The Internet TESL Journal

Content-based Business English Course for EFL

Yi-chen Chen
yicc (+at+)
National Chengchi University (Taipei, Taiwan)
This course plan is designed for an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) program with a content-based syllabus, and is designed especially for English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners. Controversial issues—like whether to focus on learning process or product, and the proportion of language and content—are taken into consideration specifically to meet EFL learners’ needs. Learners in the program will use English to complete a business-related task—developing a marketing plan. They will be trained to make a formal oral presentation and to write business documents in formal English.


This course plan is designed for English as Specific Purposes (ESP) program with a content-based syllabus, and is designed especially for English as Foreign Language (EFL) learners. In EFL countries, people do not have immediate needs of using L2 learned in their daily lives; one common situation of putting English into use is to utilize it in particular occasions, such as in workplaces because of career needs. Therefore, ESP education is getting popular recently.

Business English—a branch of ESP curriculum—is especially prevalent due to the trend of globalization around the world. As companies are becoming internationalized, employees are required to possess a certain level of English proficiency to raise the competitiveness. The following ESP course design is centered at developing a marketing plan. Controversial issues—like whether to focus on learning process or product, and the proportion of language and content—are taken into consideration specifically to meet EFL learners’ needs. Learners will learn to use English in completing business-related tasks, including giving formal oral presentations and writing business documents.

Theoretical Background

English for Specific Purposes

Since the communicative approach emerged in the late 1960s, being capable of using a language in real-world communication becomes the main objective in the field of language teaching (Richards, 2001). Unlike the traditional Structural Method that focuses on learners’ grammatical competence, Communicative Language Teaching approach (CLT) emphasizes communicative competence—the ability not only to apply the grammatical rules of a language in order to form grammatically correct sentences but also to know when and where to use these sentences and to whom (Richards, Platt & Platt, 1998).

Responding to this new trend, the ESP movement has emerged and put practical concerns of language learning in the first place. Learners of ESP are those who have already mastered general English but still need it for use in their jobs. Therefore, specialized linguistic characteristics of different disciplines are studied and integrated into language teaching syllabus designs. Learners’ needs and expectations, moreover, have become the basic principle for course designs (Richards, 2001).

In terms of ESP course design, a task-based approach is recommended. On the one hand, students in an ESP course are usually adults who come for special needs, such as needs in the workplace; therefore, special constraints might operate in the teaching context, like an unavoidable absence (Cunningworth, 1995, p.133). On the other hand, since an ESP course aims at developing abilities and skills for learners to deal with real-life situations that they would encounter, problem-solving tasks should be the main stream in the courses (Cunningworth, 1995, p.134). As a result, a task which can give learners not only a sense of achievement but opportunities to evaluate their performances against real-world criteria would be important for an ESP course.

Content-based Syllabus

A content-based syllabus, or a topical syllabus, is developed in accordance with the principles of ESP. One common issue of the syllabus design is whether a product or a process should be the main focus. Hutchinson and Waters (1983, as cited in Nunan, 1993, p.49) suggest that the best work in the ESP area usually focuses on a process rather than a product. However, in real world situations, language often acts as a means in the process of completing tasks. Therefore, ESP should pay attention to not only the process of learning, but also the product.

Another issue of content-based syllabi is the way of grading tasks. With ESP and a topical syllabus, an obvious means of grading content is with reference to concepts associated with the subject questions (Nunan, 1993, p.70). However, the crucial point is to let learners understand the relationship between language and content. Therefore, in Mohan’s (1986) model, content facilitates learning not merely through language but also with it; an ESP course could be organized by classroom activities which combines specific practical aspects and general theoretical aspects.

In addition to the above concerns, the balance of content and language is also important. Content should be a vehicle to drive language learning (Hadley, 2001). In a content-based syllabus, the language is the bones and skeleton while the content is the flesh and blood; the language could be seen as a means to complete a content task. Therefore, not only the content but also the four language skills should be taught.

However, unlike ESL countries where learners use the language often in their daily life, in EFL countries, the language is rarely used outside classrooms. It is comparatively easier for ESL learners to master the language in specialized contexts than for EFL learners. Therefore, though students in ESP program are supposed to master general language skills, students in EFL context should give special attention to language skill training.

