Constructive alignment for quality enhancement

The BALEAP Accreditation Scheme (BAS) May event this year is exploring the concept of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2014), which is one of the underlying principles of the revised scheme. So I’ve been thinking about what this means for EAP learning and teaching. The concept was articulated by John Biggs in a series of articles and a book: Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Incidentally, this book also explored approaches to teaching international students and came to the common sense conclusion that, rather than see students from other education cultures as somehow needing special attention, all students would benefit from the approaches he was proposing.

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Chat GPT – how worried should we be?

Have you tried one yet? An ‘intelligent virtual assistant’ that engages in what can feel like authentic extended conversations. The Beta version of Chat GPT, developed by the company OpenAI, is available to play with and I’ve come across several articles assessing it’s functionality.

This article from Forbes magazine suggests it can help to brainstorm ideas, understand complex topics, summarise research, act as a writing assistant and translate into 95 different languages. Do all these functions sound useful for a student looking to get help with essay writing? Of course they do!

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
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Demonstrating competence in Discourse/discourse

I’ve recently been involved with assessing portfolios of evidence and Reflective Accounts of Professional Practice (RAPPs) for the latest round of applications for TEAP Fellows. These require applicants to demonstrate they are working at masters level, as specified in the original TEAP Competency Framework:

[…] where practitioners are expected to demonstrate a systematic understanding of the main theoretical areas of a discipline and critical awareness of current issues and problems. They should be able to exercise independent initiative to make complex decisions, plan tasks or deal with problems in the absence of complete or consistent information. They should show a commitment to continue to develop professionally (BALEAP, 2008).

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Where do I start? Thoughts on approaching the task of devising materials for STEM students.

Following a recent request to an EAP discussion list for help with devising an EAP course for students of Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM), my friend and co-author, Jenifer Spencer, has contributed this post with her suggestions. See also materials for STEM on the EAP Materials page

EAP tutors sometimes react with alarm when facing the task of devising courses and materials for STEM subjects. These reflections on how we can tackle this challenge have emerged from my experience of preparing STEM materials in different universities and freelance work with STEM  students and research professionals.

Available online at

 Where do I start? How do I find out how people in this field communicate with each other?   How do I decide what language to focus on? Where do I find suitable texts to use as a basis for language study? The quick answer to all  three questions is ‘Look near at hand not far away!’ The best place to start is the department’s own website. The profiles of staff with their research interests become a starting point to introduce the discourse of the field. They provide useful introductory texts and links to open access publications by the lecturer, as well as useful models for initial writing tasks, prompting students to write about their own background and areas of interest.  These ‘local’ sources give you an immediate insight into what people are talking about in the field and how they say it. Other sources available in the university’s website are the Repository or Archive where previous theses are stored. These are particularly useful as examples of the  range of  genre structures – there is no single type of genre within a particular discipline or field.

Moreover, the focus of research and courses in particular disciplines can be quite different and often multidisciplinary. When writing a language course for Petroleum Engineers, I was surprised to find the course content and research focus were quite different from those in the university where I had previously taught. I was used to a  focus on computer modelling of chemical interactions in rocks and fluids. However, in the new university, the focus was mainly on geology and describing the different rock strata, resulting in completely different styles of discourse.  

Deciding which language to focus on can seem particularly challenging. My own experience, from accompanying  individual students and researchers  on their journey of drafting theses and journal papers, is that the most useful starting point is to focus on ontology and epistemology.  The latter is widely covered in EAP needs analysis and the resulting materials and methodology. In best practice courses, students are encouraged to ask ‘How do we know this? What evidence is there?’ and trained in critical thinking skills to answer these questions using the language appropriate to this aspect of academic practice. However ontology is rarely mentioned or glossed over (usually with a few quick quotes from standard research manuals).

Ontology may seem like an arcane concept, used by mediaeval theologians disputing how many angels fit on the point of a pin. However this word has re-emerged  in the field of computing, as a key word in programming discourse. The theologians, quite reasonably, decided that if they were going to conduct discourse about supernatural entities, they had to be able to explain  what sort of thing they actually were, their essence. This is the same case regarding the entities and concepts that are the subjects of scientific research. The language that has evolved to fulfil this need is often rather invisible. It answers the questions that search for the essence of what something is and answer questions like -What sort of thing is it? (e.g., a substance, an object, a model, a concept) ‘What can it do? (i.e. does it have agency?) and ‘What can you do to it?’ For example light can travel (the strongest form of agency, reflected by the use of intransitive verbs). It can illuminate other objects (transitively), and it can be (passively) reflected in a mirror or refracted in a transparent medium.

