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?



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


5 Comments on “Revisiting two of the top 20 myths about EAP”

  1. sally zacharias says:

    An interesting blog, Martha! My response to your question on whether we as EAP practitioners should concern ourselves with assessing the content or not is that it depends on our understanding of what language is. The view that language simply transmits meanings implies that language and content can be segregated and that we ‘teach them the English’ so that the content specialists can ‘get on with teaching the subject.’
    Last year I worked with a group of Malaysian science teacher trainees. On their return to Malaysia they were to teach their subject in the medium of English. Initially they saw themselves very much as content specialists and viewed the language component of the course as being an ‘extra’. However, as we began to analyse the problems their own students were having with the subject, we found that almost all of these difficulties could be analysed using our understanding of linguistics (I encouraged them to take the functional semiotic perspective). Moving slightly outside my normal role of an EAP practitioner and gaining a new perspective as a content teacher confirmed my then emerging view that there does indeed exist a strong relationship between language and content.
    I have found that focussing on the form and referring to previously learnt grammar rules does, however, become one potentially useful resource when students proof read or assess their own work but only, as mentioned by you Martha, when the functional aspect of the grammar is taken into account as well.


    • Martha says:

      HI, Saslly,

      Thanks very much for your thoughts and comments.

      It is interesting to see how your Malaysian teachers realised that although intitially they were intending to focus mainly on content, they soon realised that focus on language in their lessons was needed in order to enhance their students’ understanding of the content, in their case, science. Drawing on a theoretical framework for the analysis of language was also very helpful for them.

      In EAP it is important to help students become aware of the need to analyse the use of grammatical structures in texts in the context of their own discipline. For example, if within their community, it is common to express stance using categorical language, they need to judge themselves, as authors, whether they wish to express a high degree of certainty or perhaps hedge their claims. If we raise students’ awareness of these issues on an EAP programme, once they are in their own department, they will probably be able to judge by themselves.

      Please continue following discussions and debates on our blog.



  2. Steve O'Sullivan says:

    Hello Martha

    Thanks for looking at this area again.

    Interesting that subject lecturers may also (instinctively?) get irritated or distracted by the more micro-grammatical error. Accordingly, they may include seemingly discrete comments on word or seentence grammar in student essays, without necessarily relating the comments to the content and meaning of what is trying to be expressed. This risks perpetuating perhaps a fixation on the more meaning-decontextualised, and more superficial, chacteristic of the grammatical error(s) in question, and possibly concomitant demands from students and teachers in this regard.

    So, the standard of ‘basic grammar’ may well impact the more formal assessment of a piece of writing. If only in this respect, it’s an area not without insignificance. So, how to try to address it, without getting distracted from the main goals?

    – hold separate ‘grammar review’ classes?
    – recommend targetted self-study ‘remediation’ (many students have previously ‘done grammar’ to the hilt – it’s there somewhere, but needs refreshment)?
    – integrate peer noticing in student peer assessment?
    – integrate noticing, ad hoc or otherwise, in text reading activities?
    – recommend proofreading and editing (by self or other)?
    – include combinations of the above?
    – sideline it in favour of a rationalised ‘top-down’ approach?

    You mention Alexander, Argent and Spencer’s concern about teachers ‘doing grammar’ (passive) for an hour and a half in a lesson (a less than extreme example?). The two former writers also interestingly talk about the risks of an inadvertent (or otherwise) subversion of the goals of a particular EAP syllabus (see ‘EAP: how is it different from other forms of ELT?’ at In terms of education, teacher and student, this seems an incredibly important issue to grapple with in EAP, and perhaps, remembering our subject lecturer, in the wider HE domain.


    • Martha says:

      HI, Steve,

      Thansk very much for your comments and recommendations.

      Holding separate sessions focusing on grammar would certainly help students. The only question is whether this extra session can be integrated within the students’ busy timetable. Perhaps one-to-one sessions with a tutor will be more beneficial, as you tackle specific problems individual students may have.

      I like your suggestion regarding ‘noticing’ the use of correct grammar in texts, but this needs to be done in the EAP classroom first, I feel. Once the students have learnt to use noticing strategies, they will probably be able to do this independently outside the classroom.

      Peer feedback is also very helpful, as students can have a sense of audience and the fact that their texts need to be clear, coherent and accurate for other students to understand what they have written. Again, I think this should be done in the EAP classroom first.

      On some occasions, as you point out, we may have to pause to address a particular problem with grammar and refer to rules which govern correct usage but always in relation to context.

      Thanks very much for the link to the talk on the differences between ELT and EAP. In EAP classes with students with a lower proficiency level it is important not to lose sight of the goals of EAP.

      Steve, please keep on reading our postings and taking part in the discussions / debates.



      • Steve O'Sullivan says:

        Hello again Martha

        The ‘noticing’ aspect is an interesting one, since it applies to both students and teachers, the latter perhaps ‘meddling in the middle’ (King, previous blog post) – somewhere. What to notice?

        Are model texts required (at first, at least) in order ‘not to lose sight of the goals of EAP’? To what extent should these models fit specific needs of students? Swales (2009: 5) stresses
        the length of time it can take to locate appropriate texts (‘the looked-for rhetorical structure and linguistic exemplification’) to meet students’ particular transferable needs, and recalls Dudley-Evans’ and St. John’s (1998, cited in Swales, 2009: 6) rather daunting prospect that an hour of good material may require 15 hours of development time (minimum). Longer-standing and emerging integrated generic EAP coursebooks and skills books tease out aspects of ‘model’ discourse. Recent (and past) ESAP books do the same. These may not be, on the face of it, ‘one-size fits all’, though might be steered as such. EAP materials, and materials exploitation, as well as ‘ownership’ (and sense of authenticity), then, seem key to developing ‘noticing’ awareness with an EAP purpose.


        Dudley-Evans, T. and St. John, M.J. (1998). Developments in English for Academic Purposes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

        Swales, J.M. (2009) ‘When there is no perfect text: Approaches to the EAP practitioner’s dilemma’. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 8(1), 5-13.



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