Review: Work It Out with Business Idioms

Scroll to *get on with it, Pete* for review.

Do you remember that BBC article about how rubbish us native speakers can be at communication? I think that put me off teaching idioms for a bit. I came to think of them as ‘flowery’ (as the article suggests) and likely to cause misunderstanding. I feel like some of Chan’s maxims of good business communication reinforce that viewpoint and don’t seem very idiom-friendly…

… yet in a later chapter of the book (English for Business Communication, 2020) Chan then lists the 50 most popular idioms used in business contexts, suggesting that learning these may result in ‘effective communication with native speakers of English’.

So which is it – simplify or complicate things? Well, at the time of writing (28/03/2021) I feel like ignoring idiomatic language does my learners a disservice. At the very least, teaching idioms is important for comprehension – I think I focused too much on production when teaching them before. If I compare idioms to phrasal verbs, phrasals aren’t always transparent in meaning and may be used infrequently, yet I see them as very important to teach, so I’m not sure why I ended up putting idioms on the back burner 😉. It could be to do with having used Test Your Idioms by Watcyn-Jones to death and getting frustrated with its scatty organisation and use of some very random, dated or (seemingly) uncommon phrases. Or it might have stemmed from my attempts to make my own dialogues as a hook for the idiomatic phrases. I’ve just looked back at them and wow, they were contrived…

*get on with it, Pete*

So, anyway… Here’s a book with a purposeful approach to teaching frequently used idioms in the context of business and workplace communication. Work It Out with Business Idioms (B2-C1) is the latest release from Prosperity Education, who have got experienced teacher-author-trainer David Bohlke to write a book of 12 ‘Work-outs’ (extended lessons) that introduce idioms in business-related contexts.

This is a supplementary resource that would complement a business English coursebook, and the Work-out topics have been carefully chosen to align with familiar coursebook topics (it seems?) giving it more relevance. Each Work-out consists of handouts, teacher tools (often possible cut ups for use in class), and teacher notes (very well-written I might add, and I like the extra-challenge sections). These comprehensive lessons normally introduce idioms through text-based presentations and encourage guided discovery. The core content is sandwiched between …

  • a nice intro including tips for how to guess the meaning of idioms in context (by looking for clues that define the idiom, looking for an example that makes the meaning of the phrase clear, or looking for language for contrast/comparison clues to help them deduce the meaning)
  • a useful idioms dictionary which is well-thought out. It covers all the target phrases from the core content. It provides definitions, example sentences, possible variations, sometimes geeky info on origins, and a note on whether the phrase is more common in US/British English.

TEFL Geek has already written a great review of the resource (which I pretty much agree with) so I won’t go over old ground. One thing I’m interested in though is this: to what extent has the author managed to avoid the idiom-heavy texts in this resource seeming contrived? That’s something I’ve struggled to do before, so it’s something I was looking for in a resource like this. It’s not easy to create a text with limited space that includes 6-8 idiomatic phrases and get it to read well. So, how is it?

Topic-based approach helps

The topic serves as the hook for idioms here, rather than structure/form of the idioms. What I mean is, in books like Watcyn-Jones (2002 – admittedly not business English focused) you’d get idioms arranged in ways like

  • idioms including ‘have’
  • adjective + noun combinations
  • describing things
  • idioms using ‘pull’, ‘put’ and ‘turn’

This usually meant they were introduced in isolation because it was hard to throw them together into a cohesive text or dialogue. Bohlke takes a better approach, starting with a topic which allows possible target phrases to emerge a bit more naturally.

Overkill? Too much support? Not really

Beyond the choice of a topic-based organisation, I was hoping for two things: one was that the texts avoided overkill. Yes, the resource is introducing idioms, but they don’t have to be in every second line of a dialogue or text. Two, I didn’t want too many ‘definition clues’ (as Bohlke refers to them). Some are fine, but I didn’t want ‘speakers/writers’ to constantly spell out the meaning of an idiom as that just doesn’t seem too authentic.

On the whole, Bohlke got this right. This is a resource I can definitely work with.

Extract from Work-out 6

The dialogues sound quite natural (I mean, this is still a teaching resource graded to B2+/C1). Idioms do appear quite frequently in the early part of this text, but I still think it works. As for the contextual support, there’s a good use above of contrast and comparison clues (‘but sales…’), and the author doesn’t do too much work for the reader with any of the other target language.

Extract from Work-out 4

The text above from Workout 4 (on elevator pitches) is another good example, and again shows how Bohlke manages to vary the contextual support provided for learners, both in type and amount. I feel like the author’s experience comes through in the texts for sure.

I’d say the approaches above are fairly consistent throughout the resource. That said, there are certain texts which do include more definition clues – these may suit lower levels:

Extract from Work-out 12

And yes, there’s the odd text in the resource that could have been a bit less idiom-happy. Work-out 5 had a paragraph that could headline IDIOMFEST if such a thing exists.

Overall, Bohlke has done well with the texts – for me that was more than ‘half the battle’ (ahem, idiom in Work-out 1 I think?). Beyond that, pretty much all the activities have clear purpose and are likely to interest learners. There’s more than just the idioms in each work-out, there are some useful productive and topic-related tasks too, plus plenty more to pick out from the rich texts.

This is a great supplementary resource, full of engaging activities that should work well alongside most BE coursebooks. I can see the work-outs being enjoyable for learners and teachers, and as with TEFL Geek I’d say some of the work-outs would suit B1+. I’ve limited experience of using published resources for teaching idioms, but this certainly looks like a better resource than the ones I’ve used before. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works with my learners – watch this space for reflections.

Another good one from Prosperity (after Work it out with Phrasals) – this publisher should certainly be on your radar.

Rating: 4.5/5

Work it Out with Business Idioms is available on Amazon (click here), priced £19.99 digital or £24.99 print.

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