In the last of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective strategies to help students work more independently.
In English language teaching in general, and EAP in particular, independence is talked about a lot. Teachers say they want their students to ‘be more independent’ and ‘work more independently’. But what does this mean, and how can it happen?
Student independence is a major aim of EAP – eventually, when they are studying in their departments, students need a significant degree of independence in order to function effectively and succeed. Typically, most of their EAP input takes place before they start their academic programme, so EAP teachers need to use materials which lead to independence. For instance, rather than presenting one particular reading text for intensive focus – an inward-looking task – a more outward-looking task would enable students to learn skills and techniques which they can independently apply to other texts.
Independence is both an abstract concept – a ‘state of mind’ perhaps – and a physical concept. Ultimately, students need to become independent of their (EAP) teachers, the timetabled lessons, and the materials. Put simply, the independent student no longer needs to be told when to study, how to learn, and what to focus on. They have become skilled at searching for source texts, selecting and evaluating what they read, and processing parts of the material into their own new texts such as essays and presentations. Linguistically, cognitively, and academically, these are complex processes.
Relying on teacher input
A key point about independence is that for many students it doesn’t just happen. The role of the EAP teacher is vital: paradoxically, significant teacher input is needed for student independence to develop, especially in its early stages.
To illustrate this, I’d like to use an example from my own education. When I was studying English Literature at grammar school (an old-fashioned type of secondary school; there aren’t many grammar schools left now), we had to analyse poems. We had never seen these poems before (they were known as ‘unseen’), and they were quite difficult. Early on in the process, our teacher would try to elicit meanings, using questions like ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Why is the poet using this word here?’, and ‘What does this line suggest to you?’ Yet at this stage the teacher did most of the explaining – we listened carefully and read closely, and by the end of the lesson we were able to understand the poem pretty well. However, I remember wondering how I would ever be able to analyse a poem myself – independently – it just seemed too difficult without the support of the teacher. This story has a happy ending: gradually we did learn how to analyse an unseen poem, and most of us in the class achieved a very high grade in our A-level exam. Significantly, this skill is transferable: poems are not the only things I can analyse.
This example tells us several things. The teacher has a key role to play, and they need to use appropriate yet challenging materials. There has to be sufficient support and staging, particularly earlier on in the process of becoming more independent. Independence takes time to develop, and students will develop at different speeds and in different ways.
Developing student independence
Conversely, if the teacher continues to do too much, their students might remain over-reliant and excessively dependent. In order to become more independent, students need to be engaged with the material, and become more responsible. In this context responsibility means taking the initiative – finding new texts, and using the available resources and technologies.
We’ve incorporated many of these ideas into Oxford EAP. The theme of the final unit in Oxford EAP Upper-Intermediate/B2 is ‘Independence’, and the lecture in this unit presents many of the ideas in this article. Integrated throughout the different levels of the Oxford EAP series are Independent Study tasks, which ask students to go and find out something new. Similarly, the sequences of tasks in the skills modules are designed to be transferable, so that the student can apply the similar techniques to new contexts. The independent student has an initiating approach to their learning; they are resourceful, reflective, and critical. They like to go beyond what the teacher and the materials require them to do. In short, the ultimate goal of EAP is independence, and with good materials and teaching, it is highly achievable.
This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.