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Using Corpora for EAP Writing Development

The challenges of academic writing in ESLMaggie Charles has taught English for Academic Purposes for more than thirty years and was consultant and contributor to the Writing Tutor in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Do you spend hours looking for appropriate EAP examples?

Do you sometimes struggle to answer when your students ask, ‘Can I say…?’ or ‘Is there another word for…?’.

As EAP teachers, we encounter such problems on a daily basis and this where a corpus can help. But where can you find a suitable corpus of academic texts?

The British National Corpus (BNC), available here, covers both spoken and written language and has an academic component. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is similar in content. These corpora are very large: the BNC contains 100 million words in total (16 million academic), while COCA holds 450 million words (81 million academic). Another freely available resource is The British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE), which contains over 6 million words of high quality student writing. The examples I’ve used here come from The Compleat Lexical Tutor, which provides several smaller academic corpora. For teachers and students of EAP these corpora provide a huge store of examples of academic English as it is actually used.

What sort of help can a corpus provide? The corpora above come with their own built-in software, called a concordancer. To consult the corpus, you type in a word or phrase and the concordancer searches the corpus and presents every instance with its context in a line on screen. The search item appears in the centre, with a few words either side. Here is part of a concordance on emphasis from a 6+ million word general academic corpus. I’ve selected and sorted the lines by the first word to the left to show some useful adjective-noun combinations.

EAP1

My student wrote this:

Brown (2010) put high emphasis on the failure to distinguish between permanent and temporary shortages.

Studying the concordance showed her that the combination high emphasis wasn’t present in the corpus and gave her three possible alternatives (great, particular, special).

Concordance data like this has many applications in teaching writing. At the pre-writing stage, the concordance above can be used to help students notice collocations and chunks of authentic language which they can use in their own writing e.g. placed/laid great/particular emphasis on or with special/particular emphasis on. You can also make a concordance on key terms from the students’ own writing topic, which will retrieve phrases that are frequently used when discussing the topic. By studying the concordances, students can identify typical phrases associated with the topic, which reduces their reliance on literal translation in their writing.

At the post-writing stage, using concordances makes it easy to construct short tasks to deal with problems that have arisen in students’ texts. You can make concordances on two contrasting terms to focus students’ attention on important differences. The concordances below come from the BNC medicine corpus (1.4 million words) and highlight the difference between increase in and increase of. Most corpus software allows you to make gapped concordances so that you can check students’ understanding of the teaching point.

EAP2

You can use concordance data in many ways: before class you can prepare tasks for your students or check your own intuition about academic language; in-class you can ask students to study concordances on paper or respond to student queries as they write; after class you can supply short concordances to individual students or devise class tasks to deal with more general problem areas. Studying concordances either individually or in class helps students notice grammatical and lexical patterning and improve their own writing.

In addition to gapped and ungapped concordances, corpora can also provide sentence length examples, lists of collocates and short extracts. You don’t have to worry about making up examples or spend time reading through multiple sources to find suitable texts. Using an academic corpus in your students’ field(s) you can just input an appropriate search term and quickly retrieve a wealth of material.


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#IATEFL – “The difference is academic”

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomAhead of his talk at IATEFL 2015 about developing elementary English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students’ academic language, Edward de Chazal, co-author of Oxford EAP, considers the increasing relevance of EAP teaching for elementary students and younger learners. Have you ever used the saying “The difference is academic”? The fact that it means “There is no meaningful difference”, says something about the negative historical attitude of the British towards academics! But for the purposes of EAP I’d like to propose using the saying literally. In other words, EAP is different to other English language teaching contexts and the main difference, of course, is that it’s academic in focus. At IATEFL Glasgow I was one of the conference reviewers and I used this saying as the title of my review – what I argued was that over the years IATEFL itself has become increasingly academic. Sure, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, but an increasing number of the sessions are academically-inspired, covering research, serious ideas and theories, and EAP. Ideally, sessions should be both academic and fun! If one discernible trend in English language teaching is towards more specificity including EAP, there’s another important trend too: towards teaching ever-younger learners and lower levels. And in EAP the two trends come together. Going back, many would argue that you can’t teach EAP at lower levels, like elementary / A2. Looking forward, that’s exactly what’s happening, around the world and on an increasingly massive scale. I argue that as EAP teachers we should engage with this process and shape it. Let’s start by looking at EAP. What is the essence of EAP, and can it happen at A2? Big questions, short answers: at its heart EAP is about using academic language in a meaningful way; and yes, A2 is a great place to be doing this. For the first question, remember that the ‘E’ in ‘EAP’ stands for ‘English’, and the ‘A’ is for ‘Academic’. EAP students may be at an elementary level in terms of their English language, but they’re not elementary in cognitive terms. When we start teaching them they will already have had many years of schooling, usually have chosen a subject to study, and are planning to do so in English. We do them no favours by dumbing down the content and skills, provided these are achievable. So, what language can A2 EAP students learn? Time is limited, and we need to spend much less time on verbs, and more on nouns. Verbs are useful and necessary, but it’s inefficient to work through all the tenses; instead let’s stick to the present and past tenses, plus the passive as it’s widely used in academic texts. Nouns are far more frequent in academic texts, and a particular feature of such texts is the large proportion of noun phrases. The latter are all but absent from general English coursebooks, but should form a major part of EAP materials at this level. There are other key language areas too, including working with different sentence patterns, linking language, and specific areas like the language of evaluation. Above all, language learning needs to be contextualized and meaning-driven. In my IATEFL Manchester presentation I’ll be investigating what academic language we can focus on with our A2 EAP students. In doing so, we’ll see how language, context, and meaning are crucial for successful learning. Participants will identify and analyse the target language in different graded authentic academic texts, and will be empowered to follow these principles with new texts with their own students. In short, as I wrote in the IATEFL 2012 Glasgow Conference Selections, English language teachers are working towards educating our students for their own education. The difference is academic.


