Controversies in Business English

I began teaching business English in 1980 and have observed over the years huge differences in the way we teach.

Controversies in Business English - speaking article - guest writers

For one business English teacher, life is a cold trudge through the snow to a remote factory on the outskirts of a mining town. Over the year, she learns as much about mining as the students learn about language. For another, the students answer all the questions on the needs analysis in the same way: 'I don’t (phone) – I haven’t started working yet'. This pre-service group are all 18 and have no business experience. Yet another teacher works on writing skills in a purpose-built seminar centre. There are so many different scenarios that perhaps it is not so surprising that we end up teaching in wholly different ways, with different beliefs, methodologies and practice. This article explores six controversial areas in teaching business English.

The coursebook conundrum
'To use a course book on a business English course....or not'? Imagine a cline. At one end is the course book ‘adoption’. All students receive a course book, which is appropriately supplemented by the teacher. The choice today has never been better: from Market Leader (Longman) to In Company (Macmillan) via Business Basics (OUP), English 365 (CUP). Or a book from Summertown, Marshall Cavendish, a local publisher... the list goes on and on.

Who chooses the course book? Why? Does the course book define the methodology, or is it the methodology which influences the selection?

At the other end of this cline is the complete rejection of published materials (see Scott Thornbury on dogme) and an espousal of framework materials, epitomised by the (wonderful) Business English Teacher’s Resource Book.

Of course, there are pros and cons connected with both positions. There are many arguments for the use of a course book. Two of the most powerful are:

  • the breadth of research done by the writers – BE crosses into management training and beyond
  • the provision of graded listening material – how else do we provide such exposure? Mimicking 100 accents?

The most powerful argument against using a course book is shown in this famous lampoon, adapted here from Michael Lewis:

'You do an in-depth needs analysis… find out your students’ specific skills and lexical needs… and then you say… "by the most unbelievable co-incidence, we have JUST the book for you, written two years ago.”'

It was Lewis I believe who coined the term ‘confetti method’ for all those who slave over a hot photocopier: if the student stands up quickly and their file springs open, all the pages fall out, just like confetti. If you would like to see my list of the best six best business English books ever, visit Lindsay Clandfield’s blog.

Nowadays, I think the arguments are based on the wrong term – 'course book' - as the so-called course book has now expanded to a include a raft of components such as a DVD-ROM and a web-delivered e-lesson which helps ensure the ‘currency’ of materials.

The business skills conundrum
Imagine two training providers both delivering effective presentations courses.

Course A
Run by a ‘School of Languages’; the students are all non-native speakers.

Course B
Run by a ‘Corporate Training Centre’; the students are all native speakers.

Consider first which of the above teachers receives the highest salary. (Sorry – the second person is not a teacher: he or she is, of course, a ‘trainer’).

Now try this short task. Decide which course would include the following elements, a-f, writing down each letter only once.

Course A only:
Course B only:
Both Course A and Course B:

a. Using visuals aids
b. 'Firstly, secondly, thirdly… '
c. Body language
d. 'I’ve divided my presentation into 3 parts...'
e. Powerful PowerPoint presentations
f. Using prompt cards

When I wrote this exercise, I had a very precise answer in mind, which I add below. First, here are a couple of the many variants I have received in teacher training:

Answer 1
Course A:
Course B: a, b, c, d, e, f
Both Course A and Course B:

Answer 2
Course A:
Course B:
Both Course A and Course B: a, b, c, d, e, f

The person who wrote Answer 1 is 22, has just done a CELTA and never given a presentation. From his perspective, he’s a language teacher. All the rest is the domain of a management training organisation.

The person who wrote Answer 2 works at a long-established school of languages in Vienna, has given innumerable seminars on presentation skills and feels competent to deliver this kind of feedback.

This was my original answer:

Course A: b, d
Course B: a, f
Both Course A and Course B: c, e

I maintain many teachers offer feedback on c and e without having had the necessary training themselves. A very real controversy! Just what to teach in the area of business skills can pose a very real problem for teachers.

Do you know the name the Dutch author of 'Riding the waves of culture'? Do you know what the opposite of ‘monochronic’ is? What is ‘uncertainty avoidance?’

When I became a CAT trainer (CAT stands for ‘cultural awareness training’), I was lucky enough to have specialist training. It is my contention that most business English teachers do not have this input. Instead they find themselves in a situation where they must include a cross cultural element in order to deliver a successful Business English course.

A lot can go wrong. Anyone who has ever encountered the vitriolic resistance of someone who feels they have just been ‘stereotyped’ knows that this is an area which demands great sensitivity. Luckily, there is some excellent material out there, including ‘The Culture pack’, CUP, originally created by York Associates. On this site you can find articles by Barry Tomalin covering this area.

