Advice and suggestions of how to begin a Business English course.

In a month I am starting an English course with 2 groups of adults working in a big firm. I have already some ideas how to deal with the advanced level, but I am quite frightened about the beginners. I have no idea what to start with, how to create a syllabus, or even if grammar should be explained deductively or inductively. I would be very grateful for some specific information or any kind of help.


You’re in a very interesting situation, even an enviable one – although I can quite understand how it may seem frightening. Unlike most teachers, who have no choice in the matter, you are in the exhilarating position of being able to decide for yourself how to design a course for beginners. Most teachers are restricted to having to march their poor students through the agonies of the “traditional grammar syllabus”: today “have got”, tomorrow “past simple: regular verbs”, the next day “will vs going to” etc etc. All the time wondering why their students seem incapable of putting two words together in any coherent way. Don’t be frightened! Enjoy your freedom – and let your students be your guide. Let’s look at the issues.

First of all, your students don’t need grammar, they need words. A lot of words and fast. It’s now widely accepted that language learning – whether naturalistic or instructed – is powered, initially, by vocabulary: the steady accumulation of lexical items, including multi-word units (also called lexical phrases or chunks). Slowly, the learner extracts patterns out of these words and chunks, and a kind of early grammar develops, just as with a child learning its first language. Attempting to force an adult or native speaker grammar on to the emergent grammar of the child/learner is like trying to knock a square peg into a round hole. There is a growing body of opinion that argues that teaching grammar to beginners is like whistling in the wind. Rod Ellis, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on second language acquisition, has recently come out strongly in favour of “de-grammaring” the beginners’ syllabus, and he is worth quoting at length:

"There are ... some fairly obvious reasons for not teaching grammar to beginners. First, as the immersion studies have shown, learners do not need grammar instruction to acquire considerable grammatical competence. Up to a point, the acquisition of grammar takes place naturally and inevitably, providing learners experience appropriate opportunities for hearing and using the L2.

A second, more powerful reason for not teaching grammar to beginners is that the early stage of L2 acquisition (like the early stage of L1 acquisition) is naturally agrammatical. Language learners begin by learning items - word or formulaic chunks. They communicate by concatenating these, stringing them together into sequences that convey meaning contextually... It is only later that learners begin to grammaticalize their speech... They do this by extracting rules from the items they have learned - bootstrapping their way to grammar. It would seem, then, that the early stages of language acquisition are lexical rather than grammatical.

If grammar teaching is to accord with how learners learn, then, it should not be directed at beginners. Rather, it should await the time when learners have developed a sufficiently varied lexis to provide a basis for the process of rule extraction. In crude terms, this is likely to be at the intermediate-plus stages of development. There is a case, therefore, for reversing the traditional sequence of instruction, focusing initially on the development of vocabulary and the activation of the strategies for using lexis in context to make meaning and only later seeking to draw learners’ attention to the rule-governed nature of language."

Ellis, R. (2002). The place of grammar instruction in the second/foreign language curriculum. In Hinkel, E. and Fotos, S. (Eds.) New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Language Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

A similar shift of balance from grammar to vocabulary has been argued by researchers into vocabulary acquisition. For example, in Vocabulary in Language Teaching (CUP, 2000), Norbert Schmitt makes the point that:

"The first 2000 words of a language are so important that Meara (1995) wonders whether it might not be better to concentrate on teaching them right at the beginning of a language course. This might not be as radical as it seems. If a student could learn fifty words per week (a figure certainly attainable if students were not concentrating on other language aspects such as grammar), then in 40 weeks of school this basic vocabulary could be introduced. Although the students would not know a lot about grammar at the end of this vocabulary-based period, I suspect they would quickly make up for this shortfall, and would soon overtake students who were taught by more traditional methodologies." (p. 143)

So, use the opportunity you have to encourage the development of an extensive vocabulary. But, learning lists of words is not enough. These words have to be put to work. Remember, Ellis said that what is needed is “the activation of … strategies for using lexis in context to make meaning”. The students need to try and do things – meaningful things, contextualized things – with the words, such as having conversations with them. But how can they have conversations if they have no grammar? Easy – they use the words and the teacher feeds in the grammar. 

Let me give you an example: a New Zealand friend of mine who was studying Maori described to me his teacher’s method: “We just do masses of words - around a theme, for example, family, or food etc. We have to learn these word before the next lesson. Then we come back and have a conversation - about family, food etc, and we use the words. The teacher feeds in the grammar that we need to stick the words together.” He added that he thought the method worked very well. How does this work in practice? Here is an extract from a real lesson where the (elementary) students are attempting to describe the sport of “canyoning” to their teacher:

Student: You have a river, a small river and [gestures]
Teacher: Goes down?
Student: Yes, as a cataract
Teacher: OK, a waterfall [writes it on board] What's a waterfall, Manel? Can you give me an example? A famous waterfall [draws]
Student: Like Niagara?
Teacher: OK. So what do you do with the waterfall?
Student: You go down.
Teacher: What? In a boat?
Student: No, no, with a ... ¿como se dice cuerda? [How do you say rope?]
Student: Cord.
Teacher: No, rope, a cord is smaller, like at the window, look [points]
Student: Rope, rope, you go down rope in waterfall.

