How to Teach Effective Communication Between Teachers and Students in a Business English ESL Classroom

Posted by Elizaveta Shkurina on May 14, 2018 4:30:18 PM

Many ESL students feel intimidated in using their learned language skills in a work setting. As ESL teachers, we  discern and dissect the obstacles in the way of our students' accomplishments. We all hope to pave a path to a brighter future for English learners. 

In YourAgora’s series of "ESL in The Workplace," we contribute to that effort by focusing on the specifics - we help teachers tackle features of the professional world that may challenge both our students and ourselves. We also teach skills to help promote effective communication between teachers and students in the business English ESL classroom.

For ESL teachers of youth and adult learners, it is essential that we prepare our students for the demands of the modern workforce. As they enter that world, the skills they have gained will carry them through every step of their careers. 

Effective Workplace Communication Skills

Effective communication in the workplace is one of the most important aspects of any business. By incorporating lessons on effective ESL communication in the professional setting, we provide our students the tools they need to navigate the corporate environment. Workplace skills, including networking, revolve around communication, are one of the major keys to having a successful career.

People around a table employing communication skills to express ideas with one another.

Teaching Oral Communication Skills

Oral communication, particularly face-to-face and telephone conversations, is the prevailing mode of workplace communication. While articulation and industry jargon are important, effective communication reaches beyond that knowledge - into interpersonal skills, such as confidence, body language, and decision-making.

According to a Monash University graduate study, most employees should possess strong communication skills, or they will be at a strong disadvantage in the company. Employers commented in the open-ended section of the survey, stating that oral communication and interpersonal skills are:

…some of the most vital components for employee success in the workplace, both in the short and long term.

Such skills are also:

…fundamental to the growth, development, and success of any employee. So often it is oral communication skills that distinguish between a high performer and an average performer.

Employers also harbor some concerns about the lack of employees' communication abilities. One respondent stated that:

Our partners are always asking why even some college graduates don't have the basic skills and confidence in answering phones, or talking to clients.

ESL students in particular require experience and instruction in a range of oral communication settings. Concurrently with such experiences, students require additional communication skills, including issues related to cross-cultural, gender, generational, and status group communication.

In order for your students to comfortably navigate in any work position, they should practice situations that will sharpen those highly-demanded skills. Consider these workplace situations and the skills that each of the following will require:

Giving oral presentations in groups or individually

using humor to engage an audience

tailoring messages to different audiences

Collaborating with coworkers on a project

giving credit to others

showing an interest in others, asking about and recognizing feelings

Informal work-related discussions Giving oral presentations in groups or individually 

refraining from speaking too often or interrupting others 

demonstrate understanding by using affirmative sounds and words

such as I understand, for sure, I see, and yes

Approaching an issue critically and holding one's ground in discussion


explaining a difficult situation without getting angry 


For oral practice, guide your students to focus on clear and concise statements instead of fragments or long sentences. Begin with simple exercises, such as asking your students to describe a job-related image in three sentences, to teach expression of ideas in a clear and efficient way.

As your students progress, test their skills with improvisational oral practice, which incorporates above examples of workplace situations. Present each student with an event, and have him or her articulate the appropriate thought process and action in the given situation.

For more conversational practice, consider spending time on practicing dialogue that would be suitable in each scenario. Distinguish the proper levels of formal address between different individuals, like two coworkers, a worker and a manager, or a corporate representative and a client.

Bonus Oral Exercise!

Ask the student to imagine that he or she has been hired to make “cold calls” to ask people whether they are interested in a new office product. Have the student write a script for the phone call, including key vocabulary. The teacher may co-present as the student delivers the script orally, as if he or she was making the phone call to you, the consumer. Provide feedback on the student’s performance.

Workplace Success by Listening

 The key to all workplace communication - active listening skills.

Relay to your students the importance of hearing what the other person is making an effort to say, even if that person is struggling with the task. Identify the key words to notice during a conversation, such as but, I think, or umm. These words may indicate doubt. Teach your students to listen for questions that may sound like an affirmative statement, such as "You think this will work" or "The customer may want ....", to clear up misconceptions. 

Active Listening Phrases to Consider

Implement these phrases in your active listening instruction, which affirm the speaker that the recipient is listening, and pushes the conversation in a productive direction. 

