Excerpt for How To Write Business English Materials by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



John Allison



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How To Write Business English Materials

By John Allison

© 2017 ELT Teacher 2 Writer at Smashwords



About the author


Warmers and coolers




Case studies



Sample answers


About The Author

I come from a family of teachers, so when my dad suggested I should consider going into banking, it was easy to say ‘no, I’m not at all interested in business, I’m going to be a teacher’. To my surprise, over the years I’ve become more and more interested in all aspects of business, so I sometimes wonder if Dad was right after all. However, probably the most rewarding experiences in my career have come from writing, something I would almost certainly never have done without first becoming a teacher.

My first experience of teaching English came straight after my finals at Cambridge. I had obtained a place on a PGCE course at the Institute of Education and was keen to move to London as soon as possible, so I needed a job to pay the rent over the summer. I was lucky enough to find work with a language school who were keen to give me a week’s training before letting me loose in the classroom. I arrived on the first Monday morning to be told that a colleague was sick, so I was needed to teach. Thrusting a book into my hands, the Director pointed me up the stairs to the room where the class of teenagers and young adults from around the world was already waiting for me. Fortunately, there wasn’t even time to panic; we had a ball. Not only were the classes, excursions and various social activities great fun, I also got to know Brigitte, the school’s charming French secretary, who would later become my wife.

Teaching practice in German and French the following autumn was a different kettle of fish, or another pair of sleeves as the French would say. Trying to persuade sullen teenagers in an all-boys school to say more than Oui or Nein was an extremely frustrating experience, so much so that at the end of the year I decided to follow Brigitte to France and go back to teaching people who really wanted to learn. At the time, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to get paid for spending several hours a day teaching, but also learning about business from, bankers, chemists, engineers, marketing and sales people, accountants, lawyers and many other professions. I have to say I think I got the better part of the bargain.

Since those early days, I have done most of the TEFL jobs you can think of, from repairing the toilets to cold calling, sales and marketing; from tea boy to director and management trainer. For the last twenty years or so I have been a sleeping partner in the language school where I now work as a teacher, DOS and teacher trainer, moonlighting as a Business English writer.

For some years, I drove the 90km from Lyon to Grenoble every morning and back again every evening. It was only when I stopped the gruelling daily commute that I discovered, much to my surprise, that I still had some energy and ideas in the evening and at weekends. That was when I decided to start doing some serious writing. At the time, we needed new materials for teaching by phone; thinking there must be other schools with a similar need, I sent out samples to several publishers. I was delighted when Macmillan got in touch to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ for the telephone materials, but would I be interested in doing some writing for the In Company teacher’s books? That marked the start of a fruitful partnership; since then I have worked on In Company, In Company Case Studies, The Business, and most recently the Supply Chain Management and Logistics titles in the In Company 3.0 ESP series.

Writing Business English materials has made me think hard about what I do in the classroom and improved my own teaching and teacher training skills; it has allowed me to travel, meet and exchange ideas and experience with hundreds of teachers, and to work with some of the best authors, editors, marketing and sales teams in the EFL business. But perhaps the greatest satisfaction is also the simplest: just switching off the computer and going to bed, knowing that I’ve cracked a grammar problem, finished a neat listening, or come up with an exercise that will work really well with my class. I hope this ebook will help you share that simple pleasure.


Like almost any task in life, the hardest part of writing is getting started. Every writer knows that sinking feeling when you sit down in front of a blank page wondering how on earth you’re going to produce the two or three thousand words you promised yourself you’d write today. Many teachers would like to write their own materials, but never get past that blank page – which is a shame, because once they start writing, most people find the main problem is when to stop. But I’ll say more about ‘less is more’ later!

