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Improving Workplace English Instruction

by Helene M. Bumbalo

Measuring outcomes is common in classes for English Language Learners (ELL). We give proficiency tests and evaluate our students, identify weaknesses and strengths, determine abilities and plan new challenges or remediation efforts. At course end, we have final grades or assessment scores.

But how do we measure success in workplace English classes? Do we measure outcomes in grammar, vocabulary, fluency, pronunciation, and/or comprehension skills? Is success measured by what percentage attains certification or whether students obtain employment?

Workplace English instructors are motivated by their desire to help learners become successful employees. Their intentions are strong, yet many workplace English instructors know only the basics of “the real world of work.” While their students may be successful in their classroom, they may not be successful in the workplace.

In order to support authentic learning and, thus, authentic workplace success, instructors can increase their effectiveness by shifting their approach. Using the following “formula,” instructors can be more effective in preparing students with the language and cultural behaviors needed to obtain and maintain employment: curiosity, a career management process, attitude, workplace knowledge, real-world learning materials, and support.


Instructors may recognize that teaching workplace English is challenging. Having a teaching background hasn’t often exposed them to many of the 12,000 job titles that are listed in the USA. Curiosity, that strong desire to learn or know something, is therefore critical for teachers so they can approach this specialty with an open mind and forge new ideas about “the world of work.” Without curiosity, instructors won’t know what they don’t know…and need to know!

Career Management Process

Having a long-lasting and viable career doesn’t just happen, not in today’s workplace. Gone are the days when one got hired and expected to retire after 35 years with a “gold watch.” Due to multiple factors including rapid technological advancements, the demands of corporate shareholders, mergers, acquisitions, individual retirement plans, outsourcing of job functions abroad, the elimination of jobs due to automation and AI, and other factors, individuals need to actively navigate their career pathway as if they are a “free agent.” Displaced mid-career professionals trying to re-create a career path in the USA might be sitting alongside other language learners who have never held any jobs at all. Their English levels might be the same; their position on their career continuum might be very different.

The career process must include continuous self-evaluations of interests, values, and talents; goal setting; identification of barriers; planning; and implementation of the plan as well as continued review and modification of that plan. This is a lifelong process. Workplace English instructors who understand this process can help students identify where they are on this continuum, and teach accordingly. Meeting the students where they are allows for authentic and relevant learning that supports successful and continuous employment.


For most of us, the adult knowledge seekers in our classrooms come from very different backgrounds than we do. For many of them, that might include a loss of core family, fleeing from violence with resultant PTSD, different parenting norms, loss of status, education degrees that are not recognized in the USA, religious differences, financial struggles, and/or unstable housing, let alone a lack of English knowledge and fluency. These differences can create and even maintain a marginalized workforce status. As instructors, it is hard to observe these difficult circumstances and maintain empathy but not slide into sympathy, which by its nature sets up a “one up/one down” scenario. Unless we uncover our unconscious attitudes, the implicit bias that likely exists within us can impede our instruction and may even result in subtle micro-aggressions. Classroom microaggressions can range from asking the student in a hijab to explain Ramadan to her classmates to admonishing the Chinese student to speak up more. It is imperative that we explore our attitudes toward our learners to avoid creating an environment that feels unsafe.

Workplace Knowledge

So much focus is placed on performance at work. You hear phrases like, “I hit it out of the ballpark,” “I put in 110%,” “I made it faster, better, cleaner, more efficient,” et cetera. However, performance is really only one third of what is considered when measuring workplace success. The other two factors are networking and personal brand. Networking can be difficult for non-native speakers who tend to cluster and isolate away from American coworkers, yet accomplishing this can promote career success. Personal brand, that “gut” response others feel when thinking about someone, will also either help or hinder our students. Teaching both the language and concepts of these two additional measures is essential for our students to not just get a job, but keep a job.

“…performance is really only one third of what is considered when measuring workplace success. The other two factors are networking and personal brand.”

Real World Learning Materials

While textbooks may provide a foundation for learning workplace English, our knowledge seekers need to connect to local newspapers, community happenings, job boards, search engines, company websites, and press releases. These provide ways to expand targeted vocabulary, real world aptitude, and implicit learning necessary for workplace success.

photo of Helene M. Bumbalo


Workplace English instructors need to juggle expectations and requirements from their funding sources and legislation. Making this type of suggested shift in approach may seem overwhelming or impossible; however, integrated education and training (IET) includes workplace readiness activities that dovetail easily with the ideas in this formula. The “Being More Effective in Teaching Workplace English” training has been designed by this author and VALRC, and will be offered in 2019. Come explore real world workplace readiness activities, brainstorm with others, expand your skills, and improve the real world outcomes for your students. Hope to see you in 2019!

Helene M. Bumbalo, M.S., is a career consultant/ trainer and a TESOL certified instructor in business English. She created HirePower Associates, LLC, in 2004 to help people crystallize their thinking about their career pathway, set their goals, identify any obstacles they face, and partner with them along their journey to overcome their unique barriers. Helene is a work readiness consultant with VALRC, where she contributes her unique background in corporate America to program development projects.