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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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#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 www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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5 ways to use a dictionary for academic writing

Oxford Learner's Dictionary of Academic English book coverJulie Moore, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, shares her top 5 ways to use a dictionary to teach academic writing skills.

With my background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of encouraging dictionary skills in the classroom. And as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I’m really looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my students.

Rather than teach planned dictionary skills lessons, I tend to slip in dictionary usage at every possible opportunity. In particular, I’ll often send students to the dictionary in a writing skills lesson. Here are my top five areas of academic vocabulary to focus on:

Collocation

One thing that can make student writing sound awkward is an odd choice of collocation. Sometimes a choice that would be fine in everyday English or spoken academic contexts, such as do research stands out as too informal in academic writing, where conduct or undertake research might fit better. Checking a key word in the dictionary will provide students with a number of appropriate academic collocations, not just for the most common meanings of a word, but also sometimes more specialist uses too, e.g. a power = an influential country: a colonial/imperial/sovereign/global etc. power.

Dependent prepositions

A wrong choice of preposition may seem like a trivial error, and in speech it will usually be overlooked. But in academic discourse, where precision is highly valued, frequent minor errors can give the impression of intellectual sloppiness and inaccuracy. Next time your students are handing in a piece of writing, try this quick self-editing activity. Before they give you their texts, get them to go through and underline all the prepositions they’ve used, then identify those that depend on a content word (a noun, verb, or adjective) either just before (on impact, under the influence of) or just after (reliant on, consistent with). Next, they choose a handful (3 to 5) that they’re least confident about and look up the content words in the dictionary. Point out that typical prepositions are shown in bold before examples. They can then correct any errors they find before handing in their work.

Following constructions

You can do a similar thing with the constructions that typically follow particular words (focus on doing, demonstrate how/what …). I tend to highlight examples like this when they come up in class, just taking a couple of minutes to raise students’ awareness of how this type of information is shown in the dictionary, again in bold before examples. Students can then use it as a reference source themselves when they’re hesitating over a construction in their writing.

Parts of speech

EAP students need to develop a particular dexterity in swapping between parts of speech, whether they’re trying to find an appropriate paraphrase or construct a complex noun phrase. As different parts of speech typically start with the same combination of letters, they’re generally together in the dictionary, making for a quick and easy look-up. And to help further, the different parts of speech of many key words are even grouped together in word family boxes, allowing learners to see the options at a glance, including non-adjacent words such as antonyms too, e.g. conclude, conclusion, conclusive, conclusively, inconclusive.

Synonyms

For students writing longer academic texts, repetition of key words can become an issue. Finding a few appropriate synonyms can help to improve the flow and style of their writing enormously. With a class of students preparing for a writing task on a particular topic, you might pick out a few key topic words and get students to look them up in the dictionary to search for possible synonyms. These are shown after each definition, e.g. at practicable you’ll find SYN feasible, workable. Of course, synonyms rarely have identical meanings and usage, so get students to look up the synonyms too and decide which might be substitutable and what adjustments they might need to make grammatically (e.g. vary from x to y, but range between x and y).

By incorporating regular dictionary usage into classroom practice, you raise students’ awareness of the type of information they can find in the dictionary, how they can use it to improve their academic writing and become more autonomous learners. What’s more, by proactively doing something with a word (looking it up, thinking about it, then using it), they’ll also broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge.


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Writing their way to the top: Process strategies for English language learners

Teacher writing on whiteboardWhat are some strategies for helping students with academic writing? Alice Savage, Effective Academic Writing co-author, will look at this topic in her upcoming webinar on December 10th. In this article, she presents a task to help build students’ confidence in their writing.

When hikers plan an adventure, they agree to take on a challenge. They understand that it might be hard sometimes, but they also know that if they stick together and have faith in the process, they will make it to their destination. The same is true for writers, particularly writers learning to operate in an academic English context. In my webinar, we will examine the writing process and look at specific strategies and activities that can support English learners along the way.

The following group task is one of several strategies in the webinar. Its aims of community-building and orienting students to process writing techniques can ensure that a class gets started on the right foot.

Objective: To help students build community, confidence and an understanding of the writing process.

Start by putting the students in groups of four and creating roles such as manager, note-taker, writer, dictionary-person, or editor. Tell them that they are going to do a writing task together that shows their combined experience and talent. Then set the following questions:

  • How many languages does your group speak in total?
  • How many years has your group been studying English in total?
  • How many countries has your group traveled to in total?
  • What kinds of writing has your group done in the past?
  • What is a name that fits your group?

Once they have shared information, instruct the writer to turn the answers and notes into a paragraph. Have them start by introducing their group’s name in a topic sentence. Then have them explain why they chose it. They can include answers to the questions or other ideas that come up while they were talking. The teacher can circulate and provide assistance as needed.

When the writing section of the task is finished, the group can work together to edit. The editor, with help from peers, can check for complete sentences, grammar and spelling. As they work, they have an opportunity to see how their knowledge and skills fit with their classmates and to see how they can benefit from or help others later.

To mirror the stages of writing, the task ends with publishing. The groups can post or circulate their finished texts and compare results. The class can identify which group speaks the most languages, has studied English the longest, or seen the most countries. This final stage, in addition to serving as an icebreaker, allows the class to experience one another’s writing as readers. This publishing stage can instill a habit of responding to content that will pay off later during peer feedback throughout the term.

Finally, the teacher can build confidence in the process by leading a reflection on the stages that the groups went through. They can look at generating ideas and developing content, planning, revising, editing, and publishing.

The teacher might then use the opportunity to highlight the activities and aims of each stage. For example, many teachers do not address grammar errors in the early revision stages because students are still shaping content and often cutting or changing sentences. Many students do not automatically anticipate these major revision tasks, so working through revision techniques in an explicit way in a practice activity can foster trust in the process.

The discussion can end with the question, “What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started this assignment?” as a way to finish with a focus on writing as knowledge making. If all goes well, students see the advantages of the writing process and its ability to provide a sequence that allows them to focus at distinct stages. They know their classmates and the writing process better, and perhaps they feel better equipped for the adventure of a new task.

To find out more about improving students’ writing skills, register for the webinar at either 12:00 or 15:00 GMT on December 10th.


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#qskills – Ask the Q authors your English language teaching questions

Do you have questions about teaching English to adults? The Q: Skills for Success authors would love to answer your questions!

Comment on this post with your questions and we’ll select the best ones to pass on to our authors. Answers will be posted in future blog posts in the coming weeks.