9 steps to teaching advanced business English

Pearson Languages
A teacher stood at the front of a class holding a tablet in front of adult students

The challenge of teaching business English to C1 level students

Once your 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 learning English 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 proficiency in English and perform well in an international work environment.

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 as an English language teacher to help your students achieve language proficiency.


Steps to teaching advanced business English

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 will 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 mastering a foreign 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 favorite TV show in its original version, there is no turning back. 

There is a demand for business English and having a strong command of it is beneficial in the business world. It provides individuals with more opportunities for career advancement. Additionally, it boosts students' confidence in using English in the workplace. 

2. Promote goal setting

Get learners to set goals for themselves and review the goals regularly. Use the SMART acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timebound

This helps with motivation and gives rise to a sense of achievement. It is particularly useful for busy in-company students. One simple example is: ‘I will do one piece of written homework this term’.

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.

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, when is it appropriate to use, common collocations, pronunciation, different parts of speech, phrasal verbs and phrases. 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 for 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, for example, through revision exercises, games and quick tests, to help students incorporate these into their active vocabulary. 

Similarly, point out good examples of more idiomatic language in texts and provide opportunities for students to use it themselves, 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. These 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 to do their jobs, making it a priority for them. It is essential 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, like a personality clash between two team members 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 (for example, structuring a proposal, using subheadings in reports). 

A collaborative writing approach works well in university English classes. Focus on the writing process during the lesson: brainstorming, planning, organizing ideas, prioritizing points, etc. 

Provide model texts, structural information and useful language items. Explain the marking criteria and give learners anonymous student sample answers (perhaps from a previous English course) to mark. Get students doing collaborative writing tasks using shared Google Docs. Include opportunities for peer assessment and self-assessment as well as 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 and lesson plans with in-company learners. Lessons can become dull and repetitive if we only stick to day-to-day work issues and industry-specific topics.

It is good to include broader issues (like disruptors in business) and themes related to employability skills 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. 

These are just a few tips for language teaching to advanced-level learners. English teachers have a great many roles to play in their student's language learning process and experience.

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