Course Rationales

The present course design is planned for ESP students. Paying special attention to the issues mentioned above, this course would be designed as a content-based language course program with the following criteria:

Descriptions of the Course Designs

Applicable Situations

This program is targeted business-related language training. The course can be implemented in Vocational Training Centers. It can be adopted by local companies that aim at entering international markets or by multinational enterprises that want to improve employees’ language proficiency. The program can also be a part of a school course for College of Commerce in college-level schools. The span of one course program would last twelve weeks, with ten topics covered.


Entry and Existing Levels

The target students are adult EFL learners. Their English proficiency level should be better than intermediate. They are required to take an English proficiency test before they enter the program in order to prove that they reach proper proficiency levels. The lowest accepted test scores would be 550 on the TOEIC test, or other equally comparable scores.

In terms of content knowledge, learners who take this program probably have college degrees and have been in the workplace for a couple of years, or they could be college students majoring in business, management, or international trade. They either have real hand-on experiences about business, or they have professional subject knowledge of business.

In terms of language proficiency, learners in the program have reached an intermediate level—the level at which the program starts. The level learners maybe expected to reach at the end of the program would be high-intermediate.

Topics and Materials

The main topic of the program is “marketing.” Subtopics are step-by-step procedures of making a marketing plan. Starting from analyzing current situations of a target company, the program moves on to set up objectives for a business, to investigate targeted markets, and to design marketing tactics; the final step is to prepare emergency measures about market controls.

Since the program is content-based and learners have reached an intermediate level of proficiency, no additional explanation and separate class hours would be given to language instructions. However, during the process of the program, all four skills—reading, listening, speaking, and writing—would be practiced while understanding content, discussing problems, and completing tasks. One article for reading would be given every class; vocabulary would be learned.

In addition, to raise students’ interests and to introduce business cultures from around the world, videos are integrated. By watching videos, students’ listening ability will improve; in addition, the videos can display different business cultures in other countries. In the following plan, the American TV reality show “The Apprentice” is used. The TV series is about a group of people fighting for becoming the apprentice of the millionaire, Donald Trump. They took business tasks and competed with each other; the one who beat all other competitors becomes the apprentice. Each episode is used as a case study.

Course Sequence

The program is self-contained in order to fit businessmen’s uncertain schedules. Therefore, except for the final two weeks which are designed for project presentations, the other ten weeks cover ten different topics. The sequence of the ten topics ia based on the sequence of making a marketing plan. In brief, the course sequence follows the content sequence.

Syllabus Design

Week 1

Topic: Starting from the Beginning—Introduction to Marketing

Content Objectives:
  1. To define “marketing.”
  2. To develop concepts of marketing.
  3. To understand the marketing management process.

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with vocabulary.
  2. To use a “graphic organizer” in developing ideas.
  3. To write paragraphs by using concept maps.   

Hand-on: The Apprentice.
  1. To become acquainted with the process the competition.
  2. Discuss which group wins and why.
  3. Use a “graphic organizer” to picture the marketing plans in the episode.

Week 2

Topic: What is a “Marketing Plan”

Lead-in: The Apprentice.
  1. Use a “graphic organizer” to picture the marketing plans in the episode.
  2. Guess/discuss which group will win and why.

Content Objectives:
  1. To figure out elements of a marketing plan.
  2. To understand the structures of a marketing plan.
  3. To know standard planning frameworks.

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with vocabulary.
  2. To use words learned in discussion.

Week 3

Topic: Getting to Know How to Analyze Situations

Content Objectives:
  1. To know terminology of marketing research
  2. To understand the marketing research process
  3. To use marketing research techniques and tools.
  4. To figure out components of MKIS (Marketing Information Systems).

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with vocabulary. 
  2. To design a marketing research tool, like an interview protocol or questionnaires.
  3. To practice using the designed techniques, like a simulated phone interview.

  1. Choose a target product or a service.
  2. Develop marketing tools, and conduct a small-scale marketing research.

Week 4

Topic: Understanding Markets—How to Analyze Situations

Content Objectives:
  1. To learn situation-analyzing skills and tools, like SWOT analysis, PETS analysis, and Five-Force analysis.
  2. To compare and contrast the tools and their uses.