Your students ask you: 'What does X mean?' Try this short task:

Which of the following do you feel you can happily explain to students?

  • protectionism
  • deregulation
  • viral advertising
  • open source software
  • psychometric testing
  • equity
  • B2B
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act
  • swaps
  • SCORM compliant

If you are able to explain all of them then, to quote the Yardbirds: 'Mister you’re a better man than I'. Of course, we cannot be expected to be experts in every field. Luckily, the more jargonny a term is, the more likely it is that the student not only knows the term but is able to explain it to you, the teacher. Just what lexis we should teach is often debated.

Try this task:

  • Which tense do you teach first? Present simple or present continuous? Why?
  • Is there a ‘future tense’ in English? 
  • Do you translate for your students?

There are huge methodological differences in what we tell students about language, and how we teach it. If you are lucky enough to be a Director of Studies or teacher trainer, you get to observe many lessons, often involving teachers saying totally different things.

For years course books had a syllabus which had the present continuous precede the simple present. We know now that the latter is massively more frequent. Linguists say there is no future tense; some CELTA course materials say there is. Teachers in monolingual groups abroad often use translation; those on multi-lingual groups tend not to. I come from the era where you never translated, and indeed, almost had to lie on the floor in order to teach the word ‘flounder’ (a flat fish). I believe there are easier ways of doing this now…

Teacher A loves blogs, wikis, DVD-ROM and web-based materials. Teacher B does not. Teacher A has Skype and Moodle. Teacher B does not. How different are their courses? Significantly...

I believe a teacher’s attitude towards technology will massively influence their approach to teaching business English. Indeed, there are a huge number of reasons why we teach differently. The many factors involved in these differences of approach include:

  • Experience
  • Context/situation (e.g. university/private language school/freelance, etc.)
  • Subject knowledge
  • Course book – yes or no?
  • Technology – yes or no?

This article has touched on a number of areas in which I think teachers particularly disagree. Controversies. In fact, when I reflect on how different all our situations are, perhaps it is a surprise that our business English courses are not, in fact, even more different than they already are!

Do you teach Business English? How do you feel about these issues? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Submitted by kate wong on Sun, 04/26/2009 - 05:04


Thank you for a most informative article, Pete Sharma. I have many years experience teaching and teacher training, but have always fought shy of full blown 'business courses', feeling that my own experience in the field (despite having been involved in small business concerns) doesn't quite equip me to do the honours at a serious level. That is to say I have no direct experience of working in big companies, and do not feel sufficiently informed to do justice.

Your leads to possible resources are very helpful, and welcome. On a one to one basis we try to work on an initial needs analysis and client background to create a course which reflects our clients' needs, and use mainly authentic materials together with the client's experience in the field. This way, both teacher and student have a sort of symbiotic relationship, with the client being the primary resource, and the teacher being the language provider/facilitator.

One difficult problem for us in Trinidad is the availabilty of suitable published materials, and their appropriacy. We cannot afford to buy course books 'on spec' not even if they are well presented on web sites, as we cannot get a good overall idea of the entire package through this means, and do not have the financial resources to take a chance, alas. Consequently, we have to rely on our own creativity, and encourage clients to share in the moment, as it were, and become invloved in the whole process.

best wishes,

Kate Wong, Trinidad and Tobago

Dear Kate

Thanks for this mail.

I believe the range and quality of business English material has never been better. However, basing the course on the needs analysis is always the most appropriate way to start. The judicious use of authentic materials can be motivating, and of course, the students' own material where appropriate.

I write a business English e-lesson and subscription I am happy to say is free. I hope this may be of benefit.

With all best wishes


Submitted by dickvetralla on Sun, 05/03/2009 - 15:00


Dear Peter,

Your piece of 23 April last

I hope I may call you Peter? You can call me Dick (or whatever you like really!)  of course.

How nice to see some pointed consideration of the teaching of commercial English.

But can I detect some frustration in your piece? It matters not.

You touch on a mix of issues all of which are thought-provoking. I have been interested in cultural diversity, and the appreciation of such by learners (and travellers) for some time. I don't pretend to be other than an interested observer though I do try to improve, as a human being, often without much luck!  As a businessman now teaching English I read with interest your points, your concerns and your snippets of advice.

Peter, re-reading your interesting article (or whatever they call it on the internet) I am on my guard, so as to tackle some issues with care. If I do not then we might raise contentious points and I would loose. You have been teaching for quite a while and I am a grovelling novice.

