Wrong about Business English and ESP
by Alex Case

This article is based on ideas that I had when I first started teaching Business English and ESP and later found out not to be true, as well as common assumptions by teachers, managers and textbook writers that, in my opinion, need rethinking.

1. Business English is just General English with a Business English textbook
There can be classes like this, especially ones who have no present need, no idea of their future job and no plans to take a Business English exam. For all other classes there is a completely different ESP approach based around needs analysis, deciding what language and skills they need to meet those needs, course design, and designing and adapting materials to fit in with those needs. This can be very hard for a General English teacher to get used to and very time consuming if you don’t know how to do it efficiently, so a course on teaching Business English and ESP or at least reading a book on the subject is well worth the effort.

2. Needs analysis means asking students what they need
While that is a major part of it, basing a whole course on what they do in English now would leave out a whole lot of important stuff like future needs, what they want to study that is not connected to any specific needs, and things they want to avoid due to past bad experiences in the language classroom.

3. Business experience is essential to teach Business English
More than to make you an effective teacher, schools look for experience in business (especially big and well known businesses) so they have something to show off about when they are showing your CV to potential clients- something that is much more common in Business English and ESP teaching than in general English. You can make up for a lack of this with a list of famous companies your students work for, qualifications in business or economics, and/ or teaching qualifications such as an MA or a specific Teaching Business English certificate.
4. Most students need to describe their company structure
This is one of the most popular yet most complicated and useless topics in Business English books. Most people only need to know how to say who their CEO and direct boss is, and many companies are organised in ways that are not translatable into English or not easy to explain in any language. Please skip this topic until it comes up in conversation, and then teach your students how to simplify what they say as much as possible.

5. You can’t use games in Business classes
Highly motivated Business English and ESP students might be willing to go through a class with less fun than a kids’ class, but that doesn’t mean that a little fun wouldn’t motivate them, make remembering the language easier and refresh them before they go back to work. If there is resistance to mention of “games”, try calling them “speaking activities”, “competitions”, “roleplays”, “case studies” or even “teambuilding activities” instead.

6. Business English has to be boring
There are plenty of topics in Business English and ESP books that are interesting even with General English students, e.g. business ethics, advertising (its effect on children, your favourite adverts, working out what obscure adverts are advertising etc), technology, and the origins of everyday products. As mentioned above, there is no need to avoid games either.

7. Your students will already know about business, they just need to be able to explain it in English
Virtually every book on teaching Business English and/ or ESP has this gem of wisdom in it. To be fair to the authors, it is usually just to stop scaring you off and they do go on to make this point- the more you know about your students’ area of expertise the better you can design their course and the more interesting you will find what they tell you. What is more, factors like having pre-experience students, concepts that don’t translate across cultures (e.g. the difference between “barrister” and “solicitor” or between “MD” and “chairman”) and false friends might leave you as the only expert on something that is supposedly their speciality. To avoid a classroom where no one knows what the book is going on about, make sure you always take the teachers’ book, answer key and/ or a good specialist dictionary into the classroom. If you do get stuck, research the point and get back to them in the next class. 

8. Reading texts about their specialist area usually is the best kind of practice
This is the closest most people come to the ESP approach, but unless reading newspaper articles is a major part of their job this reduces needs analysis to just one question (“What is your exact area?”) and so leaves out even most of the things you would take into account when teaching even a General English student. To avoid getting sucked into the “What article shall we use this week?” black hole, make sure things such as what functional language, skills and cultural knowledge they need are included in the needs analysis and course design stages.

9. Lots of case studies and student presentations is what they most need
After reading articles, these are the most overused methods in Business English and ESP. Even if a case study is closely based on their area of interest, if it is a negotiation and they never need to negotiate it isn’t much use and you may as well just do some more telephoning practice or the language of requests. Ditto with presentations.

10. The needs of a low level Business English student are the same as a general English student
If they are ever going to get from False Beginner to Elementary level, they probably will need to work through the same points as a General English textbook in the same order sooner or later. If they are using English day to day already though (yes, it does happen even at False Beginner level), knowing they are going to be doing emailing or telephoning next month isn’t likely to be taken as good enough news. With such students, you need a dual syllabus of dealing with points once in the order that they need them and again in a systematic order. This can be complicated to plan, but simplified versions include alternating lessons based on the two kinds of syllabus or spending half of each lesson on the step by step syllabus and half on their most urgent needs. You can also adjust all the topics in a general English syllabus or textbook so they include slightly more of the numbers, describing graphs, meeting foreign guests etc that they might need. A couple of low level Business English textbooks now basically do this for you, but good and genuinely low level ones are still few and far between.

11. Business English and ESP students are more motivated than General English ones
It can happen, but it is just as likely that they were forced into the lesson by their boss, are just doing it because they get an hour off work, have good intentions but are tired and hungry etc. For such students, keeping their motivation up is the main and sometimes sole aim of the class. Methods include lots of games, doing the most interesting topics in the book first, sneaking in some topics based on their outside interests and giving them instant results in their work or studies.

12. Business English and ESP are the same thing
As ESP includes EAP (English for Academic Purposes, e.g. pre-sessional courses for foreign students in universities in English speaking classes and IELTS and TOEFL classes), that is plainly not always the case. Many Business English students are ESP students if they have a more specialised need for Financial English, Technical English etc, and Business English textbooks might be totally unsuitable for them as they will need the same detailed needs analysis and personalised course planning as any other ESP students. In fact, Business English textbooks are best for people who have no particular need day to day in their jobs (yet) or have had a course based on their day to day needs and now want to consolidate that knowledge and work on improving their general level.  

13. Their company paying for the lessons means that they need English for their jobs
It could mean that, but many HR departments have a training budget to spend and find that English courses are the cheapest available and the easiest to find. Alternatively, it may be offered as a “benefit lesson” to students who want to study English as a hobby and so look for companies who offer lessons for free.

14. TOEIC is a Business English exam
The exam is based around Business English- there is lots of Business vocabulary that can throw students who don't know it, but it is the kind of business vocab that any native speaker teenager would know and anyway is often not relevant to answering the actual question.

15. Business English and ESP means lots of 1 to 1 classes
I’ve had classes of 25 businessmen and 1 to 1 classes with kids as young as 3. Using an ESP approach to finding out what your students need or want does work with all kinds of 1 to 1 classes, but that same needs analysis approach can take quite a bit of adapting if you also bring it into your larger group Business English and ESP classes.


Alex Case is editor of TEFL.net Book Reviews and writes the blog TEFLtastic. He has worked as a teacher, teacher trainer, Director of Studies and ELT editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy, Japan, UK and now Korea. There is a full list of his online articles at http://www.tefl.net/alexcase/about/publications-links/

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