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Feedback on academic writing – Part One

EAP feedback to EFL students

Image courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

This is the first article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how to give your students constructive feedback on their writing.

Although I’ve been working in ELT publishing for some 15 years, co-authoring Oxford EAP Advanced was the first time I’ve been involved in writing a whole coursebook. It was a very steep learning curve in all kinds of ways, but perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the whole experience was the process of having my writing edited. I’d spend long hours at my desk writing a unit, then I’d email my completed draft off to my editor and wait with trepidation for her feedback. When I opened up her reply, my heart would often sink at the sight of those tightly-packed comments squeezed down the margin of every page and the prospect of ploughing my way through them!

So when I finally got away from my desk and back into the classroom again last summer to teach on a pre-sessional EAP course, I approached giving feedback on my students’ own writing with a fresh perspective. But what lessons had I learnt?

Less is more

In an EAP context, writing is a key skill and as teachers, we have a tendency to want to give as much feedback on written work as possible. Our intentions are good – we want to help our students improve – but the effect can sometimes be the opposite. Students are so overwhelmed by all the feedback that they either get demotivated and lose confidence, or they skim through to find the grade or the final comment and then file away all our careful feedback, largely unread.

Having experienced how daunting masses of feedback can be for a writer, I was determined to make the process less scary and more productive for my students. I turned to publishing again for a way of breaking it down into more manageable steps:

  • content editing – focus on what is written, rather than how
  • copyediting – focus on style, voice, flow, etc.
  • proofreading – tidying up surface errors

In this article, I’m going to talk about the first stage of the editing/feedback process:

Focus on content

For many students new to EAP, their experience of writing in English has been mostly of short, functional letters and emails, and if they have written essays, they’ll have been of the rather simple, formulaic kind which are designed essentially to practise or test the student’s language abilities. In an ELT context, the focus is often not really on what you write so much as the language you manage to display. A student can produce a fairly inane piece of writing, saying really very little of any substance, but if they show a range of vocabulary, reasonably accurate grammar and throw in a few nice discourse markers, they can get a good mark. This simply won’t cut it in an academic context where: “After all, we teach college students to write not because we expect them to become writers, but because writing is the evidence that they are mastering intellectual concepts.” (McBride, 2012).

So in the first few writing activities I did with my EAP students, I focused very much on content: on what they were expected to write. In my feedback, I ignored the surface language issues and commented only on how well they’d tackled the task. Had they answered the question? Had they put forward a clear argument and supporting evidence? Had they offered analysis and evaluation as well as simple description?

As we worked on some of these key principles of academic writing, I encouraged students to evaluate the content of their own writing, establishing routines and checklists they could use to edit their writing in the future. For example, the following criteria to check a main body paragraph of an essay:

  1. Have you stated the main argument clearly?
  2. Do supporting points flow logically?
  3. Are key concepts/terms clearly defined and/or explained?
  4. Does the evidence support the main argument?
  5. Have you included comment and/or evaluation to make your own stance clear?
    (Adapted from Oxford EAP Advanced)

The initial reaction from some students was uneasy – surely it was my job to correct all their language errors, wasn’t it? It was important that I explained clearly what I was doing and why. I kept copies of students’ writing to use examples (anonymously) as part of other activities on specific language points. I also reassured them that I’d be giving feedback at a more micro-level on their individual writing as the course went on.

And did the approach work? Overall, I think it did. By concentrating first on what they were expected to write, it laid a solid base on which to build the details of how to write as the course went on.

In my next article, I’ll talk about copy-editing and feedback techniques for helping students achieve that all-important academic style.

References

de Chazal & Moore (2013) Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 (OUP)
McBride (2012) ‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/everyday-ethics/188789/patchwriting-is-more- common-than-plagiarism-just-as-dishonest/

 

This article first appeared in the January 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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EAP in the classroom Part Three – Developing student independence

EAP in the classroom  - Developing student independenceIn the last of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective strategies to help students work more independently. 

In English language teaching in general, and EAP in particular, independence is talked about a lot. Teachers say they want their students to ‘be more independent’ and ‘work more independently’. But what does this mean, and how can it happen?

