How do you encourage an in-company student to learn business English, when they'd prefer to chat about their family? Alex Case provides tips and advice for dealing with this situation, including a sample lesson plan.

The student's company wants its learners to focus on Business English or ESP, but the student wants to chat about his family. What can the teacher do?

  1. This situation is a bigger problem that it might seem, because it is the company that is paying for the lessons but it is the student who really decides if the lesson continues – as when the company decides whether to continue paying for English lessons or not they usually do so by taking a quick look at the paperwork (e.g. the ‘record of work’) and then asking the students how they feel about it. Even if you have followed the company’s syllabus to the letter, if the student is unhappy about this because they found it boring that may well be the end of the contract. The secret is, then, to strike a balance between the two extremes.
  2. To try and keep everyone happy: choose a topic that combines social English or topics of general interest (e.g. functional language for travel) and business vocabulary. 
  3. Examples of topics of both general and specialist interest are: ‘money’ (the student’s personal experience of banks as well as more general questions about the sector), ‘prices’ (e.g. of property in the local area), ‘travel’ (for business and pleasure), ‘being organized’, ‘team building’ (and socializing with workmates and clients), ‘job interviews’, ‘emailing’, ‘tax’ (and if they are paying too much), ‘a good manager’, ‘advertising’ and ‘brands’ (building them and buying them). 
  4. Suitable social English / functional language for use both inside and outside the student’s sector often include ‘agreeing and disagreeing’, ‘polite intonation’, ‘complaining’, ‘negotiating’, ‘showing people around’ and ‘making arrangements’. See the attached lesson plan at the bottom of the page for an example of this. 
  5. In terms of finding material to exploit the topics and functions above, you should be looking for reading and listening texts from general English textbooks with a relevant slant (e.g. stories about billionaires and units on ‘the working world’) and texts from Business books that have more general interest (such as stories about inventions and successful companies). 
  6. If the conversation starts wandering off your chosen points, specific questions to get them ‘back on track’ include: ‘What job does your husband/wife do?’, ‘How much paid holiday do you get?’, ‘Do you travel a lot for your job as well?’, ‘How did you feel about getting back to work on Monday morning, then?’, ‘Is the chair of your football team investing a lot of money?’, and ‘What time do you usually arrive at work?’
  7. These kinds of students are not necessarily unhappy about covering grammar, so you can slip Business vocab in by using a Business grammar book. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as ‘English Grammar for Computer Engineers’ as yet, but you can easily adapt example sentences and exercises from a normal grammar book by typing the exercises up with the contents page or index of a relevant ESP book next to you for ideas of which words to slip in. 
  8. The most important thing with this kind of student is not to make the mistake of asking them how their weekend was at the beginning of the lesson. Start with the most ‘serious’ things first, be this grammar, things based on their work or a reading. Basically, anything but conversation! The best thing to start with is their homework. If they never do it, you can even start the class by doing it together.
  9. Finally, finish the class with conversation, concluding with the kind of social chat they like. If they get the idea that this is coming at the end of each lesson, they might be happier doing ‘your’ work during the rest of the lesson.
  10. If it all the fails and they just chat about their weekend again, you still need to put a good spin on things. Make sure you made a nice collection of grammatical errors, etc, on your feedback sheet, insist they spend five minutes going through it, and choose one of the points you covered as the thing to write on your ‘record of work’ (e.g. pronunciation of compound nouns, present perfect and simple past, daily working routines). Remember that this paperwork is often seen by the companies that are paying, so you don’t want ‘conversation about last night's football match’ to be written on it. 

A typical lesson with this kind of student might be: 

  1. Check their last homework together. 
  2. Ask what they are working on at work at the moment (unless they always manage to twist this round to their weekend).
  3. Introduce some ESP vocabulary or suitably ESP grammar worksheets.
  4. Do some more functional / social language with a business slant (see the attached Situation two lesson below).
  5. Go through the feedback sheet from the lesson.
  6. Extend the conversation from steps 3. or 4. into more personal topics.
  7. Finish by asking about their plans for the next week and set them homework.


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