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Teaching Grammar In Business English Classes

Looking at the practicalities of bringing grammar into classes that are mainly about business communication.

Grammar has a very complex relation to Business English. At one extreme are people for whom English is all about communication, people who usually aren’t interested in any correction at all if they can be understood. At the other end are people who think as much about the impact of what they are saying as they do about getting their message across and who perhaps feel they have to compete in business with native English speakers who don’t have to worry about such things. You can also of course find people who are at all stages between those two extremes, as well as people who can’t decide where they are or swing between the two different positions. This article will bear all those groups in mind as it examines the practicalities of bringing grammar into classes that are mainly about business communication. The article is organised around questions about grammar in Biz classes that people may ask themselves.

How Much Grammar?

As mentioned in the introduction above, this is not an easy question but depends mainly of the students’ attitude to accuracy, grammar and correction – particularly as there is no way of improving the accuracy of someone who doesn’t see the point of it. Such people might still need and accept at least some correction and short improvised practice if they can be convinced that the grammar could cause misunderstandings. This approach works particularly well when the course has no grammar syllabus, e.g. it is based around discussion of articles on business topics, is task-based, or is mainly functional language.

At the other extreme, I am presently teaching a course called “Advanced Grammar and Communication” with an in-company class. There are also plenty of students who focus too much on grammar when it is other things about the English language such as understanding of formality that are holding them back, and with some Business English textbooks your task could actually be to move away from grammar practice and towards practical business skills.

Students who are likely to need more grammar include those who do a lot of writing, especially writing which will be publically displayed and/or last a long time. The same is often true of students giving presentations and speeches.

Which Grammar Points?

As mentioned above, with students who are resistant to grammar one possible approach is just to choose the grammar that causes problems as communication happens. You could also give them speaking or writing tasks that are designed to produce particular language to attempt to guide the syllabus somewhat.

Another way of choosing which grammar to cover is to do some kind of grammar review at or near the beginning of the course, coming back to any grammar points they have problems with one at a time in future lessons. Doing a review of tenses can also show them that the grammar they will study or have studied is part of a coherent and logical whole.

There are also grammar points that are likely to be more important in Business English than in General English, as well as some that are less of a priority with business students. Although Business English books still seem to try to cover everything, the priorities of people in business can be reflected in the order that business textbooks and grammar books cover things, with grammar points like passives and modals getting attention earlier than they might in a General English course. You might be able to narrow this down further still by asking them what they need to do in English and seeing if you can make generalisations about what grammar is likely to be needed to do that, e.g. Present Continuous being important than usual for people who often have to make arrangements.

If students are doing a Business English exam such as TOEIC, BEC or BULATS, it should also be possible to analyse the exam for what grammar points are likely to come up, and so prioritise those. This is particularly true for speaking and writing exams. Some of that work will already have been done by writers of textbooks and self-study books for those exams, and you can compare your own ideas with the contents pages of those books.

Another thing to take into account is English as a Lingua Franca, but it is a bit difficult to work out what the consequences for grammar teaching of your students communicating mainly with non-native speakers in English but having most problems understanding native speakers might be.

How Should You Present And Practise The Grammar?

This question is just as controversial in Business English as it is in General English, but at least your students are likely to have a present or future need for English, and this can be used to set up realistic situations for a TTT or task-based approach, or used for practice and production in PPP.

Another approach that I like to use to tie in the grammar with their real uses of English is to find a common grammar point in some of the phrases that we have been practising for functions like telephoning, emailing and negotiations. I then use that as the basis of a grammar presentation, e.g. giving them sentences they have seen before like “I look forward to hearing from you” with the prepositions blanked out. This also works well for tenses (especially pairs of tenses or a tense review), determiners and modal verbs. You can also do something similar with articles on business topics that you have used by later giving them the text or parts of it with bits blanked out or with mistakes added.

What Resources Can You Use?

Nowadays there are plenty of books from well-known publishers specifically on Business English grammar, but they are mainly designed for self-study and so the practice activities are likely to be far from the best – you don’t want to put them off the whole idea of grammar for business (even more) by doing gapfills in class! One possibility is to take an exercise from a General English textbook or communication game with a grammar focus and adapt it to a more businessy approach, or you can make your own based on well-known controlled practice activities such as information gaps and discussion questions. For some examples, my own attempts at specific Business English grammar games are here:
Business English grammar game worksheets

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | November 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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