Rosemary Richey offers guidance to a teacher who is unsure of how to go about teaching business to beginners.

I have recently taken on a small group of beginner adults at an advertising production agency based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I have a lot of experience with intermediate and advanced levels but not so much with beginners. 

My problem is that they are not really interested in following a book and the reality is that I too feel uninspired by the text books at beginner level. I have been reading some of Scott Thornbury’s articles which have some fantastic ideas but I feel insecure about how to go about planning and structuring a course. They need to be able to communicate when visitors come to the company, to ask them what they need and know how to have general conversations with them when they take them out in Buenos Aires.

I was thinking of focusing on different situations, such as in the restaurant, in the office, offering coffee, telling them what to see and where to go in Buenos Aires. The problem is that this feels rather random and I worry that I will not be giving them a strong basis on which to grow.

I also have one student who is a little weaker than the others and wants a traditional approach and another who just keeps asking me How do you say this? The last class was difficult and I am feeling confused as to which way to focus the course – should it be scenario-based or should I hold back from telling them how to say things as it introduces a whole new structure or tense?  For example, the other day we were practicing general introductions: Where are you from? What is your name? etc. and one student asked how to say What did you do this weekend? How long are you staying? Did you have a good trip? In the end, I gave them the language they needed and got them to do a role-play but I was worried as one of the students was feeling confused as to why we used did and I felt that it began to become confusing.

A number of beginners in the company would like to start taking classes with me. However, they do not want to follow a structured programme and they do not want to do homework as they don’t have time. As a consequence, I am uncomfortable about taking the classes on and worry that I will not be able to give them a strong grounding as I am not sure how to give structure to the course.

Any advice you can give me would be great. This is actually an interesting opportunity as it is a step away from business English (which I have been teaching for years!) with an interesting and creative group of people, and I want to do my best for them.

Thanks so much,

Alison Armstrong

Hello Alison,

Your concerns and questions are certainly an ongoing challenge in ELT. There is never one simple solution on how can we come up with creative teaching to meet the language learning needs of our students, especially for beginners.

Based on how you’ve described your training in the advertising agency in Buenos Aires, I can try to give you some general comments and suggestions about how I would handle your situation.

You’ve mentioned a needs analysis for the group that includes language for taking care of visitors or customers, some basic small talk and general entertaining. I do agree with you on the idea of tailoring the lessons to the group’s real life interaction with customers. Even at a beginner level, I think the students would expect to learn and apply something practical for everyday use in their jobs. They would want to see a language-building process connected to their own work context.

Building on their expectations, you could show your students a structure and corresponding language presented in different visitor situations.  This is how I’d put together your beginners course, centred on these example themes and language points.

TopicGrammar: lexis/phrases
talking about their jobs  present simple:  I work at …
checking if they can say nationalities present simple:  I come from Argentina. I’m Argentinian.
free time activities (about themselves)  adverbs of frequency: normally, often
time periods: at the moment, today
greetings / introductions present simple:  I’m pleased/glad to meet you.
hospitality: polite offers (coffee, finding the meeting room, etc.)  modals: Would you like …? Could you …? May I …?
small talk (limited topics) past simpleHow was your trip?
present simple:  Do you play tennis?
present continuousWhere are you staying?
Saying goodbye past simple:  It was nice to meet you.
farewell phrases: Have a good journey!

I’m strong believer in introducing modals for polite forms for hospitality, at the beginner and pre-intermediate levels. There is a real need to ground these professional phrases early and reinforce them throughout their language learning.  The main idea is to steer the students away from direct forms such as What do you want? Bring / Give me … . The earlier, the better, I think!

As for limited small-talk topics, at a beginner level I’d just cover weather, travel, accommodation or sports/hobbies. These seem to be a ‘norm’ for small talk for just about any culture.

Designing original materials has a lot potential and flexibility. Here are some of my ideas on making your own materials:

  • Look again at beginner- or elementary-level English coursebooks for visitor welcoming and entertaining activities and language sequencing. I can recommend:
    - Macmillan’s Survival English by Peter Viney.
    - Pearson’s Elementary Market Leader by David Cotton, David Falvey and Simon  Kent.
    - Cornelsen Verlag’s Business English for Beginners by David Crystal. (This is for the German-speaking market, but the material ideas could be easily adapted for Spanish students).
  • Adapt or change the context of the coursebook lesson activities to reflect your company setting. 
  • Do a brief one-page practice, i.e. grammar, lexis, phrases to introduce an activity.  (Do prepare extra practice in the form of worksheets or roleplays, in case the students need it.)
  • Prepare a variety of role-plays (such as conversation cards). Students can record themselves for the role-plays.  Prepare a listening sheet where the students can listen for mistakes (what he/she said and what he/she should say…) and then do peer correction.
  • Use coloured cards, sheets and marker pens for any handouts. (This makes the practice lively and engaging.) Use a pinboard to save and recycle the practice.

Here are some other tips that come to mind:

  • Focus on speaking and listening practice for beginners with simple writing or reading as supplemental.
  • Recycle the practice within each lesson and also connect each lesson with the previous ones.
  • Feel free to use Spanish to clarify any instructions.

Back to your grammar concerns, I wouldn’t worry too much if the students jump to the past simple or even the future although you haven’t taught it yet. I‘d let them use the forms minimally, if it’s suitable for the role play or practice. You could explain to your students that these are new forms that you will be looking at in closer detail in future lessons. Keep the weaker student focussed by reiterating this when any new form appears. If necessary, you could explain this to him personally in Spanish.

On the issue of having no time for homework, this is a common situation for company employees. Students aren’t often convinced that even one page of homework can provide learning continuity, if your lessons are, say,  just once a week. Be that as it may, this means we teachers should really maximize the lesson time with as much relevant, lively practice as possible, so they’ll at least feel motivated to look forward to the next lesson.

I do hope my comments and suggestions have been helpful and can steer you in the right direction for your students. Good luck in your teaching!

Best wishes

Rosemary Richey