Student independence is a major aim of EAP – eventually, when they are studying in their departments, students need a significant degree of independence in order to function effectively and succeed. Typically, most of their EAP input takes place before they start their academic programme, so EAP teachers need to use materials which lead to independence. For instance, rather than presenting one particular reading text for intensive focus – an inward-looking task – a more outward-looking task would enable students to learn skills and techniques which they can independently apply to other texts.

Independence is both an abstract concept – a ‘state of mind’ perhaps – and a physical concept. Ultimately, students need to become independent of their (EAP) teachers, the timetabled lessons, and the materials. Put simply, the independent student no longer needs to be told when to study, how to learn, and what to focus on. They have become skilled at searching for source texts, selecting and evaluating what they read, and processing parts of the material into their own new texts such as essays and presentations. Linguistically, cognitively, and academically, these are complex processes.

Relying on teacher input

A key point about independence is that for many students it doesn’t just happen. The role of the EAP teacher is vital: paradoxically, significant teacher input is needed for student independence to develop, especially in its early stages.

To illustrate this, I’d like to use an example from my own education. When I was studying English Literature at grammar school (an old-fashioned type of secondary school; there aren’t many grammar schools left now), we had to analyse poems. We had never seen these poems before (they were known as ‘unseen’), and they were quite difficult. Early on in the process, our teacher would try to elicit meanings, using questions like ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Why is the poet using this word here?’, and ‘What does this line suggest to you?’ Yet at this stage the teacher did most of the explaining – we listened carefully and read closely, and by the end of the lesson we were able to understand the poem pretty well. However, I remember wondering how I would ever be able to analyse a poem myself – independently – it just seemed too difficult without the support of the teacher. This story has a happy ending: gradually we did learn how to analyse an unseen poem, and most of us in the class achieved a very high grade in our A-level exam. Significantly, this skill is transferable: poems are not the only things I can analyse.

This example tells us several things. The teacher has a key role to play, and they need to use appropriate yet challenging materials. There has to be sufficient support and staging, particularly earlier on in the process of becoming more independent. Independence takes time to develop, and students will develop at different speeds and in different ways.

Developing student independence

Conversely, if the teacher continues to do too much, their students might remain over-reliant and excessively dependent. In order to become more independent, students need to be engaged with the material, and become more responsible. In this context responsibility means taking the initiative – finding new texts, and using the available resources and technologies.

We’ve incorporated many of these ideas into Oxford EAP. The theme of the final unit in Oxford EAP Upper-Intermediate/B2 is ‘Independence’, and the lecture in this unit presents many of the ideas in this article. Integrated throughout the different levels of the Oxford EAP series are Independent Study tasks, which ask students to go and find out something new. Similarly, the sequences of tasks in the skills modules are designed to be transferable, so that the student can apply the similar techniques to new contexts. The independent student has an initiating approach to their learning; they are resourceful, reflective, and critical. They like to go beyond what the teacher and the materials require them to do. In short, the ultimate goal of EAP is independence, and with good materials and teaching, it is highly achievable.

 

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.

 


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EAP in the classroom Part Two – Focus on listening

Woman's earIn the second of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective listening strategies and appropriate materials to support students in their chosen disciplines.

Listening is a core activity in EAP: when students are studying their chosen disciplines, they will have to deal with a range of spoken texts – which involve listening. For many people academic listening implies lectures, yet there many other types of spoken text: presentations and papers; seminars and discussions; tutorials and small-group events; one-to-one meetings and supervisions; collaborative activities such as group work and projects; and more informal activities like dealing with administration staff and social interaction. These can be highly varied – from informal to formal, straightforward to complex, transactional (e.g. a lecture) to interactive (e.g. a group project).

Accessing the content further

Clearly a lot of information is given through spoken texts, and students need to be able to understand them. However, understanding is just part of the story. Listening is not simply a passive activity. Two key roles of the academic listener are interpreter and recorder. The listener has to work out the meaning of what they are listening to, including the speaker’s main points, arguments, and stance. They may also have to record this information, for example by making notes. In this way the listener can access the main content – via their notes – to use in future spoken and written texts. Lectures can be highly complex, and taking notes typically involves far more than listening and writing. In short, lectures are integrated, cyclical, and multimodal. Lectures are integrated as they develop a topic which students might be reading about, talking about in seminars and discussions, and ultimately writing about in their essays and assessments. They are cyclical in that they form part of longer cycles of knowledge: the material in lectures may also be developed and presented in conferences, and then published in articles and textbooks.