Similarly, consider the language used for the various components of matter.  In a student’s PhD thesis, I found that, prompted by a commercial grammar correction app,  he had substituted the general noun particles as a cohesive device for  molecules, ions  and atoms. On discussion we decided that the problem was that particles is used to describe small mobile entities whose exact nature (ontology)  has not yet been established (so we refer to dust particles or sub-atomic particles). This is an example of how this approach to language can involve a critical thinking partnership involving both the student and teacher.

The following two paragraphs are taken from the webpage of a robotics professor and might be used in the ways suggested above as a starting point for developing language work for students embarking on study in this field. 

Autonomous and resident robots have the potential to revolutionise how we work in the most extreme environments and contribute positively to our net-zero goals. Deployed offshore, in nuclear plants and in space, they can be supervised by a team of expert operators and analysts from the comfort of remote operation centres, bringing the right expertise to the situation at hand whilst reducing the carbon footprint and cost of remote operations

The building blocks of these systems are a combination of smart sensors, advanced control, embedded processing and situation awareness enabling the robots to stay safe and carry out complex operations whilst providing adapted feedback to the human supervisor. The shared autonomy models developed, enable people and robots to truly cooperate.

When reading this text, the teacher and students can discuss how the italicised verbs illustrate the agency and interactivity of the robots, answering the ontological questions What can it do? What can be done to it/ with it?

Note that the writer opts for these systems as a cohesive device to link the topic of robots at the beginning of the second paragraph. As a lay person, I might have opted for machines, as in the online Oxford dictionary definition:  ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer’.  However, the professional in the field views the robots as systems. focusing on the programmable aspect, for which context system is more natural.

Students can search other texts for collocations that embody key concepts, such as  those underlined.

(Thanks to Professor Yvan Petillot of Heriot-Watt University for permission to use this extract from his profile page).  

We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

Learning from the history of the EAP research field

I’ve become more interested in the history of EAP as I reach the age where the exciting developments that I lived through and that shaped my practice can now be termed history. As I encounter EAP practice in the centres I visit for BALEAP accreditation and the individual portfolios I assess for BALEAP fellowship, I quite often see that one of the key developments that moved the field of EAP forward in my working life seems to have been lost. This is not true for every centre or many EAP practitioners but it is nevertheless a trend that worries me. The development I’m talking about is the understanding of the way in which genre and genre analysis is foundational for EAP practice.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay 
Read more: We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

I’m not going to trace the whole development of genre studies but just my involvement and understanding of these. I’ve listed the seminal books that changed my thinking at the end of this post. In the early 1990s, my first EAP teaching was at Heriot-Watt University, a brief period teaching an academic writing class. I had some experience of writing myself and had wanted to be a writer but did not then have anything I wanted to say. I found a little book on paragraph writing, based on topic sentences, thesis statements and cohesive devices, but this did not match my own writing experience. This disconnect between my own experience and published advice was the beginning of a classroom puzzle. Later, when I was teaching urban design students studying a masters degree at the Edinburgh College of Art, one of them introduced me to Weissburg & Buker (1990), a textbook with a genre-informed approach. It’s interesting that these authors cited the writers of the extracts they used for their examples but did not feel obliged to cite the authors on which their approach was based. Very likely one of these was John Swales, whom I discovered when I studied for a masters myself in 1994-96 at Edinburgh University.

Genre was a key topic for PhD research in the 1990s and 2000s as Generative Grammar had been in earlier decades. A host of studies investigated a wide variety of genres in different disciplines. A number of books on classroom applications appeared by Swales & Feak, Johns and Paltridge (1998 – 2001) and John Swales (2012) issued a revised and updated version of his earlier book, focusing specifically on research genres. With such a solid research foundation with obvious application for EAP teaching, why is it that I’ve encountered a lack of understanding or application of genre analysis as the basis for EAP course design in some settings? I don’t have empirical data to support my intuitions, just my own observations of institutional and individual accreditation so my views are of course subjective. However, I believe that drivers for this trend are the enormous success of IELTS and other language proficiency exams and more recent research in discipline specificity, but perhaps most importantly the fact that many EAP course designers and teachers don’t write.

