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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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Webinar: Integrating academic study skills from A1

Students in lecture theatreSarah Philpot, Headway Academic Skills co-author, discusses the issue of addressing academic needs as early as possible in language learning. You can join Sarah for her upcoming webinar “Integrating academic study skills from A1” on 18th February.

During my 30-year teaching career I have, like many of you, no doubt, taught, a range of different class types: General English, English for Exams, IELTS, Business English, English for Medics, English for Academic Purposes, etc.

Obviously, during those years, a lot of things have changed. Typically in the past, adult students would do General English until they reached a certain level of competence, around B1, at which point many of them would chose a ‘special’ course to help them in their work or studies. This would entail learning different and new lexis, functions and skills.

However, with English being more and more a core requisite for Higher Education and for work in multinational and trans-national companies, young adult students in particular realise that they need not only a level of linguistic competence, but also the appropriate academic or professional competencies too, and as early as possible.

To a large extent, people wishing to enter the corporate world are already catered for – just look at the number of Business English course books, beginner to advanced, that are available. So, it struck me as rather strange that those with academic needs were not similarly provided for, and that those students would have to return to the old pattern.

This is where the Headway Academic Skills series came in. It seemed logical, not to say fair, that students planning to go into higher education should also be in a position to learn the appropriate lexis, functions, etc. at the same time as they are learning the difference between the present simple and present continuous!

In my webinar, I hope to show why this integrated approach is being adopted, and how we can do it. I will be drawing on material from Headway Academic Skills Introductory Level (A0/A1), and will be looking specifically at the importance of:

  • context
  • task type
  • lexis
  • register

in making a course more relevant to students who wish to continue their studies in an English-medium college or university.

Sign up for Sarah’s webinar on 18th February now.


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Critical Thinking in the ELT Classroom

Young man thinking while using laptopEdward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, explores the topic of critical thinking and how it should be taught in the ELT classroom.

The enquiring mind

Critical thinking is innate – it comes from inside us – and as humans we have survived and developed by approaching things critically. Children naturally try to check what they have been told, and are ‘programmed’ to piece together the information they encounter. For example, a six year-old child I know was told that diamonds are the strongest and hardest thing on earth and could cut through other stones and even metal. He then visited a rock on the English Jurassic Coast that had been ‘carved’ into an arch, and after listening to an explanation of how it had happened asked, ‘Which is more powerful, diamonds or the sea?’ This child could not yet read and write, but like other children, he was developing his critical mind.

Critical thinking essentially means having a questioning, challenging, analytical state of mind. A critical mind is comfortable with a degree of scepticism and doubt; it is a mind that is open to reinterpreting and refining its knowledge, and accepting that what we know may change in the light of new knowledge. A critical thinker questions whether something is believable, evaluates how strong is the basis of an assumption, and makes new connections between what they know and learn.

Multiple intelligences are involved in critical thinking. The conductor of an orchestra critically interprets the written score, even if it is as familiar as Beethoven’s Ninth. They aim to add something new, and communicate their interpretation to the musicians through movement. A surgeon has to work out the wider picture from the detail they can see, and act quickly. Someone working in business accesses the information relevant to their sector, assesses its significance, and looks for a new opportunity. These people are all thinking critically. Our students will do jobs like these when they have completed their education.

Critical thinking in the classroom

Part of our job as language teachers – and more broadly as educators – is to develop our students’ critical thinking competence. In reality, different students may have experienced varying degrees of nurture and discouragement at the hands of their parents, previous education, and wider culture. Our students’ level of critical thinking may not be related to their language level.

We can start by introducing tasks which ask students to question what they read and listen to, investigating the deeper – more implicit, meanings in texts – and identify assumptions and weaknesses. We can ask students to respond to statements that emerge from the materials we are already using. For example, my class were shown a slide in a lecture which stated ‘China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world’. I elicited critical questions which included: ‘When? – How soon is ‘soon’?’; ‘Why not India?’; ‘How do you know? – What are your sources?’; and ‘How well will they speak English?’ We can start by asking the simple question ‘So what?’ Our classes, and all our lives, will be richer for our students’ responses.

