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The Role of Business Simulations in the Business English Syllabus: Some Considerations

by Max Orlando

Teaching Business English (BE) and General English (GE) differ in a number of ways. Ellis and Johnson (1996: 10 – 13) speak about key differences within the following areas: needs analysis, assessment of level, syllabus design, course objectives, time management, learner expectations, materials, methodology and evaluation of progress. Our point of departure will be the needs analysis aspect since it should be the first stage of the design of business simulations. Very often BE students’ needs vary according to their favourite activities, special interests, learning styles and goals, which makes our job quite hard since we should try to cater for as many of them as possible. In this article we will show why business simulations can help solve this problem and we will give some tips for designing them.

First Stage: Assessing Students’ Needs and Wants.
Before designing a business simulation, we need to know what the students’ expectations, needs and wants are. BE belongs to the general category of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) “…where a student has some specific reasons for wanting to learn the language” (Harmer 1985:1). These reasons consist of needs and wants, and assessing them will help “…possible teachers or co-ordinators… find out exactly what it is their students really need English for and… make decisions about Course Design” (Harmer 1985: 226). Since students’ expectations include both what they need (e.g. giving a business presentation) and what they want (e.g. reading texts related to information technology), when we design a simulation, it is necessary to take into consideration two aspects that involve BE students’ learning: facts and preferences. “It is of vital importance to have comprehensive information about what the students need so as to make sure that they will actually have acquired it by the end of the course” (Villar 2007: 16). However, focusing only on needs may lead to a highly technical or mechanical syllabus that stresses task performance, but which neglects an important aspect of task planning, which is its subject matter. Consequently, we insist on the analysis of both needs and wants.

Ian Tudor (1996: 73-77) discusses different types of needs analysis procedures: questionnaires, interviews, tests, observations, case studies, qualified informants, participatory needs analysis, and authentic data collection. Undoubtedly, each of these techniques has its own pros and cons, but because of several constraints like lack of time and resources, and for the sake of having an objective view of the students’ demands, we will centre on questionnaires, from which we will obtain a number of facts and preferences that will help us design the simulation. (See table 1).

Table 1. Information to consider before designing a business simulation.

The more we know about what our students want and need, the more specific and relevant the goals and the content of the simulation will be. Why do the students in a specific class study BE? Is it to be able to communicate with foreign people? Is it to improve their fluency? What do students do? Are they architects, doctors, secretaries? Where do they work? What does their daily work involve? Telephoning? Giving presentations? Socialising? What vocabulary areas do they need to develop? That means, do they work for an insurance company, a perfume manufacturer, an airline, etc? In what department do they work or would they like to work in the future: the Marketing department, the Human Resources department, the Research and Development department, etc? Finally, what business topics are students interested in: sustainable development, telecommunications, aeronautics, etc?

Once we get the answers to all these questions, we can start thinking about the content and goals of a business simulation. Very often BE students` needs are heterogeneous, but simulations can help focus on very specific needs that BE course books do not follow up on simply because textbooks are meant to be used by a wide range of schools and students of different nationalities and from different backgrounds all over the world. However, before moving onto the next stages of the design, we will define what a business simulation is.

What is a business simulation?
A business simulation is a task. We will define a business task as a set of activities that will gradually lead the learner to perform a business operation. Nunan (1997:45) says real world tasks are those that “…the learner might be called upon to perform in real life”, while pedagogic tasks are those which “…the learner is required to carry out in the classroom”. Business simulations are real world tasks, since they should reflect BE students’ needs and wants, which are usually specific and work-related. Having said this, we will distinguish business simulations from role-play and case studies.

A case study is a fictitious or real situation that illustrates the subject matter students are dealing with. It may contain a problem or just describe a business situation. By analysing it, students can apply the knowledge they have acquired. A business case study can be a part of a simulation (its introduction, for instance), but it is not a simulation. When students find a solution to a problem developed in a case study, they do not play any roles.