IELTS is a general English exam that has become phenomenally successful since Liz Hamp-Lyons wrote her PhD on its development in the late 1980s. Now, on average, 60,000 people take an IELTS test every week. As an industry, it generates far more textbooks and trains far more teachers than research-informed EAP. It is likely that the course designers who do not use genre approaches have been trained to help students achieve the grades they need in the IELTS test. To pass the reading and writing parts of this test, the formulaic approach (topic sentences, thesis statements and cohesive devices) will be sufficient. The reading material is set at the level of difficulty of a student entering undergraduate studies, often drawn from journalism. The writing involves a deadline: 150 words in 20 minutes to describe visual information and 250 words in 40 minutes to respond to a point of view or problem, written in ‘academic or semi-formal/neutral styles‘. None of this helps students to write for an academic audience.

Another confounding factor, paradoxically, is the increased emphasis on discipline specificity, which has led to a separation of EAP course design between English for General or Specific Academic Purposes (EGAP vs ESAP). I have seen claims that ESAP courses cannot teach genres because classes contain students going on to many different disciplines and it would not be possible to cater for all of these in one class. Of course it would not be possible to teach the specific genres of many disciplines in one class but EAP course design should be about teaching genre analysis so that students understand how to approach each new writing task they meet. If I am asked to write a genre I haven’t encountered before, e.g. a research proposal, I immediately look for some exemplars to analyse so I can see how the structure and style matches the audience and purpose. However, a course designer trained through IELTS, who has not read or written much beyond their masters degree and not applied genre theory to the analysis of multiple texts, may not understand that genre analysis is a general skill that students can be asked to apply to their specific disciplines. The differences can be shared in class.

In fact, course designers who claim not to be able to teach genres do in fact teach one inauthentic genre, the essay. In this formulaic approach, a text of varying length (some are overly long) has an introduction that catches the reader’s attention, a thesis statement, body paragraphs with topic sentences and a generous sprinkling of vocabulary from the pepper pot of cohesive devices with the hope that these will link unrelated sentences together. This may work as a vehicle to show command of the grammar and vocabulary of the language but it does not provide a transferrable skill to set students up for an academic writing career. I certainly don’t sit down to catch the reader’s attention in my introduction but rather to be explicit about definitions of the concept I want to write about to ensure a shared understanding from the outset. I don’t try to write topic sentences for paragraphs I have planned in advance or ensure my text is full of cohesive devices. Instead I think about what claims I want to make, how I can support these with evidence or examples and how I can link the claims to create an argument that develops through my text. In revising I might change the position of paragraph breaks or the position of information in my sentences between theme and rheme. All the time I imagine a critical reader who is looking to question my claims.

One way to improve the situation might be to ask teachers to write the same texts that their students write. In my early apprenticeship with Sue Argent, my writing ability improved a lot when I began writing functional paragraphs to share and critique with my students. We shouldn’t be asking students to do things we can’t do ourselves.

Johns, Ann M. Ed. (2001) Genre in the Classroom: Multiple Perspectives. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (now Routledge).

Paltridge, B. (2001) Genre and the Language Learning Classroom. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Swales, John M. (1981) Aspects of  article introductions.  Birmingham, UK: The University of Aston, Language Studies Unit.

Swales, John M. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, John M.  (2012) Research genres: exploration and application. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, John, M. & Feak Christine (1998) English in today’s research world. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Weissburg, R. & Buker, S. (1990) Writing Up Research: Experimental Research Report Writing for Students of English. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Carrier content – the delivery vehicle for language & skills development

My experience of visiting Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes for the purposes of BALEAP Accreditation has enabled me to see a wide variety of approaches to materials design for language and academic skills development. A persistent challenge for course and materials designers involves the choice of carrier content for tasks and activities. ‘Carrier content refers to the subject matter of an exercise; it is contrasted with the real content which is the language or skill content of an exercise’ (Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998, emphasis in the original). Carrier content usually comes in the form of texts because the focus of language development at the upper intermediate level (CEFR B2) of EAP students should be contextualised within longer stretches of discourse. Texts are the means of delivery for helping students to understand how language operates beyond the level of words and sentences.