The aim of this book is to highlight some of the key skills you’ll need to write Business English materials, and to provide some practice writing activities to get you past the ‘blank page’ stage. But first it’s worth thinking about why you want to write your own materials; after all, there’s already a wealth of material available on the market. I’m assuming you’re an experienced Business English teacher; you almost certainly fall into one or more of the following categories:

1. You don’t have access to (suitable) published materials for your classes. Perhaps you’re teaching on a desert island, or more realistically, you work in a ‘General English’ school where there is not enough demand for Business English to justify investing in more specialized materials. Maybe you work for an employer or a client who simply refuses to pay for any materials at all and expects teachers to provide everything. (Yes, they’re more common than you might think!)

2. You don’t like the published materials you (are supposed to) use. Producing a well-researched, well-written, professionally edited, designed and illustrated four-colour coursebook is a major investment, so publishers need to be sure they can sell the book in many different markets around the world. Inevitably, this involves making compromises, which can mean that a given book doesn’t suit your country, culture, business sector, learning or teaching style. Sometimes you may inherit a book that somebody else (the Ministry, your Director or DOS, your predecessor or your client) has chosen for you; if it doesn’t work for you, you may have no other choice than to write your own materials.

3. You simply enjoy writing, your students like your personalized materials, so why not try to reach a wider audience? You might want to share or exchange materials with other like-minded teachers, perhaps on your blog or a lesson-share website, or maybe you fancy the satisfaction and kudos of seeing your work in print.

4. You’re at a stage in your career where you need a new challenge. The ELT pyramid is notoriously flat; if you’re already a DOS or teacher trainer, and you don’t feel you’re cut out to be an entrepreneur and start your own business, where do you go next? Writing your own materials can open all sorts of doors at local, national and international levels.

5. You’re finding it hard to manage on a teacher’s salary, and you’re looking for ways to increase your income. Realistically, unless your name is Raymond Murphy, you’re very unlikely to be able to give up the day job; writing can become a useful source of additional income, but if you do the maths, you’ll almost certainly find that your hourly rate is significantly higher for teaching than for writing!

6. You want materials that are more suited to your learners’ specific needs than what’s already available. This is probably the most common, and possibly the best reason to start producing your own materials.

Whatever your own situation, what you won’t want to do is just re-invent the wheel. Writing is a creative act – please don’t fall into the trap of just copying something somebody else has already done. If you really want to write, it’s because you believe you can bring some added value to students and teachers, give them something that hasn’t been done before, or hasn’t been done as well as you can do it. Think carefully about what that added value is, and how you can deliver it in your materials. Here are a few areas to think about …

One of the main challenges in both teaching and writing for Business English is how to make the content interesting and relevant. In my opinion, the easiest and most effective learning takes place when people are having fun. Making the world of budgets, milestones, stock-keeping and accounting fun can be a real challenge, especially at eight o’clock on a Monday morning or from six to eight on a Friday evening. It goes without saying that a sense of humour is required. But as an experienced Business English teacher, I’m convinced you already know that, more than numbers, procedures or supply and demand, first and foremost, business is about people. Once you make examining and solving people problems the focus of your activities, it becomes much easier to make them fun. But business is a serious matter, I hear you say, and of course, Business English materials need to be serious. But they don’t have to be solemn. Make your activities as much fun as possible, maybe close to, but never actually crossing the line where they stop being serious.

Another area that requires careful thought is the difference between talking about the job and talking on the job. It’s relatively easy to find audio and video materials where people talk about their jobs in interviews, but it’s actually much harder to find good models of people talking on the job, i.e. in meetings, informal conversations, on the phone, etc. Which is more useful for Business English students? Well, it’s true that, from time to time, most people will need to describe their job and their responsibilities, but it’s not usually something they’ll have to do every day. What they do have to do every day is to persuade colleagues, suppliers or customers to get things done, explain why they haven’t been able to do something, or reassure people that it will all get done in the end! It’s very tempting for both teachers and writers to take the ‘easy’ option of focusing only on job-specific vocabulary, which can be produced quite effectively by getting students to talk about the job. It takes more thought and research to work out what language students need to be able to talk on the job. Very often this means functional language: making, agreeing to or turning down requests; apologizing; explaining cause and effect, etc. Functions are more difficult to deal with than vocabulary, especially when we want to teach and practise them in a communicative way; as writers, this is something we all need to work hard at.

