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Using authentic texts in the EAP classroom

JournalsWhat exactly are authentic texts, and how should we use them? Edward de Chazal is a freelance consultant, author and presenter. In the first of three articles on the subject, Edward takes an in-depth look at authentic texts and how bring them into the EAP classroom.

Authentic texts are widely used in EAP, and clearly there are good reasons for doing so. When students are studying in their chosen disciplines, they have to read authentic academic texts such as textbooks and journal articles, so it makes sense to bring these into the EAP classroom. I have been doing this for years, which has prompted me to think more deeply about exactly what authentic texts are and how to use them.

What is an authentic text?

An authentic text is usually taken to mean a text which was not written for the language classroom, and which hasn’t been messed with – it retains its original vocabulary and grammar, and bits of the text have not been cut out. Preferably it is unprocessed, i.e. not retyped, so it still looks the same as it always did: the same font and graphics. In other words, authentic texts are written for any purpose other than language learning, and are intact rather than processed, adapted, or simplified.

Authenticity is a broader concept, however. Not only is the text itself authentic, but also its context and related tasks. For instance, in EAP an authentic text (such as an extract from a university textbook) needs to be situated to some extent in its intended academic context. This means EAP students need to read the text in order to gain knowledge and use selected parts of it in their own new text (such as an essay or presentation), just as they would in their university department.

Choosing an authentic text for your class

When you’re choosing an authentic text to use in class, there is also the question of level to consider. By ‘level’ we usually mean language level – whether a text is at B1 or B2, for example – but there’s another crucial aspect: cognitive level. Some texts are much more challenging than others in terms of how difficult their ideas and concepts are. When selecting a text, it’s important to think about what you want your students to get out of it. Do you want them to gain a comprehensive understanding of the whole text, or will they use it more superficially – for example, in order to identify key words? In this way, you can use authentic texts which are at a high linguistic level in your lower level classes, so long as you set appropriate, achievable tasks.

Let’s try and bring all these questions together in a possible scenario. Suppose our EAP students are recent high-school graduates planning to go to university. Their English language level is solid B1. They will have recent experience of high school exams such as IB (International Baccalaureate) or A-level. Using an IB text is ideal in this scenario: it is at an appropriate level, both linguistically and cognitively. These students usually approach such textbooks in order to learn something new, as well as to develop their English.

Developing tasks and learning outcomes

Similarly, in the EAP classroom we can come up with learning outcomes and tasks which engage with the content of the text and develop language. For instance, students learn to write a summary of a textbook extract (the learning outcome), and achieve this by identifying and noting down the main points (the task), which they then use to form the basis of their summary. In this way we’ve got an example of authentic textcontext, and tasks. The EAP context reflects their future academic context as they will have to read and summarize texts in the disciplines.

In short, using authentic texts means not only selecting an authentic text, but also setting up an authentic context and authentic tasks. The concept of authenticity also applies to the level of the text, including its language level and cognitive level.

In my next article I will be discussing the nature of academic listening texts and how we can use them in the EAP classroom.


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

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#EFLproblems – Teaching the over 50s

Older man with Help Me signWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Simone’s blog comment requesting extra hints for teaching the over 50s. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team responds.

Hi, My name is Simone and I run a prime school for seniors, they complain a lot about understanding and using the language abroad. Do you have any extra hints for teaching people over 50 years old?”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or so the saying goes, though perhaps the adage, “you’re never too old to learn” is more accurate. While older learners may face some hurdles younger learners don’t, the lifetime of learning through experience that they bring to the class makes them, in some ways, better learners. They have learning skills they may not recognise – the ability to solve problems and think critically, for example. They may have a clear perception of their own strengths and weaknesses or they may have strategies from learning another language in the past.

Perhaps the biggest advantage adults have is their positive motivation: they have chosen to learn or they have an expectation of what they want to do with the language they are learning. This means that they want learning to be applicable to their lives. If, as a teacher, you can show this link, you will have very enthusiastic students!

Here are some tips for teaching older learners:

Make sure learning meets needs

Find out about your learners’ goals and expectations. What do they want English for? How fluent do they hope to be? What problems do they have when reading/ writing/ listening to and speaking English? A simple checklist and follow-up discussion can go a long way in clarifying what your students want and will show them that you are interested in making the lessons applicable to their needs.

Make lessons immediately applicable

Adult learners are unlikely to be learning for learning’s sake. They want to be able to use what they have learned in real situations, so they are unlikely to want to learn language that they don’t perceive as useful for them or that seems a waste of time.

Use activities where learners can use their strengths

Some research suggests that older learners may not be as fast at rote learning as younger learners, and they may not learn as quickly. However, they will be very good at the types of problem solving and critical thinking activities they employ in everyday life and work. Use role play and simulations to practice language and provide lots of opportunities for discussion in small groups. Older learners are also good at reflection, so after a discussion activity, ask them to say what they did well and how they think they can improve on their weaknesses.

Create a comfortable atmosphere

Older learners have a certain status, so putting them into a classroom situation where they feel belittled or where their life experience is unappreciated will hinder learning. Create a classroom where learners feel comfortable about making mistakes. Build confidence through praise and encouragement. Set achievable goals and help learners see when they have reached them. One useful strategy is to tell learners about your own embarrassing experiences when using a language abroad (we all have them!). This can help them see that everyone makes mistakes and that it is OK. It may also help to point out that most people are forgiving of language mistakes and appreciate the effort learners make when speaking their language.