I’ve noticed a significant misunderstanding in the choice of carrier content. Materials designers tend to focus on the topic – what the text is about – rather than performance – what the discipline uses the text to achieve, and hence what students are expected to do with a text. They use the excuse – and it is an excuse – of having to teach multidisciplinary classes in order to avoid selecting subject specific texts as carrier content. They select texts on the basis of topic: what they assume will interest students, but this often means that the texts they choose reflect their own Arts & Humanities backgrounds and left-liberal ideologies. Although materials designers consult subject specialists about the choice of carrier content texts, it is highly unusual to find them checking with students what texts they would like to use for language development. However, the designers are quite happy to assume students are interested in the topics they have chosen and will have opinions on these that they can discuss.

The BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework (p 8) states that an EAP teacher will be able to ‘distinguish between teaching subject content, procedural knowledge (e.g., how to go about doing a task) and language knowledge.’ Of these three aspects of text, the final two should be the primary focus for text selection the ‘real content’ highlighted in the quote above. However, a study on teachers’ beliefs and practices of teaching and designing materials for ESP courses (Basturkmen and Bocanegra Valle, 2018) found that teachers focused on discipline-specific vocabulary in their materials development, possibly because they found this the most challenging as did the respondents in Alexander (2007). The likely outcome of a focus on discipline content rather than procedural or language knowledge is that the tasks and activities will be below the cognitive level of the students, who already have at least a high school understanding of their subject or have completed an undergraduate degree in it. Teachers need to be courageous and focus on the performance aspects of texts – their purpose – rather than their content. This is particularly important for STEM subjects, where most materials designers would really struggle to understand content at the same level as their students. Materials designers and teachers need to see themselves as partners in knowledge with their students. They have the linguistic knowledge but the students have the content knowledge and they are usually delighted to be asked to explain their subject within appropriate linguistic frames to the classmates and teacher.

To illustrate this I’ve added some materials on the EAP materials page, which focus specifically on the development of a reading framework based on the role of problem-solution structures in argument (Women in STEM) and the genre analysis of a research article (Workplace teaspoons). The first example uses the problem-solution framework, very common in STEM subjects, to step students carefully through an argument about the possible causes for the lack of women in STEM careers and the best solutions. The second one is a spoof article that follows – at least initially – the same process involved in designing and writing up research. The topic is trivial but easily understood so that the focus can be on the performance. What is the text being used to achieve?

Alexander, O. (2007) Groping in the dark or turning on the light: routes into teaching English for academic purposes. In Lynch T. & Northcott, J. (Eds.) Symposium on Teacher Education in Teaching EAP. University of Edinburgh Institute for Applied Language Studies. Available online at Publications – EAP Essentials (

BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework (2008) available online at teap-competency-framework.pdf (

Baştürkmen, H., Bocanegra-Valle, A. (2018). Materials Design Processes, Beliefs and Practices of Experienced ESP Teachers in University Settings in Spain. In: Kırkgöz, Y., Dikilitaş, K. (eds) Key Issues in English for Specific Purposes in Higher Education. English Language Education, vol 11. Springer, Cham.

Dudley-Evans, T. & St John, M-J (1998). Developments in English for Specific Purposes: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The medium is not the message

When McLuhan wrote ‘the medium is the message’ he was referring to the potential for any new technology (the medium) to change the way we perceive what is being communicated (the message). A simple example would be the change from oral to written cultures meaning messages were received through eyes not ears. We can see this happening in language teaching but not necessarily always in a good way. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve used a variety of different technologies such as language labs, tape recorders, video recorders and of course, in the last 20 years, digital online resources. As each new technology was introduced, there was enthusiastic uptake from some practitioners but the technology changed the way we viewed aspects of practice. For example, recordings of a variety of English accents on tape and video enabled a wider range of pronunciations to form models for learning but enabled teachers to question received pronunciation and then native speaker models of language.

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Exploratory Practice – an essential aspect of research-mindedness but is it research?

