Robert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at Oxford University Press, considers why English for Academic Purposes is often perceived as dull and difficult, and presents some tips for overcoming that perception.
I was recently asked to do a talk in Turkey to a group of university teachers. The organisers wanted me to talk about English for Academic Purposes but to make it interesting! Apparently EAP has a bit of a reputation with both learners and teachers for being Daunting, Dry, Difficult and Dull. I talked to one of our leading EAP authors, Edward de Chazal, and together we found a way of beating the four Ds with the five vowels – A, E, I, O, U.
As the framework for the talk developed it also became clear that one of the main reasons for this perception of EAP is due to the abundance of long reading texts at the core of many courses. Reading is important but there are many other skills needed. Let me take you through what we came up with.
A is for Authenticity
Not just in texts, but in tasks. One of the overriding messages of Oxford’s approach to EAP is to introduce our learners to authentic texts and in particular the types of text they will encounter in a further education setting. This does not mean newspaper articles, short stories and amusing blogs – it does mean academic texts from textbooks and, at higher levels, abstracts and journal articles. It also means authentic lectures and for our new series we filmed Oxford University lecturers talking on a wide range of subjects for up to thirty minutes. Our authors built interesting tasks around the lectures which our users get on a DVD packaged with the books. What is amazing is how a totally authentic lecture on, for example, stroke medicine, the United Nations, community ecology, etc. can be made accessible with well thought-out scaffolding. Unscripted lectures have all the features of speech our future students will have to deal with if they do their degree course in English.
E is for Engagement
So many learners in EAP classes are not motivated. They are keen to do the preparatory year to enter university but aren’t necessarily interested in the English language. It was often a subject they struggled with, or didn’t like (or both) at school and it is difficult sometimes for teachers to rid them of those memories and that baggage. One way of engaging them is to make them think about a subject, an issue or a problem and to encourage them to think critically by asking the next logical question, bringing in their own knowledge of the world, challenging the ideas the text or the lecture provokes.
A simple exercise for this is to take some sentences from a range of topics such as this:
- Deforestation can be caused by soil erosion
- The clinical trial failed because the incorrect dosage was given.
- Lack of energy is one possible effect of a low-calorie diet.
- Unemployment and poverty are likely to result in serious social problems.
- Dodos were fat, slow and easy to shoot, which is why they became instinct.
- Musicians can develop hearing problems such as tinnitus, owing to repeated exposure to amplified music.
Students choose the sentences which interest them most and analyse them for cause and effect. Later on in the lesson get them to recall the meaning of the sentences – sometimes they will remember them word for word, but what you actually want is for them to recall the facts and paraphrase them. This is proof that they have fully understood the ideas behind the sentence. You can then look at the cause/effect language such as because, owing to, which is why, results in, etc. knowing that their brains are fully engaged.
I is for Independence
The ultimate aim is to encourage autonomy in our learners. They won’t be around forever and you certainly won’t be there to help them later, so you need to prepare them, train them to study independently, to take and organize notes, use dictionaries, store vocabulary, think for themselves, evaluate things and do research without always resorting to Google. Encouraging them to do project work, reporting back, peer teaching are all ways of building this feeling of independence. Making their own videos or infographics with engaging, memorable content or creating a class blog are other ways of developing independence.
O is for Objectives
The good thing about many EAP classes is that the objectives are very transparent. If we make the objectives realistic and attainable then we have more chance of succeeding. The problem arises when the department, the faculty teachers, the parents, and the learners themselves have a different take on the objectives. You, as the language teacher, are often stuck in the middle. Overambitious IELTS targets, overemphasis on grammar in the end of year test, a reluctance to work outside of class are just three examples of factors that can make your teaching difficult and the objectives unattainable. Quantitative objectives which only deal with end of course results without any qualitative data mean that the course can also become too rigid.
We had too much choice for U.
Unique, Useful, Universal. Each learner in an EAP class is unique, with a different set of abilities and goals to his or her peers. How can teachers find tasks and activities which are useful to such a wide range? This is one of the secrets to successful teaching and I think it often happens by chance. An activity can sometimes take on a life of its own and a group sees its usefulness immediately. Feedback on such activities is useful. Why did that lesson work? What was its value? Would you like more of this type of lesson? These are really useful feedback questions. We are always seeking lessons and activities that have universal appeal. It is difficult to get topics, skills, new language items that have guaranteed universal appeal but that doesn’t stop us looking.
As you wrestle with making EAP more appealing, think of A, E, I, O, U. Nobody wants to be thought of as dull, difficult or dry!