MED Magazine - Issue 24 - November 2004

Classroom management for Business English
by Rosemary Richey

Third in a series of articles on Business English issues


In the last couple of issues of MED Magazine we looked at the foundations of teaching Business English (BE). In the next couple of months I would like to focus more on individual topics for practical classroom application. In this article, I would like to start the discussion of relevant BE teaching matters by giving a general overview of classroom management for BE. My aim is to briefly outline the many aspects of classroom management, important for any size BE course.

Preliminary considerations

Classroom management for BE is nearly parallel to English Language Teaching (ELT) procedure. It follows a similar outlook for both general and specific planning. Teachers project a strategy for the whole course and then concentrate on the individual lessons with the typical structure of warm-up, core activities and wrap-up. BE classroom management combines basic ELT management with consideration of the following:

Class size and structure
one-to-one lessons
groups up to 12 students
large classes (25 or more students)
intensive (seminars over a 1–5 day period)
extensive (courses lasting from 1 to 12 months)
time/duration of classes

in-company meeting room or a private office
language school classrooms
lecture rooms at a university
possible class seating arrangements
accessibility/availability of equipment (whiteboard, flipchart, video recorder, etc.)

Planning for your lessons

After considering the above mentioned planning elements, the first step of any strategy for BE class management is to study the needs analysis. This will give you a projection of a course’s possible aim and direction. In the beginning, the needs analysis will be your primary preparation tool. However, bear in mind that you will be reviewing and discussing this throughout the course. Student need in BE remains open-ended from the start to finish. I will comment further in the article as to how this impacts your classroom management.

You can tentatively organise your methods and materials according to the size and structure of your class, the setting and then most importantly, the needs analysis. As I mentioned in earlier issues, your variety of materials will help you have an overall plan yet be flexible in your lessons. Your compilation of both core and supplementary activities will enable you to handle almost any BE classroom situation.

Starting the course

Your first meeting with the students plays an essential role in establishing the direction of the overall lessons. You and the students are basically getting to know one another, so the first class is an ideal time to find out valuable information especially about the students both on a personal and professional level. It is also a chance for them to get to know you better. Open-ended activities such as interviews or informal discussions are quite useful to stimulate reactions and responses, and the following topics should generate plenty of discussion:

favourites (music, food, etc.)

From these discussions, you will get a clear idea of the students’ actual level of English, which may or may not match the background information you have on the students. Moreover, it is important to determine if the needs analysis (set up by their training managers or bosses) actually reflects their expectations. Go over the need analysis questions once with them in an informal discussion to make sure this shows the reasons for them taking the class. In conjunction with reviewing the needs analysis, I would also recommend surveying the students about their confidence in English in the four basic skill areas. Find out which of the skills they are more comfortable with: speaking, reading, writing or listening. Throughout your discussion with the students, take notes to show you are listening. This also sends the message to the students that you will incorporate their feedback in your lesson planning.

In the first meeting, talk to your students to get an idea of their approach to learning. Ask them questions such as:

How do you learn the best?
Are you an audial or visual person?
Do you work off lists or do you prefer diagrams or charts?
Do you keep a notebook or use index cards for new words and phrases?
Do you like pair or group work? Do you prefer to work alone?

Discuss teacher feedback and error correction with your students. Check if they would prefer:

your correction on the spot as they are talking
your writing down their errors and then reviewing them after the activity is over

Their answers will provide you with valuable information about their learning style.

Finally, in the first session, inform the students about materials for the lessons. Introduce the coursebook, explain the customised booklet in which there are materials especially designed for the course and/or if they can expect handouts. Suggest a homework plan for them. Emphasize that class time will be used for maximum practice, since they may not have time for homework due to their busy workplace timetables.

Maintaining your lessons

Throughout the lessons, cultivate a varied practice dynamic to keep a lively pace and high energy level with alternating use of individual, pair, group or whole class work. The organisation and workability of this depends on the size, structure and setting factors previously discussed. The keys for successful activity here are the following:

clearly explained procedure
starting up with a demonstration
changing of partnering or grouping
variation of exercises
suitable pace
keen attention to timing

For the duration of your lessons, flexibility is your most important technique. This affects how you deal with class interaction or student involvement. With your activities, for example, you might notice that students are tired, hungry, bored or confused. If the activity is not working, then drop it and move on to something else. What else you choose to do will rely on your good ability to read the students and then to take a suitable next step. Every lesson will invariably present a challenge for you to adjust your teaching to meet the needs of the students e.g. updating the student needs analysis.