When I first started teaching Business English one-to-one, I received some very helpful advice from a more experienced colleague. Teaching one-to-one, she told me, is all about the art of asking reasonably intelligent questions. Whether you’re talking to a student about their job, or role-playing an on-the-job scenario, it certainly helps if you can ask reasonably intelligent questions that maintain the illusion that you know what you’re talking about; they help the student to feel they can talk to you as if you were a colleague, supplier or customer. As a writer, you may or may not know whether you’re writing for one-to-one, small groups, or large classes. Even if you’re writing primarily for your own students, bear in mind that you may well want to share your material with other teachers or recycle it yourself with a larger or smaller class at a later date. For this reason, try to make your materials as flexible as possible; don’t you just hate it when you’re teaching a small class of three business people and the coursebook instructs students to get into groups of six or seven? Writing questions is a critical part of any kind of language activity, so if you can include reasonably intelligent questions which are at the same time reasonably flexible for different types of classes, then you’re providing real added value. It’s sometimes tempting to assume that the teacher should know their class well enough to be able to adapt, add or subtract questions to suit the class, but teachers are very busy people and questions are so crucial, it’s really worth making the effort to write the right questions directly into your material.

As mentioned above, producing materials that meet your students’ specific needs is very often one of the main reasons for writing. Obviously, knowing your target audience is essential. As an absolute minimum, you need to know whether you’re writing for in-service or pre-service learners; experienced professionals improving their language skills on in-company courses, or students learning Business English as part of a Business Studies or Economics course at college, university or business school. Many writers and publishers have tried to produce the publisher’s dream, a one-size-fits-all Business English course that can straddle both markets, but they have rarely been successful. It is extremely difficult to avoid insulting in-service students with content that tries to teach them how their business works, or frustrating pre-service learners by assuming they have experience of things like business travel, meetings, presentations, etc. Ideally, you need to know much more about the learners you are writing for: their age, level of education, cultural assumptions, L1, learning difficulties, styles and priorities, professional and personal interests, concentration span, sense of humour ... the list is almost endless. The more information you have, the better – and if you don’t have that kind of detailed data, then you have to make your materials as flexible as possible.

If you’re writing for publication, you’ll almost certainly have been asked to produce a ‘scope and sequence’ document before you even write your first activity. This is an overview of what topics, language and skills you plan to cover, and in what order you will cover them. Even if you’re just writing for your own students, as soon as your plans cover more than one activity or one lesson, it’s well worth thinking about how your materials will fit together and hopefully build on each other. As well as more obvious considerations like not using gap-fills in consecutive exercises, or not asking students to read one text after another, you need to think about flow, variety, difficulty, recycling vocabulary and maintaining interest. These are things which you are used to managing when planning lessons using other people’s materials, so it should not represent a huge difficulty. However, depending on the size of your writing project, you will need to think further ahead than usual, and also make your own decisions about what to include and what to leave out, rather than just following another author’s decisions. A spreadsheet is the best tool for this kind of planning: set up a table with a row per unit and columns for things like topic, skills focus, language input, text type, task type, etc. It’s then relatively simple to move your ideas around until you’re satisfied you’ve got a sequence of materials with a logical and balanced flow. It can be a little frustrating to have to spend time working these details out in advance when you’re itching to sit down and let the creative juices flow. On the other hand, it will almost certainly save you a lot of time later on, as well as avoiding the disappointment and irritation of having to rewrite material that doesn’t fit your overall framework.

The following chapters each tackle one of the principal types of activity that you will probably want to write. Each one is self-contained, so if you are particularly interested in writing one type of material, you can go straight to that chapter. However, if you are just starting to write, the chapters are organized more or less in order of difficulty, i.e. warmers and coolers are probably the easiest type of activity to write, and case studies and writing activities are possibly the most difficult. In this case, working through the chapters in order is probably the best approach.

