by Steven Hobson
As somebody who has been in the EFL space for several years now, some of my most rewarding, yet challenging experiences have often been helping B2 level business professionals achieve their English goals. Rewarding, because of the creative license handed to me to define an approach most suitable to meet their English needs, and challenging, due to the typically demanding nature of these individuals.
If you currently teach or have taught B2 level business professional students, you’ll probably find that a lot of them require a more customized approach, due to each one having their own purposes for improving English, coupled with their unique challenges.
In this article, I share some reflections I have accumulated over the years after personalizing English lessons for this specific student profile. We explore ideas centered around the initial student evaluation, what to think about when defining the approach, and, lastly, measuring student development.
1. A Successful Initial Evaluation
The journey with a new student starts with an initial meeting, leveling, needs analysis or evaluation, whichever you’d like to call it. This is a really important moment from both the student’s and teacher’s standpoint, because the student will be analyzing whether you’re the right teacher, and you’ll be gathering essential information that will set the class momentum for the next year or so.
In this evaluation, It’s crucial to build rapport and trust from the beginning with your student. You can write an article just about this topic, but if I could mention one key factor about it, I’d say that one of the best ways of building rapport and trust is to simply ask questions and demonstrate that you are listening to them. The evaluations which I carry out consist of the student doing about 70% of the talking because I ask lots of questions.
As well as this, by asking questions about their background, needs, goals, challenges etc, you can pick up a wealth of useful information about the student which will be vital with regard to the approach you’ll be taking.
Here are some questions I normally ask:
- Tell me about your English background.
- What did you like/didn’t like about previous English lessons and methods?
- How often do you use English and in which situations?
- What do you feel you need to improve with English?
- What are your English goals?
- What do you find challenging about the English language?
What would it mean to you if you achieved your English goals and overcame these challenges? / How would your life change?
The last question is a really important one to ask because it makes the student tell you about the underlying purpose behind improving their English. Declaring strong reasons will drive motivation levels higher, and will help the student persist through the upcoming challenges.
While listening to the student I ask follow up questions when necessary and take notes about the information they are giving me. I also jot down their use of English (verb tenses, structure, fluency etc). Towards the end of the evaluation, I like to give them some positive and constructive feedback on their English so that they can go away with a better idea of what they need to improve. This also gives you, the teacher, more credibility as it helps demonstrate that you know your stuff.
Now that I have all this information about the student, I then present to them an approach which I believe will achieve their goals and help them overcome their challenges.
Let’s look now at how you can define the approach in more detail.
2. What to Consider When Defining the Approach
Defining the approach or methodology which you are going to use with your student is a crucial step because it will determine motivational and engagement levels, which have a direct impact on how much the student absorbs during the class, dedication to self-study, and the frequency of class cancellations. All this has a huge influence on your student’s English development.
I have found that answering yourself the following questions appropriately make it easier to establish an effective class approach for your student:
How can I engage my student?
When I think about the biggest success stories among current and previous students, what immediately comes to mind are their high levels of engagement during the classes. A contributing factor to this has been learning about their topics of interest, then using material about these interests as a base to the classes.
To know more about their interests, I send them an interests questionnaire to fill in after the evaluation. On this questionnaire, the student ticks off all the topics (general and business related) of interest for class study. So after getting back the form, for example, I will now know that the student is interested in Economics, but not Marketing; Sport, but not Science, the Oil & Gas industry, but not the Cosmetic industry.
I then search for content based on these topics of interest, such as articles, videos, podcasts, interviews with thought leaders, presentations, documentaries etc, and use them as the basis for the lesson. By utilizing material in accordance with the student’s interests, their engagement levels are centered on the topic itself, which happens to be through the English language instead of their mother tongue. This dramatically increases engagement.
Consider this… if you loved football but thought cricket was boring, your engagement levels would be much higher watching a football match on TV than they would be watching a cricket game. This means you’ll be absorbing more from the football game.
A highly engaged student is curious and aware, therefore they interact more, have fun, and remember new language easier. This is why you have to be careful with course books, especially with B2 learners, because the topics are generalized, and are often a bit dull for the student. This leads on to the next question…
Should I use a course book, a mix or not at all?
A lot of teachers and most language schools have one approach for B2 business professional students. And that is to work with a business English course book.
For sure, it is easier and more straight forward for teachers and schools to have one approach for all, but it’s only going to work for some, and not all B2 students.
If you have some flexibility you need to consider whether only using a course book is really going to be the best way to achieve your student’s goals and keep them engaged in the long term during class. For students who want to visibly see unit-to-unit progress, have a structured syllabus, enjoy exercises and tests, then a course book is probably going to work.
If you decide to use the book, you still need to consider your student’s interests. When I was running my language school in Rio de Janeiro, I found that some students tended to get demotivated halfway through the business course book. This was normally due to the generic business topics and predictability of the unit structure.
