Curriculum as knowledge practice

This week, we have a guest blogger: Gina Roach. Gina is an EAP colleague who teaches at our Ningbo campus in China. Gina is also one of Julie King’s PhD students and she is investigating the assessment of critical thinking at the Masters level across four Social Science disciplines.

I’d like to contribute here, through a very short analysis,  an understanding of EGAP and ESAP curricular shift  as not simply a matter of movement  along a continuum ‘towards ESAP’ but one requiring a shift to a completely different paradigm.


A discussion about curriculum inevitably involves a discussion about knowledge. The latter work of Basil Bernstein (2000) offers a valuable theoretical tool for understanding curriculum as knowledge practice. Curriculum is a re-contextualisation practice where knowledges from production fields are selected, rearranged, and transformed to become pedagogic discourse.  A Bernsteinian analysis involves examining how strongly or weakly controlled and bounded variables are between and within problematic categories. This work has been significantly extended and refined by Karl Maton (2000, 2007) in a theory of knowledge called Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (see One relevant extension in LCT is Specialisation: what makes something or someone special? This is made visible through an examination of knowledge relations: epistemic relations (ER) and social relations (SR) which can be relatively strong or relatively weak       (ER±; SR±). Specialisation analysis asks which relation is dominant and aims to make visible the underlying organizing principle or code of Specialisation in a practice.  There are four Specialisation codes:

  • knowledge codes – refer to situations where possession of specialised knowledge and its procedures are more emphasised as the measure of achievement (ER+,SR-)
  • knower codes – refer to situations where dispositions or attributes of actors are emphasised as the basis of achievement (ER-,SR+)
  • elite codes – refer to situations where both specialised knowledge and dispositions are emphasised (ER+,SR+)
  • relativist codes – refer to situations where neither are strongly controlled (ER-,SR-) 

Using these concepts I examine what relations are emphasised in EGAP and ESAP curricula, their underlying codes and what this might mean.


EGAP relatively weakly controls and bounds what is selected, re-arranged and paced in a curriculum.  For example, Business Studies students might build FIELD about Acid Rain, English as a T-Rex, and Economic Globalisation.  Skills, the mechanics of doing something vacuous of content are far more significantly emphasised over content andmarking rubrics tend to value items like grammar, fluency, and accuracy.   Thus, there is an emphasis on actors being a native speaker of English; social relations to knowledge are emphasized (SR+) over epistemic relations (ER-), indicating a knower code curriculum (ER-,SR+).

ESAP places stronger control and boundaries around what is considered legitimate text and discourse for selection, re-arrangement, and pacing. Business Students may build FIELD in Herzberg and Maslow’s theories of motivation and hierarchy of needs, Entrepreneurship, and Social Capital.  Marking rubrics tend to more equally value content, the mechanics of English like grammar, and the mechanics of writing like task-fulfillment. There is relatively stronger emphasis on being a native speaker of a discipline in English (c.f McPeck[1], 1994). Thus, more emphasis is on epistemic over social relations to knowledge (ER+,SR-) indicating a knowledge code (ER+,SR-) curriculum. 


I have reservations about EGAP and ESAP being placed on a single continuum as popularly conceived in our field and suggest different continua for different organizing principles: a towards  being-a-discipline-speaker in English continuum and a towards being-a-native-speaker of English continuum.  In LCT studies, continua are often intersected to create Cartesian planes where finer analyses are made.  The LCT Specialisation plane in the left-hand box of the table below intersects SR and ER continua of varying strengths, where the four Specialisation codes – knowledge, knower, elite and relativist – emerge from the quadrants.  Similarly, being-a-discipline-speaker in English (DS) and being-a-native-speaker of English (NS) continua can be intersected as seen in the right hand box. EGAP and ESAP can now be seen in terms of their relations to each other and their codes: EGAP as a knower code curriculum and ESAP as a knowledge code curriculum. A shift requires movement to a different quadrant; a different code of practice.

Specialisation Codes (Maton, 2007; 97)



For me, this is a useful explanation of why it is often difficult to communicate amongst ourselves as EAP practitioners when we discuss curriculum: often we are speaking different codes and misunderstandings occur due to our code clash. A change in selection in curriculum may involve an entire code shiftwhich has repercussions for participants involved. Knower code curriculum writers may be required to create a knowledge code curriculum with validation rubrics, or knower code teachers may need to operationalise a knowledge code curriculum.  A popular maxim is ‘but we are not content teachers!’ Code clashes often exist between a curriculum and its validation rubrics; this occurs more frequently than we like to admit.  Proper training in ESAP curriculum writing, as a knowledge practice, is an urgent need in our field which I hope the new MA EAP at Nottingham can address.


Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique. NY: Rowman   & Littlefield.      

Maton, K. (2000). Languages of Legitimation: The structuring signififance for intellectual fields of strategic knowledge claims. British Journal of Sociology of Education 21(2), 147-167.

Maton K. (2007) Knowledge-knower structures in intellectual and educational fields, in Christie, F. & Martin, J. (Eds.) Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy: Functional linguistic and sociological perspectives. London, Continuum, 87-108

McPeck, G. (1994). Critical Thinking and the ‘Trivial Pursuit’ Theory of Knowledge. In Walters, K. (Ed) Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, 101-118.  Albany: SUNY Press

[1] John McPeck used the term native speaker of a subject-domain to refer to the need for students to have a deep and wide knowledge-base of a discipline before any ‘critical thought’ in it is possible.