Role-play is an information gap activity in which “the participants interact either as themselves in imaginary situations or as other people in imaginary situations” (Byrne 1986:115). Role-play is a problem-solving activity in which the participants take a role to resolve a conflict. Generally speaking, each participant receives a card in which a problematic situation is stated and/or described, but he/she does not know anything about the other participants’ goals. This is the reason why it is an information gap activity. Again, role-play is not a simulation, but it may be a part of it.

In a business simulation, “…the participants normally discuss a problem of some kind with a setting that has been defined for them” (Byrne 1986:115). This setting is usually a case study. The first difference between role-play and simulations is that in the latter all the participants share the same information concerning the problem to discuss, and they are all aware of each other’s position and goals in the game. Again, the participants can be someone else or themselves if the simulation is set in their own workplace. The second difference is the complexity of simulations. Byrne (1986:127) explains that a simulation is a more complex activity than role-play since it requires several stages and sources to obtain the required materials, i.e. it contains and includes much more than a set of cards.

What is next?
Several BE course books provide business simulations, but since we believe simulations can help to deal with very specific language needs, we consider it is important to be able to design tailor-made ones.

First Stage:
With the information we have obtained from the needs analysis questionnaire, the first thing to do is to set the linguistic, learning and social goals. By linguistic goals we mean what the students will be able to do with the language. By learning goals, we mean selecting and using the right language according to the context. By social goals we mean the ability to interact with other speakers following certain rules and procedures.

Second Stage:
The second stage is to think of a problem-solving situation or scenario. Once we know what the goals are, we need to think of a possible and relevant context where these goals can be attained. This scenario may consist of a case study which includes students’ favourite subject matter as well as relevant work experience.

Third Stage:
Once we know what goals the students will try to achieve and within which context, it is time to start thinking about a combination of texts, articles, conversations, recordings, pictures, TV programmes, film sequences, video material and/or any other sources that will illustrate the setting and that will introduce and develop the scenario.

Fourth stage:
This is the backbone of the simulation: a suitable path that will lead to the final output. This means trying to find a string of activities (each of them leading to the next) that will conduct the students to the main task (negotiating, for example).

Fifth Stage:
Designing a follow-up activity and assessing students’ performance. It is vital to let students know how they will be assessed for them to see what they have accomplished and what linguistic, learning and social areas they need to improve or work on.

Some aspects to consider.
Business simulations make the BE class amusing, useful and realistic. Designing them enhances teachers’ ability as material designers. However, there are some aspects to take into consideration:

  • Using a business simulation for the first time is nothing but a pilot project. Observing how it works in a real lesson and receiving students’ feedback about which parts worked well and which ones did not will help improve it.
  • The teacher has a vital role when a simulation is taking place. Byrne (1986: 128) explains that our “…main task during the simulation is to see that everything goes smoothly”. Undoubtedly, different teachers have different approaches, but since simulations contain several stages and combine different instructions as well as oral, aural, reading and writing activities, teachers should check that instructions are followed and time limits respected.
  • The business simulation must be followed by some kind of assessment in which both the teacher and the students assess students’ performance regarding language in use, cultural awareness and norms of interaction.
  • Business simulations help cater for very specific learner needs. However, since we said at the beginning that these needs may differ in a number of ways, picking out the most representative ones of the class and dealing with them in a business simulation will make students aware that BE is not a vague subject, but a very useful tool that enhances their chances of success at work.


List of references

  • Byrne, D. 1986. Teaching Oral English. Singapore: Longman Group Limited.
  • Ellis, M., & Johnson, C. 1996. Teaching Business English. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
  • Harmer, J. 1983. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Hong Kong: Longman Group Limited.
  • Nunan, D. 1997. Syllabus Design. China: Oxford University Press.
  • Tudor, I. 1996. Learner-centredness as Language Education. Great Britain. Cambridge University Press.
  • Villar, P. 2007. Mixed-ability groups remixed. IH Journal of Education and Development, 22, 14-17.


Author’s Bio:
Max Orlando has taught English, Business English and Social Studies in Argentina, Canada and Spain. He holds a BA in Teaching Social Studies and a BA in TESL. He has specialized In Course and Materials Design, which he has taught for four years at CAECE Univesrty in Buenos Aires. He is currently working for International House in Madrid.

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