Article Reaction: Stephen Evans “Designing tasks for the Business English classroom”

One big goal of this Business English blog is to figure out what exactly Business English is and the implications for teaching. So I really enjoyed reading “Designing Tasks for the Business English Classroom” by Stephen Evans (Hong Kong Polytechnic University).

In an effort to improve Business English materials, he has some professionals in Hong Kong note what they do all day. He then supplements that information with interviews and a big survey.

Here’s the abstract:

This article suggests ways in which materials writers can incorporate key characteristics of workplace communication into the design of tasks for Business English courses for adult learners. These suggestions are based on findings from a multifaceted study of communication in Hong Kong’s globalized business world, which includes ‘week-in-the-life’ case studies of senior professionals. These findings point to the need for a simulation-based approach in which students with clearly defined and differentiated roles work quickly and collaboratively to investigate and resolve problems. They work towards this objective by processing and producing interdependent text types, such as emails and reports, and by participating in speech events, such as meetings and telephone conversations, that are stimulated by English language texts. In essence, this approach represents the ‘strong’ version of task-based language teaching and thus contrasts with the exercise-based approach found in many general-purpose Business English textbooks.

There’s lots of good stuff to takeaway from the article, but I’d like to focus on how important writing is for Business English. The study shows that:

  1. People are writing a lot. When the professionals were interviewed about using English at work, they mentioned email communication more than anything else.
  2. Writing runs through the workday. It’s not like people just write a one-off email and then that’s that. Emailing means having extended conversations. And those conversations reference things they’ve talked about, read, etc.
  3. People don’t have a lot of time to write. (One person averaged just 3-4 minutes per email!) Emails need to be precise, but they also need to be brief.

While most textbooks feature an exercised-based approach (fill-in-the-blank, etc.), he suggests the strong version of task-based teaching (e.g. simulations).

And, when creating the tasks, teachers and authors might consider some features of the business world (the list below is a direct quote):

  • its pace, pressure, and unpredictability
  • its emphasis on problem posing and solving
  • the centrality of intertextuality and collaboration
  • the interplay between written and spoken discourses and between different languages; and
  • the importance of precision and concision in written communication

* * * * *

I teach a lot of Business Writing for non-native speakers. Mostly that has meant error correction of their emails and explanations of what good writing looks like, but this article made me think I should introduce simulations to my Business Writing courses. I hope these simulations will both improve the students’ writing and let me give the students a better assessment of their skills.

I won’t be able to do this for most students who are just watching my videos ($15) or having ten writing samples corrected ($250), but I think it’ll be a nice add-on for the students who sign up for the full course ($750).

Here’s how the simulations will work:

Step 1: Analyze the trends in the student’s emails. Students in the full course send me dozens of emails, so there’s lots to work with. I’ll look for the most popular topics and common tasks. For instance, one student manages exports. He often writes about a specific product (topic). When there are problems with orders, he has to get more information on what went wrong and suggest satisfying solutions (task).

Step 2: Based the source emails, I’ll draft a starter email that matches the student’s topics/tasks. I’ll also write 5-10 questions I might want to ask, 5-10 problems I might have, and gather any other info I think will help for the simulation. (For example, maybe the student will have to click on some relevant links to get information.)

Step 3: Enact the simulation over one hour. The student should need to write quickly to succeed, but the emails shouldn’t need to be long.

Step 4: Grade the emails using the same Clear Writing Rubric I use to grade the other writing samples.

Possible twists: I could make it a pop quiz of sorts that just happens throughout the week leading up to a lesson.

* * * * *

As always, would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think of Professor Evan’s article? What do you think of my simulation idea?

6 Comments

  1. Experiential learning has a better impact on students. It’s an excellent idea.
    I would love to do this course but find it heavy financially.
    It will help upgrade my teaching skills particularly writing skills.
    Kind Regards

    Reply
    • Totally understand Renu. You might check out the video course I do. Here’s the link: curious.com/stuartmillenglish

      (You can watch the first videos for free.)

      And keep coming back to the blog. That’ll always be free;)

      Reply
  2. For the first time this year I m teaching business communication to mainly non-English speakers. I agree with the points made in the artice and the need for simulation. However,the course I teach, is well set out in a comprehensive coursework book with exercises based on work related situations.I use the content of the course to change the exercises and case studies,according to the courses students study eg. engineering, financial info systems ,town and regional planning etc.This works for first years, simulation can work for more senior students who may have work experience.

    Reply
    • Welcome to the Business English world Ayesha:) When you say the adapted exercises work, my first thought is what does “work” mean? If the goal is just to get comfortable with business vocabulary and concepts, then I do think the exercises work. And, as you say, that’s fine for lower-level students.

      Reply
  3. Couple of very interesting thoughts. I teach English to non-native speakers in South Africa. Ever since I’ve been a teacher or trainer the best way to go for me has always been to go on classroom situations and discussions. I mean, to think on one’s feet and design an exercise right there and then based on the discussion.

    One major issue though in South Africa is a terrible lack of understanding with regards to tenses. The confusion regarding tenses is tangible. Thus, to teach business English takes a lot more than just business English skills. Otherwise one will have to edit language constantly after some business English had been engaged in.

    Thus I set out to develop a tenses model that works like a bomb. I’ve measured an increase in the understanding of tenses of up to 60% with students after the model has been taught. I call it the English Map.

    I would love to take it into the world of English trainers.

    Reply
    • Hey Jan,

      Sorry on the slow reply. Could you send me the English Map? (My email is jeremy [at] stuartmillenglish.com My experience has been that students are pretty good with tenses, but make the occasional error that doesn’t really impact understanding. For example, a student might use the present perfect with a time indicator (“I have eaten yesterday.”), but anyone can figure out their meaning.

      Because students are usually pretty good, I don’t tend to worry about it too much and focus on difficulties that impede meaning. For example, if a student writes an email that is filled with redundancies, I think that’s a bigger problem.

      How about you? Do the tense errors you see tend to impede meaning?

      Reply

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