Business English materials writing and reflecting learner needs

This article is adapted from a summary of a webinar I gave for IATEFL’s Materials Writing Special Interest Group which you can watch hereIn it, I looked at the past, present and future of Business English materials in order to show how learner needs and realities are central to the craft of writing such materials. 

1 What does history tell us?

One early example of Business English materials comes from the 15th century. It is from a book attributed to a teacher-author called William of Kingsmill, who was writing materials to help French speakers do business in England. It is structured as a dialogue and, in the original, the French translation would have appeared alongside it.

William of Kingsmill, 1415. Reprinted in Howatt and Widdowson (2004).

This text is a nice example of a Business English materials writer doing a pretty good job of providing French-speaking students with the specific language they need to do business in English as the local markets. In other words, history is telling us that analysing needs and then reflecting them in our material is central to the question of learner realities. Unlike some of these early materials, modern Business English coursebooks tend to be created for groups of students with very mixed needs. The material might be for a large group of students from different departments, companies, cultures and age-groups. Such materials tend to be based around the idea of finding commonalities which most students will need; for example, many students will need to give a presentation in relation to their job. While the published material can’t always target subject-specific vocabulary, for example, it can offer generic language for giving presentations.

Perhaps it’s this shift from the earlier, more localised, Business English materials, which were very specific, to modern-day published materials, which are by nature more generalist, that has given rise to the criticism that modern Business English materials don’t always reflect learner realities. However, it’s more complicated than that when we consider writing Business English materials for the future.

2 What does the future tell us?

Increasingly, many Business English teachers are working with pre-service students who are at school, college or university. For this generation, we have to predict the types of jobs and skills they will need in the next 30 years and the type of English they will need. To illustrate my point, here is a list of skills taken from The Future of Jobs Report, carried out by the World Economic Forum (2018). The authors surveyed major businesses around the world and asked them to predict the most desirable skills that graduates would need in the year 2022.

  • analytical thinking and innovation
  • active learning and learning strategies
  • creativity, originality and initiative
  • technology design and programming
  • critical thinking and analysis
  • complex problem-solving
  • leadership and social influence
  • emotional intelligence
  • reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  • systems analysis and evaluation

As you can see, the list mainly consists of the so-called ‘21st-century skills’ and higher-order thinking skills. So Business English materials writers need to reflect a future reality in the materials they are producing now. In the past, Business English tended to take a ‘just-in-time’ approach, in which you supplied the English a learner needed for their job today, but it seems that writing for Business English now is more about taking a ‘just-in-case’ approach, in which your materials must provide the English learners with the skills they might need in the future.

3 What does intercultural training tell us? 

Intercultural or cross-cultural training has always played a key role in Business English. I believe that the approach taken in intercultural training should inform what materials writers do. The idea is that when you study another culture, you begin by learning about that other culture, but by the end, you find yourself reflecting on your own culture. So, for example, if you have read a text about the company culture of a well-known business, you would then go on to consider how your own company culture operates.

As materials writers, another thing we can learn from an intercultural approach is the importance of reflecting a diverse range of people and cultures in our materials. One way I’ve tried to do this in recent years is by making use of authentic vox pops videos in which you go up to real people in the street and interview them with the type of questions you might ask your learners in a lesson. It’s a simple but effective way of exposing your learners to authentic English taken from many different countries and cultures. (For more on this approach, read my article on using vox pops videos in Business English here.)

4 What do students tell us?

In order for any materials to reflect learner realities (not just Business English but General English, too), we need to ensure that our materials provide plenty of opportunities for personalisation. Let’s consider how Business English coursebooks have approached this in the past. Here’s a typical example of a pairwork role play: 

Student A: You are a customer of the company ‘Office Supplies Express’. You ordered three new printers but two of them do not work. You have telephoned the company twice already and left a message. Telephone again.  

Student B: You work for a stationery supplier called ‘Office Supplies Express’. Answer the call and take the customer’s details. Try to offer a solution to the problem.

Notice how the students are asked to imagine a situation which might feel inauthentic and probably doesn’t reflect their reality. Instead, more recent Business English materials have tried to design such pairwork activities so that they encourage the student to draw on their own context; so, instead of being ‘role plays’ they are perhaps what we can call ‘real plays’:

Student A: You are at a conference looking for a new partnership with a company in other countries. Start a conversation with B and see if they are a useful contact.

Student B: You have a stand at a conference exhibiting your products/services. Start a conversation with A and see if they are a useful contact.

A case study is another good example from Business English materials of offering learners a real context or problem in which they have to respond from their own perspective. Case studies are, as Harvard Business School refers to them, ‘slices of business reality’.

5 What do you tell us?

In my original webinar on this topic, I invited the participants to say what else they thought Business English materials should do in order to reflect learner realities more successfully. Here is a selection of thoughts from the webinar chat. See if you agree. You can add your own in the comments after this blog post.

Ask learners what they need (and listen to what they say).

Speak to expert insiders who are already doing the job and reflect their reality in your materials.

Include field-specific vocabulary.

Include opportunities for general conversation alongside Business English, including discussion of PARSNIP topics.

Provide more variety.

Research their contexts (and don’t try to write about realities you know nothing about).

Live their reality if necessary.

Include games.

Ask powerful questions.

References and further reading 

Brieger, N. (1997). Teaching Business English Handbook. York Associates.
Brieger, N., & Comfort, J. (1985). Business Issues. Prentice Hall.
Clandfield, L., & Hughes, J. (2018). ETpedia Materials Writing. Pavilion ELT.
Dummett, P., Hughes, J., & Stephenson, H. (2018). Life (2nd ed.). National Geographic Learning.
Hollett, V. (1996) Business Objectives. Oxford University Press.
Howatt, A. P. R., & Widdowson, H. G. (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.
Hughes, J., & McLarty, R. (2016). ETpedia Business English. Pavilion ELT.
Naunton, J., & Hughes, J. (2007). Business Result (Intermediate). Oxford University Press.
Grant, D., & Hughes, J. (2017). Business Result (Pre-Intermediate) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills. John Wiley & Sons.
Wilberg, P. (1987). One To One. LTP (now Cengage Learning).
World Economic Forum (2018). The Future of Jobs Report. Retrieved from

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