  • Building Trust: “Let me know what I can do to help.” “I was impressed to read on your company’s website that you contribute a percentage of sales to charity.”
  • Demonstrating Concern: “I am happy to help with your project; I know you have faced some tough challenges.” “I understand how difficult software switchover can be – how is your staff handling the change?”
  • Paraphrasing: “So, you are saying that not having a strict deadline for this project is creating stress for you.” “So, you think that we should contribute more effort in our social media marketing presence.” 
  • Verbal Affirmation: “I understand that you would like a better structure in the payroll system.” “Thank you. I appreciate you coming to see me about this issue.” 
  • Open-Ended Questions: “I can see that the failure of the latest marketing campaign was disappointing to you. What aspect of the project were you not satisfied with?” “It’s clear that the current situation is making you uncomfortable. What steps do you suggest to improve your position?” 
  • Specific Questions: “How long do you expect it will take to complete the hiring process?” “What is your average rate of staff turnover?”
  • Waiting To Disclose Your Opinion: “Tell me more about your proposal to reorganize the department.” “Can you please provide some history for me regarding your relationship with your former business partner?” 
  • Disclosing Similar Situations: “I also felt conflicted about the appropriate length of my medical leave.” “I had the responsibility of finding new candidates for a specific position, while terminating the old staff. Even if it’s necessary, it never gets easier.”


Audio Listening Exercise!

Have your student listen to a short audio file of three people discussing their office spaces. Complete these true/false questions. There are two questions for each speaker. Consider making your own audio recording discussing workplace challenges, dialogue between professionals, or informal meetings.


Teaching Effective Writing Skills

Writing skills have become a necessity in any modern industry. People spend a lot of time at work writing emails, notes, letters, memos, and reports, regardless of profession. Whether coordinating with a colleague, discussing a project with a manager, or composing the company newsletter, an employee’s writing skills can boost or hinder his or her career.

Teaching your students specialized writing skills for the workplace provides them with an advantage of being viewed as more professional and credible. In addition, it promotes the ability of students to express their thoughts clearly. The value of the worker often comes from his or her ability to communicate clear and inspiring ideas.

 “As Marvin Swift memorably said, clear writing means clear thinking,” said Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.”

Aim to instruct your students in presenting their ideas in different written modes, including email etiquette and formal business correspondence. Stress the importance of proper sentence structure and paragraph formation. Regarding formal business communication, teach your student the importance of conveying the tone of the message with words. 

Writing Principles

Harvard Business Review suggests general Principles to Remember when writing a professional message. Consider implementing these simple guidelines in your writing instruction:


Have a plan for your message - make it direct and effective. Isolate the important information, and make sure every word is expressing exactly what you intended.

Use long words sparingly and keep sentences short. Recognize the power of short words and sentences.

Avoid too much jargon and “fancy” words. Instead, strive for clarity. Words should express, not make an impression.


Argue that you simply don’t have the talent to write. With practice, anyone can become a better writer. Read good writing and exercise your own skills.

Pretend that your first draft is perfect. Every document can be edited and improved. Be open to feedback.

Bury your argument. Present your main idea as soon, and as clearly, as possible. Focus on facts and active verbs, to present your message in a concise way.


With these principles in mind, consider including email simulations in your business writing lesson plan. Identify the main subjects of the correspondence - meeting appointments, reminders, requests, complaints, apologies, or job applications. 

Plan the correspondence to include potential stages. For example, in a simple exchange such as requesting a document from a manager, there may be any number of messages, including the request for a document, sending the attachment, issues with the attachment, re-sending the attachment, thanking the colleague and following up.

Have your student engage in this exchange either with you, or in a group of other students. At the end of the correspondence, provide feedback on grammar, tone, style, and appropriateness. Notice if the student used the correct level of formality for the situation. 

Writing Practice!

Ask the student to create a formal pitch for a product, along with an appointment request, for a major company. Have the student think about the following questions:

  • Who: Who is my audience?
  • What: What do they need to know?
  • When: When does this apply, when did this happen, or when do they need to know it by?
  • Where: Where is this happening?
  • Why: Why do they need this information?
  • How: How should they use this information?

Check for correct language use, as well as for formality and clarity of the pitch. Have the student explain the approaches he or she used to engage the chosen audience. 

Next, in our "ESL in the Workplace" series, we will provide Lesson Plans that will keep both you and your students utterly engaged. Meanwhile, find why Business English is important to learn! 

Meanwhile, check out our free platform made by ESL teachers, for ESL teachers - Your Agora! 

Whether you are teaching English abroad, looking to optimize your online teaching business, or searching for reliable ESL lesson plans, Your Agora is right for you. Our platform provides a flexible, blended learning opportunity that both you and the students can experience from the comfort of home.

Your Agora can be used to help you research teacher student communication strategies as well as different types of communication in schools.


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