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Business teaching approaches: Pre-experience learners

An introductory article on techniques for teaching pre-experience business English learners, including specific tips for teachers and needs analysis questions for learners.

Introduction

Teaching pre-experience learners need not necessarily be very different to teaching in-work trainees. Pre-experience learners are, by definition, planning to become experienced! They need language to help them in a future business career. There are some clear differences between the two, however.

What is a pre-experience learner of Business English?

A pre-experience learner is generally still studying at school or in higher education and might not have chosen a specific career yet. On the other hand, they might be studying for a vocational qualification, such as tourism, or they might already have qualified in a specific field, such as mechanical engineering or human resource management. In this case, their career choice may already have been made. Some pre-experience learners might even have accepted a job which they now wish to prepare for.

What motivates pre-experience learners of Business English?

Today many students expect their future careers to involve some international communication, travel and possibly long periods out of their home country, where the English language is often essential, both at work and socially. A good level of general and business English is more or less a standard requirement if you are applying for a job in many international companies today. Knowing that the English they learn now will help them in a future career often makes these students very motivated learners! However, due to lack of business experience, there is a risk that they can become demotivated if lessons demand too much imagination on their part, so they do need a little extra help.

Difficulties in defining learning needs

In-work trainees and learners with years of business experience can generally specify the work tasks they need to learn or improve in English, if asked the right questions. They know that they are having difficulty telephoning foreign colleagues or writing reports in English, for example. They can also describe the subject areas they have to discuss or write about. This makes their learning needs a little easier to define.

Pre-experience learners might not have a clear future career plan yet and might not actually know which specific job skills / vocabulary areas they will need in English, even if they have a particular future job in mind. What are the implications for the teacher? Possibly there will be blank faces and very quiet students, even at the needs analysis stage. If they don’t know what they need to learn, we need to ask more searching questions in order to make that decision for them. A good needs analysis for pre-experience learners can follow the same lines as one for experienced learners, but some of the questions might be slightly different. 

Needs analysis

First, has the learner already chosen a specific future career or would a more general approach to teaching business language and skills in English be more useful at this point? To a certain extent it doesn't matter, as almost any learner of business English needs to develop a core set of business skills and language in English.

Secondly, it is very useful to find out which general and specific business language areas and skills they already have in their mother tongue. Through this needs analysis we can assess not only their ‘language gap’ but also their ‘experience gap’. 

The experience gap

The experience gap might not be as large as you expect. Just because a pre-experience learner hasn’t started work yet doesn’t mean they haven’t given a presentation, for example. Many students have to present their academic work this way. Some learners also have the opportunity to do a short period of 'work experience' in a company while they are studying.

A recent one-to-one student of mine was just about to start a job with an international tax consultancy when she took her one-week intensive course with me. During the needs analysis, I discovered that she had participated in an 'assessment week' with her future employer, as part of the job interview process. She had learned quite a lot about what she would be doing in her future job, which was very useful information, especially as we only had a week to get it right. See Needs analysis questions for pre-experience learners of business English below.

Potential difficulties with teaching pre-experience learners

In-training or work experienced learners generally have experience of some or all of the typical workplace scenarios, such as business meetings, presentations, writing reports and emailing. Their familiarity with business skills and topics can help them when they are learning to do certain tasks or building up job-related vocabulary in English. To a large extent, they can simply replicate workplace scenarios they have already experienced, in the ‘classroom’.  As they don’t need to use their imagination to do this, they can focus on ‘getting it right in English’. If they are already using English in their jobs, they might already be familiar with some of the 'technical' English vocabulary too. Their company might even have written an in-house bilingual or multilingual glossary of terms for their business sector and learners can often bring work-related materials to the classroom. From a motivation point of view, this type of learner is often very keen to learn and focussed on business English because lack of English language skills is already posing a problem in their job.

Pre-experience learners might only have studied for 'general' or 'academic purpose' English exams before and therefore might not be familiar with relevant business vocabulary and subject area, either in their mother tongue or in English. As they generally do not have much real work experience, and the business world is not their current reality, they can find it more difficult to relate to business language and skills to start with. Motivating them and focussing them on the right subjects can be more of a challenge for the teacher.

There are other practical challenges in the pre-experience classroom, especially if you are taking a 'task based' approach to teaching certain business skills in English.  If learners have never experienced a business meeting before, it can be disastrous to try to teach a group of enthusiastic students to 'agree' and 'disagree' with each other, however politely, and then expect them to hold the perfect business meeting. Role -playing and business simulations can demand too much imagination on the part of the pre-experience learner with the result that they find such activities too difficult, and become demotivated.

How do we teach the pre-experience learner of Business English? 

