Revisiting two of the top 20 myths about EAP

It’s been four months since we launched our Teaching EAP blog and I thought I’d revisit two of the 20 myths about EAP which we posted on 22nd May:

EAP can’t be taught at lower levels

EAP tutors should only give students feedback on their grammar and vocabulary – the content of what they write can’t be assessed

Whilst a number of EAP practitioners believe that in lower level EAP classes you should start with the basics of language, which in many cases, involve focusing on grammatical structures at the sentence level, others argue for a more comprehensive approach to the teaching of grammar in EAP, i.e. looking at the academic context in which texts are produced and consumed, analysing the purpose of the texts, the writer’s own purpose and then observing what linguistic choices authors make in genres such as research reports, reflective essays, case studies.

Alexander (2012) reports on the findings of interview surveys conducted among teachers teaching EAP at low level proficiency levels. One of the teachers interviewed, who piloted Argent & Alexander’s book Access EAP: Foundations (Argent and Alexander, 2010) gives an account of a particular lesson where he spent an hour and a half ‘doing grammar’ (the passive) with students, a quick activity which was supposed to take a short time. Instead, the aim of the lesson should have focused on the flow of discourse and rhetorical functions in a written text. This shows how, despite prior introduction to approaches to EAP, it may be difficult for some teachers to move away from getting students to practise language structures in isolation towards an approach where the academic context and specific disciplines are analysed first.
In one-to-one Insessional consultations, EAP practitioners provide feedback on student writing in terms of structure, coherence, clarity of expression, level of criticality and language use. On some occasions, meaning can be obscured by problems with accuracy at discourse level.

I recently asked John Rabone, Head of the Insessional programme here at the University of Nottingham, which were the most common problems international students had with academic writing when they attend the one-to-one consultations requesting feedback before they submit their assignments. He said that in terms of language, problems vary from the wrong use of the definite and indefinite articles, which does not really affect meaning to a large extent, to those which involve the use of relative clauses, complex conditional patterns, cohesive devices and verb tenses.
In this posting, I’d like to take a quick look at verb forms.

According to a corpus analysis of research articles in journals in architecture and the built environment which I conducted three years ago, one of the key grammatical structures found in the corpus, after the singular and plural common nouns and the general adjective, was the –s form of the verb. This structure was used for various purposes.

Below I include some of these purposes:
– to indicate the focus of an article, e.g. this data demonstrates …, this paper presents …
– to refer to data in a graph, e.g. As figure 1 shows, …
– to describe scientific purposes, e.g. the total structural material consumption increases drastically
– to describe objects, e.g. The moment-resisting frame (MRF) consists of horizontal (girder) and vertical (column) members
– to indicate stance, indicating tentativeness, e.g. It seems that for practical purposes there is no difference
– to indicate stance, categorically, e.g. this invites the question …
– to evaluate strengths and weaknesses, e.g. PMV lacks the discriminatory power to predict acceptability within…

As we can see from these examples, it would be unwise to simply focus on the manipulation of the –s form of the verb without analysing the functional aspect of this grammatical structure over long stretches of discourse, in this case a journal article. Focus on the discipline itself is important. A number of articles on architecture and the built environment deal with the aesthetics, functionality and sustainability of buildings and these concepts are realised grammatically in different ways. Therefore, a more top-down approach to the teaching of grammar in EAP will need to be found in order to understand how academic communities construct knowledge and communicate with other members of their community than a purely superficial approach at sentence level.

We are about to implement a new curriculum on our Presessional programme which focuses on the students’ perception of themselves as members of an academic community and the perception of other members of the community they will be interacting with when they join their departments. What we are trying to do is focus on the academic as well as the linguistic needs of students to be able to understand discourses and activities of academic communities, participate appropriately demonstrating critical evaluation and autonomous approaches to learning, and the linguistic structures will be chosen accordingly. The students will be working on various spoken and written texts which will be part of the final assessment, but before they submit the final version of these texts, the production process will be scaffolded in class as well as in one-to-one sessions to make sure students are fully supported, as they will be receiving feedback from their class tutors and the person responsible for the one-to-one sessions.

I’d be interested in your views on different approaches to the teaching of grammar in EAP. Is it still realistic to start with grammar at the sentence level or can we adopt a top-down approach? Can we give feedback on the use of grammar and vocabulary without relating it to the content of a text?

Martha

References

Alexander, O. (2012) Exploring teacher beliefs in teaching EAP at low proficiency levels, Journal of English for Academic Purposes 11, pp. 99-111.

