TESOL – Teaching Writing: Letter of Complaint

The need to write business documents, including business letters, in English is becoming more and more important, as economic globalisation programs become central policies in developing countries. Many writers using a second language for business letters often use rhetoric from their first language when writing such letters (Park et al, 1998). First language users reading such leaders can be put off by this rhetoric, and it has the propensity to damage business relationships.

In this review, I will address some of the issues involved with writing business letters, and put forward methodologies for teaching this skill. This will be done by looking at case studies and current research on the subject, and using practical examples to demonstrate the outcomes.

Literature Review

Letter writing is one of the most common forms of written communication, but is often neglected in teaching circles (Kalman, 1996). Much attention is paid to essays, story writing and scientific texts, but the everyday writing of business is not always taught with much commitment. One of the main forms of business communication is the business letter. It is a common thread across all divisions of society, unlike essays and other discourses (Kalman, 1996). Business letter writing is a form of English for specific purposes (ESP) and other branches of specialist English.

ESP is a wide domain of English language learning and teaching (ELT) that includes, but is not limited to, Business English, Scientific English, Technical English and English specific to almost any vocational field (Dudley-Evans, 1997). The main characteristics of ESP are that it distinctly meets specific requirements of the learners, uses underlying activities and methodologies of the discipline being taught, and centres on language applicable to the discipline in terms of grammar, lexis, discourse, genre, register and study skills (Dudley-Evans, 1997).

English for academic purposes (EAP) is one of the most common forms of ESP, and involves preparing students for academic study in English speaking educational institutions (Catterall & Ireland, 2010). EAP programs put emphasis on skills needed to perform across core subject areas, usually at university level. Often, the programs have a narrow focus that require specialisation in a specific area of study, including business studies (Catterall & Ireland, 2010).

Business English is another form of ESP, and is generally taught to those who need to develop quality business English skills, with particular relation to international trade (Talbot & Bhattacharjee 2012). A large number of non-native speakers study Business English intending to do business with English speaking countries, or countries where English is the lingua franca (Talbot & Bhattacharjee 2012). Grammar rules aren’t strictly enforced in some instances, especially when the business will be between two countries in Kachru’s “expanding circles.” These are countries where English is not the native or second language, but is classified as “English as a foreign language” (EFL) (Tripathi, 1998).

One of the problems identified by Boyd (1991) is that cultural meanings are used in letter writing. Such meanings do not necessarily transfer across cultures. The form and content that the non-native English speaker uses in the letter can appear unusual to a native English speaker.

Nguyen & Miller (2012) also wrote of first language interference when writing in a second language., particularly with thought and writing patterns. They also wrote that because something is effective in the native culture, it may not be effective in another culture. Cultural elements were found to play an important role in in the expected “ritual” and “formula” of written language. When a non-native speaker doesn’t conform to those rituals and formulae, inadequacy is perceived by the native speaker, usually unfairly.

Park, Dillon & Mitchell (1998) wrote of the organisational patterns of business letters, comparing managers that have English as a first language, and managers who have Korean as a first language. Native English speakers tend to state the main idea first, and then give support information for that idea. However, managers with Korean as a first language tend to give the support information first, and build up to the main idea. English speakers could find the Korean style of writing to be accusatory, emotional and vague (Park, Dillon & Mitchell, 1998).

Though there are countless ways to teach EAP, ESP and business letter writing, there are also some components that are standard to almost all of them. These are the type of assignments that the students are expected to write, and the methods used for teaching them how to write (Kroll, 2001). The writing assignment is the most important component of the teaching process, and the teacher should ensure that the assignment reflects the philosophy of teaching chosen. (Kroll, 2001). As for methodology, this should incorporate goal-setting, instruction, error correction and feedback (Kroll, 2001).

Boyd (1991) puts forward the case method as a way of teaching Business English, to be used in conjunction with clinical approaches and lectures. The case method, as used in Business English, requires the student to define a problem at an actual business, choose a solution and justify that solution. The teacher’s role in case studies is as a consultant on process and language. The development of communication competence should take precedence over the traditional language teaching approach.

Nguyen & Miller (2012) suggested using a template to give students a standard format for the letter, from letterhead, inside addresses, salutations, introduction, body of the letter and conclusion. Many students found this concept simple to understand, but still found it hard to actually write the letter. The missing element, according to Nguyen & Miller (2012), is cultural knowledge, especially in pragmatics.

Jenkins & Hinds (1987) pay particular attention to the format of the letter. They specify the positions of the salutation and closing compliments of the letter, but pay most attention to the body of the letter, and the expected format by native English speakers. This includes the task of the opening paragraph, and making the rest of the content focussed on the reader. Linguistically, the use of the pronoun “you” instead of “I” wherever possible is suggested, as well as avoiding passive structures and using names and direct address, among other guidelines.

