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#qskills – How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Scott Roy Douglas responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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#EFLproblems – EAP and low-level students: will it work?

Teacher helping adult studentWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week, Stacey Hughes responds to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment about whether to focus on general English or EAP for low-level university students.

Raef wrote:

I teach English to university students at the English Department in a non-native English speaking country. My students lack the basic skills of the language. Their levels are beginner and/or elementary at best. My question is: what is the best and the most suitable choice for them? Is it general English because of its language input and real life context or EAP which is badly needed for their academic studies?”

Raef has posed a fundamental question, and I suspect that at the heart of it lies the distinction between General English (GE) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). For one thing, where each is traditionally taught is different: EAP being taught primarily in university settings in pre-sessional or in-sessional courses. EAP is also different in its aims, which are to prepare students for not only the culture of academic study but also for the topics they will encounter and the types of tasks they will have to do. The GE or EAP question is similar to the GE or Business English (BE) question posed by BE teachers. Can and should students learn more specialist language before they have learned generic language?

The answer, I feel, lies in the purpose for learning English. If a student needs EAP, why would we spend time teaching them GE?

Though there are certainly important differences between GE and EAP, I wonder if, at lower levels at least, these differences are really that marked. Look at the words and phrases below. Where would you place each in the Venn Diagram below?

General English and EAP Venn Diagram

Did you find that the majority of the above could fit easily into either category? Did you find yourself saying, “It depends”?

I would hazard that, to some degree, all of the tasks, skills and activities listed above are features of both GE and EAP. What might differ is the degree to which each is taught. So, for example, a GE student might give a short presentation about cultural differences. The aims of the task might be to showcase the student’s fluency, accuracy and pronunciation. An EAP student might give a similar presentation on the differences in educational culture between his country and another. The aim may be slightly different, which would be reflected in the marking of the presentation. This student might be marked on body language, eye contact, clarity of visuals and how well the student was able to present ideas clearly, in addition to his fluency, accuracy and pronunciation.

Similarly, in writing tasks, both the GE and EAP student would be asked to write a paragraph or email and would be assessed on similar things – format, grammar, linking, topic sentences, vocabulary choice, etc. However, the EAP student might also be assessed on how well she links ideas together (text cohesion) and whether or not her ideas follow a logical progression (text coherence).

So, if we consider the aims of the activity or task, the focus changes slightly, but the task remains effectively the same. This suggests that EAP can be taught at a low level, and arguably should be in the scenario that Raef mentions above. If his students have little time to reach a certain level of proficiency, then keeping in mind the academic rationale for tasks and activities will help students build the skills they will need as their language level increases.

In his question, Raef mentions “real-life context” as a difference between GE and EAP, and it is in this topical aspect that we might find a split. Traditionally, EAP topics have tended to centre around academic subjects and be more “weighty” or serious, while GE topics have tended to be more generic and “lighter”. Choice of topic has dictated which vocabulary students learn, with EAP vocabulary being more formal and ‘academic’. However, at lower levels, this distinction is not as great as at higher levels.

Looking through a couple of low level EAP course books, I see vocabulary being taught that would happily sit in a GE course book – apartment, big, friendly, library, mathematics, parents, teach, weather – as well as some vocabulary that is possibly more EAP specific – brain, gestures, poetry, organisation, research, survey. None of these ‘EAP’ words are greatly more difficult to learn than the ‘GE’ words.

The topics in these course books are not that different either, in that they are common topics that are accessible to lower-level students. Even so, there is one distinct difference: they have a more academic context – listening activities may be a short lecture, podcast or talk show involving an “expert”, and readings similarly present an authoritative “voice”. This sows the seeds for students thinking about source credibility and the need to question information while still studying the vocabulary for describing personality or communicating their reasons for their choice of holiday destination.

What about grammar? Grammar can be taught as usual, but within an academic context. Compare: Caroline studies hard at the university versus Robert plays tennis at the sports club. Each sentence shows good use of the present tense, though sentence A is possibly more “EAP”.

