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Working with English: Essential Communication Skills for Office Administration

Mark Ombrello, Kyoto Notre Dame University
Macmillan Language House, 2003


[Atsuko Ogawa & Kayoko Otani. Tokyo: Macmillan Language House, 2003. pp. v + 78. ¥1,890. ISBN: 978-4-89585-463-4.]

Having difficulties finding materials to effectively teach business English? Is the textbook you use too easy or too difficult for the students? Does explaining certain business concepts, vocabulary, and target exercises outlined in the materials require painstaking clarification and waste valuable class time? Working with English may ameliorate some of these difficulties instructors face. Written for a Japanese audience, this text has proven to be a valuable resource that can meet the needs of a class whose students’ abilities and enthusiasm vary. The 13 units cover a wide range of administrative communicative office duties such as describing schedules, giving instructions, apologizing, taking and relaying messages, making reservations, and expressing gratitude. The authors have done a nice job offering exercises designed to improve speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills used in an English-medium work environment. As discussed by McDowell(2009), the incorporation of L1 in instructions can ease the process of getting students on task. In Working with English, some instructions and explanations of key business terms and concepts are provided in Japanese. This major difference in format makes the textbook extremely useful and suitable for learners of basic business English in Japanese universities.

The textbook is well–organized, clearly presented, and teacher-friendly. Each self-contained unit is divided into two targeted office tasks. The first task emphasizes oral and listening skills, while the second focuses on writing. For example, unit four begins with asking for repetition or explanation and ends with a section on making invitations. This layout offers a good degree of flexibility to jump around the book, and instructors integrating a task-based language teaching approach will find the written exercises easy to adapt into their lesson plans (Ellis, 2003). Teaching a lesson on rescheduling an appointment? The written exercise in unit eight, titled “Rescheduling”, asks students to write an email to a fictitious client to change an appointment. Both the contact information and content of the message are provided in Japanese. As an added convenience, model English versions of all written activities are provided in a free teacher’s manual available from the publisher’s website.

The teacher’s manual also includes transcripts and answers to the listening exercises, answers to the multiple-choice reading comprehension questions, and Japanese translations of the sample letters and emails from part two of each unit. The CD for the textbook must be purchased separately; it includes the dialogues and listening exercises of the thirteen units. There is no need for students to purchase a copy of the CD because the dialogues and listening exercises are designed to be used in class.

Responses from students to Working with English have been very positive. In an unscientific written survey of a class of 30, all students expressed satisfaction with the text and would recommend it to others interested in taking a similar business English course. Students overwhelmingly and uniformly liked the writing exercises most. Those who chose to elaborate expressed a sense of real-life practicality working with those sections. Very few students had anything negative to say. Criticisms mostly came from more advanced-level students who commented that the listening and reading comprehension sections were too easy. In contrast, a lower-level student expressed difficulty in following the listening exercises, which suggests that for a class composed of a multitude of mixed-ability learners, the textbook meets the needs of the majority.

For an instructor who struggled to find suitable materials for an elective business English class, Working with English has been a welcome discovery. However, it is not without its problems. Most notable is the perpetuation of gender and race-based stereotypes concerning the main characters whose business lives serve as models for the dialogues and listening activities throughout the book. Mami is the attractive female Japanese secretary who works for the white American male manager, Mr. Gordon. It is worth noting that after this problematic paradigm was pointed out to the class early in the semester, not one student raised the issue as a criticism in their response to the survey, reflecting the power of subliminal sexism in ESL/EFL textbooks (Ansary & Babii, 2003).

While clear and user-friendly for students and teachers alike, the textbook is culturally outdated due to the problematic composition and placement of the main characters. According to the publisher, no plans are in the works for a future edition. This is somewhat unfortunate because Working with English serves as a tangible example of the important business concept of meeting a niche market. 


Ansary, H., & Babii, E. (2003). Subliminal sexism in current ESL/EFL textbooks. Asian EFL Journal, 5(1), A-1.

McDowell, L. (2009). L1 use in instructions for low-level learners. The Language Teacher, 33(6), 3-7.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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