Multimodality means using various ways and technologies to present information. These can include visuals (such as PowerPoint slides), embedded hyperlinks to external content such as websites and podcasts, other video and audio content, as well as other spoken and written texts including student questions and handouts. Any or all of these may be incorporated into a single lecture.

These characteristics mean that students have to work with multiple inputs of text, knowledge, and language; furthermore, while doing so they have to respond to these inputs by making notes (in a lecture) or making a relevant contribution (in a discussion). Challenges for the student include language (phonology, vocabulary, grammar), and other aspects such as reading a lecture slide while listening, or dealing with the cultural dimensions of the input.

Effective learning strategies

Given all these characteristics and challenges, how can EAP teachers facilitate effective learning? Above all, learning needs to be focused and realistic, with clear objectives. Good materials are vital. Time is limited, and students typically have a great deal to learn. It is better to follow these principles and make some measurable progress, for example by moving from B1 to B2, than adopt a ‘hope for the best’ approach through unfocused activities such as exposure to a series of difficult lectures without providing the appropriate support. Think of someone you know who has lived in a foreign country for years without learning much of the language – lots of exposure in itself is not the same as moving forward in terms of language level.

To be effective, EAP listening tasks need to be staged, scaffolded, and supported. This support can take the form of sample texts to aim for (such as student presentations), carefully selected language for intensive focus, and achievable outcomes like completing a set of notes. With lectures, the tasks can include relating the information on visuals to the lecturer’s spoken text. In addition, reading is a good preparation for listening – in authentic academic contexts students typically read something on the lecture topic before the lecture. Finally, follow-up tasks can be very useful, for example identifying and noting down material in a listening text to use in a new speaking or writing text.

What can we learn from these observations? Listening is a core activity in EAP, and it requires a complex set of skills and language. By using appropriate materials with achievable learning objectives, we can enable our EAP students to overcome these challenges and develop their academic listening skills.

This article first appeared in the January 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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Using authentic texts in the EAP classroom

JournalsWhat exactly are authentic texts, and how should we use them? Edward de Chazal is a freelance consultant, author and presenter. In the first of three articles on the subject, Edward takes an in-depth look at authentic texts and how bring them into the EAP classroom.

Authentic texts are widely used in EAP, and clearly there are good reasons for doing so. When students are studying in their chosen disciplines, they have to read authentic academic texts such as textbooks and journal articles, so it makes sense to bring these into the EAP classroom. I have been doing this for years, which has prompted me to think more deeply about exactly what authentic texts are and how to use them.

What is an authentic text?

An authentic text is usually taken to mean a text which was not written for the language classroom, and which hasn’t been messed with – it retains its original vocabulary and grammar, and bits of the text have not been cut out. Preferably it is unprocessed, i.e. not retyped, so it still looks the same as it always did: the same font and graphics. In other words, authentic texts are written for any purpose other than language learning, and are intact rather than processed, adapted, or simplified.

Authenticity is a broader concept, however. Not only is the text itself authentic, but also its context and related tasks. For instance, in EAP an authentic text (such as an extract from a university textbook) needs to be situated to some extent in its intended academic context. This means EAP students need to read the text in order to gain knowledge and use selected parts of it in their own new text (such as an essay or presentation), just as they would in their university department.

Choosing an authentic text for your class

When you’re choosing an authentic text to use in class, there is also the question of level to consider. By ‘level’ we usually mean language level – whether a text is at B1 or B2, for example – but there’s another crucial aspect: cognitive level. Some texts are much more challenging than others in terms of how difficult their ideas and concepts are. When selecting a text, it’s important to think about what you want your students to get out of it. Do you want them to gain a comprehensive understanding of the whole text, or will they use it more superficially – for example, in order to identify key words? In this way, you can use authentic texts which are at a high linguistic level in your lower level classes, so long as you set appropriate, achievable tasks.

