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Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

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Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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3 thoughts on “Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

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  3. “MarkgHolloway’s insight:

    Interesting example of an “improvement” in Academic style. The “improved” sentence is 9 words longer than the original extract, and a word like “bombarded” isn’t particularly neutral (if that’s what Academic style is supposed to be). It would be interesting to know what *point* the student was trying to make. Perhaps exploring such issues is more important than ironing out bland observations.”

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your comment (which I’ve copied above to make it easier for other readers to follow the thread).

    We did actually talk about what point the student was trying to make.

    The edited sentence is longer because we decided to add more detail. The original essay contained quite a few vague statements, so one of our aims was to be more explicit about what was being to referred to – thus specifying the different types of media.

    As for ‘bombarded’, academic style isn’t all about being blandly neutral. It’s also about expressing evaluation and stance. So whilst not typically academic, ‘bombarded’ expresses the idea of information overload being negative and rather bewildering quite well, so it stayed.

    It does show though how taking examples of language out of context can be problematic, doesn’t it?!
    Julie.

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