Julie Moore, part of the writing team for the new Oxford EAP series, looks at some of the challenges involved in making the move from teaching General English to English for Academic Purposes.
When I got a job teaching on Bristol University’s pre-sessional EAP course some six years ago, I already had plenty of General English teaching experience under my belt. I was excited at the prospect of teaching a group of intelligent, motivated students with a clear goal at the end of the course. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the huge culture shift involved in moving from general EFL teaching to an EAP environment.
I’ve spoken before about some of the differences and issues that teachers from a general ELT background come up against when they make the move into teaching EAP. Many of those differences can actually be seen as advantages, the main one being that an EAP syllabus is much more focused and clearly defined than many General English courses. Because you’re working with a very specific genre, academic English, there are clear sets of skills to be taught – reading academic texts, listening to lectures, participating in seminar discussions – and a well-defined, well-researched language register that students need to master.
For me, one of the big challenges though was getting used to the content-driven nature of EAP. In a General English classroom, you don’t care too much what the students talk about as long as they’re communicating ideas as proficiently as possible for their level. In EAP, what you say matters almost as much as how you say it. You find yourself teaching not just language skills, but thinking skills, how to develop a thesis or structure an argument. At first, you’re desperately trying to remember back to how you did things when you were at university, and getting to grips with a whole new set of terminology. Once you get into the swing of it though, it can be a really interesting, stimulating environment in which to teach.
Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 about integrating skills, language, tasks, and critical thinking, Edward de Chazal talks about some of the myths and realities about English for Academic Purposes.
English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is one of the fastest-growing areas of English Language Teaching (ELT). You may have come across a few myths and misconceptions flying around. It’s dry and dull, right? Actually no. I’ve come up with seven myths like these, and I’ll argue against them all.
1. EAP is dry, serious, and dull
It’s certainly serious, but it needn’t be dry and dull – is studying your chosen subject dry and dull? And do you find listening to people talk about their fields dry and dull? EAP is serious because it is all about gaining and researching new knowledge, making new connections, and communicating these ideas. Communication is at the heart of EAP, and the EAP classroom needs to reflect this. Unlike many general English language teaching (ELT) contexts, a lot of this communication is done through writing – so writing and reading are very important. Speaking and listening are too, and a lot of spoken and written communication takes place in slightly formalized and conventional set-piece events such as lectures and seminars.
2. EAP is objective rather than subjective
This is one of those often-repeated statements, but it’s highly misleading. Objectivity is associated with facts. Of course facts vital and necessary, but they’re not sufficient. It’s not the aim of university degrees to merely teach and learn facts. In response to facts we need such thinking activities as interpretation, speculation, and evaluation. These are all subjective. Subjectivity is based around people, and people’s responses – such as their evaluation of the same idea or piece of evidence – vary from person to person. From economists evaluating the merits of a policy response to psychologists speculating on the causes of a unusual behaviour pattern, the results are subjective. And subjectivity is not inferior to objectivity – it’s potentially more interesting and associated with originality, which is highly-valued in academic contexts. The interface of objectivity and subjectivity lie at the heart of academic life.
3. EAP is basically IELTS
No. On a scale of general to academic, most EAP practitioners would place IELTS much nearer the general end. IELTS is not officially described as an academic examination, and it does not venture far into EAP territory of reading and synthesizing texts, writing referenced essays, and critical thinking. IELTS reading texts and tasks might offer a flavour of academic ones, but without the rigour.
4. To teach EAP is to teach subject knowledge and content
In reality, the purpose of EAP is to meet the needs of students planning to study (or already studying) at university through the medium of English. Their needs revolve around language, the four skills, and study skills including critical thinking. The focus of EAP is not on the knowledge, or even specific language of any particular subject – from Accountancy to Zoology – but on core skills and generic language that can cover any discipline. If you’re teaching subject knowledge alongside language, that’s Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).
5. Vocabulary in EAP means a focus on subject-specific words, and scientific terms and concepts
Just like our fourth myth, most EAP contexts are not closely concerned with teaching and learning subject-specific terms and concepts. EAP teachers leave that to the subject-specific experts! EAP materials include core and academic language which is generic to any discipline – e.g. analysis, significant, is based on, seems to suggest that. The job of the EAP practitioner is to gradually gain an understanding of the types of discourse and texts that students have to read and write in their discipline – how these texts are constructed and what language is used. We need to be able deconstruct these pieces of discourse, and enable our students to do the same. We need to understand, analyse, and reprocess meaning, but when it comes to systematically presenting subject-specific terms we just don’t go there. We’re all discourse analysts now!
6. To study in an English-medium university you must have an extremely high level of English
Not always so high. Students very rarely reach C2, in general ELT or EAP. Students usually have to reach a high B2 level (upper intermediate), or perhaps C1 (advanced) before they start studying. English language level requirements vary quite a lot, but they are not as high as many people expect.
7. It’s not the job of English-language teachers to teach critical thinking
Well, if you’re an EAP teacher, you’ll find it hard to avoid this. Critical thinking involves activities like identifying the stance of a writer, connecting items across different texts, and evaluating an idea – how plausible is it? Is it based on sound evidence? A student who struggles to critically engage with activities like these will struggle when they start their degree, and as EAP teachers we need to develop our students’ critical thinking skills – as well as our own!
What are your thoughts on English for Academic Purposes? What do you think are some myths and realities about it?