In this post, John Hughes shares a summary of his MaWSIG meets BESIG webinar, Making Business English materials that reflect learner realities, and follows up on some of the questions that were raised in the Q&A section at the end. The webinar was held on 6 December 2019. You can find a recording. of the webinar here.

The starting point for my webinar on this topic was Kath Bilsborough’s comment that ‘Learners should be able to see themselves represented in the materials they are using’ and that many published materials fail to reflect learner realities. Kath was referring to materials for younger learners, but the same is surely true when considering Business English materials – after all, the origins of Business English are in English for Specific Purposes (ESP). So if our materials are not reflecting the realities and needs of the learner, then we are clearly failing. To consider the statement in more depth, I framed the webinar around five questions.

1 What does history tell us?

I gave a brief overview of the history of Business English in order to highlight the importance of addressing student needs and realities. One example of early Business English materials came from the 15th century. It is from a book attributed to a teacher-author called William of Kingsmill, who was writing materials to help French speakers do business in England. It is structured as a dialogue and, in the original, the French translation would have appeared alongside it.

William of Kingsmill, 1415. Reprinted in Howatt and Widdowson (2004).

This text is a nice example of a Business English materials writer doing a pretty good job of providing students with the specific language they need to do business. In other words, history is telling us that analysing needs and then reflecting them in our material is central to the question of learner realities.

In the webinar, I showed some more examples of such texts from history (some of which successfully reflected learner realities and others that didn’t) until I reached present-day Business English materials. Unlike the early materials, modern Business English coursebooks are created for groups of students with very mixed needs. The material might be for a large group of students from different departments, companies, cultures and age-groups. Such materials tend to be based around the idea of finding commonalities which most students will need; for example, many students will need to give a presentation in relation to their job. While the published material can’t always target subject-specific vocabulary, for example, it can offer generic language for giving presentations.

Perhaps it’s this shift from the earlier, more localised, Business English materials, which were very specific, to modern-day published materials, which are by nature more generalist, that has given rise to the criticism that nowadays, Business English materials don’t always reflect learner realities. However, it’s more complicated than that when we consider writing Business English materials for the future.

2 What does the future tell us?

Increasingly, many Business English teachers are working with pre-service students who are at school, college or university. For this generation, we have to predict the types of jobs and skills they will need in the next 30 years and the type of English they will need. To illustrate my point, here is a list of skills taken from The Future of Jobs Report, carried out by the World Economic Forum (2018). The authors surveyed major businesses around the world and asked them to predict the most desirable skills that graduates would need in the year 2022.

  • analytical thinking and innovation
  • active learning and learning strategies
  • creativity, originality and initiative
  • technology design and programming
  • critical thinking and analysis
  • complex problem-solving
  • leadership and social influence
  • emotional intelligence
  • reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
  • systems analysis and evaluation

As you can see, the list mainly consists of the so-called ‘21st-century skills’ and higher-order thinking skills. So Business English materials writers need to reflect a future reality in the materials they are producing now. In the past, Business English tended to take a ‘just-in-time’ approach, in which you supplied the English a learner needed for their job today, but it seems that writing for Business English now is more about taking a ‘just-in-case’ approach, in which your materials must provide the English learners with the skills they might need in the future.

3 What does intercultural training tell us?

Intercultural or cross-cultural training has always played a key role in Business English. I believe that the approach taken in intercultural training should inform what materials writers do. The idea is that when you study another culture, you begin by learning about that other culture, but by the end, you find yourself reflecting on your own culture. So, for example, if you have read a text about the company culture of a well-known business, you would then go on to consider how your own company culture operates.

As materials writers, another thing we can learn from an intercultural approach is the importance of reflecting a diverse range of people and cultures in our materials. One way I’ve tried to do this in recent years is by making use of authentic vox pops videos in which you go up to real people in the street and interview them with the type of questions you might ask your learners in a lesson. It’s a simple but effective way of exposing your learners to authentic English taken from many different countries and cultures. (For more on this approach, read my article on using vox pops videos in Business English here.)

4 What do students tell us?

The aim of this fourth part of the presentation was to stress that in order for any materials to reflect learner realities (not just Business English but General English, too), we need to ensure that our materials provide plenty of opportunities for personalisation. In the webinar, I shared a tangible example of what I mean in the Business English context. In the past, many Business English coursebooks included pairwork role plays such as this:

Student A: You are a customer of the company ‘Office Supplies Express’. You ordered three new printers but two of them do not work. You have telephoned the company twice already and left a message. Telephone again. 

Student B: You work for a stationery supplier called ‘Office Supplies Express’. Answer the call and take the customer’s details. Try to offer a solution to the problem.

Notice how the students are asked to imagine a situation which might feel inauthentic and probably doesn’t reflect their reality. Instead, more recent Business English materials have tried to design such pairwork activities so that they encourage the student to draw on their own context; so, instead of being ‘role plays’ they are perhaps what we can call ‘real plays’:

Student A: You are at a conference looking for a new partnership with a company in other countries. Start a conversation with B and see if they are a useful contact.

Student B: You have a stand at a conference exhibiting your products/services. Start a conversation with A and see if they are a useful contact.

A case study is another good example from Business English materials of offering learners a real context or problem in which they have to respond from their own perspective. Case studies are, as Harvard Business School refers to them, ‘slices of business reality’.

I concluded the main part of the webinar by underlining the importance of personalisation and stressing that course materials should provide opportunities for students to personalise the material and relate it to their own realities.

