Preparing for your first Business or ESP class

Summary: Although most people who become specialist Business English or ESP (English for Specific Purposes, such as Medical English or Financial English) teachers enjoy it and its professional benefits so much they never look back, the first time you face students

Although most people who become specialist Business English or ESP (English for Specific Purposes, such as Medical English or Financial English) teachers enjoy it and its professional benefits so much they never look back, the first time you face students who know more about the technical English jargon of their speciality than you and who are paying a premium for quick mastery of useful language can be daunting. This article gives some ideas for how you can prepare yourself.

Collecting materials


Most language schools have a selection of business English textbooks, and if not General English textbooks tend to have quite a few activities on business-related topics such as telephoning, emailing, Travel English and favourite TV ads. You could try having a flick through these textbooks and taking copies of anything you think is relevant, selecting by what is connected to your future students’ area of expertise or what is connected to the kind of skill and language you think they will need in their work or studies. It might be difficult to judge what things are suitable before you have taught the students, and certainly before you have taught your first ever Business or ESP class, but looking through the books with these things in mind will help you pay more attention and therefore help you remember where the things you decided not to copy are when you need to look for more stuff later. Knowing the materials well could also help you if you are asked for your opinion when a textbook for the class is chosen.

Ways of organising the material as you find it in textbooks are to have a “to try” file of good ideas and/ or to organise it special folders by level/ area of business/ skill/ grammar point/ etc.

If you or your school do not have specific textbooks for a more specialist area of ESP such as language for people who work on oil rigs or if it is an area of business that is so specialist that there are no published EFL books on the subject, there are several things you can do. One is to just look through the same kinds of Business and General English textbooks as mentioned above with the specialist needs in mind. As you are unlikely to find exactly what you need, collecting for more general areas such as a “Technical English” file or a “Manufacturing” file should give you plenty of stuff that at least has the right kind of language and can lead onto discussion of your students’ exact area of interest. As well as Business and General English textbooks, EAP (English for Academic Purposes) and materials for EFL exams such as IELTS can offer texts on obscure subjects such as dam engineering and forest management. School textbooks on a subject that your students’ work is connected to, e.g. a GCSE Commerce book, can also be useful resources as long as the material does not look too childish.

Photocopiable materials

You can use exactly the same methods as described above to collect photocopiable supplementary worksheets. These can be found in Business English supplementary books (e.g. Business Builder), Business English supplements for General English courses (e.g. Reward Business Resource Packs), scattered throughout some books on how to teach Business English and ESP, at the back of relevant teachers’ books, and on the internet.

Things from the internet

It is sometimes possible to find sample units of textbooks and additional supplementary activities for textbooks on the publishers’ sites. In addition, the publishers and countless other websites offer flashcards, reading texts, podcasts, grammar and vocabulary exercises, and game ideas. These are sometimes available as things specifically for Business and ESP students, and are often available for free.

The additional benefit of materials from the internet is that you can often cut and paste it into a word processor program and make any changes you like in order to make it more specific to or manageable for your students. For example, you could take a grammar exercise and rewrite it so that all the sentences refer to what your students do in their jobs.

Authentic materials

If you have searched through all the sources mentioned above and still can’t find anything specific to what your students do in English in their jobs, the other solution is to take a radio programme or newspaper article about their area of work and adapt it so that they can cope with it. If your students are less than Intermediate level this can be very difficult to do, but reading through these kinds of articles and trying to adapt them will help with your own knowledge of their area of business and the kinds of language they will need even if it doesn’t turn out to be useable in your class. Ways of simplifying a text include rewriting it from memory with a particular length and language level in mind, giving lots of vocabulary and information on what will be said before they read it, or having an easy task where they don’t need to understand everything that is written in order to answer the questions.

Trying things out before the class

Once you have lots of lovely materials and teaching ideas that you want to use when you get your first Business English or ESP class, the next stage is to try them out as much as you can. This can be a problem when your other classes are studying Headway and you’ve found texts on bridge construction for your future ESP class, but there are ways around it. Things you are likely to be able to try out without going too far off the syllabus of your General English classes include business-related materials from General English textbooks, well-known news stories that are related to the area of interest of the students you will teach (e.g. a medical scandal that even a General English class would be interested in that you could also use with a future class of doctors), functional language that is important in many different contexts (e.g. requests and apologies), and skills work (e.g. writing a formal letter or short report). If your present students are taking an EFL exam, you may also be able to find some content that is relevant to both this class and your first Business or ESP class, e.g. TOEIC stuff for a future Business English class or IELTS stuff for a geologist.

If your future Business English or ESP student is also your first one-to-one student, reading up on how to teach this kind of class and experimenting with some of the techniques written there with your larger classes is also a good idea. Again, some of those techniques will be more easily adaptable to larger classes than others and you’ll need to select and adapt carefully.

Finding out about the students’ area

Most books on Business English and ESP teaching start by reassuring you that you don’t need to know anything about your student’s specialist area in order to teach them what they want from you, which is the English language. While that is true, everything you can find out about their industry, scientific area etc will both improve your ability to teach them and increase your interest in speaking to them. Unfortunately, trying to read a trade magazine or scientific journal is unlikely to help with either of these. Instead, it is best to start with the parts of their area that have popular and general interest, for example paperback books on high-flying brokers (if they are studying Financial English) or on the scandals of drug safety (if they work in pharmaceuticals).

Things to find out about the students before the first class

As should be obvious from many of the points above, the more you know about your future students when you are preparing to teach them the better. Things you can ask the company or the person in your school who deals with them include exactly what their company does and what the students’ roles are, what other general and specialist English studies they have already taken part in, what their levels are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they particularly need to be able to do in English, what language and skills they particularly want help on, and what their opinions are on how they should study.

Your first lesson plan

If you cannot find out all the information above before the class, you will probably want to build some Needs Analysis into your first lesson. In small classes this obviously means asking them about those things, and in larger classes you can get them to practice their speaking while interviewing each other. You can find much more information on doing needs analysis in most guides to teaching Business English and ESP. How much you have learnt about them before the lesson will also change how well you can tailor the materials towards them, but it is possible to plan a first lesson that is suitable for almost anyone. For example, most Business English and ESP classes can benefit from a review of how to pronounce numbers in English, a tense review (preferably with the example sentences and exercises rewritten to seem more relevant to them), a functional language review, practice for meeting foreign guests, emailing practice and/ or telephoning practice.

Copyright © 2011

Written by Alex Case for

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