it wasn’t for social reasons. You see, this student worked for a brewery in the Dominican Republic, and he had travelled to Pittsburgh to learn English, which he was planning to use for business purposes once he returned home. Since that was his field, we took a tour of a popular microbrewery and had lunch there. It was an interesting experience for both of us.
I doubt he learned anything about actually brewing beer on our trip. He was a professional in the field, after all. But he did learn some things there that he wouldn’t learn in his company back home – he learned career specific English vocabulary. Sure we covered all the typical topics in our one on one class sessions, but that particular trip did something the classroom never could. It gave him real life experience in a true to life setting with career specific vocabulary. Since he knew the process of brewing, the information our guide gave him wasn’t new for my student. But hearing it in English was. So by knowing the content, my student was able to focus on the vocabulary and language use as well as use his background knowledge to better understand what he was hearing in English.
I tell you that story for a purpose. Not to encourage you to go have a beer with your students, though I won’t try and stop you if you do. No, it’s to show you one very real way English can be practical for business professionals.
You see, one struggle teaching business English is just that: practicality.
Often books and curriculum are written with general English studies in mind, and they don’t account much for students who are studying for specific, business purposes. If you are teaching students in this position, it then becomes your job as teacher to make things more practical for them, to tie the vast topic of the English language to their real lives in practical ways.
One way to do that is to get your students in their business context. This isn’t always possible, but it’s probably easier than you realize. For my student, all I had to do was make one phone call and I was able to set up a tour of the brewery. Not every business will be so accommodating, but often they are. Many people and organizations are willing to share their experience with a likeminded individual, swap ideas, and even make useful overseas contacts like your students.
Another way to make your studies practical is to think about exactly how your students will be using English in their careers. The easy go tos are writing memos and emails, but think beyond the computer screen. Will your student have to make a sales presentation? Do a mock one in class. Will your student be writing a grant application? Grab one and work on it together, even if they never intend to send it in (extra credit as a teacher if you do). Will your students make phone calls? Write product descriptions? Conduct financial negotiations? Use specific computer programs? Do those things in class.
Another thing you can do in class is practical role plays. While ordering food in a restaurant may be useful for some business professionals while on the job, there are plenty of other situations they will find themselves in – introducing themselves in a professional context (including how to give a proper handshake and exchange business cards), training their employees, working with a banker to get a loan, etc. Design your role plays to simulate these experiences. When you do, you’ll give your students a leg up when it comes to the real thing and they will also see that what they are learning will help their careers in a very real way. Not sure how your students will be using English in their jobs? Ask. It is not a sign of weakness to ask your students for information that will help you create lessons that are useful and practical for them.
Project based learning is another great way to make learning English practical. Think back to your own education. Do you remember doing case studies or any of your classes or training? I do. Because case studies are not cut and dry. There is no easy, go to, obvious-the-teacher-wants-it answer. When you can, use project based learning with your business students. Project based learning takes a big question, problem, or situation and asks students to research, examine, and explore the topic before responding to it. You can use project based learning when you teach English quite easily, especially for business students. For example, imagine you are teaching the conditional tense. Take a problem that a company faced and ask your student to examine it and suggest ways that problem could have been avoided (conditional structure). Just about any grammar topic can be put into a business based project in similar ways. You can even ask your students to share a situation they encountered in their work experience, expand it, and hand it back to them as a project.
I don’t know if my former student remembers that brewery tour we took.
But after twelve years of teaching ESL, I remember it. And I think I can safely assume that it was just as memorable an experience during his six months overseas learning English as it was in my twelve years teaching. And when you make your business English classes practical and personal for your students, they will walk away from class remembering what you did as well.
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