My feeling is that EAP is a suitable choice for Raef’s low-level academic students and may be a more efficient choice given their ultimate need for academic English.

Invitation to share your ideas

Do you have anything to add on the subject of whether teaching EAP to low-level students is appropriate? We’d love to hear from you! You can respond directly to this blog by leaving a comment below.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks.


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#qskills – How can we help students to use words from the Academic Word List?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can we help students remember and be able to use words from the Academic Word List?

Cheryl Zimmerman responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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#IATEFL – Teaching and learning EAP: “What is EAP and how can I teach it?”

Middle aged African woman shrugging her shouldersEdward de Chazal, author of many EAP titles, including the forthcoming English for Academic Purposes, part of the Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers series, presents an imagined conversation about what EAP is and how we teach it. Edward will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Friday 4th April.

I keep hearing a lot about EAP these days, but – how can I put this? – I’m not really sure what it is. It means different things to different people, doesn’t it?

“I know how you feel. I’ve been teaching EAP for a few years now and I’m still trying to make sense of it. There’s so much going on. And it seems different when you start working somewhere new.”

You can say that about any English language teaching context. So much to learn.

“Sure – but think how much you know already. Start with that. Think of your own knowledge of English. All that teaching experience. And your own education – how many qualifications have you done since you left school? How many training sessions and presentations have you attended?”

I see what you’re getting at. Yes, I know I know a lot, and I’m always learning something new. But – going back to EAP – what do I need to know? What is my role as an EAP teacher?

“Roles – there are lots of them. OK. Let’s start by looking at where we are in EAP today. One way of looking at it is that the field of EAP is a research-informed practice.”

What does that mean?

“First and foremost it’s a practice – we’re all practising teachers – and the work we do is vital for the academic success of thousands of students worldwide.”

OK, great, and what about the ‘research-informed’ dimension?

“And what we do is informed by all the work that has been going on for, well, about 50 years. There are lot of influences on EAP.”

Like what?

“Well, there are major influences like genre analysis and corpus linguistics, but also other theories of teaching and learning, like approaches to teaching writing, study skills, and critical EAP.”

What’s that?

“OK. At the heart of EAP is critical thinking. In EAP we’re all critical thinkers – teachers and students.”

But what does this mean in practice?

“There are different approaches to critical thinking. With ‘critical EAP’, nothing is off-limits – we can critique pretty much anything and everything.”

Like what?

“OK, let’s start with a text. As language teachers we’re always bringing in texts into the classroom – maybe up-to-date texts like newspaper articles that we’ve just come across, or photocopied texts from various sources, or simply the texts in the coursebooks we’re using.”

OK, so students have to read lots of texts. What next?

“Well, in many English language teaching contexts the focus of the lesson would then be the text. So, you’d do some work on the text – tasks like working out meanings in the text, language work.”

Of course – isn’t that the point?

“It’s necessary, but it’s not the whole story. We can encourage critical thinking by doing tasks like identifying the author’s stance, any weaknesses in the text, bias, assumptions, those sorts of things.”

Sounds good.

“A critical EAP approach goes beyond the boundaries of the text.”

How do you mean?

“In a critical EAP approach, we can encourage our students to ask questions like ‘Why have you selected this particular text?’ ‘Isn’t this text written from a Western perspective – it’s published in Oxford?’ and ‘How are the issues in the text relevant to me?’ Questions like these can be really interesting. We can encourage our students to reflect on these ideas and challenge what’s in the text and its wider context.”

Hmm, certainly food for thought. Yes, as you said, there’s so much going on in EAP. I can see now that I’m going to get a lot out of learning all about it.

“I do. Arguably, one of the greatest influences on EAP is the wider context of English language teaching – we know a lot about that. There’s a lot to learn, but never forget how much you know already.”

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#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.

Reference

Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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