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Moving into EAP: navigating the transition

EAP English for academic purposesWhat exactly is EAP and how should it be taught? Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, discusses the challenges and opportunities for teachers moving in this area of English language teaching ahead of his webinar on the subject. 

First and foremost, you’ll want to know what EAP really is. ‘What is EAP?’ might sound like a straightforward question, but there’s quite a lot to it. For some people EAP means study skills – for example making notes while listening to a lecture – yet there’s much more to EAP than this.

It’s helpful to start with the three key words in EAP – English, Academic, Purposes – and look at each of these in turn.

What English should we focus on?

English is such a vast language that we need to be clear about what’s most relevant for our students, and spend time on this. We simply don’t have the time to cover everything.

For vocabulary, it’s useful to divide the language up into three broad groups:

• Core vocabulary – the most frequent words including prepositions and determiners, and frequent nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs
• Academic vocabulary – this is central to EAP and includes all the words which express meanings in any discipline, for example ‘argument’, ‘in terms of’, and ‘significantly’
• Technical vocabulary – this includes discipline-specific vocabulary, such as ‘genome’ (genetics) and ‘flotation’ (economics and finance).

In EAP we need to focus mainly on the first two of these – core and academic. Learning subject-specific words is beyond the scope of most EAP programmes, which tend to be general (i.e. where students of different disciplines study together in the same classes) rather than specific (where classes are built round students from similar disciplines, such as engineering or economics).

In addition, there’s grammar. As Ron Carter and Michael McCarthy have pointed out, ‘there are no special structures which are unique to academic English and never found elsewhere’. What’s strikingly different is the frequency and complexity of grammatical structures in academic language. For instance, the passive is far more frequent, accounting for about 25% of all main verbs in academic texts. Complex noun phrases are very frequent too – look out for examples like ‘a difficult investment climate characterized by over-regulation’ and unpack these in your EAP classroom.

What does Academic really mean?

We’ve all got our own experiences of academic life and culture – the schools and universities we’ve studied at and the places where we’ve taught. In EAP we have to prepare our students to survive in a context which potentially has three shocks: academic shock, language shock, and culture shock. Academic institutions like universities have their own cultures and ways of doing things. There are different academic communities – to some extent artists behave differently from biologists. But there are many things in common, such as the principle of academic honesty (don’t use other people’s material without acknowledgment) and the necessity to communicate.

What Purposes are there?

The main purpose of EAP is to enable students to be able to study effectively in their chosen programme, in English. To do this, students need considerable autonomy. Autonomy and independence don’t just happen – in short, EAP teachers need to enable students to learn how to be more autonomous. Students need to learn how to study effectively, individually and collaboratively with other students. And they need many other skills and competences, such as how to search for source texts to use in their writing and speaking.

There’s another, more distant, purpose to EAP. Most students aren’t doing further study in English for its own sake. Rather, it’s a means to an end – a professional purpose.

So, there’s a lot going on in the field of EAP. In my webinar on Thursday 20th November we’ll be exploring this through the lens of ‘E’, ‘A’ and ‘P’. Join us and see what it all adds up to!


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Three

proofreading for English language students in EAPThis is the final article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares some proofreading tips to help students to reduce careless errors and spelling mistakes.

How often do you remind your students to check their work carefully before they hand it in, then despair of all the careless errors and spelling mistakes that still pepper their writing, especially in a world with spellcheckers? But is proofreading your own writing really that easy?

The importance of accuracy

Accuracy in academic writing is particularly valued. In an academic context, an argument or a piece of research that contains errors and inaccuracies will not be seen as credible. Similarly, it can be difficult for subject tutors reading a piece of student writing to judge whether inaccuracies from a non-native speaker student are a product of flawed thinking or simply a result of language weaknesses. A long text full of minor language errors puts pressure on the reader, as they have to keep reprocessing sentences to extract the correct meaning. In this case, it’s easy to lose the thread of the argument or for the writer’s message to get lost, thus detracting from the academic content.

Teaching proofreading techniques

There’s no simple solution to eliminating those frustrating surface errors, but you can help students by explicitly teaching a few techniques they can use to proofread their writing.