I recently attended the first AGM of the BALEAP teacher Education in EAP Special Interest Group (TEdinEAP SIG) which showcased the considerable professional development activity the SIG has undertaken since its establishment just over a year ago. The meeting then broke into smaller groupings to discuss an article on Exploratory Practice (EP) by Judith Hanks (Hanks, 2017), who had given a talk to the SIG in December. I’ve been aware of EP since its early inception when Judith Hanks presented a session in the first Research training Event Series for BALEAP. I think EP is an excellent way to engage students’ curiosity about their language learning, increasing their motivation by involving them in choices about the content of the language curriculum (Bond, 2017). It has proven value as a means of engaging teachers in scholarship activity to explore the principles underlying their practice.  I am less convinced by the labelling of Exploratory Practice as research. You could argue that labelling doesn’t matter but I think difficulties arise if students enter their discipline studies assuming that ‘research’ they did in their language class will be similar to research in their discipline.

Retrieved online from

Exploratory Practice has the potential to encourage deep reflection around language learning but how easily does it transfer to other kinds of research activity? Hanks (2017) refers to EP as research without ever defining that term so it is worth looking at the definition from the Higher Education Funding Council for the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to be carried out in UK universities:

Research for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; and the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to substantially improved insights. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials as well as the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research (HEFC, 1998)

I don’t believe EP as it is presented in Hanks (2017) or Bond (2017) would meet this definition for the students involved in the activity. The emphasis is on ‘original investigation’ leading to ‘substantially improved insights’ in knowledge and understanding – not just for the individual student or teacher but for a discipline. Bond (2017) claims that EP ‘moves students towards an understanding of what a research-led pedagogy might look like’ but if students plan to study Health Sciences, Business Administration or STEM subjects, they need to differentiate exploration of puzzles in language learning & teaching from puzzles in the social and physical sciences and the methods for exploring them. Although EP encourages an orientation towards research-mindedness It is not clear to me how students might transfer their EP activity to research in their disciplines.

It seems to me that there are different levels of exploratory activity, which could be given different labels:

  • finding out what I don’t know = learning
  • finding out what people around me think = journalism
  • finding out about reasons for puzzles in my practice = scholarship
  • careful systematic documented data gathering whose innovative conclusions could be challenged publicly = research

I argued in a previous post that teachers need to read research and I believe EP to be an excellent means of encouraging this. For example, as one of the participants in the SIG discussion suggested, EP could be used on a Pre-sessional course to encourage teacher professional development. Teachers could be encouraged to share puzzles about their EAP teaching and then gather data about different teaching practices through peer observation. They could carry out a quick survey of teaching literature to find out if anyone had published about their puzzle. For me this step is crucial because, if it is missing, teachers can never escape their own context to discover different practices in other contexts. They end up in a self-reflective loop, eating their own tail. Teachers could then present their own findings in comparison with the literature to understand their puzzle more deeply.

Bond, B. (2017). Co-constructing the curriculum through Exploratory Practice. The Language Scholar Journal. University of Leeds.

Hanks, J (2017). Integrating research and pedagogy: an Exploratory Practice approach. System, 68. pp. 38-49.

Higher Education Funding Council (1998). Research Assessment Exercise 2001: Key Decisions and Issues for Further Consultation, Guidance Note ref. RAE 1/98, HEFC.

How NOT to get published in an academic journal

Some things to consider when attempting to publish your research

I’ve been a peer reviewer for articles submitted to the Journal of EAP (JEAP) for a number of years now and in the past year, I’ve collaborated with Sarah Brewer, current Chair of BALEAP, as guest editor of a special issue to celebrate 50 years of BALEAP and 21 years of JEAP. Reviewing articles can be frustrating work because authors who submit them don’t seem to understand how to tailor their submission to the requirements of the journal editors and its readers. They write for themselves and not for an academic audience. Below I’ll list some of the issues I’ve had with article submissions:

‘I’ll just submit and get some feedback’ – this is extremely unkind to journal reviewers who do their work voluntarily and usually have to fit reviewing around their busy day jobs. JEAP wants to encourage new researchers to publish, and has established a Researching EAP Practice strand as a stepping stone to more rigorous studies with larger datasets. However, submitting a draft you think isn’t publishable just to get feedback is impolite. The journal reviewer is not like a supervisor. Their feedback is intended to bring your work to publishable standard but they have to see that the potential already exists in your draft.   