Argent, S. and Alexander, O. (2010) Access EAP: Foundations. Reading: Garnet Education


Nursing EAP

This blog post is by Julia Molinari. Julia is a colleague at Nottingham. She has been heavily involved in designing our new presessional programme

The reference to ‘nursing’ here is metaphoric, a gerund to signify action, not a descriptive classifier. There has been a lot of EAP probing, prodding, deconstruction, analysis and reflection on this blog so far, and, as an EAP practitioner, I am starting to feel bruised. My EAP identity is suffering so I am going to try and nurse a little TLC back into the debate and see what happens…

Let me start with some rigorous academic (mal)practice. I will cherry-pick a sample of quotes that support my claim that EAP needs nursing so that my subsequent argument will be at best coherent, at worst unfounded:

– EAP can’t do its job because it is “beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [critical thinking]” (in Objections to critical thinking posted 31/08/2012)

yet:

– EAP should teach “critical discourse analysis” and therefore critical thinking about language (in Academic discourse and literacies and the teaching of academic writing posted 06/07/2012

Moreover:

– EGAP is potentially “vacuous of content” (in Curriculum as knowledge practice posted 17/08/2012)

yet:

– EAP is the object of “dichotomous views” and “misconceptions” because of the generic vs specific skills debate (in What’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP? posted 20/07/2012)

therefore:

– EAP leads to existential confusion because “I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context” (in How to become a usefully ignorant teacher posted 02/08/12)

This identity crisis has been brewing for at least 15 years. It is already reflected historically between 1997 (when Jordan’s ‘English for Academic Purposes’ was published) and 2012 (when the ‘Journal of English for Academic Purposes’ dedicated an issue to Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics). For example, while Jordan identifies EAP with ‘study skills’ and ‘academic language’, ‘critical thinking’ does not get a mention in either the Contents page or Index of his influential book. This contrasts starkly with our most recent post on this blog which documents how clued-up and concerned we are with developing criticality in our classrooms (31/08/12). Alexander, Argent and Spencer’s ‘EAP Essentials’, 11 years after Jordan, dedicates a whole chapter to Critical Thinking and lists the lamentations of university lectures who feel that students “should give their own opinions more” (2008: 252)

The idea that students need to develop a stance is also supported by Uzuner:

“it is the stylistic differences, not so much the linguistic barriers, that lead to rhetoricalweaknesses in multilingual scholars’ writings” (2010:250)

In referring to ‘stylistic’ rather than ‘linguistic’ features of discourse, Uzuner echoes what Thomson (2001) calls ‘interactional’ and ‘interactive’ features, respectively: the former are features of language that allow writers to enter into an intertextual dialogue with readers whereas the latter are mere organizational signposts. Typically, it is the discussion section of an academic paper that requires the writer to persuade the reader by selecting and synthesising various strands of an argument. In other words, this is where the writer explicitly enters into a dialogue with the reader. It is in the discussion section that the writer’s stance (identity) is most manifest because this is where a scholar needs to position themselves within their research community. However, as Uzuner shows, this is also the section that multilingual scholars have most difficulty writing. We could extend this by claiming that it is also the one that readers have most difficulty understanding.

Recently, Coffin and Donohue (2012) have made a strong case for how systemic functional linguistics and academic literacies have been influencing EAP practice (cf. Michael Halliday’s 1994 sociological framework and Brian Street’s and Mary Lea’s 1998 anthropological framework for understanding how language works). They paint a very different EAP landscape to that of Jordan in which discourse analysis and multiple literacies and identities are brought into the classroom and managed with students rather than for them and in which EAP teachers work alongside subject specialists (Donahue 2012). This is a significantly different shift in how we see EAP compared to 1997 (see also Hocking and Toh 2010).

So, we have gone from a study skills definition of EAP in 1997 to a dynamic social model in 2012. This dynamic social model, in my view, sits comfortably within a school of education and the social sciences more broadly because I think EAP does indeed have a transformative social purpose especially in the context of widening participation. The internationalisation of the HE community leads to cultural, linguistic and educational challenges and opportunities – not least how we assess and standardise achievements – that require an awareness of social implications and engagement on both the part of teachers and students. I don’t see how we can teach EAP and not address this.

When Julie King ponders over our roles as EAP practitioners in ‘Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner’ (this blog on June 7), she is drawing our attention to this historical erosion and reconstruction of our identities, from study skills and language transmitters to meddling, engaged critical social transformers who are contributing to the broader educational aims of a university. At Nottingham University, this ‘educational identity’ has been bestowed (or imposed?) on us and we are now part of the School of Education in which EAP students are classified as undergraduates. Are we therefore happy to be classified as ‘educators’ and see ‘education’ as being our academic purpose? Can we ‘nurse ourselves back to school’, so to speak, by understanding our EAP identities in terms of an educational commitment to facilitating linguistic competence where by education I mean giving students a sense of purpose to search for and understand meanings, to create new meanings and dialogically question assumptions and conclusions?