Let’s try and bring all these questions together in a possible scenario. Suppose our EAP students are recent high-school graduates planning to go to university. Their English language level is solid B1. They will have recent experience of high school exams such as IB (International Baccalaureate) or A-level. Using an IB text is ideal in this scenario: it is at an appropriate level, both linguistically and cognitively. These students usually approach such textbooks in order to learn something new, as well as to develop their English.

Developing tasks and learning outcomes

Similarly, in the EAP classroom we can come up with learning outcomes and tasks which engage with the content of the text and develop language. For instance, students learn to write a summary of a textbook extract (the learning outcome), and achieve this by identifying and noting down the main points (the task), which they then use to form the basis of their summary. In this way we’ve got an example of authentic textcontext, and tasks. The EAP context reflects their future academic context as they will have to read and summarize texts in the disciplines.

In short, using authentic texts means not only selecting an authentic text, but also setting up an authentic context and authentic tasks. The concept of authenticity also applies to the level of the text, including its language level and cognitive level.

In my next article I will be discussing the nature of academic listening texts and how we can use them in the EAP classroom.


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#IATEFL – Teaching and learning EAP: “What is EAP and how can I teach it?”

Middle aged African woman shrugging her shouldersEdward de Chazal, author of many EAP titles, including the forthcoming English for Academic Purposes, part of the Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers series, presents an imagined conversation about what EAP is and how we teach it. Edward will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2014 on Friday 4th April.

I keep hearing a lot about EAP these days, but – how can I put this? – I’m not really sure what it is. It means different things to different people, doesn’t it?

“I know how you feel. I’ve been teaching EAP for a few years now and I’m still trying to make sense of it. There’s so much going on. And it seems different when you start working somewhere new.”

You can say that about any English language teaching context. So much to learn.

“Sure – but think how much you know already. Start with that. Think of your own knowledge of English. All that teaching experience. And your own education – how many qualifications have you done since you left school? How many training sessions and presentations have you attended?”

I see what you’re getting at. Yes, I know I know a lot, and I’m always learning something new. But – going back to EAP – what do I need to know? What is my role as an EAP teacher?

“Roles – there are lots of them. OK. Let’s start by looking at where we are in EAP today. One way of looking at it is that the field of EAP is a research-informed practice.”

What does that mean?

“First and foremost it’s a practice – we’re all practising teachers – and the work we do is vital for the academic success of thousands of students worldwide.”

OK, great, and what about the ‘research-informed’ dimension?

“And what we do is informed by all the work that has been going on for, well, about 50 years. There are lot of influences on EAP.”

Like what?

“Well, there are major influences like genre analysis and corpus linguistics, but also other theories of teaching and learning, like approaches to teaching writing, study skills, and critical EAP.”

What’s that?

“OK. At the heart of EAP is critical thinking. In EAP we’re all critical thinkers – teachers and students.”

But what does this mean in practice?

“There are different approaches to critical thinking. With ‘critical EAP’, nothing is off-limits – we can critique pretty much anything and everything.”

Like what?

“OK, let’s start with a text. As language teachers we’re always bringing in texts into the classroom – maybe up-to-date texts like newspaper articles that we’ve just come across, or photocopied texts from various sources, or simply the texts in the coursebooks we’re using.”

OK, so students have to read lots of texts. What next?

“Well, in many English language teaching contexts the focus of the lesson would then be the text. So, you’d do some work on the text – tasks like working out meanings in the text, language work.”

Of course – isn’t that the point?

“It’s necessary, but it’s not the whole story. We can encourage critical thinking by doing tasks like identifying the author’s stance, any weaknesses in the text, bias, assumptions, those sorts of things.”

Sounds good.

“A critical EAP approach goes beyond the boundaries of the text.”

How do you mean?

“In a critical EAP approach, we can encourage our students to ask questions like ‘Why have you selected this particular text?’ ‘Isn’t this text written from a Western perspective – it’s published in Oxford?’ and ‘How are the issues in the text relevant to me?’ Questions like these can be really interesting. We can encourage our students to reflect on these ideas and challenge what’s in the text and its wider context.”

Hmm, certainly food for thought. Yes, as you said, there’s so much going on in EAP. I can see now that I’m going to get a lot out of learning all about it.

“I do. Arguably, one of the greatest influences on EAP is the wider context of English language teaching – we know a lot about that. There’s a lot to learn, but never forget how much you know already.”

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