Teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP): What Do Students Need?

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This question is not new. The answers are ongoing (just do a quick library search on “EAP debate” and you’ll find great peer reviewed articles on the topic, including articles written by Krashen, Ferris and Hedgcock, Grabe and Kaplan, Krapels, Silva, Cummins, and Belcher and Hirbela – you name it). EAP continues to be a HOT topic, especially as more and more second language learners (L2) enter post-secondary education. Hence, the question needs to be re-asked to arrive at possible solutions and to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Let’s face it, in addition to first year L2 learners, the 1.5 generation (those who arrive as children and learn English at an early age) also require guided instruction in ESL – and don’t forget L2 students who already hold degrees and need to bridge their skills. The list of variables does not end there! Variables include students coming with different English skills and levels, differences between academic and industry standards, the existing prescribed entry-level assessment benchmarks, and well…as you can see, I could keep going.

And don’t forget the debate:

  • Should EAP focus on teaching the five paragraph essay or should it be sector specific?
  • Should it focus on multi-literacies or extensive reading and writing?

Can we do it all?

One of the answers is that EAP objectives and goals need to morph to somewhere between academic requirements and employability skills, while still meeting students’ needs. Sorry!

Now let’s imagine this scenario:

An ESL student who has completed first year college English that focuses on essay writing who is now required to take a sector specific writing course (business or technical communications, for example), but is unable to write a letter, a memo, or an e-mail.

How did that happen?

Well, maybe this second language learner was given all the tools to be able to write a five paragraph essay that was primarily based on a pre-read work of fiction or non-fiction – so the student learns to paraphrase and somewhat summarize, but still cannot transfer these skills to a sector specific English course. The student is completely confused because in the first course the student was asked to write using many adjectives and low frequency vocabulary, and now the student is asked to write in plain language using vocabulary geared to a specific field.

The problem?

The student is back to square one. Unable to paraphrase content, the student is forced to copy chunks of language. The instinct is survival. The student is asked to describe a tool, for example, and does not know a nail is not a screw, or that a power drill bores holes, or that a pair of tweezers is not a pair of scissors.

And there lies the conundrum. What is English for academic purposes? What constitutes academics? Should it be the same from institution to institution? Should it be the same across departments? Should it be more about English across the curriculum and less about one specific academic style? For what is needed in academia is not what is necessarily needed somewhere else, so they cannot have the same purpose.

I would like to think that EAP could be all of the above.

As an advocate of English as an empowering tool, I think the most important task and our main goal as educators should be to forge a love for the language – for all purposes. To achieve this, English learning has to be fun but rigorous. Students need to be able to interpret the subtle meanings hidden in the language, and they should be given every opportunity to experience language in all forms, but primarily for the purpose that is most pertinent for student success.

Do you teach EAP? I would love to hear your purpose.

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