Regarding the topics in a business course book, they are quite broad and are not specific enough to give the student exactly what they need to use English for their role in their company. Some topics are often irrelevant to the student. Why would a marketing manager in a media company be interested in doing a whole unit on banking, for instance? Yes, there are students who happen to be interested in pretty much everything, but in my experience, most of them are not. I suggest showing the student the topics in the book during the evaluation to give them a better idea of the book content.
Mixing it up
If you must use a course book, a way to jazz up the classes and make them more appealing is to integrate extra material focused on the student’s interests. You can combine it in a few different ways. One is to replace texts and audios in the book now and again with more interesting and updated material. Another is to dedicate half the class with the book, and the other half with extra material.
Another option is to combine extra materials with a book focused on ESP (English for Specific Purposes), such as English for Human Resources or English for Finance. These books are good for building vocabulary and language for a specific professional area and are often more apt for what the student uses English for in the workplace than generic business books.
Which skills and real-life scenarios does the student need English for?
This is, in fact, another influencing factor which comes to mind when I think about my most successful students – focusing on the skills and language they need in a real-life working environment.
When a student says that they need English for work. More often than not, the English they require is beyond a business course book. So during the initial evaluation, it’s important to delve deeper into how the student uses English in the workplace and incorporate related content into the classes.
If, for example, your student frequently gives presentations in English, then work on their presentation in class. You will then notice areas where they can improve, such as transition expressions between slides, talking about numbers, explaining an idea in a more convincing way etc. By working on these individual items, the student will be learning something which will have a perceivable impact on his work performance.
Here’s a Linkedin article I wrote you’ll find useful for helping students with presentations: 52 Phrases for Better flowing English Presentations.
When teaching in-company students, you should always be ready to adapt to the student’s demands. Sometimes they will request help with emails, preparation for meetings, and interviews.
Here are some of my articles related to business skills for English learners you might find useful:
3. Measuring Improvement
The more advanced English learners get, the harder it is to recognize and monitor their improvement. Both for teacher and student. The thing is, B2 students want to know and need to know if they are making progress both for motivation, as well as evaluating to what degree the class approach is working for them.
Reaching a B2 level, regardless of which language we’re talking about, is an accomplishment because it takes dedication, discipline, and persistence. Motivation also plays a key role in getting this far, and there is nothing better than seeing yourself improving when it comes to motivation.
B2 students needed to see improvement in the past, and they still demand it. So it makes sense to have some kind of system in place to gauge their development.
This is the advantage of course books. Unit tests and progress tests are great for this. However, if the student isn’t using a coursebook, you have to think out of the box a bit more. Here are some options which you can try out.
For Business Skills
Measuring development for business skills such as a business presentation or a job interview in English, are quite straightforward. This is because once the student has defined the speech (in the case of a presentation) or the answers for anticipated questions (in the case of an interview), it’s just a case of practice and repetition while working on errors as you go along. The student will notice that they gradually become more fluent and speak more accurately.
I suggest recording a class at the beginning and then recording another one when the student is sounding more fluent. You can then show and compare the recordings with your student. This way they will visibly see the progress.
For Conversation and Fluency Classes
Many B2 students request conversation classes.
Conversation classes need to be structurally planned, using material based on the interests of the student. Although the main focus is speaking and fluency, the student still wants to expand their vocabulary, use more advanced structures, and cut down on mistakes.
A simple, but effective way of achieving this is to take notes of the mistakes the student makes, then at the end of the class give this feedback and show or elicit how they can correct the errors and sound more native-like. You can also take notes of the new vocabulary which comes up in the class, and jot down anything positive about how the student has used English.
Towards the end of the class, you should have some really useful information which you can give as feedback to the student. I normally set the last five minutes of the class for this. Students find the feedback beneficial and constructive, and if you review it, together with the new vocabulary, from time to time and test them on it, this will give them a sense of progress.
Student Self Evaluation
I also suggest encouraging your students to evaluate themselves. One way of doing this is for them to take notes of new vocabulary and language so that they can review it and test themselves. There are some great flashcards apps for this, such as Quizlet, Anki, and Flashcard Deluxe. The latter two incorporate SRS (Spaced Repetition System).
Another way is to increase self-awareness of their English when they are using it at work. You can help them with this by asking questions, such as,
- Are you feeling more confident speaking English in business meetings?
- We have worked on [language structure] in the class. Are you using this when you use English at work?
- Do you feel as though you are participating more in English meetings than before?
- Are you understanding your native-speaker work colleagues easier than before?
If the student says “yes” to these kinds of questions, it will give them a better sense of their progress. Additionally, since in-company students’ main purpose to have English classes is normally for English communication improvement centered around their work, then this type of self-reflection is important.
The challenging nature of the B2 level business professional and the creativeness required to successfully customize an approach which caters for their needs and expectations have undoubtedly been an influencing factor for my development as an English trainer.
By carrying out a thorough needs analysis, then following up on that with an effective lesson approach and a system to measure development, you’ll be on course for witnessing happy, engaged, and advancing students.