Number one for English language teachers

Teaching Business English: Low-level learners

Type: Article, Reference material

In this article, Ed Pegg gives advice on how to adapt Business English classes to meet the needs of low-level learners.

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How can I teach business skills (meetings, presentations, etc) to low-level learners?

If people choose to take a business English course when they have a low level of English, it usually means that their working circumstances have changed and they need to use English. Given the nature of many jobs today, they probably don’t have much time to acquire the language they need and this puts a lot of pressure on the trainer.

Another problem is that business communication often contains highly complex vocabulary and requires mastery of complicated communicative tasks like attending meetings, giving and attending presentations, making telephone calls and writing emails. The range of language required to adequately perform these tasks is huge. As a result, preparing low-level learners for the world of work can be a big challenge.

If you have low-level learners who need to attend meetings yesterday, here’s some advice:

1 Get quick results

You need to build up their vocabulary very quickly. Try to find out their specific job description and, if possible, their duties. Identify the 50–100 need-to-know words and phrases for someone in that job and present them to learners, over time of course. Once you’ve built up this essential bank of vocabulary, learners can begin the long process of first understanding and then taking part in work-based conversations.

2 Don’t forget grammar

Business English classes often focus less on grammar than their general English counterparts. This allows greater time to perfect functional language usage that learners need in their jobs. However, low-level learners need grammar in order to say anything. Therefore, spend a lot of time focusing on simple grammar structures that will allow learners to begin expressing themselves quickly.

Remember, your job is to prepare them for the conversations they need to have at work so you don’t really have time to worry about the traditional order of grammar. Things I would definitely teach low-level business English learners include the present simple, will and going to, modal verbs and conditionals. You don’t usually find these in beginner and elementary books but they’re so common in business conversations that you really need to start teaching them early.

Also try to make sure that any grammar point covers positive, negative and question forms. Again, this might mean you’re covering more at a faster pace than you might normally in a traditional low level class but this is what business learners need – a basic understanding quickly.

Combine this with your 100 keywords and learners are really getting talking, fast.

3 Introduce a little functional language often

Again, choose very high frequency functional language such as I think… or moving onto… and present a few of these items every lesson. Give learners plenty of practice and repeat often. Over time, learners will quickly build up a bank of functional phrases.

Here’s a structure that I often use:

  1. Introduce 5–10 vocabulary items.
  2. Practice those items.
  3. Introduce a grammar point.
  4. Practice the grammar point using the new vocabulary.
  5. Introduce 3–5 functional items.
  6. Practice the functional items using the grammar and vocabulary.
  7. Present a simple workplace scenario.
  8. Practice everything.

Of course, realistically, learners will not produce much language in these simulations at first but, if they can see how this language can be used in their job, they’ll not only be more motivated but you’ll also help them work out what other people are saying at work and help them remember the new language.

4 Recycle often

Low-level learners forget language easily, so you need to keep repeating it. Learners will need to see a new word multiple times before they remember it and you need to make this happen. Over time, you can introduce a lot of vocabulary but you need to do it in small amounts and make sure learners see words often. Try to recycle the language as often as you can. This could be through re-presenting language, games and activities, discussion tasks or including the vocabulary in texts. It doesn’t matter how it’s recycled as long as it’s recycled often. In addition, try to encourage learners to use new vocabulary when speaking. For example, if a learner says ‘we talked about cost’ but you recently presented ‘discussed’, praise the learner for using language correctly and then try to elicit other words they could use.

5 Use translation

Remember that your learners may be very experienced professionals, they just don’t know English very well. Many technical business and functional phrases are similar across languages and a simple way to increase vocabulary and aid understanding is to use translation. This can help learners relate the language they’re learning to the context they’re working in and aid memory.

6 Use schemata (what people already know about the world)

As I said above, learners are often very experienced at their job. As a result, they’ve attended meetings, given presentations and made telephone calls in their own language. Wherever possible, try to bring that knowledge into class through pictures, images and activities so that learners can use their task-based knowledge to help them learn the language they need for tasks they’re already very familiar with.

Although teaching tasks like meetings and presentations to low-level learners can be challenging, they’re also very rewarding and interesting, particularly as you get to meet some of the most motivated learners in the world. Hopefully these tips will make your experience even better.

Teaching low-level learners can be challenging. There’s a lot of confusion and repetition and it can be frustrating because retention is limited. However, low-level learners progress quickly and this can be very rewarding. Also, when teaching business learners, remember that these people are probably very intelligent and have lots of experience of the world. This can help you, so don’t forget to use it.

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Readers' comments (6)

  • Hello rita,

    Thank you very much for your lovely comments which we will pass on to Ed. We are very pleased that you have found this article helpful.

    Best wishes and happy teaching!

    The onestopenglish team

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  • Dear Ed Pegg, thank you so much for this article, I really needed it right now and it will be most helpful in my lessons going forward.

    Best regards

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  • Hi Kuatika,

    Many thanks for the nice feedback. We shall pass you comments on to Ed.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Thank you very much for this article. It will be very useful in my future lessons.

    Thank you.

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  • Hi Blanka,

    Thanks for reading the article and taking the time to comment.

    In answer to your question, there are many ways to use translation with low-level learners ranging from informal usage of translation dictionaries and smart phone apps to formal inclusion of translation in classroom activities.

    Which method you choose depends on your teaching style, your learners preferences and needs and what works best for all of you.

    I’ll run through some different ways you can use translation in the classroom:

    1. In monolingual groups where the teacher speaks the same language, you can translate any complex terms to learners directly or ask them for a translation. This is a quick way to give meaning and check understanding but is risky because learners may become to expect you to do the work of helping them understand words and phrases. I have used it myself but only occasionally, when the class has been very confused by a term.

    2. Inform learners that it’s okay to use translation dictionaries or apps. You can explain directly or, if language level is very low, point at the dictionary or phone and show it’s okay to use them with a gesture, such as a thumbs up. You can decide if you allow learners to translate things at any time or just specific times in class, such as when reading. I know some teachers are against using phones in class but this is my preferred way to use translation as it reflects the way people use phones in their everyday lives. If you think learners are becoming over-reliant on dictionaries or their phone, you can always ask them to stop.

    3. You can incorporate translation activities into class or homework. Give learners a group of words or phrases in English and ask them to translate them into their native language or give them the terms in their language and ask them to use dictionaries to find the English term. This develops study skills as well as aiding vocabulary recall. You can do it as a warmer to introduce new vocabulary, to revise and recall vocabulary at the start or end of a lesson or for homework. This is a very effective tool but is much easier if the teacher speaks the language the learners are using.

    Personally, as I teach multi-lingual groups, I mainly use translation dictionaries and apps and encourage learners to use them in class whenever they want. This works for me as it allows me to focus on specific language at the same time as allowing learners to deal with other language that comes up in the lesson themselves. Hopefully one of the tips above will work for you too.

    Thanks again Blanka. If you use any of the techniques, please let me know how it went.

    Best wishes,

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  • Dear Ed Pegg,
    excellent article. But I do not understand quite well the idea No 5 "Use translation". What do you mean, please? Who and how should translate? Do you mean a low-level learner from a vocebulary? Or together with a teacher?
    Thank you so much in advance,
    all the best

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