Margaret O’Keeffe is an experienced author, teacher and course designer specializing in Business English and ESP. She’s a co-author of our popular course Business Partner. In this article, she outlines a number of practical steps for teaching advanced business English effectively.
You might also like to watch Margaret’s Pearson English Spring Day’s webinar, How to teach business English to advanced level learners, which also tackles the challenges of teaching advanced students.
The challenge of teaching Business English to C1 level students
Once your business English students reach a B2 level of English, they’re fairly competent communicators. For many learners, their motivation to improve starts to suffer when they reach this intermediate plateau. They understand almost everything and can express themselves clearly enough – so why would they want to continue and achieve a C1 level of English?
The CEFR describes C1 level learners as proficient users of a language. C1 level students have a high level of proficiency in English and also perform well in an international work environment.
The question is, how can we help our upper intermediate students reach this level and see the benefits in their own lives and careers? Here are nine steps you can take to help your students achieve language proficiency.
1. Nurture students’ motivation to reach new heights
For those students who do want to become more proficient, the reality is that reaching a high level can be a slow, steep climb. You’re going to have to be a cheerleader and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone and push themselves to new heights.
The reality is that mastery of a language, even your first language, is a lifelong process. Advanced level language learners need a high degree of intrinsic motivation. If they can enjoy the challenge of developing new skills and feel satisfaction at watching a favourite TV show in its original version, there is no turning back.
As for extrinsic motivation, having a superior level of English offers them a competitive edge in the international job market, opens up career or promotion opportunities, and gives them greater self-confidence in their abilities in the workplace.
2. Promote goal setting
Get learners setting goals for themselves and review the goals regularly. Use the SMART acronym:
This helps with motivation and gives rise to a sense of achievement. It is particularly useful for busy in-company students.
Here is a simple example from one of my students: ‘I will do one piece of written homework this term’.
And yes, she did, in fact, achieve it!
3. Encourage incidental learning
Give your students support and act as a role model as they develop lifelong learning habits and become more self-directed learners.
Encourage them to read more widely in English for pleasure and general interest; business blogs, newspaper articles, journals, novels, etc. The wider the variety of genres and topics, the better.
Research shows that extensive reading increases language proficiency including speaking and vocabulary. Are your students aware of these benefits?
Provide guidance and learning strategies for students if necessary, such as offering tips for watching TV shows and films in the original versions, or advice on choosing something to read.
Regularly check in with students about how they are practicing their English outside the classroom. You gain a lot of insight into their interests and learning. It can inspire their peers in the process too.
4. Broaden their vocabulary range
Knowing a word includes many aspects: different meanings of the same word (e.g. run), when is it appropriate to use, common collocations (run a business), pronunciation, different parts of speech, phrasal verbs (run out of, run through) and phrases (e.g. run the risk). C1 students have to practice and develop their vocabulary range.
Learners may have a passive knowledge of many phrasal and prepositional verbs but still avoid using them as part of their active vocabulary. Draw their attention to useful phrasal verbs in reading and listening texts and video content. Vocabulary is much easier to learn in context.
Provide opportunities to students to practice using the target language in speaking and writing, the more personalized the tasks, the more memorable. Regularly review and recycle phrasal verbs that come up e.g. through revision exercises, games and quick tests, to help students incorporate these into their active vocabulary.
Similarly, point out any good examples of more idiomatic language in texts and provide opportunities for students to use it themselves, e.g. writing their own example sentences. Occasionally model alternatives to broaden and enrich their vocabulary (T: Was it a successful meeting? I mean, was it very fruitful?)
When giving students feedback and correcting speaking and writing tasks, include examples of a more natural or idiomatic way that students could say something.
5. Make time for emergent language
A lot of incidental learning of new vocabulary takes place inside the classroom. As well as the target vocabulary you present in a structured lesson, take the opportunity to work on emergent language. This could be words or phrases that come up in class because students want to know how to say something to convey their meaning.
You’ll find that this is often the language our in-company students want in order to do their jobs, making it a priority for them. It is important to record, keep and revise this useful emergent vocabulary.
Emergent language can also be a word or phrase that a student uses accurately, and that you can see would be useful for others to know. You can follow up by drawing everyone’s attention to this useful language in the feedback session after an activity, write it on the board, check the meaning, repeat it and incorporate it into the lesson by getting learners to practice it.
6. Review and expand on core grammar areas
Review and expand on the forms and usages of the core grammar areas with C1 learners. Many in-company students need to brush up on their grammar, if they have not studied formally for a long time.
Future forms, hypothesizing and additional passive structures are just some areas that are useful for business English students. And while there is not a lot of ‘new’ grammar to learn at C1 level, they still need practice using the language correctly and there is still complexity in verb patterns and syntax.
It can be all too easy for advanced classes to slip into discussion groups. However, structured lessons and linguistic aims increase the challenge, help our learners to extend their range of language structures and improve their level.
In addition, make sure students notice their fossilized errors and encourage them to correct themselves. While many mistakes (e.g. missing out indefinite articles) do not hinder communication, they do mark the difference between advanced and intermediate learners.
7. Use ‘real play’ to develop communication skills
Some of our students enjoy role play activities and others dislike having to adopt a ‘role’ of an imaginary person that is not natural to them.
An alternative is to get students to be themselves in ‘real’ play. Give them a scenario, e.g. a personality clash between two members of your team at work. Get them to ‘real’ play giving support and guidance on how to handle the situation. Then watch a dramatized video of people dealing with the same situation. This allows students to reflect on their approach and compare it with the one used in the video.
Simulations of real-world problems or situations are engaging and challenging. It leads to genuine learning about themselves, their default responses, their working styles and the styles of others. It enhances their communication skills by offering them alternative ways to handle situations in the workplace.
8. Develop business writing skills
In higher education, learners may get lots of practice in essay writing, but not so much in the genres needed in the workplace (emails, reports, proposals, minutes). It is important to prepare learners for this. In particular, they will need to be able to differentiate between formal and informal registers. They also have to understand writing conventions (e.g. how to structure a proposal, using subheadings in reports,etc.).
A collaborative writing approach works well in university classes. Focus on the writing process during the lesson: brainstorming, planning, organising ideas, prioritising points, etc.
Provide model texts, structural information and useful language items. Explain the marking criteria and give learners anonymous student sample answers (e.g. from a previous course) to mark. Get students doing collaborative writing tasks using shared google docs. Include opportunities for peer assessment and self-assessment as well for teacher feedback.
9. Offer students choices
Giving students choices often leads to greater engagement. In many cases, it is possible to negotiate the course content with in-company learners. If we only stick to day-to-day work issues and industry specific topics, lessons can become a bit dull and repetitive. It is good to include broader issues (e.g. disruptors in business) and themes related to employability skills (e.g. mindsets) to provide a good mix of abstract and complex topics appropriate for advanced level business English learners. Even with pre-programmed tertiary level courses, there is generally some scope for choice within lessons.
A last word
These are just a few tips for teaching business English to advanced level learners. As teachers we have a great many roles to play in their learning process.
The C1 level of Business Partner is a flexible, modular course, designed to meet the needs of advanced level learners who need to improve their knowledge of the English language and develop their skills for the international workplace.
If you enjoyed this post from Margaret, you may also like to read her article 6 tips for teaching business english to low level learners or watch her Spring Days webinar.