Notice how the students and teacher are having a kind of conversation but that the teacher is helping them with the language as they go along. In this way they are fulfilling Ellis’ first requirement for successful acquisition: They are “(experiencing) appropriate opportunities for hearing and using the L2.”

What’s more, if the teacher and the learners share the same L1 (first language) a lot of time can be saved sorting out difficulties by using translation. In fact there is a whole language teaching method that is based on this very principle: the students talk and when they have problems they ask for a translation. The method is called Community Language Learning (CLL) and it works wonderfully – especially for beginners – so long as the class is not too big. Here is a description of a typical CLL-type lesson (from my book How To Teach Grammar, Longman, 1999). For this lesson the teacher uses a cassette recorder with a microphone on an extendable lead. (She could also use a hand-held personal stereo that records). She asks the small class of about six learners to sit in a closed circle; the microphone is placed in the centre of the circle; the teacher stands outside the circle and operates the cassette recorder herself.

Step 1

The teacher sets the topic: the coming mid-term holiday. She then waits while the students (who are familiar with this activity) construct and record a conversation, utterance by utterance. They do this as if they were having a natural conversation, taking turns, interrupting, changing topic, and so on, the only difference being that they pause to rehearse and record each 'turn' before the conversation resumes. The teacher's role is to provide the language that the students need and to indicate when she thinks they are ready to record their turn. A typical sequence might go like this:

Ernst (a student) Ana, what will you do the next Easter holiday?
Teacher Listen: Ana, what are you going to do this Easter?
Ernst Ana, what are you going to do this Easter?
Teacher Good. Again. [She indicates she is going to record it]
Ernst Ana, what are you going to do this Easter?
Anna (a student) (a student): I don't know. Maybe I'll stay in the house.
Teacher At home.
Ana I don't know. Maybe I'll stay at home.
Teacher OK. [She indicates she is going to record it]
Ana I don't know. Maybe I'll stay at home.
Paolo (a student) And you, Ernst, what are you going to do?
Teacher Good. [She indicates she is going to record it]
Paolo And you, Ernst, what are you going to do?
Ernst (to teacher) How do you say [he mimes skiing]?
Teacher I'm going to go skiing.
Ernst I'm going to go skiing.
Teacher OK. [She indicates she is going to record it]
Ernst I'm going to go skiing.

Step 2

When the teacher - or the students - decide that there has been a fair spread of participation, and the conversation has run its course, the teacher directs the class to all face the board and the tape is rewound and replayed in its entirety. This allows students to appreciate the conversation as a piece of continuous text. Note that the amount of recorded material lasts for a much shorter time than the actual time spent preparing it. Twenty minutes of preparation may yield only two minutes of tape. The taped conversation is then transcribed on to the board. Any errors that got past the rehearsal stage are corrected.

Step 3

The teacher then draws the students' attention to features of the conversation that relate to the expression of future meaning. For example, she underlines the following:

Teacher Ana, what are you going to do this Easter?
Ana I don't know. Maybe I'll stay in town.

She asks the learners to identify the different forms and to offer an explanation of their use in this context. For example, she guides them to the rule of thumb that going to is generally used to talk or ask about things already planned, whereas will is used at the decision-making stage itself.

Step 4

Students listen to the recorded text one more time, following it on the board. The teacher then rubs the text off the board and the students re-form in their original circle and improvise the conversation again from memory. They are encouraged to add more details if they wish. 

The lesson just described is with a low intermediate class, but the technique works just as well with beginners, so long as they can ask their teacher what to say in their own language.

Notice, also, that there is some grammar work – but it is grammar work that is done at the end of the lesson – on the basis of what the learners produce, not what the teacher (or coursebook) has previously decided they need. In other words, it is the learners – and their needs, abilities, interests, desires – that determine the syllabus, not the coursebook. It seems to me self-evident that this learner-driven syllabus is going to be much more in tune with their needs than anything a coursebook can deliver.

So that is why, Karolina, you are in an incredibly fortunate position. You can let the learners direct you. Find out what topics they are interested in. Provide them with lists of vocabulary about these topics and other everyday topics: their work, the family, hobbies, food and drink, travel, shopping, etc, and set up conversations, CLL style if possible (because by recording them you have material you can use for teaching purposes) and then focus on the problems they are having by giving mini-lessons in the grammar they need. The grammar is neither inductive nor deductive: it is emergent. (For more on emergent grammar teaching, see my book Uncovering Grammar, in the Macmillan Teacher Development series).

And, even if you decide that this is too radical, and that you would rather work through a traditional grammar book – OK. But do an “emergent grammar” lesson from time to time – just for a change – and to experience for yourself how exciting it is letting the learners lead the lesson.

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