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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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EAP – daunting, dry, difficult, and dull?

Bored studentRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at Oxford University Press, considers why English for Academic Purposes is often perceived as dull and difficult, and presents some tips for overcoming that perception.

I was recently asked to do a talk in Turkey to a group of university teachers. The organisers wanted me to talk about English for Academic Purposes but to make it interesting! Apparently EAP has a bit of a reputation with both learners and teachers for being Daunting, Dry, Difficult and Dull. I talked to one of our leading EAP authors, Edward de Chazal, and together we found a way of beating the four Ds with the five vowels – A, E, I, O, U.

As the framework for the talk developed it also became clear that one of the main reasons for this perception of EAP is due to the abundance of long reading texts at the core of many courses. Reading is important but there are many other skills needed. Let me take you through what we came up with.

A is for Authenticity

Not just in texts, but in tasks. One of the overriding messages of Oxford’s approach to EAP is to introduce our learners to authentic texts and in particular the types of text they will encounter in a further education setting. This does not mean newspaper articles, short stories and amusing blogs – it does mean academic texts from textbooks and, at higher levels, abstracts and journal articles. It also means authentic lectures and for our new series we filmed Oxford University lecturers talking on a wide range of subjects for up to thirty minutes. Our authors built interesting tasks around the lectures which our users get on a DVD packaged with the books. What is amazing is how a totally authentic lecture on, for example, stroke medicine, the United Nations, community ecology, etc. can be made accessible with well thought-out scaffolding. Unscripted lectures have all the features of speech our future students will have to deal with if they do their degree course in English.

E is for Engagement

So many learners in EAP classes are not motivated. They are keen to do the preparatory year to enter university but aren’t necessarily interested in the English language. It was often a subject they struggled with, or didn’t like (or both) at school and it is difficult sometimes for teachers to rid them of those memories and that baggage. One way of engaging them is to make them think about a subject, an issue or a problem and to encourage them to think critically by asking the next logical question, bringing in their own knowledge of the world, challenging the ideas the text or the lecture provokes.

A simple exercise for this is to take some sentences from a range of topics such as this:

  1. Deforestation can be caused by soil erosion
  2. The clinical trial failed because the incorrect dosage was given.
  3. Lack of energy is one possible effect of a low-calorie diet.
  4. Unemployment and poverty are likely to result in serious social problems.
  5. Dodos were fat, slow and easy to shoot, which is why they became instinct.
  6. Musicians can develop hearing problems such as tinnitus, owing to repeated exposure to amplified music.

Students choose the sentences which interest them most and analyse them for cause and effect. Later on in the lesson get them to recall the meaning of the sentences – sometimes they will remember them word for word, but what you actually want is for them to recall the facts and paraphrase them. This is proof that they have fully understood the ideas behind the sentence. You can then look at the cause/effect language such as because, owing to, which is why, results in, etc. knowing that their brains are fully engaged.

I is for Independence

The ultimate aim is to encourage autonomy in our learners. They won’t be around forever and you certainly won’t be there to help them later, so you need to prepare them, train them to study independently, to take and organize notes, use dictionaries, store vocabulary, think for themselves, evaluate things and do research without always resorting to Google. Encouraging them to do project work, reporting back, peer teaching are all ways of building this feeling of independence. Making their own videos or infographics with engaging, memorable content or creating a class blog are other ways of developing independence.

O is for Objectives

The good thing about many EAP classes is that the objectives are very transparent. If we make the objectives realistic and attainable then we have more chance of succeeding. The problem arises when the department, the faculty teachers, the parents, and the learners themselves have a different take on the objectives. You, as the language teacher, are often stuck in the middle. Overambitious IELTS targets, overemphasis on grammar in the end of year test, a reluctance to work outside of class are just three examples of factors that can make your teaching difficult and the objectives unattainable. Quantitative objectives which only deal with end of course results without any qualitative data mean that the course can also become too rigid.

We had too much choice for U.

Unique, Useful, Universal. Each learner in an EAP class is unique, with a different set of abilities and goals to his or her peers. How can teachers find tasks and activities which are useful to such a wide range? This is one of the secrets to successful teaching and I think it often happens by chance. An activity can sometimes take on a life of its own and a group sees its usefulness immediately. Feedback on such activities is useful. Why did that lesson work? What was its value? Would you like more of this type of lesson? These are really useful feedback questions. We are always seeking lessons and activities that have universal appeal. It is difficult to get topics, skills, new language items that have guaranteed universal appeal but that doesn’t stop us looking.

As you wrestle with making EAP more appealing, think of A, E, I, O, U. Nobody wants to be thought of as dull, difficult or dry!