When I was invited to write this book, one of my first thoughts was, what kind of book would have helped me most when I started to write my own material? I quickly realized that although advice from other writers was very valuable, what I really would have liked was a set of practical writing activities to get me started. So, this is what I’ve tried to do for you. You’ll see that each chapter has several writing assignments, starting with fairly short, easy tasks and building up to writing your own version of the activity in question that you can pilot in your own classes. There are also suggested answers for each task at the end of the book. As teachers, we are all used to saving ourselves time by looking at the answers before we do the exercise, but of course you’ll get much more out of the activities by thinking about them yourself and writing your own material. Finally, please bear in mind that every teaching situation is different, so that there are rarely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers: you know your students’ needs far better than I can guess at them, so hopefully most of your answers will be much ‘better’ than mine!

Warmers and coolers

These are short, self-contained speaking tasks that are used to begin or end a lesson or sequence. If you’ve never written your own Business English materials, this is a very good place to start working on your writing skills: warmers and coolers are quick to write and easy to test, tweak and self-publish. You will usually find that colleagues will be more than happy to try them out in their classes too. What’s more, they highlight the importance of brevity and focus that is harder to achieve in longer or more complex materials.

The reasons why you would want to warm your class up are obvious: giving students a relatively easy and achievable task at the beginning of the lesson gets them speaking confidently and sets the tone for the rest of the session. But why would you want or need to cool down at the end of the lesson? I always think that students go away happy when they feel they’ve done a lot of speaking, so it makes sense to finish the session with a speaking activity. If you’ve been working on a roleplay or discussion activity, then it’s fine to finish there, but if students have been up to their ears in complex grammar or a tough listening, it’s nice to end on a high note with an energetic exchange of views.

Warmers can be especially useful to introduce a topic and to create a need for the new language that will follow. They can provide background information, re-activate vocabulary students already know, and consolidate or refresh structures that may be getting rusty. Whatever the agenda, they should be short and easy to understand. Students should be able to start communicating in English with only a minimum of setting up and explaining: there should be no long texts to read (but where possible, a picture or photo can provide lots of input) and the topic should trigger interaction, ideally with plenty of scope for disagreement.

Effective warmers and coolers invite students to draw on their own attitudes, opinions, preferences and experience to accomplish a task. Remember that task-based activities involve more than just manipulating language (e.g. matching opposites or filling gaps): a task needs to have an outcome that is distinct from the language choices involved, e.g. learning about a partner’s opinions, solving a puzzle, making a decision, etc.


Before you start working on the exercises below, look at some warmers and coolers in your favourite coursebook and identify the type of task they provide. Do they use quotations, questionnaires, ranking, categorizing, matching, puzzles, pictures or photos, or something else?


Look at tasks A, B and C below. What level(s) are they suitable for? Would they work for both pre-service (e.g. business students) and in-service learners (e.g. company staff)?

A What kind of employee are you?

Tick the options you prefer. Then explain your choices to a partner.

I prefer …
email the telephone
conference calls face to face meetings
my computer screen paper
starting early finishing late
working alone working in a team
working in the office working at home
unexpected changes a regular routine
too much work not enough work

B He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. (George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright)

Discuss the questions with a partner.

1. What was George Bernard Shaw’s opinion of teachers?
2. Is it true that sales managers are salesmen who cannot sell, or that project managers are engineers who cannot design structures or systems? Why (not)?
3. Think of someone you know who has moved from ‘doing’ to ‘teaching/managing’? Was the change easy or difficult? Why?
4. Do you prefer ‘doing’ or ‘teaching/managing’? Why?

C Pay

With a partner, order these jobs from 1 (the lowest paid) to 8 (the highest paid). Then order them as you think they should be paid in an ideal world. Compare your ideas with other pairs.

police officer
refuse collector
IT technician
sales representative
professional footballer
personal assistant

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