A first step is to raise students’ awareness of their own specific weak points. It’s easy to assume that students know where they make the most mistakes, but often their attention is elsewhere. With every class I teach, I have a session where I ask them to bring in as many pieces of writing they’ve had feedback on (from me or other teachers) as possible. I then get them to go through and systematically count up and classify their error types (with articles, prepositions, noun-verb agreement, etc.) They pick out their top 3 or 4 error types and we work on ways that they can systematically search for and identify those errors in their writing.

This short activity from Oxford EAP Advanced is really useful for highlighting and discussing practical proofreading techniques:

feedback_academic_part3

 

It amazes me every time how many of them don’t have their computer spell-check set to English!

Dictionary skills

With a background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of teaching dictionary skills and encouraging students to use a dictionary and thesaurus both when they’re writing and when they’re checking their work. In class, I jump at any opportunity to turn to the dictionary to demonstrate to students how they can use it to check not just meaning, but collocations, dependent prepositions, following clause structures, etc. I’m particularly looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my classes which focuses specifically on the academic uses of words.

I also try to find time to introduce students to using a thesaurus. Often when they try reading something they’ve written aloud (a useful technique for checking that a text flows), they notice they’ve repeated a particular word or phrase too often. I point students in the direction of the Oxford Learner’s Thesauruswhich explains the similarities and subtle differences between sets of synonyms, helping them to choose an appropriate alternative to avoid those awkward repetitions.

Armed with a few simple tools and techniques, I hope that by the end of their EAP course, my students are better equipped to improve their academic writing style and to tidy up their own final drafts. Many of them are incredibly bright cookies in their own disciplines and I’d hate for them to let themselves down with a few awkward collocations or misplaced prepositions!

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Two

Teacher helping adult studentThis is the second article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how teachers can encourage students to act on feedback.

In my last article, I wrote about how overwhelming it can be for new student writers to get back a piece of writing covered in feedback. They can often feel like getting their writing up to scratch is going to be such an uphill battle that they just give up and ignore the feedback altogether. I suggested that by giving less feedback and breaking it down into more manageable chunks, students can focus on a specific area at a time and make realistic progress. With my own EAP students last summer, I started off by focusing on the content of their writing, ignoring language errors and giving feedback on whether they’d answered the question, whether they’d provided sufficient support for their arguments, or whether their overall message was clear.

Copy-editing

Once we’d established what they were expected to write, I turned next to the how. Many students new to EAP arrive with what I describe as a high-school style of essay-writing. That is, their language is rather simplistic: it is not sophisticated enough to communicate the more subtle details and perspectives involved especially at higher levels of academic study. The purpose of teaching students to write in a more academic style is not to make them sound more ‘fancy’ or ‘impressive’, but to give them the tools to do justice to their subject knowledge and ideas. Explaining the why of features of academic style is as important as demonstrating the how.

Group feedback

As you read through writing that a class has handed in, you’ll often find that a particular task has thrown up the same issue for a lot of students, in which case, group feedback is the most efficient way to address it. One rule I always try to stick to is to work on the feedback activity before I hand back students’ individual writing. That way you’re more likely to have their attention, they’re not so caught up in their individual feedback and more concerned about some other feature you’ve mentioned on their paper.

One problem for my students centred around the use of impersonal language in academic writing. In early writing tasks, many of them were still using a lot of personal pronouns to refer to people in general (we, you):

If we restrict access to media like internet for young people, it is possible that they will find another way to gain related information.

So I started off with this example from a student essay on the board (anonymously) and asked who the ‘we’ referred to. Of course, the class came back with various different answers – society, the government, parents, ISPs – so identifying the problem for themselves (i.e. vagueness). Next, we looked back at the text we’d read as input for the writing task (from an academic textbook) and picked out the subject of each sentence. We found that these were invariably noun phrases (often plural nouns to refer to specific groups), thus identifying how expert academic writers deal with this situation. Then in small groups, students looked at some more similar examples from their own writing, identified the problem in each case and suggested rewrites.

Responding to feedback

As well as staging group activities to highlight problems and features, I also tried to get students to engage more actively with individual feedback. So I’d focus on two or three key errors in a piece of writing and frame my feedback in the form of a question to be answered. I then asked students to email me their rewrites of just the highlighted sentences. For example, this was an exchange with a business studies student just after we’d been talking about hedging and the appropriate use of confident and tentative language:

Student’s first draft: This paper demonstrates how the main management methods…

My feedback comment: Is demonstrate the best verb here – a little too confident?

Student redraft: This paper attempts to argue that the main management methods…

My feedback: Great! This is really good and sounds just right for a student writer.

By making feedback a collaborative process between student writer and you as editor – rather than a passive one – you can help students to better understand why we use certain linguistic features in academic writing and hopefully, help them to find their own voice as a novice academic writer.

In my next article, I’ll talk about teaching proofreading techniques to help students polish up their final draft.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.