Whatever my status as a teacher, I have roamed and rambled 30 something countries  and the journey has taken me aeons, some 40 years, with a briefcase in hand trying to sell, negotiate and generally enjoy the scenery.

Where would we start a discussion? It is Sunday here (Italy, a day of rest) and I am reminded that it is my turn to walk the children! Perhaps we could agree on short sets, these would less tiring for me in my dotage.


Love all then!  'Play,' says the man in the chair.

1. Technoteachers

I wouldn't have that many qualms about it, ie having it or not. Neither Plutarch, Leonardo or Albert the Einstein seemed to suffer greatly!

But I take your point on experience, by this you mean having learnt commercialese don't you?

Of course, learning by being taught and learning from experience are two different things. But we should not exclude the young whipper snapper who hasn't been further than Surbiton, or Sulemaniye. No, no! With an enquiring mind he can make it for sure.

A keep it simple approach to English in general might help, or do we want everyone going around talking as though they just stepped out of Cranfield Business School.

Listen, profit is profit in any language and many of those figures in business who figure prominently today, dare I mention Branson and Sugar (UK) as, begging their pardon ...  I say no more. 

Fifteen love!

I hear the little devils calling and have to slip away for a while.

Have a pleasant day









Hi Dick

thanks for your interesting (and entertaining !) post.

with technology I say:

 use where appropriate

it has changed our parlance, e.g. e-commerce, e-mail, on-line CVs etc and as such must be part of what a BE teacher deals with

but then, I am a self-confessed technophile!

a hasty reply from an Internet cafe in Hannover...


Pete (not Sampras)

Submitted by georginahudson on Mon, 06/07/2010 - 19:17


Thank you Pete Sharma for such an insightful article. I've been an in-company teacher for 14 years. I feel identified with the business English teacher who makes her way to a factory on the outskirts of an industrial town. In fact, that mental image made me laugh.

I love the points you so clearly illustrated. I frequently feel teaching in-company classes may prove to be a brain-teasing activity. I've been DOS for five years now and even if all the teachers come up with lovely ideas for the classroom, the in-company scenario is a very challenging one by definition.

We have classes where everybody is eager to learn more language and some others where there's a mix between the group of students who want skills training only (many of them take the English class like a break from work) and the group of students who want a little bit of everything (including a coursebook)

I love creating materials. I decided to give students the chance to have a book, which would make some students in my classes happy, and loads of supplementary material with appropriate tasks - sitcoms, songs, news articles, podcasts.

The truth is, a bunch of students said the classes didn't seem to have clear order. They received lots of material which they enjoyed but they needed to feel the simple present, simple past, etc. sequence. I'm also very keen on technology. Most students seemed to be reluctant to visit my platform because they didn't like the idea of having to suscribe to the page and so on and so forth, so I started to e.mail them tasks and tutorials.

To do justice to the truth, most of my learners welcomed the e.mail exchanges and even said to me in class "Georgina, could you e.mail us what you're saying?" while some others simply found receiving more e.mails overwhelming. At one point I felt discouraged because I was putting a lot into a wide range of teaching strategies but I didn't seem to succeed in catering for everybody's needs.

I'd say now, it's always worth it to tune in to our students and their feelings and interests, we should be aware of their learning strategies and be mindful when planning for our classes. The more we try out in the English business setting, the better. We won't be able to make everybody happy but we might be able to satisfy more of our students' necessities if we observe them and adjust our teaching to what they really need than if we just give up.


Submitted by aenge2009 on Tue, 07/14/2015 - 09:39


I am teaching a student who does not like to read and has no desire to work with any published materials. Now, I am not saying that I need to cling to one for a course's sake, BUT I do find them quite handy and useful in targeted course planning. However, this student has challenged me to basically come up with my own course, my own ideas - which is hard, because despite having done a needs many students, the goals are quite vague. That's why sometimes I just prefer using a coursebook to provide a foundation. It isn't the coursebook teaching - it's me. I think our true teaching talent comes out when we can show students what is all possible with all of these wonderful resources out there. Moreover, we shouldn't stick to the coursebooks either as if they are a part of us; this means vary the lessons and flip them around. But, it's so difficult for students to grasp that sometimes and it's challenging to have the need to explain the 'why' all the time. Last thing, I am highly interested in Dogme as an approach - particularily due to this challenging student. I feel I have tried this approach before without even knowing I did, but my question is how much work and effort should we put in to create such lessons? I do not feel I need to sacrifice hours to plan a lesson so specialized, so particular only because some students aren't fond of coursebooks. I hope someone understands what I mean. :-)

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