Let me add a special note about seminar or university style classes. The duration of these lessons could be anywhere from 1.5 to 6 hour blocks. Participant or student attention span may be at best 10 minutes, so be sure to use quick and concise instructions and explanations. With longer teaching blocks, pace can be livened up any time with humour, a quick story or anecdote. Finally, let students get up and stretch or walk around to maintain their concentration and mental energy.

During the course of your lessons, I recommend continual assessment. This can take the form of informal, periodic feedback discussions along with a written mid-course evaluation. Again, this reflects your intention to respond constantly to student need and also to cultivate rapport with the students.

Dealing with problems

Throughout your lessons you may encounter some or all of the following problems:

mixed-ability groups
low motivation
dragging pace
tardiness, no-shows or cancellations

Mixed-level classes can pose a challenge to classroom management in BE. To tackle the problem, I usually try open-ended tasks which each student can complete according to their own ability. For instance, students work on descriptions or answer questions where they respond according to their lexis level. Or you can give them collaborative tasks where they can help each other. For higher level students who finish fast, have extra exercises ready to give them.

In the case of low-motivation, dragging pace, no-shows, tardiness or cancellations, direct communication (based upon rapport) with your students is crucial in solving these problems. Ask them directly about their situation, how they feel, what they want, etc. (Again, this is another check on the needs analysis.) The main thing is to catch any of these problems in their early stages. After two classes of boredom or students not turning up, find out why and take solid measures to rectify it. If the problems go on too long, then it might be too late to salvage the course.

Teacher talk and classroom management

Teacher talk can have a huge impact on classroom management. If it is not managed well, then your lessons will be thrown off in terms of student focus. For example, a student asks you a question wanting a detailed, long answer. They often like to listen to the teacher speak perhaps just to marvel at the sound of a native or fluent speaker. However, class time is their practice, not the teacher’s.

Stop when you hear yourself talking for more than half a minute. For explanations, invite student feedback so they can deduce the correct answers and discuss the how and why of their answers as well. For instance, my students typically complain about the idea that English is not written as it is spoken. My initial tendency is to give them a mini-lecture on the history of the English language to explain its spelling. Instead I ask them exploratory questions such as What was the English language like 300 years ago? What difference do you think there was between the language now and then? How is this seen in English spelling today?

If teacher talk is managed carefully, every potential pitfall can be turned into another useful practice for the students.

Wrapping up your lessons

For each individual lesson, wrap-up is important for finishing on a high and energetic note. Query the students for a minute or two about their reaction to the lesson. Encourage them to ask any questions they may have. This is an important part of the process for revision and recycling for each class meeting. Also, from their comments you can judge if your teaching provides a lesson to lesson learning flow for the students.

In the case of a set of lessons or a course ending, there will probably be some kind of assessment or evaluation for the students to do. In the last class, I usually elicit verbal feedback and comments to supplement any written evaluation. Students’ final comments – positive or negative – are invaluable for your own development as a BE teacher.

Final remarks

Classroom management for BE covers a wide range of issues and considerations. It is indeed a complex challenge where focusing on the student need is the number one priority. It is like a delicate balancing act. By tackling it step by step, our self-confidence as teachers continues to evolve and grow, with student satisfaction as the ultimate goal.

Further reading

Donna, S. Teach Business English (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, CUP, 2000)
Harmer, J. How to Teach English (Longman, 1998)
Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman, 2001)
Wilberg, P. One to One: A Teacher’s Handbook (LTP, 1987)

Useful websites
Macmillan’s teacher resource site providing articles, lessons, worksheets and teaching tips
The special interest group of IATEFL for Business English updates, discussion, events and links to prominent Business English websites

More in this issue

You’ll find the following related material in this issue:
Tips for teaching presentation skills
• Presentation Essentials 1 activities
• Presentation Essentials 1 teacher’s notes

Next in the series

The December issue will include more tips and activities for teaching presentations. In the Business English Issues article I’ll be talking about learner independence or self-reliance.

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