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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!


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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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Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children

Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor of ELT/ Applied Linguistics at the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick, UK. Annamaria will be hosting a Global Webinar entitled ‘Towards incorporating learner autonomy in language classes for children’ on February 22nd and 24th. You can more information and register to attend here.

Autonomy is an undisputed educational goal for all. But does this apply to children as well? How can it be applied in language classrooms across different age groups? What can teachers do to help children become more autonomous learners? How does the teacher’s role change?

Why we can’t avoid autonomy:

Each year ever greater numbers of young children in various parts of the world start learning English, and by the time they become teenagers and/ or adults, the world around them will change beyond recognition, and they will need to adjust to new ways of learning. Training them to think for themselves is therefore an essential skill to teach today.

What benefits will this training come with?     

Autonomy goes hand in hand with motivation. If your learners are highly motivated, they will be learning English enthusiastically. Autonomy is also linked to making choices. When children make choices, they will invest more responsibility and effort into whatever they do.

This webinar will be devoted to ideas/ techniques and activities that can be adapted for any classroom. Teachers can incorporate as much or as little as they see appropriate into their practice, and these ideas will work in any classroom because there is also a strong link between developing learner autonomy and attention to individual needs and differences in different contexts.

Here is one idea:

  • Get the children to work in groups and take some photos ( for postcards)
  • Get each child to choose their favourite picture to write about (with a purpose, e.g. my favourite place to show a friend )
  • Get the children to compare their picture stories/cards within the group. Having seen/ read other cards, ask the children to add at least one more idea/ sentence/ to their original writing and/ or improve the writing in any other way.

Autonomous learners  – autonomous teachers?

If we expect children to become more autonomous, should we expect the same of ourselves?    What about ‘Teachers as learners’ and ‘teachers as role models’?              

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A Letter to My Younger Self

Young woman thinking as she writesMeghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. In this piece she writes a letter to herself about things she wished she knew when she first started teaching.

Dear Younger Self,

As you have probably realised by now, teaching is hard work. On top of a full teaching load you have to deal with homework, exams, misbehaving students, staff meetings and (gasp!) students’ parents. You are experiencing a lot of uncertainty and ups and downs, sometimes even on an hourly basis. You may feel that you don’t have enough time to plan the spectacular lessons you dreamt of when you were training to become a teacher. I remember what it feels like to be a new teacher, so I would like to offer you some simple advice that can help you deal with some of the challenges you are currently facing.

Choice: First of all, don’t be afraid to give your students choices about their learning. As a teacher, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of being the decision-maker, judge and jury in the classroom, but allowing choice is an important part of helping students become autonomous learners. By having your students make some decisions in the classroom, you can also increase their involvement and enjoyment of your lessons. Start with something simple, such as allowing students to choose which questions from an exercise that they would like to answer. You might also consider asking them how they would like to carry out an activity – individually, in pairs or in groups? Homework and projects are other areas where choice is a possibility. If you want them to get more practice with past simple at home, give them some options and take a whole class vote, for example:

  1. Write a short composition about your last holiday.
  2. Record yourself talking about what you did last weekend.
  3. Prepare a ‘past simple’ quiz for your classmates.

This allows you to cater to different learning styles while encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. For learners who are not accustomed to being given choice in the classroom, this new responsibility may come as a shock to them and they may struggle to come up with ideas or even try to ‘cheat’ the system. But with a bit of persistence and optimism on your part, you will be amazed at the wonderful ideas your students can come up with.

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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #5 Promote learner autonomy

Asian girl sitting on the floor readingContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at number five of the 10 Commandments: Promote learner autonomy.

Thanks for the replies to the last couple of blogs, all in response to comments on two of the Ten Commandments for motivation. This time round, I want to turn my attention to just one, but it’s one of the areas that’s received lots of attention in the last few years: Dornyei and Czizer’s version reads: Promote learner autonomy.

Now, in general terms everyone’s agreed that learner autonomy is a good thing but the specifics of how to encourage it are a bit harder to pin down, not least because there are so many different levels at which autonomy works. So it’s with a degree of trepidation that I start this blog.

Best to begin softly: what is learner autonomy?

Easy enough – a workable definition is that it’s the readiness and ability to take charge of one’s own learning inside and outside the classroom. In ascending order of difficulty, the next questions go why? and how? So, why is it a good thing that learners take care of their own learning? (Bear in mind, by the way, that these are all discussions we can and maybe should be having with our students.)

There is a whole raft of answers from the more to the less obvious. Students only spend part of their time and a fraction of their lives in the classroom with us, the teacher, so learning skills they can use outside and in later life is doubly valuable – a point the Common European Framework is very strong on making. More than that, autonomous students will probably learn with more enjoyment, do better in exams, set their own targets, be more fun to teach, and so on…

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