Teaching Benefit Classes
What they are and why you should worry about them
I did a two-week course in teaching Business English about 12 years ago, and its emphasis on needs analysis and course design to match the specific needs of any group of students has probably had more influence on my teaching than any other course I have taken. There is one very common kind of in-company class that the course didn’t prepare me at all for though – the dreaded benefit class.
“Benefit classes” are those whose main purpose is as a perk of the job rather than as the training for use of English in their jobs that I was taught to expect on my LCCI course. In fact, these kinds of classes can often include students who have no need for English at work at all. They are particularly prevalent when national regulations or company policy force companies to provide students with a certain amount of training and the HR department finds English to be the cheapest or most popular (rather than the most needed) option.
If you happen to know that a class is mainly a benefit class, this can have a great effect on the emphasis on General English and general fun that you bring into what could at first sight look more like a classic Business English course. Unfortunately, no one involved in arranging the course is likely to admit to you (or even themselves) that the training is not for the direct benefit of the company. What is even worse, the HR department and the students in your class can often have different ideas on how much it is a benefit class, as can different students. This can lead to situations like an HR-imposed textbook or syllabus being based mainly around emailing and a needs analysis in the first lesson that tells you that the students want to study English for travel and for using Facebook. This can sometimes lead to resentment that HR has tricked them into taking extra work-related training when they thought they were just saving having to go all the way to their local language school and pay the fees there. This gets worse as they realise they might have to pay the fees if they don’t attend 80% of a course that is not what they wanted at all and is being imposed on them!
Coping with benefit classes
So one of the first jobs of the teacher of an in-company class is to work out how much anyone thinks of their new class as a benefit class. Signs include students who are very keen to learn but have no clear work-related need for English; students who do a lot of (General English) study elsewhere; classes during times that they might otherwise expect to relax such as lunch; motivation to learn linked to things outside work; and a lack of interest in talking about their work. These things are often more revealing than what they say during needs analysis.
If the students seem to see the class basically as a freebie from their company to thank them for their hard work and there is no pressure from the company to make it relevant to their work, you can simply choose materials suitable to their general needs and interests. If the students share that attitude but you imagine the company feels differently, your could choose Business topics and materials but use them in ways that relate more to their interests than to their work. Examples include:
- Roleplay and discussion using the target language but on topics of more interest to them e.g. business presentations on their new ideas for PlayStation games
- Texts about parts of the business world which are of more general interest, e.g. the business of modern football
- Added language that is more useful outside business (for example, give them slang as examples of what they shouldn’t say in business but might be able to use elsewhere)
Another option is to design a syllabus with plenty of space to do more interesting stuff when the HR-imposed stuff is out of the way, for example at the beginning and/or ends of lessons, at the end of the course, or in occasional lessons not related to the book.