Teacher talk in 1:1 business English training | BEsig workshop summary

Business one to one

February’s BEsig weekend workshop was facilitated by Gareth Humphrey who reviewed a framework for evaluating language used in the one to one business English classroom.


Gareth started off by talking about how one to one teaching is a crucial but often neglected skill. For example, it’s not a part of initial teaching qualifications such as the Celta. On the Celta, you are normally told that one to one is something you have to work out on your own. However, a lot of the engaging techniques you learn in teacher training such as pair work, group work and peer feedback don’t work in a one to one session. Moreover, in the business classroom, you are frequently doing one to one, and instead of your regular repertoire of communicative language teaching tricks, you are more reliant on conversation.

In the one to one classroom, conversation is often the goal, and the medium of instruction. Thornbury & Slade, 2006)

The challenge is making sure our dialogues are pedagogically effective for the teaching situations we find ourselves in with the learner and go beyond merely doing things based on intuition.


Gareth’s premise is that we are compelled to play different roles in one to one teaching, imposing conflicting demands on us. We may need to don all of these following hats: coach, therapist, business partner (not just in the sense of providing services to a client but also as a role play partner), teacher, cheerleader and listener. The role we play is going to influence the kind of language we use.

Reducing teacher-talking-time (TTT) is the conventional refrain in ELT but in one to one, it’s not just about decreasing TTT but increasing its quality. As we move from role to role, our use of language changes.  Gareth suggests that when our perceived role in the classroom overlaps with the right language for that role, that’s when good teaching occurs.  However, it’s sometimes very difficult to hold back on teacher instincts and we often slip out of one mode and into another when it’s not called for.

5 modes for interactions between teachers and students 

Gareth has drawn on the work of Steve Walsh who suggested that interactions between teachers and students could be divided into 4 modes (for General English settings) and adapted this framework, including an additional mode for the business one to one classroom.

1. Managerial mode

Characterized by extended teacher turns and the use of transitional markers such as right, so and well, this mode is used to transmit information and organize the learning environment.

T: As agreed last week, we’re going to have a look at language for structuring presentations today. Is that still ok for you?

S: Yes, that‘s great.

T: Right, let‘s start then by listening to a presentation.

S: One minute, let me get a pen. OK.

2. Materials mode

More frequently found in General English, it could involve looking at some text or listening to an audio. The objective is to provide language practice around some material. It involves extensive use of display questions (where there is a targeted answer), form-focused feedback and corrective repair.

T: What’s the answer to question three?

L: Personnel department

T: Personnel department – say it again…

L: Personnel department

T: Good.



T:What’s the answer to question three?

L: Richard went to London.

T: To London?

L: er… ah, no, to Birmingham.

T: That’s right.

3. Skills and system mode

This mode aims to get learners to produce the correct forms and give corrective feedback. It’s characterized by display questions, form-focused feedback and extended teacher turns.

T: What did you do last week?

S: I go on a business journey.

T: I go? I…

S: … went on a business journey.

T: Do you mean journey?

S:… er… trip, business trip.

T: Good. We would use journey to talk about the actual travelling, but the whole thing is a business trip

4. Classroom context mode

Characterized by extended learner turns with referential questions, content feedback and minimal repair. The focus is oral fluency. The T is interested in the content of the Ss’ response.

T: What did you do last week?

S: I go on a business journey.

T: Really? Where did you go?

S: I went to Madrid to meeting with my co… coll…

T: Colleagues, yes. And how long was the meeting?

S: Two days. I stayed by Friday.

T: You stayed until Friday?

S: Until Friday, yes.

T: Sounds great.

5. Business fluency mode

Turn length on the part of the T or the learner depends on the situation and the focus is encouraging language use in the learner’s work place. For example, the T plays the role of a negotiator in a conversation that the learner would typically have with stakeholders. It’s marked by the collaborative construction of dialogue, clarification questions, referential questions and content feedback.

T: So how big a discount did you have in mind?

S: I thinking we can offer 14%

T: Sorry, forty or fourteen?

S: Fourteen.

T: I’m sorry, but I can‘t agree to that, it‘s nowhere near what we need, it‘s just too…too…

S: …too low for you? Well maybe we can do a little more, but I must to speak with my chef.

Gareth encourages Ts to use the SETT cycle to become reflective practitioners while switching between these modes, leveraging video-recording as a way of reflecting on what you’re doing and of course paying close attention to the language you use in each mode.

SETT cycle


Image attribution: Flickr | GDC Europe 2010 Talks, Conversations, Presentations by Official GDC | CC by 2.0


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