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Transferability between Academic English and Business English

Young woman with laptopLouis Rogers, author of Skills for Business Studies and an EAP teacher, discusses the special language skills pre-work Business English students need. Louis will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 12th February.

It is often debated as to what the aim of Higher Education is. Is it to simply further knowledge or is its main aim to put students in a position to gain employment? Many universities now provide Academic and Professional Skills modules that aim to develop students’ skills that meet both their immediate study needs, and also develop skills that are transferable to their future work place. Perhaps the one area where this is most apparent is studying within the field of Business. Consequently, this can leave students and teachers in the position of trying to meet both current academic needs but also future professional needs.

The wide variety of options available to students can also lead to a range of learner needs in the classroom. When teaching in Germany I had classes in a University that focused on Business English; however, the students’ aims varied greatly. Some were intending to take a year in the UK as part of the ERASMUS programme, some intended to take a postgraduate course via the medium of English, and others were there to enhance their CV before entering employment. Although there are differing needs there are also areas where goals overlap.

If we compare EAP materials or Pre-work materials with Business English materials for those in work we find that all are determined by clear contexts and goals. All sets of materials tend to take a skills-based approach, but there is a greater emphasis on grammar development in the Pre-work materials. Additionally, the focus and time spent on each skill means that the pre-work learner is perhaps not having all their needs met if a General Business English course is used in isolation. The speaking skills focus on presentations and meetings is perhaps comparable to the EAP focus of presentations and seminars. There are also similarities in listening skills with a focus on interactive dialogues and extended monologues. Yet in reading and writing skills the approach differs significantly.

In terms of the language focus, the needs and aims differ greatly with a much greater focus on lexis in EAP rather than the wide range of tenses found in most General Business courses. Arguably, a pre-work Business English course can partly claim to meet students’ immediate academic needs but a significant amount of supplementation of Reading and Writing Skills development is required, and a change in focus on the language is required as well. My upcoming webinar will explore some of the commonalities and differences between the In-work and Pre-work learner needs with particular reference to Skills for Business Studies.


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Learner Autonomy

Group of college friendsJanet Hardy-Gould, a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, discusses how to encourage learner autonomy in the higher education classroom.

Learner autonomy is when students take control and responsibility for their own learning, both in terms of what they learn and how they learn it. It takes as its starting point the idea that students are capable of self-direction and are able to develop an independent, proactive approach to their studies.

In the field of higher education, learner autonomy is particularly important. Students may have limited classroom contact time for learning English but they may need to rapidly increase their knowledge and skills. It is therefore important for them to become self-reliant language learners who can continue learning efficiently outside the classroom.

At the heart of autonomous learning is the student’s perception of their own role as a learner. Classroom discussion and one-to-one conversations with the teacher can help students to understand the essential part that they play in their own success in English. Establish that autonomous, dynamic students have the potential to learn far more than passive, reactive learners. Self-reliant students can address their own individual needs and make ongoing progress.

Autonomy involves students having a range of learning strategies which they are able to apply flexibly in different contexts. Teachers can help students to develop learning strategies through learner training in the classroom and this can take many forms. One important practical step is awareness-raising on how to use self-reference tools such as English-English dictionaries and grammar books.

In the early stages of a course it is useful to demonstrate as a class how to use such resources effectively. For example, when reading a text in lessons, encourage students to choose a small number of new words which they are unable to deduce from context.  Ask them to look up the words in an English-English dictionary. If there is more than one entry for the word, discuss which one is the correct meaning for that context. Use the opportunity to highlight the rich range of information found in a dictionary such as pronunciation and word class.

Encourage students to capitalize on their dictionary work by selecting and noting down any useful words in a personalised vocabulary book or list. Set students homework tasks such as reading a text of their choice and researching a limited number of words in an English-English dictionary. Encourage them to reflect on the process in class. This can help students to transfer skills beyond the classroom and become more resourceful and autonomous learners.

Janet Hardy-Gould is a materials writer, teacher and teacher-trainer who has been in the field of English language teaching for over twenty years. She has worked for a range of ELT organizations and now teaches periodically at the University of Sussex in England. Her interests include the development of engaging reading materials for teenage and adult learners and she has written over twenty-five ELT books for OUP, including graded readers, resource books, and workbooks.

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