Language Objectives:
  1. To learn how to write paragraphs to compare and contrast things.

Hand-on: The Apprentice.
  1. Discuss which group wins and why by using the tools in analyzing situations.

Task 1: Marketing Plan Step One: Analysis
  1. Pick a company/organization.
  2. Find information about the selected company/organization by using marketing research techniques.

Week 5

Topic: Understanding Markets—How to Analyze Situations

Content Objectives:
  1. To see examples of SWOT analysis about Starbucks Coffee and Nike.
  2. To read and discuss a case study about Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan.

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with vocabulary. 
  2. To practice scanning and skimming skills while reading.
  3. To recognize structures of an article.

  1. Fill out a factual sheet of KFC case study.

Tasks 1: Marketing Plan Step One: Analysis
  1. To analyze the target company/organization by using SWOT analysis.

Week 6

Topic: Acting SMART—How to Make a Smart Business Objective

Lead-in: The Apprentice.

Content Objectives:
  1. To differentiate “objectives” and “aims or goals”.
  2. To know SMART principles of setting up objectives.

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with vocabulary. 
  2. To write objective statements by using dependent clauses.

Task 2. Marketing Plan Step Two: Objective
  1. Set up a marketing objective, such as a new product/case to promote.
  2. Remember to follow SMART principles.

Week 7

Topic: Playing Strategically—Strategic Development.

Lead-in: The Apprentice.
  1. List all advertising and promotion skills used.
  2. Analyze strategies and discuss which group would win.

Content Objectives:
  1. To introduce the Introduction to Product Life Cycle (PLC)
  2. To understand important principles of writing advertising messages.
  3. To brainstorm useful and creative marketing tools.

Language Objectives:
  1. To learn terminology related to business and marketing.
  2. To brainstorm a catchy slogan that ryhmes.
  3. To negotiate ideas by using words learned.

Task 3. Marketing Plan Step Three: Strategies and tactics.
  1. Develop a suitable plan for promoting the target company/organization.

Week 8

Topic: Everything Under Control—How to Manage a Marketing Plan

Content Objectives:
  1. To know the implementation process
  2. To understand total quality and marketing
  3. To learn how to establish and maintain a relationship with customers.

Language Objectives:
  1. To develop an action checklist.
  2. To become familiar with vocabulary. 
  3. To search for inferential information in articles.

Hand-on: The Apprentice.

Task 3. Marketing Plan Step Three: Strategies and Tactics.

Week 9

Topic: Present Well—How to Make an Effective Business Presentation

Content Objectives:
  1. To introduce eight secrets for a knockout presentation.
  2. To differentiate good and bad PowerPoint presentation designs.
  3. To tell the dos and don’ts of effective PowerPoint presentations.

Language Objectives:
  1. To learn transitional signals and words used in public speaking.
  2. To use business terminology in simulated meetings.

Hands-on: The Apprentice.
  1. To analyze the presentations by telling good and bad characteristics.

Task 4: Marketing Plan Stage Four: PowerPoint Presentation

Week 10

Topic: How to Write a Formal Business Proposal

Content Objectives:
  1. To see examples of writing a business proposal.
  2. To understand the structure and points of a proposal.

Language Objectives:
  1. To become familiar with writing business proposals.
  2. To recognize appropriate word uses.
  3. To recognize correct formats of writing.

Task 5: Marketing Plan Stage Five: Business Proposal Writing

Week 11 & Week 12

Topic: Final Project Presentations.

Content Objectives:
  1. To put what was learned into use.

Language Objectives:
  1. To use English to present proposals.

Task 6: Final Project Presentation
  1. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation and handouts.
  2. Prepare all advertisements or other promotional items, such as posters.


The final marketing plan consists of five small tasks. Each task would be 10% of the total grade; five tasks would be 50% of the final grade.

The grade for the final project presentation would be 20% for speaking and 20% for written papers. In terms of speaking, an evaluation sheet would be given to students in advance, so that they could grade other classmates while listening to presentations.

The final written proposal would be evaluated using criteria such as "correctness of grammar," "exactness of word use," "appropriateness of format," and "comprehensibility of delivery."


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010