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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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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.