Foz-Gil & Gonzalez-Pueyo (2009) went into more detail about the structure and strategies of business letters, using a genre based approach. They concentrated on the requirements of the body of the letter, and found that the vocabulary and expression used is more limited than is used in most other forms of writing. Grammar and idioms used are generally not as complex, and the language used is prescribed and polite. They found that a collection of sentences that recur in business letters could be taught to the students, and that these sentences could be reused in future letters.

Park, Dillon & Mitchell (1998) found that in the body of the letter, the following five characteristics should occur: problem identification; relevant information discussed; action requested; topic shift (information unrelated to the problem); and a buffer to soften negative information.

Nguyen & Miller (2012) also found that classroom instruction was not the best place to learn a business letter, but rather in a business setting. To overcome this, the classroom needs to be redesigned to resemble, as closely as possible, an actual business environment.

Pally (2002) talks of sustained content language teaching (SCLT) in EAP, which can also be transferred to ESP and Business English. In SCLT, students study a single topic, or even a discipline, for an entire semester or half a semester. In this way, vocabulary, forms and information are recycled. In this way, students also participate in a situation that is as close to authentic workplace as is possible in a classroom, in terms of not only writing, but also speaking, reading and listening.

Teaching methodology based on literature

While on the surface it may be seen that a letter of complaint would be classified as a business letter, and hence fall into the ESP category of Business English, such letters cut across a wide spectrum of uses (Park, Dillon & Mitchell, 1998). Letters of complaint can be written in all aspects of life, including from one business to another, or a customer writing a complaint to a retailer or government department. Many university preparation courses for EFL students also contain instruction on writing letters of complaint.

Two of my own experiences in teaching group members to write letters of complaint were with a university preparation program (EAP) in Tangshan, and with the Procter & Gamble management training class (ESP/Business English) in Chengdu, both cities being in China. With both groups, I felt that I achieved the objective, however, I always felt that the instruction could be improved. My research in this paper has helped me to be better prepared for teaching this topic in the future.

In both groups, we had previously learnt how to write informal letters, and comparison was used as a form of instruction. This is the main aspect of the previous teaching that I would keep for the future. Having considered previous lessons and the literature, I have devised the following as a possible methodology for instruction in writing letters of complaint. It is task-based communicative language teaching (CLT)

The first step is to brainstorm the differences between formal and informal letters, and identify various styles of formal letters (Boyd, 1991). Some prompting may be required to get suggested reasons for writing a business letter. These include: requesting information; giving information; protesting an issue; applying for a job; giving an opinion and, most importantly for this topic, making a complaint (Boyd, 1991). Such a list also helps address some of the cultural differences with writing letters (Nguyen & Miller, 2012).

The next step is to explain to the students and trainees the different parts of a letter, and explain that the body of all formal letters starts with a sentence that explains what the letter is about. This is in contrast to many Asian cultures, which don’t explain the purpose of the letter until towards the end (Park, Dillon & Mitchell, 1998). Additionally, explain that he concluding paragraph should be short, and should be a summary of what the letter is about, and suggest the actions needed. Again, in many Asian cultures, these actions are often placed at the beginning of the letter (Park, Dillon & Mitchell, 1998).

At this point, an exercise would be done in pairs, working on a letter of complaint that has the various parts of the letter in the wrong places. The group members need to rearrange the letter so that all sections, and all paragraphs, are in the right place. The sections would include: address of sender; date; name and address of receiver; salutation; opening sentence; paragraphs from body of letter; closing paragraph (summary and action required); closing salutation; signature; writer’s name.

This exercise allows the students and trainees to explore the format of a letter as written by a native-English speaker (Park, Dillon & Mitchell, 1998). The completed letter can then serve as a template for future reference (Nguyen & Miller, 2012).

After the students and trainees have completed this exercise, display questions can be asked of the group as a whole, to get participation from all group members. These again address the various parts of the letter, to reinforce the order of writing, and the organisational structure of the letter. Questions would include: Who wrote the letter? Why was the letter written? Who is the letter written to?

At this point, it would be prudent to examine the language used in the sample letter, and how to tell whether the language is formal or informal. Reiterate the basic structure of the letter: opening sentence, body of the letter and conclusion. The aim of this is to address differences in cultural meanings between the first language and second language (Boyd, 1991) and first language interference (Nguyen & Miller, 2012). A more detailed discussion of the letter would then address issues surrounding the structure of the letter, and what information each paragraph contains.