5 What do you tell us?

My fifth question in the webinar was aimed at the participants. I invited them to say what else they thought Business English materials should do in order to reflect learner realities more successfully. Here is a selection of thoughts from the webinar chat box. See if you agree. You can add your own in the comments after this blog post.

  • Ask learners what they need (and listen to what they say).
  • Speak to expert insiders who are already doing the job and reflect their reality in your materials.
  • Include field-specific vocabulary.
  • Include opportunities for general conversation alongside Business English, including discussion of PARSNIP topics.
  • Provide more variety.
  • Research their contexts (and don’t try to write about realities you know nothing about).
  • Live their reality if necessary.
  • Include games.
  • Ask powerful questions.

Questions and answers

During the webinar there were questions which I didn’t have time to answer. So, here is a selection of those questions. If you don’t see your question here, it’s probably because I felt it was similar to another question, so I hope I’ve answered it below anyway:

Do you think the played-down role of language level (in favour of commonly needed skills) is/was unique to Business English?
Not entirely, because Business English is a strand of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), and in ESP we teach the specific language of, for example, medicine, engineering, nuclear energy, fashion, etc. So, I might have a classroom full of engineers at different levels of English but if they need specific language for their job, the level becomes somewhat (though not entirely) less of an issue.

How do we distinguish between skills (that we can teach/learn) and character traits, e.g. empathy?
The answer to this question depends on whether you think something like ‘empathy’ can be taught/learned. I would argue that you can train (perhaps rather than teach) someone to make greater use of empathy. For example, if I’m working with someone involved in marketing, I can work with that person to develop their ability to understand the real needs of target customers. A dictionary definition of skill is that it is the ability to do something well, and so I think in Business English we can find ourselves involved in helping students to use language to become better listeners, to be more empathetic as managers, and so on. Arguably, these are skills, in much the same way as things like presentation skills or networking skills are.

Do you think coursebooks made for generic markets can be as good as materials made for specific groups? (e.g. are opportunities to personalise enough?)
This is quite a complex question and it needs a few answers!

With regard to writing materials for specific groups, it depends on how good the materials writer is. Many teachers are expected to write materials for a specific group, and I’ve seen some really good examples of such material. But equally, I’ve seen materials written by teachers who are expected to write such material having had no training in how to write materials, and who have not been given the (paid) preparation time needed. As a result, the materials have been poor.

Another answer is that a coursebook written for a generic market will not provide language-specific content if, for example, the learners constitute a group of doctors who need English for medicine. However, in such a case, this would mean that the course provider had chosen the wrong book rather than it being a case of the coursebook not being very good.

With regard to personalisation (which I touched on in the webinar), I’d say that so-called generic books can include plenty of opportunities for personalisation and adaptation if they are written well. Note here that the key word is ‘opportunity’ – a book can only offer opportunities; only the teacher using the book can guarantee that the opportunities are taken.

How important do you think teacher’s notes (and other training) are in showing teachers opportunities for adapting to their specific students’ needs?
As with the previous question, I think teacher training is central to this kind of issue. Teacher’s books are important in offering help and suggestions to a teacher on adapting materials to specific needs, but they only offer an opportunity for the teacher to do that.

Can you explore some pros/cons of reflecting actual reality vs reflecting a reality we’d like to see/hope for?
I think this question came in response to one issue I raised in the webinar. That was the issue of how we represent our learners. For example, there was a time when Business English books contained photos of mostly middle-aged, white males in meeting rooms having very serious meetings; if there was a woman present, she was normally in a junior role, such as that of note-taker/assistant. Nowadays, publishers tend to include photos of more women in managerial positions; also, there is now usually a wider variety of nationalities, accents and genders in audio and video recordings. However, in the real world of business, there are still many situations where the boardroom really does reflect the image from old Business English books, in that they are still male-dominated working cultures. Many Business English writers have commented that the type of business world they try to represent in their published materials – with its greater gender balance and diversity – probably does not always reflect the true reality of the business contexts in which it is used. But, as a materials writer, you want to present a reality you would like to see more in the world. I suppose the question that then follows is: is it really our role as writers to try effect this kind of change? This is a question that continues to be open for debate.

References and further reading

Brieger, N. (1997). Teaching Business English Handbook. York Associates.
Brieger, N., & Comfort, J. (1985). Business Issues. Prentice Hall.
Clandfield, L., & Hughes, J. (2018). ETpedia Materials Writing. Pavilion ELT.
Dummett, P., Hughes, J., & Stephenson, H. (2018). Life (2nd ed.). National Geographic Learning.
Hollett, V. (1996) Business Objectives. Oxford University Press.
Howatt, A. P. R., & Widdowson, H. G. (2004). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.
Hughes, J., & McLarty, R. (2016). ETpedia Business English. Pavilion ELT.
Naunton, J., & Hughes, J. (2007). Business Result (Intermediate). Oxford University Press.
Grant, D., & Hughes, J. (2017). Business Result (Pre-Intermediate) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century Skills. John Wiley & Sons.
Wilberg, P. (1987). One To One. LTP (now Cengage Learning).
World Economic Forum (2018). The Future of Jobs Report. Retrieved from

John Hughes has written well over 50 titles including coursebooks and teacher resources. He has been involved in writing a variety of Business English books, including the six-level series Business Result (Oxford University Press), the exam course Success with BEC (National Geographic Learning) and the resource book ETpedia Business English (Pavilion Publishing), which received BESIG’s David Riley Award for Innovation in Business English and ESP. He specialises in training teachers in materials writing and has lectured on the subject at the University of Oxford. His website is at