Not too fast, but not too slow either

How demotivating it is to feel confident when listening in class, but find that in the ‘real world’ of films and native speakers, people just speak too quickly! By all means, build listening skills with materials in class, but teach students to listen to authentic texts, too. Help them feel confident in knowing that, even if they can’t understand every word, they can get the main ideas. Point out websites where students can listen to newscasts and podcasts, especially when they are relevant and topical. So, for example, ask students to familiarize themselves with today’s news in their L1, then ask them to listen to an international newscast giving the same news, but in English. Or point them to a podcast that gives information related to an individual student’s line of work or expertise. Encourage film buffs to watch films in English with the English subtitles on for extra support.

Capitalize on learners’ experiences and interests

Learners naturally want to talk about what they are interested in, and adults have a wealth of experience to bring to the classroom. Extend course materials when necessary so that you can bring in more vocabulary and structures students need in order to be able to talk about things they want to talk about.

Make lessons practical and authentic

If your learners need to be able to use English abroad, then teach the language they will need to use abroad. This is applicable at any level. For example, at a lower level, you might help students understand train and airline announcements, language for commercial transactions and directions, etc. Higher level students may wish to understand and be able to discuss news and current events when abroad, so build in lesson time for this. Supplement and extend course materials with relevant materials from the web. For example, supplement a unit on sports with sports news, blogs or gossip about sports figures, podcasts or news about the impact of sporting events in the local area – whatever is current and relevant and of interest to the students.

Make use of 24/7

Adult learners are generally willing to learn anywhere at any time, so provide plenty of materials for them to continue learning outside of class. Many course materials have online components, but students can also listen to English on their smartphones on the bus or to a CD/ MP3 player while driving. Those who love fiction can be given graded readers to read at home, or they can listen to downloaded audiobooks. Those who like writing can communicate by posting comments on blogs or by writing emails to another student in class.

Revise, revise, revise

Older learners may need more revision than younger ones, so build in plenty of revision. This doesn’t mean repeating lessons. Find new contexts and situations for your students to use the language they have learned. Don’t be afraid to repeat listening texts again for revision in the next lesson, especially at the lower levels.

Have fun

Adult learners are likely to be learning in their own time and may be attending classes partly for social reasons. It is obviously important to set learning goals, but you can still have fun reaching them.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching the over 50s, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 24 January at 12pm GMT.

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. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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How to Keep Writing Tasks Real: Hotel Reviews

Hotel sign

Photo courtesy of Tomás Fano via Flickr

Alastair Lane is co-author of International Express Elementary and Intermediate levels, the all-new, five-level course for adult professionals, publishing in January 2014. International Express includes plenty of coverage of the hotel and travel industry. Here, Alastair shows how you can bring the subject alive with a real-life writing task.

“To whom it may concern. I am extremely unhappy with the service I received at your hotel during the week of 1 September to 7 September 2013.”

Those were the days. When customers received bad service, the typewriter would be out in a flash and our disgruntled customer would be bashing the keys in fury. However, today the idea of a letter of complaint is so old-fashioned that we might as well be teaching our students how to write a telegram.

Things are different now. If you go to a hotel or a youth hostel and the service is bad, when you get home you have a chance to complain to the whole world. You might put a negative review on Trip Advisor. Alternatively, if you booked it through a website like Booking.com, you will be invited to place your review on the site.

This is the kind of task people are doing in real life, and it’s the kind of writing task that we should be using in the classroom. We can ask the class to write a review of a hotel that they have stayed at, a fictional hotel, or a review of a hotel that they can see online. Students immediately see the purpose of the task because it replicates something they would naturally do in L1.

Writing a hotel review can work at any level from Elementary upwards, because online reviews can be as short as a single sentence.

Students can go straight to the Internet to find real-life model texts. Sites like Booking.com are particularly good for this. Firstly, they provide an automatic model for writing because users are asked to complete two sections: one for good points and one for bad points. That helps lower-level students organize their texts.

Secondly, users can filter the results to read reviews from people like themselves. If you have an older class, you can look at reviews posted by ‘families with older children’ or younger students can look at reviews by ‘groups of friends’.

When writing an online hotel review, students can write a fifty-word text and it still looks as real as any other entry on the sites. Students don’t have the sense that the task has been artificially simplified to match their language level.

A writing task of this nature also allows you to practice reading skills. Students can exchange their reviews, without the number of stars. The next student or pair has to decide whether the review is a one-star or five-star one. After all, we also want to practice praising the hotel in addition to the language of complaint.

With higher level students, you can ask them to write the review as if they are a particular group of travellers e.g. ‘mature couple’, ‘solo traveller’, ‘business traveller’. They then have to pass their text to the next student or pair. Once again, the next students have to guess which type of traveller wrote the review. This is a particularly good way of reviewing the language of facilities, as a business traveller will have very different needs to a 21 year-old travelling alone.

The short nature of writing online and the fact that users tend to write for an international audience in English provides a huge number of opportunities for the classroom. So let’s forget artificial tasks like the letter of complaint and start replicating what students are actually doing out in the real world.

Alastair Lane has over seventeen years’ experience in English language teaching. Currently based in Barcelona, he has also taught in Finland, Germany, Switzerland and the UK. Alastair is co-author of International Express Elementary and Intermediate levels, part of the five-level course publishing in January 2014.