Every year, the Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) of IATEFL organizes its conference. I’ve attended many of them over the last 30 years and I’m looking forward to the event in Stuttgart on November 2nd. It’s a chance to share ideas and see where Business English is heading. My earliest published books were for Business English students and then I moved into writing for general English. So what are some of the similarities and differences between writing for general English (GE) and Business English (BE)?
As with GE, materials that teach language are still fundamental in BE materials. BE materials writers have to find texts, use videos, write grammar explanations, do vocabulary gap fills and create speaking activities. However, the emphasis shifts towards language for a specific purpose and towards effectiveness. When I write BE materials, my focus is often away from achieving accurate reproduction of grammar, for example, and more on effectiveness at achieving a real-world outcome.
The issue of level is particularly interesting for writers. In GE, a term like ‘supply chain’ is probably CEFR level C1 to C2 but in BE writing, it’s very high frequency so I might introduce it to A2 level learners if their job involved them referring to a supply chain. In BE, the learner’s ‘need’ for specific language takes precedence over learning a set of GE vocabulary at prescribed language levels.
To talk about with professional knowledge
In GE course books, the titles of units are typically topics like sport, weather, and transport. With BE, topics are more likely to be areas marketing, management, and human resources. They provide the context for the unit and the language so that students can discuss these areas in English. That doesn’t mean BE learners don’t also need (and want) to talk about general topics, just that the writers might give less space to them.
To do business with communication skills
In addition to talking about business topics, students need to ‘do’ business in English so many BE publications emphasize speaking tasks in the form of tasks, role plays, discussion points and sometimes case studies. BE materials tend to be functionally and lexically driven rather than grammar driven because – as mentioned earlier – the focus is on achieving an effective outcome rather than one in which every language item is accurate.
To be future-ready with career skills
Increasingly, BE materials also include a focus on softer skills development such as coaching, empathy or problem-solving. These skills are in demand by employers and often identified as lacking in potential employees. There is now pressure on universities and their graduates to develop these skills before they enter the careers market so BE materials writers have a role to play here.
Format for the materials
How all this written content is delivered in the BE context is a question also affecting all of us in GE. For many years people have doubted the suitability of the printed course book in the BE context and yet sales of BE course books remain steady so there are still companies and professionals who like to use a book. In addition, businesses have greater access to the latest technology so it’s also true that BE materials writers need to produce content that will work on a laptop or a phone screen.
An iterative process
Finally, if you are BE teacher (or trainer) then you probably already create materials for many of your learners based on their specific needs. More than for GE materials, I find that BE materials writing is quite an iterative process. You try to find out your learners needs, and then create materials which respond to those needs. Inevitably those needs can change (sometimes overnight!) so the process of BE materials writing is often one of prototyping, testing, tweaking, and repeating. What do you think? Why not share your experiences of writing materials for Business English? What specific skills do you think a BE writer needs to develop?
John will be giving a presentation titled ‘Are materials writers born or made?’ at the BESIG conference on Saturday 3rd November. Come and say hello if you are there!
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