7 Comments on “Curriculum as knowledge practice”

  1. Andy Gillett says:

    Some interesting points here, Gina. I don’t really there is such a thing as EGAP. What, though, is the need for “native speaker” in this context? No-one is a native-speaker (or writer!) of EAP. It all has to be learned.


    • Thanks Andy. I appreciate your comments. Three quick thoughts: 1) Regarding the need to differentiate EGAP and ESAP – at a major conference in China last year, a prominent Chinese professor declared that College English is also doing EAP. College English, as you might know, is the 2 year English language programme that UG students (non-English majors) take as part of their degree requirement. Does this means that any English language curriculum in the University setting can be called EAP? ESL, EFL, are EAP or ESAP too? How might we know the differences in what different curricular do? I offer the examination of bases of achievement as an answer. 2) I don’t like the label ‘native speaker of English’ and will be happy if another label is suggested to describe the emphasis on social relations (SR+) to knowledge in certain curriculum in EAP. On the surface, curricular types in EAP can appear similar with words like ‘academic English’ and ‘academic skills” being used loosely. But this is only FOCUS, it is not the same as BASIS and it’s easy to conflate the two (Maton, 2000). A look at basis of legitimacy reveals that EGAP emphasises students’ attributes as speakers of English/ social relations to knowledge as the basis of achievement. This type would be of less use to English native speaking students but we all know that they could also benefit from the work we do. For me this is the EGAP type. I agree that no one can be a native speaker of EAP but students can be ‘native speakers’ of a subject; Ken Hyland used the term ‘insiders’ when referring to discourse knowledge and McPeck said ‘native speaker of a subject domain’ (see footnote in blog) when referring to pre-requisite for critical thinking. 3) I agree with you that everything has to be learned. My concern though would be students’ motivation to learn about subjects far removed from what they will be studying, degree of difficulty of learning, and the evidence of transfer of what is learned on an EAP curriculum to a discipline. The biggest myth about transfer, and indeed of education in our time, is the conflation of knowing how with knowing what. This requires a different type of LCT analysis –Semantics.


  2. Jane Holst-Larkin says:

    An interesting perspective, Gina, especially the ER/SR descriptions. In ESAP, though, the teacher is only dipping toes into the content – trusting the student to express the knowledge, while the ESAP mentor remains more focussed on the ‘how to’ express – no? Or that is until subject specialists take on this role themselves. Meantime there seem to be advantages in remaining ‘usefully ignorant’.


    • Steve O'Sullivan says:

      Hello Jane and Andy.

      So, if anything in EAP teaching is ‘generic’, then, is it the aware ability and skill needed to get/be in the ‘usefully ignorant’ zone? Is there an EAP teaching assessment instrument which has that as an identifiable underlying narrative, I wonder? What would such a narrative consist of, and to what extent would the exploration of such in practice be mutually understood?


  3. Anna-Vera Meidell Sigsgaard says:

    Hi Gina,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Using the marking rubrics as exemplifying what is meant by emphasizing SR vs. ER works well, and gives a very concrete starting point for the discussion.

    The most salient part of the post, though, is your conclusion. This is, after all, the whole point of doing the analysis. I wonder, therefore, if it wouldn’t be helpful to describe in slightly more detail what it entails if one is to learn to speak a different code… i.e. how to make inter-code communication easier / possible? What would being “inter-codal” entail of the ‘speaker’?

    Also, isn’t there a point to be made as far as different codes in different areas being dominant because they serve a particular function which would be different for differing areas?

    ‘just loose thoughts, these, but I’m curious to hear your and others comments.


  4. Thanks very much Anna,

    You have two questions. I offer an answer to the the first one here, then the second one separately. Off the top of my head, perhaps one step towards inter-code communication, as you call it, is remebering the principle of specialisation which considers education as comprising fields of struggle where actors beliefs and actions represent competing claims to legitimacy (Maton, 2000). We need to look beyond the FOCUS of a curriculum to its BASIS to see the root of differences. For me, the aim is to not so much to ‘speak inter-code’ but to speak the same code. So a second step would perhaps be to agree on which code is appropriate for your organisation and explain it to teachers. Teachers will always have different opinions but I think we are pretty reasonable and can get on-board with things we don’t agree with if reasons are given and if there is a clear theoretical base to decisions. Third, you need people informed by powerful theory of language to create curriculum because they have to ALIGN the three systems – Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. Curriculum doesn’t exist on its own – its part of a system of three according to Bernstein’s differentiation as I’m sure you know. Often you have people changing Curriculum and forget to change Assessment but Assessment is your beginning point. It’s tiring and frustrating for teachers to have to operationalise a badly written curriculum and assess from validation rubrics showing a different set of values; code clashes in the three systems. When the systems cohere or speak the same code then we also move teachers towards speaking the same code and there is less conflict?


  5. Regarding your second question about different codes in different areas being dominant because they serve a particular function – I don’t see why not. Codes are not static. If you plot the different lessons of a curriculum on the Specialisation Plane you end up with a scattering of points with some points in a completely different quadrant from the rest. If it was deliberately done that way to serve a function – why not?


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