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Helping your students to become effective writers

Professor speaking to studentJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at ways of teaching writing skills more effectively. Julie will be hosting a webinar on the same topic on 26th and 27th November.

In ELT, we often talk about teaching the four skills; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. But how much class time do we actually devote to teaching writing skills?

I know that for many years in my own teaching career, my ‘teaching’ of writing skills amounted to little more than five minutes going through a homework task at the end of the lesson. The task might be linked to the topic of the lesson and there might be a bit of useful vocabulary, a few key words or phrases in a nice shaded box, but otherwise, I think my students were pretty much left to their own devices.

I’d then collect in their writing to ‘mark’, largely on the basis of their language, or more to the point, their language errors. I’d use this collected language – much more convenient than the ephemeral spoken language in class – to help decide what areas I might need to revisit in future lessons and to give students individual feedback that there wasn’t always time for in class.

On reflection, I realise that my aim in setting these writing tasks was not really about teaching writing skills, because it involved very little actual teaching and no work on any specific skills. It was really just a chance for me to capture samples of my students’ language in a form that allowed me time for analysis and reflection. Now that’s a perfectly legitimate aim, but I don’t think it really qualifies as “teaching writing skills”.

It was only when I moved into teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to students preparing to study at university, who need to do lots of writing, that I really came across materials and activities that focused on teaching the skills needed to write effectively.

Some of these activities were specific to academic writing, but many are actually about skills that are applicable much more widely to writing in everyday contexts. We do activities around summarising, conveying key information clearly and concisely. There are tasks aimed at structuring more complex information in a logical way (coherence), using language that flows well to make it easy for your reader to follow (cohesion). We look at how to express evaluation, being appropriately confident or tentative (hedging), how to be persuasive, to argue your case, and to engage your reader.

We analyse texts from different genres by expert writers to see what lessons we can learn about their style and approach. I also spend time in class addressing editing and proofreading skills, because in real life, we don’t just hand in a piece of writing to be marked and graded, we use tools and techniques to check and redraft until we’re happy with the final result.

In my webinar, we’ll look at some of these practical techniques and activities that you can use to help your students become more effective writers – whatever their writing aims.

Register now to take part.


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Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.


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Teaching EAP: “We can’t do what we do at higher levels at lower levels”

Two men talking over coffeeAhead of his talk at IATEFL, Edward de Chazal presents a revealing look at how we can teach at lower levels.

“When it comes to teaching EAP we can’t we do what we do at higher levels at lower levels, right?”

Well, I think we can – what exactly “can’t we do”?

“Where do I start? First of all texts – how can B1 students read authentic academic texts? They’re too hard.”

They certainly can be, but it depends on your choice of text. Some texts are just fine for B1 students to work with, like IB – International Baccalaureate – textbooks, which are aimed at 16 – 18 year old students. They don’t assume too much knowledge. And you can use undergraduate textbook extracts, too.

“Aren’t they a bit difficult?”

OK, they can be challenging, but students can do a lot with them if you provide the right tasks.

“What sort of tasks?”

Achievable ones. If we provide the right staging, scaffolding, and support we can use authentic tasks based round authentic texts at B1.

“Authentic texts and tasks?”

We can keep the texts authentic. There’s no need to change the language in the texts. Just work out a staged sequence of tasks which lead to a specific learning outcome.

“Can you give an example?”

Let’s look at what EAP students need to do. They need to be able to read authentic texts in order to learn more about the topic of the text, understand the purpose of the text, work out the main points – and differentiate the main points from the examples in the text, identify the writer’s stance…

“Hold on. Are you telling me your B1 students can do all that with authentic academic texts?”

Absolutely. And more. You can do all this if you grade the tasks, but not the texts, just as Grellet said back in 1981.

“Yes, but what sort of tasks?”

Let’s go back to basics. Break down the learning outcome into stages. Let’s say it’s day one and you have a new class of B1 students who are studying EAP for the first time. You want your students to gain an overview of an academic text and identify the topic and main ideas.

“OK. How?”

I’ll talk you through the stages. Task 1 – get your students thinking and talking about their reading. What sort of texts do they read in English? Do they enjoy reading? Task 2 – prepare to read by looking at definitions of one or two technical terms in the text. These are authentic tasks because we normally approach a new text with some understanding of the technical concepts in the text, like ‘cognitive psychology’ for example. I would probably look them up in the dictionary.

“I see. What next?”

Task 3 – get to grips with what the topic, purpose, and main idea are. In any text.

“How?”

Start with plenty of support. Ask students to match these items with their descriptions. Then go through each one in turn, based on a short text extract. As I said, an IB text works well at this level. Again you can give simple choices, like differentiating the main idea from an example.

“Sounds good. But students need to get a bit deeper into the text.”

Sure. Which leads to Task 4 – reading in detail to understand the key information in the text. Students can complete notes on the text. This is a nicely supported task, as students can see what they are aiming for. They can then use their notes to explain the key terms in the text – that’s Task 5. Having to explain something to someone else is a brilliant way of learning, and the teacher can check their learning while they are doing this task.

“Right. You mentioned that it was a short text. How can they apply these tasks to longer texts?”

Good question. By repeating core tasks, students gradually learn to access and process information in new, more challenging texts. Actually, Task 6 in my example is to predict the content of a new text, which supports students in identifying the topic and main idea in each paragraph.

“But does this work?”

Absolutely. Students have plenty of support. There’s even a glossary with each text to help them with difficult words and concepts – just like academic textbooks.

“So, you’re saying when we’re teaching EAP, we really can do what we do at higher levels at lower levels.”

Yes, we can!

Edward de Chazal will be talking about EAP at Lower Levels at IATEFL Liverpool on Thursday 11th April in Hall 4b at 10:35am.