EAP and publishers: the dangers of Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason

This post is by our guest Andy Gillett. Andy is well-known in the world of EAP. He was chair of BALEAP, teasurer and PIMS coordinator. He is also very well known for his EAP site http://www.uefap.com/index.htm. Andy worked at University of Hertfordshire from 1995 to 2009 and more recently has been writing vocational English teacher training material for British Council, writing ESAP English for Telecommunications for Garnet, as well as working with Hilary Nesi and Sheena Gardner on materials to support their recent book to go on the British Council learn English site.

I have just been reading an article in the latest issue of ELT Journal by Duncan Hunter and Richard Smith (Hunter & Smith, 2012) about Communicative Language Teaching. In the article, they take a historical view by studying the use of the term Communicative Language Teaching – or CLT in ELT Journal during the period between 1958 and 1986. I find it interesting as, in my view, EAP is Communicative Language Teaching par excellence. Since the early days, CLT had focussed strongly on the authentic language of communicative purpose as well the belief that learners need to use the language actively in order to learn. Hunter & Smith argue that precise academic definitions of CLT existed in early days and still do to some extent, and this was supported my many academic publications (see, for example, Brumfit & Johnson, 1979). However in the last 20 years or so publishers have so diluted the meaning of the term CLT that it is almost meaningless these days. As a consequence of this, perhaps be this will lead to the end of CLT as we know it. And I think that would be a shame.

The reason I think this is important is that I wonder if the same happening with EAP. There has been a healthy research tradition in EAP since the 1970s and well-known researchers such as Averil Coxhead (e.g. Coxhead, 1998), Ken Hyland (e.g. Hyland, 2000), Hilary Nesi (e.g. Nesi & Gardner, 2012) & John Swales (e.g. Swales, 2004), have helped us define what EAP is. EAP is clearly a branch of ESP, which is defined by paying attention to the needs, linguistic and other, of the users. That means that we need to focus on who our users are and what they need and want. Isn’t that what humanistic CLT is about? You might argue, as people such Rinvolucri (1996) have done, that that is not possible, as you cannot possibly know what your learners will need. In order to plan EAP course and teach them, we do need, however, to believe that it is possible to predict, to some extent, what our learners needs are and prepare our syllabuses and classes to help them to achieve those aims. To support this, there is much research on needs analysis in EAP, especially linguistic, starting in the 60s and 70s with vocabulary and grammar, moving through the 70s with an emphasis on skills and functions, into discourse and text structure and now into more in-depth studies of vocabulary and – most importantly – genre. The problem is that once we start being really aware of the lexical and genre needs of students at different levels and in different disciplines, we find (see Nesi & Gardner, 2012) that it gets more difficult to generalise and produce generic materials. Every individual learner is different and needs their own focus.

However, now that the big publishers (Pearson, CUP, OUP), with their needs to sell to large markets, are jumping on the EAP bandwagon, this specialist knowledge of EAP genres and disciplinary differences seems to be getting forgotten. So it seems that EAP is dividing into two. Mass market EAP, concentrating on generic academic language, which is specific to no-one, and specific EAP designed for small groups or individuals, about whose needs are clear. Will the second destroy the first?  I hope not, because the narrow specific focus is needed. The generic EAP course may be useful for undergraduate pre-sessional courses or general EAP courses with no particular objective. You will know about Gerry Abbot’s (1978) TENOR – Teaching English for No Obvious Reason –  but there is a danger that TEAPNOR – Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason – is developing. Garnet Education, for example, are working hard with their ESP series and I hope they succeed. It would be counter-productive if the big publishers cornered the market and destroyed this. If there are a wide range of very general EAP books available, in the same way as CLT, books with a wide range of generic academic subjects of interest to everyone – or no-one, then everything becomes EAP, and it becomes meaningless. The problem with trying to be too specific is that you are likely to miss – I’m a micro-economist, not a macro-economist. The problem with being too broad is that no one learns what they need.


Abbott, G. (1978). Motivation, materials, manpower and methods: Some fundamental problems in ESP. Individualisation in language learning (ELT Documents 103, pp. 98-104). London: The British Council.

Brumfit, C, & Johnson, K. (Eds.). (1979). The communicative approach to language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coxhead, A. (1998). An academic word list. (English Language Institute Occasional Publication Number 18). Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington.

Hunter, D. & Smith, R. (2012). Unpacking the past: ‘CLT’ through ELTJ keywords. ELT Journal, 66, 430-439.

Hyland, K. (2000). Disciplinary discourses. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rinvolucri, M. (1996). Letter to Craig Thaine. The Teacher Trainer, 10(2).

Swales, J. M. (2004). Research genres: Explorations and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.