Next, group members would be asked to suggest alternative closings for the letter. Some suggestions are “Yours sincerely” and “Yours faithfully.” This is an example of what Pally (2002) talks about in relation to recycling vocabulary, forms and information.

Pally’s (2002) concept can then be extended by a further exercise, using common phrases used in formal and informal letters. The students and trainees would be required to differentiate between formal and informal phrases. This would go into more detail anout the structure of the letter, as suggested by Jenkins & Hinds (1987). It also shows the limited vocabulary and expression that is used (Foz-Gil & Gonzalez-Pueyo, 2009). The students and trainees would then be asked, as a group, to suggest other phrases that would be used in formal and informal letters.

Having explored all the elements of the formal letter of complaint, the students and trainees should now attempt to write such a letter. Kroll (2001) stated that the writing assignment is the most important component of the teaching process, so the exercise selected here has been formulated to test all aspects of the materials taught.

The students and trainees should work in pairs, and each pair be given a different situation to write about. Hey should first brainstorm what to write, then write the first and subsequent drafts, before writing the final letter. At each stage, the group members should correct each other’s work, before moving on to the next draft and final submission. Although working in pairs, each group member should write their own letter, then swap with another group member, and write a reply to the other group member’s letter. This is an open-ended, or free-writing, task (Kroll, 2001).

The two groups were in different situations. The group in Nantong were students in a university classroom, doing a preparation year before commencing studies on an Australian accredited course. As such, they had to adhere to the principles of EAP (Catterall & Ireland, 2010), and success was limited, as predicted by Nguyen & Miller (2012) with regards to classroom settings.

However, the Procter & Gamble group were trained in their own offices at their own workplaces, and the results were far more positive (Nguyen & Miller, 2012). The principles of Business English were adhered to (Talbot & Bhattacharjee 2012), apart from their example of not having to apply strictly to grammar rules.

In the situations these groups were likely to face, they would be dealing directly with native-English speakers. For this reason, it was necessary to ensure that cultural meanings were understood by all group members, and that form and content written was regarded as “normal” by the English speakers (Boyd, 1991).


After reading the literature, and reflecting on the two different groups, I find that the most important difference was the environment that the two groups studied in. The most successful group were workers that trained in a workplace, rather than students that studied in a classroom (Nguyen & Miller, 2012). For this reason. I feel that, in future, I will try to replicate a workplace for students, to make the learning experience more realistic.


Reference List

Boyd, F. (1991) Brief reports and summaries. (1991). TESOL Quarterly, 25(4), 729-729.

Catterall, S. & Ireland, C. (2010). Developing Writing Skills for International Students: Adopting a critical pragmatic approach. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 5 (2). pp. 98-114

Dudley-Evans, T. (1997).. An Overview of ESP in the 1990s. In: The Japan Conference on English for Specific Purposes Proceedings.

Jenkins, S., & Hinds, J. (1987). Business letter writing: English, French, and Japanese. TESOL Quarterly, 21(2), 327-327.

Kalman, J. (1996). Joint composition: The collaborative letter writing of a scribe and his client in mexico. Written Communication, 13(2), 190-220.

Kroll, Barbara. (2001). Considerations for Teaching an ESL/EFL Writing Course in Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Teaching english as a second or foreign language, Boston: Heinle and Heinle, pp.219-232.

Foz-Gil, C., & Gonzalez-Pueyo, I. (2009). Helping spanish SMEs staff to develop their competence in writing business letters. International Journal of English Studies, 9(1), 43-61.

Nguyen, H. & Miller, J. (2012). “Exploring Business Request Genres: Students’ Rhetorical Choices”. Business communication quarterly , 75 (1), p. 5.

Pally, M (2002). “Comments on Lubie G. Alatriste’s Review of Sustained Content Teaching in Academic ESL/EFL: A Practical Approach”. TESOL journal , 11 (1), p. 46

Park, M., Dillon, W. & Mitchell, K. (1998) Korean business letters: Strategies for effective complaints in cross-cultural communication. Journal of Business Communication, 35(3), 328-345.

Talbot, F. &; Bhattacharjee, S. (2012). Improve Your Global Business English : The Essential Toolkit for Writing and Communicating Across Borders. Accessed from http://qut.eblib.com.au.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=939387

Tripathi, Prayag D. (1998). “Redefining Kachru’s ‘Outer Circle’ of English”. English today , 14 (4), p. 55


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

If you liked what you just read, click "Subscribe" to become a follower of the Craig Hill site. You will receive an email each time a new post is published.

Join 1,907 other subscribers

Advance Institute of Business has nationally recognised Australian Business qualifications. Click here to find out more.

%d bloggers like this: