Big Pharma

"It is incomprehensible that drug companies still get away with charging Americans twice as much, or more, than citizens of Canada or Europe for the exact same drugs."

Bernie Sanders, American politician
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This free ESL lesson plan on Big Pharma has been designed for adults and young adults at an intermediate (B1/B2) to advanced (C1/C2) level and should last around 45 to 60 minutes for one student.

We can thank pharmaceutical companies for providing the drugs necessary to maintain our modern way of life. But when eyewatering profits are made from something so vital for life, it is only natural that many people would view the activities of these companies with suspicion. Most conspiracy theories spring up from the confusion between correlation and causation, and the Big Pharma is no exception. Huge profits off the back of people’s illness, in their eyes, is proof that Big Pharma must also be the cause of these illnesses. Logical fallacies aside, there are serious ethical issues within the pharmaceutical industry, including the huge donations made to influence politics and the reluctance to develop treatments for less profitable illnesses. In this ESL lesson plan on the pharmaceutical industry, students will have the opportunity to discuss and express their opinions on issues such as the contributions Big Pharma has made to society, as well as some of the ethical issues in the pharmaceutical industry.

This lesson plan could also be used with your students to debate these issues for World Pharmacists Day, which takes place in September. For more lesson plans on international days and important holidays, see the calendar of world days to plan your classes for these special occasions.

For advice on how to use this English lesson plan and other lesson plans on this site, see the guide for ESL teachers.


Reading activity
Before the English class, send the following article to the students and ask them to read it while making a list of any new vocabulary or phrases they find (explain any the students don’t understand in the class):

The Guardian | Report reveals tricks of pharmaceutical trade

The article refers to a report outlining the unethical marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry including advertising drugs directly to consumers, making inaccurate claims about the safety and efficacy of their products, and offering doctors incentives to prescribe their medication. What do they think about the issues raised in the article? Do they agree with what was said? Can they think of any ways they might disagree with the content of the article?

Video activity
To save time in class for the conversation activities, the English teacher can ask the students to watch the video below and answer the listening questions in Section 3 of the lesson plan at home. The questions for the video are styled in a way similar to an exam like the IELTS.

The video for this class is a called “What causes opioid addiction, and why is it so tough to combat?” by TED Ed which looks at the public health crisis in the United States and around the world where people have found themselves addicted to prescription drugs.


The focus in the class is on conversation in order to help improve students’ fluency and confidence when speaking in English as well as boosting their vocabulary.

This lesson opens with a short discussion about the article the students read before the class. Next, the students can give their opinion on the quote at the beginning of the lesson plan – what they think the quote means and if they agree with it. This is followed by an initial discussion on the topic including the major pharmaceutical companies, whether the prices of medications should be regulated, and how new drugs are approved for use.

After this, students will learn some vocabulary connected with the pharmaceutical industry such as patent, prescription and over-the-counter. This vocabulary has been chosen to boost the students’ knowledge of less common vocabulary that could be useful for preparing for English exams like IELTS or TOEFL. The vocabulary is accompanied by a cloze activity and a speaking activity to test the students’ comprehension of these words.

If the students didn’t watch the video before the class, they can watch it after the vocabulary section and answer the listening questions. Before checking the answers, ask the students to give a brief summary of the video and what they thought about the content.

Finally, there is a more in-depth conversation about political ideologies. In this speaking activity, students will talk about issues such as direct-to-consumer marketing, political lobbying, and whether all medical drugs should be free for everyone.


After the class, students will write about their opinion of the pharmaceutical industry. This could be a short paragraph or a longer piece of writing depending on what level the student is at. The writing activity is designed to allow students to practise and improve their grammar with the feedback from their teacher. For students who intend to take an international English exam such as IELTS or TOEFL, there is an alternative essay question to practise their essay-writing skills.


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