To motivate learners and to avoid difficult situations in the classroom, it’s a good idea to devise lessons which help to fill their ‘experience gap’.  As teachers, we are, to a certain extent, developing pre- experience students’ understanding of life and work skills as well as their language ones. Pre-experience learners therefore generally need plenty of 'experience input’ activities to set the language in a context that they can relate to, and plenty of short 'controlled practice' activities before they are expected to 'perform'.

A good first activity is to get students to research the scenarios they might encounter in a future job by interviewing friends and family about their jobs.  What do they do? Who do they talk to? What do they talk about? What is difficult about doing these tasks both, in their mother tongue or with other nationalities in English? See Things pre-experience learners of Business English can find out about below for a few examples of questions you can set them to ask. This can be followed up by class discussion and students can be encouraged to feed in their own ideas. If learners are not able to interview real subjects, then they can use published articles about people and jobs.

Specialist business / technical topics

New language should be presented in context in a way which also interests learners in and teaches them about the subject area. Business and technical magazine articles can be very useful.They provide authentic examples of related vocabulary or grammatical forms which are commonly found in certain situations. There are lots of glossaries and business related articles on the internet, as well as authentic industry presentations, which can be downloaded. And don't forget Business Spotlight, onestopenglish's own set of authentic business articles and lesson plans which are published monthly. 

However, let’s not forget that a lot of ‘business English’ is also ‘general English’, or what I like to call ‘general business English’. You don’t have to be a stock market analyst to use the language of ‘forecasting’. The World Cup and the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament provide plenty of opportunities to use this language. Pre-experience learners can still be your own best resource. You can use their current experience and interests to practise many of the most useful business English structures and skills. See Tips for teaching pre-experience learners of Business English below.

Things pre-experience learners of Business English can find out about

I have focussed on activities which involve mostly listening and speaking. Group classes can be divided into sub-groups to research different situations. They can then present their findings to the rest of the group, inviting discussion and comment. The idea is for students to develop an awareness of what happens in these work situations so that their language learning becomes more relevant to them.

Meetings

  • What are the different steps in a meeting?
  • Who leads the meeting?
  • What related tasks might participants do before and after a meeting?
  • What makes a bad meeting?
  • What would you do if you couldn't understand what someone was saying in a meeting?

Conference calls

  • Are they more difficult than face-to-face meetings?
  • What problems can participants have?
  • What makes a bad conference call?
  • What would you do if you couldn't follow the conversation or you didn't know who was speaking?

Presentations

  • For what reasons do people in business give presentations?
  • Are they frightening to do?
  • What makes a good or bad presentation?
  • What type of visual aids can be used?
  • Find some examples of presentation slides.
  • How is information often presented on slides?

Telephoning

  • What are some typical reasons for telephoning business colleagues and customers / suppliers?
  • What makes phoning a foreign country or colleague difficult?
  • Do you always give your name at the beginning of a call?

Tips for teachingpre-experience learners of Business English

  • Structure your lesson activities to build up students' awareness of typical work scenarios in order to set language learning in a more 'real' context.
  • Involve students in filling their own ‘experience gap’.
  • Get students to research the scenarios they might encounter in a future job by interviewing friends and family about their jobs.  What do they do? Who do they talk to? What do they talk about? What can be difficult about doing these tasks both in their mother tongue or with other nationalities in English? See Things pre-experience learners of business English can find out about above for a few examples of questions you can set them to ask.
  • Once students have come up with a list of typical business scenarios / questions, add your own to their list.
  • Organise business visits or invite guest speakers to talk about what happens in the workplace, even if you are teaching in a non-English speaking country. This can be a great motivator.
  • Use published / off-air video and audio materials which present these work scenarios / business subjects. Ask students to notice how people feel and sound in these situations. How do they react? What kind of language / register do they use?
  • Adapt authentic business / technical written materials as a learning resource – many are freely available on the internet.
  • Case studies and articles about people in business can teach students about the workplace and are a rich source of relevant language. Get students to exploit these materials by mind-mapping language fields.
  • Use learners' current experiences and interests to teach relevant language items – a lot of 'business English' is 'general English', too.
  • Record students on video / audio so that they can watch / listen to themselves performing simulated business tasks to see their own improvement. Encourage students to give their own feedback and recognise their improvement. 

Needs analysis questions for pre-experience learners

What subjects have you studied  / are you studying at school / college / university?

Have you learned any English for business?

What industry you would like to work in?

What sort of job / work experience you would like to do in the future?

Do you know which tasks would you have to do in this job?

Have you ever given a presentation?

What sort of topics have you presented? Have you ever participated in a 'round the table' meeting?

Have you ever taken part in a conference call?

Have you applied for any jobs?

Have you had any job interviews?

What questions were you asked?

Did you talk about what you would be doing in the job?

Have you participated in any skills assessment sessions as part of a job interview?

What did you do during this assessment?

What do you now know about the job you are going to do?

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