Connect, Grow, Thrive

Being useful, authentic, and empowering: An interview with Professor Sylvie Donna

According to your understanding, how are Business English courses different from general ESL?

Clients’ expectation is that Business English (BE) classes will facilitate students’ work and be immediately useful. To achieve this, during our needs analysis we need to focus not only on performance skills but also on the pragmatics of language use and norms of linguistic behaviour in specific corporate and industrial cultures. We need to remember too that by BE clients usually mean ESP (English for Specific Purposes).

What do you mean?

When clients or students specifically request BE they are implicitly saying “Please don’t waste my time. Give me a course which will actually be useful to me.” In real classroom terms, this means we need to focus on functional aspects of language in specific occupational contexts, considering these at the text and context level (rather than merely the sentence, or utterance level).

How might a corporate culture affect the way we teach language? 

Well, if we’re in a company like P&G*, for example, we might prioritise the teaching of more direct, assertive functional exponents and we might forget about some of the features of reports which are considered standard, in favour of P&G’s preferred style.

And on a student-by-student level?

We need to take into account who students will be using English with now or in the future and what their priorities are in terms of language learning and practice. This means that the apparent priorities of a coursebook writer or even SLA (second language acquisition) theorist must always be secondary. I’m even talking here about classes which have one or more coursebooks allocated. Whatever our material (or lack of material), we need to be ready to adapt it or reorganise it so as to really provide classes which are useful to students. In other words, our aim should be to work for the students’ convenience, taking account of timeframes and other constraints, not our own. We can usually zoom in on individual students’ needs effectively simply by eliciting the parameters of communication in a specific anticipated (or actual) context. 

What do you mean by parameters?

Rather than imagine or guess scenarios ourselves (for either spoken or written communication), we need to ask students who is talking/writing to each other and why. Even if we only find out about one student’s scenario in one class and about another student’s in another class, that’s better than effectively ignoring students’ real needs on an ongoing basis.    

What are the most essential skills a BE teacher needs for teaching BE courses? 

In my view these are the ability to listen and gather information about students’ real needs, the ability to analyse these needs in order to achieve the students’ work-related goals, and the ability to adapt teaching so as to facilitate the most effective learning. In order to achieve all this, a teacher will need to be a kind of ongoing detective when it comes to needs analysis. This is because as well as the normal procedures, information is likely to come through all kinds of informal channels. 

What would you say is the main difference between a good BE teacher and a great BE teacher?

The difference between whether we’re good or great is to do with commitment to ongoing self-examination and openness to what’s happening with the people we’re with, i.e. it’s to do with never becoming complacent in- or outside class, and always being open to new information and creative solutions. Of course, to do this we also need to live mostly outside our comfort zone in terms of teaching methodology and content. 

What are common challenges in the BE classroom and how can teachers mitigate those issues to make for more effective learning?

Absence is an ongoing challenge because of course BE students – who are usually already working – often travel or have meetings at the times of their BE classes. We should plan for classes in such a way that departure from our plan doesn’t feel like a disaster. My solution is to go into a class with lots of possible lesson plans, including many contingency plans, then to adjust how I proceed based on the students’ response. Often, I’ve gone into a class of managers and simply begun by asking them to decide which of various options are priorities for them. This is not weak, it’s collaborative. 

Another challenge, which will also affect attendance, is to engage students effectively but that is easily solved by meeting students’ needs on a moment-by-moment basis. Some teachers think that in order to engage students they need to make lessons ‘fun’. What is really ‘fun’ (and not time-wasting) is achieving whatever needs to be achieved. To ensure this happens, applying a simple two-part test is sufficient: 1) Does any specific activity relate to the needs analysis?and 2) Does it have a good ‘time-results’ ratio?In short, we need to be efficient and focused. 

Often BE students are working full time and don’t have time to study / do homework outside of the classroom. How can BE teachers promote learning outside the classroom?

Technology is certainly on our side in this respect. However, in order to get students engaging with it, we need to motivate students, help them develop good study skills and guide them to the digital resources which will help them most. Pointing students to specific tasks may also sometimes be helpful on a day-by-day basis. Overall, though, our aim should be to empower students to make decisions themselves and as long as we treat them like intelligent adults (and don’t create teacher-student dependency) that shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. 

What about published material?

Yes, I’d also like to emphasise the value of published materials. Although there’s such a wealth of material available online, a course which has been carefully conceived, developed, edited, and published by a reputable publisher can provide a very coherent and helpful journey for students. The only thing when recommending courses for use outside class is to make sure we recommend materials which come with answers and full audio transcripts. If materials don’t have these things, we’re only creating extra work for ourselves and again creating dependent students – which we must avoid at all costs. 

How can students cope with real-world reading or listening?

