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15 ways of dealing with pre-experience Business English and ESP students

This is one of the most common problems for teachers of Business English and English for Specific Purposes (Medical English, Financial English etc) – students who know nothing about their own subject yet and so have as much problem understanding the concepts in the textbook as they do the English language. Here are some ideas on how to respond if you come across this in your classrooms:

1. Textbooks for pre-experience students
There are now specific textbooks for pre-experience students, most of which look more like textbooks for native speakers and try to teach the subject as they teach the language in a CLIL kind of way, with definitions as likely to be of difficult concepts as of words that are different in English and other languages. While these books are likely to be perfect for an “English through Business Studies” or “Study the Concepts of Commerce in English” course or for a batch of nurses that have come to qualify to work in the UK, for my kind of pre-experience classes I find they tend to be guilty of the same wrong assumptions as Business English textbooks more generally- assuming that ESP students are more motivated that General English students and are happy to talk and read about their specialist subject in class all the time. The other pre-experience textbook possibility is to choose one that says it is “also suitable for pre-experience” students. Although publishers tended to claim this for almost any Business English or ESP textbook, as they are starting to try and use taking this into account as a major selling point seeing those words on the back cover of a recent textbook is generally a good sign. Even with the perfect textbook, however, you will probably still need to use some of the tips below.

2. Find out what they will be doing
One of the typical things to do in an ESP class that needs some adjustment to be suitable for pre-experience classes is the needs analysis stage, as questions like “How do you use English in your job?” are likely to get answers like “I don’t” or even just blank stares. Changing the questions to include the future tense (“How do you/ will you use English in your job?”) is a start, but it will probably be that they have no idea and you will need to refer to other sources like HR managers, articles on working in their industry etc. to be able to figure that out. Even then you will probably only be able to come to a vague conclusion like “If they are going to be engineers, they will probably have to use English most to read technical manuals”. Not being able to guess too precisely is particularly true of countries like Japan where new employees rarely find out their job title until after their training period.

Once you have decided what things are likely to come up in their jobs, you can state this with each point you cover in class to show its relevance, e.g. “In the book I am reading it said that foreign doctors have most problems with intonation and sounding polite, so we are going to spend some time on that today even though it isn’t in the textbook”

3. Lots of variety
If you cannot predict precisely how students will be using English, try to cover as many things that could be relevant to their subject as possible. This has the added advantages of providing more stimulus for the less than motivated students and making each lesson new and unpredictable. It also means you are free to choose materials by how interesting they are as much as by how closely they are connected to the relevant type of ESP.

4. Give them imaginary jobs for one week/ term/ the length of the course
If you and they cannot be sure of what jobs they will be doing, one way of still being able to give them relevant-seeming roles in roleplays etc is to give one person a job title for a certain period and get them to take on that role every time it comes up in class. They can also be set homework on researching what people in that job do, e.g. how to chair a meeting, and then give the next person to take on that role tips on how to do so.

5. Roleplay
More generally, roleplay is a vital way of dealing with students who can’t really cover the subjects in the textbook whilst being themselves. You can even give them roleplay cards telling them what their opinions are if they know so little about the subject that they can’t come up with opinions on their own.

6. Relevance to normal life
One good way of choosing business and ESP topics is by selecting ones that are relevant and interesting to people who aren’t even in the field, e.g. “my favourite advert” for Marketing courses, odd folk cures for Medical English classes, and dimensions of famous buildings for Architecture courses. Ways of finding these include readings on that topic from General English and Business English textbooks, articles from general interest newspapers and magazines, and questions from a trivia site or board game

7. Books for kids
Textbooks and other more colourful factual books for kids are great sources, as they don’t expect too much knowledge of the subject and try very hard to be interesting. They may need adapting, especially comic-style ones or others that are trying to be amusing as there may be slang or even baby words like “moo moo cow” in them.

8. Popular interest books on their subject
Even more difficult to adapt are popular science and similar books related to the students’ subject. This is mainly due to length but also because the language may be more informal and so more difficult for non-native speakers than more mathematical or technical books. I have found that the easiest ones to use or adapt are ones that have lots of lists or consist entirely of a list (something like an “A-Z of Drug Industry Scandals”). You may also find cartoons or other illustrations useable, at least as a warmer. The main use of such books, though, is just to make the teacher knowledgeable about the subject and so able to explain the concepts that are in the textbook but the students don’t know about yet. Such reading by the teacher will also make having those classes more interesting for you and help you spot texts on interesting subjects when flicking through magazines or textbooks.

9. Business English exams
Exams like BULATS and TOEIC are designed to only include Business English vocab etc that any native speaker would know, including one who had never stepped into an office. Studying towards an exam like this limits the difficulty of the task as it only demands vocabulary that even higher level General English students would need, and it also gives pre-experience classes the clear sense of purpose that they may lack.

10. Guessing
As students will have to cope with an even larger than usual amount of unknown language and concepts in their course, they will have to get used to guessing. Guessing skills you can work on include guessing vocabulary from context in a text and guessing what people are saying from the rest of the conversation, their body language etc. There are also nice guessing games like Call My Bluff.

11. Imagination
Both students and teacher will also need to use a fair amount of imagination in a pre-experience class. Once students get into the habit of lying, making up stories etc, however, that will help them concentrate on the language rather than the factual accuracy of what they are saying. Using imaginary topics like cultural differences in a made up country will also help the teacher combine the points that are most likely to be useful for all the students in the future in a way that real (more specific and specialized) sources might not.

12. Reference materials
Although in a perfect world the teacher should understand every word that comes up in the class, in reality we unconsciously use the same skills of ignoring unimportant unknown vocabulary in reading texts etc that we try to teach our students. This means that the students could well ask about something specialist that we have no idea about and that completely passed us by while we were preparing the lesson. Unlike a class full of high level businessmen from different parts of the company, in a pre-experience class there is likely to be little point in asking the other students if they know. There is always the tactic of telling them you will get back to them about it, but unless you are supposed to be an expert in their subject there is no shame to turning to the reference materials you have brought into class and looking it up there and then. Suitable materials include an internet connection, a specialist dictionary, a teacher’s book (vital in these kinds of classes) and a textbook on their subject that has a glossary or mini-dictionary at the back.

13. Let them talk about something they do know about
This will help them get their confidence back and help you work on their fluency- something that is difficult when they are often talking about things they don’t understand too well. You can make this more relevant to their subject by getting them to research something and present it in a future class.

14. Non-specialist warmers
Another way of letting them get some fluency practice and confidence is to start each class with something totally unrelated to their future work such as asking each other questions about their weekend or doing team building activities.

15. General English
There are plenty of things you can cover in class with full confidence that students will need it and with a likelihood they will find it easier to cope with because it is part of not only Business English and almost every kind of ESP, but also most General English courses. Possibilities include certain functions like requests, emailing, answering a telephone, and travel English.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net October 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • wonderful says:

    I am glad to know your website ….Your website to give me good experience.

  • tagant says:

    this is one of the practical and most useful sites that i use in my daily teaching of ESP. thank you so much for this


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