Maximising exposure will help students feel comfortable with both audio and written material and just ‘experiencing’ it is good to some extent. However, word-checking (using reliable online dictionaries) is also essential as often as it can be managed. Many teachers advocate ‘guessing’ of unknown words but this is very unhelpful both short- and long-term, in my view. Guesses are fine as long as they’re followed up by checks (using dictionaries, etc.) – but we can’t build the future of international communication on the shaky foundation of ‘guesses’.

Guesses make misunderstandings and resultant ill-feeling too likely a consequence, so must be avoided at all costs. Yes, it’s hard work using dictionaries and other reference materials but it’s a very necessary part of language learning, particularly when we’re learning language as adults for high stakes situations. Accuracy at every level is important in work environments and accuracy with vocabulary specifically can save our students stress and time, as well as face. Who wants to look stupid while speaking English after all, and who wants to spend time resolving a potentially costly misunderstanding?

BE teachers are often told they need to use authentic material with their students but this can be difficult, methodologically. Do you know any tips or tricks for using authentic BE material efficiently?

Firstly, it’s helpful to create a classroom ethos in which authentic materials are welcomed. Secondly, we must do something immediately with anything students bring in. We can elicit students’ views on it, or problems with it; we can use it as a basis for other speaking or writing activities (with parameters for those elicited from the students); and, after using it briefly, we can take it away and then adapt it into another activity (e.g. a reading, with comprehension questions, to prompt a role play, or even a gap fill, to focus on key, problematic language; finally, we can get students creating similar material, using the original materials as a model. If students bring something in and it’s not used effectively, they’re unlikely to bring anything else in another time.

What are some useful activities BE teachers can use in their classrooms?

The reason I wrote Teach Business English (Cambridge University Press, 2000) was to answer precisely this and many other questions about BE teaching. BE teaching is bit like cooking, I think: in order to get to a position where we can experiment, it’s helpful to use recipe books for a while, taking into account who we’re cooking for and why, and following the instructions down to the last detail. Alternatively, if we’re feeling confident enough, or daring, we can just jump in and be creative – but in that case, I would encourage ongoing reflection (aka agonising) about our success rate and students’ real learning, remembering that our main criterion for evaluating success should not be the happiness level of the student(s) but the amount of learning that’s being achieved.

Overall, as long as the result is to help students achieve their objectives in terms of using English more effectively in the workplace, we can do almost anything. Business is after all a place in which some of the most creative people work and thrive.  

What are some effective ways BE teachers can assess BE students’ performance?

This is also something I explore in depth in Teach Business English. I’m a great fan of the test-teach-test paradigm, with the initial ‘test’ involving simply asking the student to do whatever it is they want to be able to do. This makes sense because if I want to improve my swimming technique the main way in which my instructor is going to assess me is to watch me swimming down the pool. (In my case, the instructor advised me to give up altogether – no seriously! This is why you might occasionally meet me in a kick-boxing class, that is if I’m not cycling or hiking up a mountain.) 

What’s the advantage of test-teach-test?

Starting from the students’ actual performance is a great way of leading into remedial work, particularly if we make it clear that any subsequent practice activities relate to what we’ve seen as being problematic in our students’ original performance. Taking this test-teach-test approach is likely to ensure that students constantly feel confident that we’re always keeping their real work needs as our primary focus. It’s an approach which is also likely to make them feel motivated in class as long as we manage to deliver feedback with sensitivity and the right level of assertiveness. 

What is the future of BE teaching? How can teachers prepare themselves for this future?

Although we’ll no doubt go increasingly virtual so as to accommodate our very mobile, jet-setting students, I’m sure that classroom contact will continue. I hope we become even more modular in our approach in the future, using parts of coursebooks, rather than whole books/courses or activities a lot of the time so as to best meet students’ needs. However, I also hope we don’t forget the importance of presenting a coherent programme to students, while also being flexible. Beyond all that, I expect we’ll need to focus even more on cross-cultural aspects of communication in English in the future as more and more economies use Business English. Part of our task as Business English teachers should be to help our planet move forward, to cooperate more effectively, and to become more tolerant while achieving practical things together, should it not?  We’re in the business of collaborating to create a better, more joined-up world, which is capable of more joined-up thinking through the lingua franca of English.

*P&G (Procter & Gamble)

Sylvie Donna, the author of Teach Business English: Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers(Cambridge University Press, 2000) and of online lesson plans and digital material, has taught Business English and ESP in many contexts internationally. She now teaches on the MA TESOL and MA Applied Linguistics at Durham University in the UK.

Emilia Siravo

Emilia Siravo lives and works in Zürich, Switzerland. In addition to the CELTA, DELTA I, DELTA III, and SVEB certifications, Emilia holds a Bachelor’s in Economics from the Wharton School of Business and a Master’s in TESOL from New School University. Follow Emilia online on Twitter: @esiravo