Photo by Eva Darron on Unsplash

‘My supervisor wants me to publish my PhD research in an academic journal’ – this leads to a confusion of genres. My friend and co-author Jenifer Spencer has a nice metaphor for the difference between PhD theses and academic articles. Both are like a journey but a PhD is a train journey: plenty of time to look out the window and take in different aspects of the view along the way. Academic articles are like plane journeys, focused on the destination. The researcher has to select only the most innovative findings that make a contribution to an ongoing research conversation in the journal. There is not space in an article to include detailed literature reviews or methodology sections or all the results found in a PhD thesis. Instead the purpose of these sections is to provide evidence that there is a gap in the research field and that the study has been carried out rigorously.

Following on from this lack of understanding of the requirements of the article research genre, I’ve reviewed submissions that the author labels as ‘essay’, essentially a review of literature relating to a topic. This is not a genre that you would find in a research journal and perhaps it is worth exploring why. An essay (derived from essai in French) is a test, a learning genre. Essays are set to enable students to show what they know about particular aspects of an academic subject. The questions posed are convergent as there is an expected yes/no answer. The answer may lie along a scale, to what extent yes/no, but it comes to a closed conclusion. Literature reviews in research articles in contrast are divergent. They establish what is not yet known, which the researcher hopes to explore. The conclusion will not be closed but open, providing innovative insights that lead to the need for further research. The conclusion to an essay gives the author’s viewpoint on a closed question. The conclusion to a research article gives the authors claim to new knowledge, which moves understanding forward. It is true that many research journals publish reviews of the literature that can look like essays. However, these are usually commissioned from active and established members of the research community, not new authors, and they are also divergent, opening up avenues for further research.

As well as a lack of understanding of the appropriate research genres, new researchers sometimes fail to establish a conversation with the journal they are submitting to. They may have been turned down by their original choice of journal and simply submit their article unchanged to another one. If this practice were employed in applying for a job, it would mean submitting a generic CV without tailoring it to the particular position you are targeting, usually resulting in a failure to get the job. The editors want to see authors contributing to a research conversation in their journal so it is important to analyze what has already been published in the journal in your area and show how your research keeps that conversation going.

Finally, new authors often treat their audience as a teacher or supervisor because that is who they are used to writing for. They fail to understand that JEAP readers are critical readers with no time to waste on papers that don’t deliver innovative contributions. I wrote an earlier post about reading academic articles efficiently and new authors should keep in mind this efficient reader when they write. Critical readers need a review of ALL the literature to be cited in a paper at the beginning. They do not want to see new literature cited in a discussion. These readers want the author to build a picture of the current research field so they can decide if they agree with this. They will then use this argument to challenge the author’s subsequent claims. The literature review and discussion sections of an article should be capable of being read together – without the methods and results – to see if the author has established a coherent claim. In summary:

  • Be clear about the research orientation and requirements of the journal you’re targeting
  • Try to find research conversations within the journal that you can join
  • Locate your study within the relevant literature so your reader can recognize the conversation you want to join
  • Create an argument for a critical reader to justify doing the research and doing it in a particular way
  • Define the concepts underpinning the research so the reader can check if they agree with your definitions
  • Be clear about the contribution you can make so you don’t waste the reader’s time

I would also strongly recommend Luker (2010), which I found extremely helpful when setting out on my own research journey.


Luker, Kristin (2010) Salsa Dancing Into the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ownership in EAP – Integrity, argumentation and authorial voice

An important and highly relevant Professional Issues Meeting on finding a voice in academic writing

I recently attended the BALEAP Professional Issues Meeting (PIM), hosted by University of York’s International Pathway College, which explored the concept of ownership in EAP. Most presenters focused on the concept of writer’s voice and how to encourage students to develop a confident academic voice in their writing. The PIM was held online and was a showcase for the positive affordances of online meetings. The technology enables colleagues from around the world to contribute and participate, greatly enriching the discussion. The use of the application enabled people to meet up and chat informally during the lunch break.

The first plenary by Sheena Gardner also highlighted the importance of technology, in this case corpora, for informing teaching content. Sheena presented a recent study (Gardner et al., 2019) using multidimensional analysis to explore clusters of lexico-grammatical features of academic essays across disciplines and levels of study in the BAWE corpus of student writing. The differences uncovered could be used in a general EAP course to raise students’ awareness of discipline-specific requirements rather than teaching one-size-fits-all essay writing.

The second plenary, a workshop by Mike Groves and Klaus Mundt, explored a recent trend in academic writing, the use of machine translation tools such as Google Translate. These tools have become so accurate in recent years, at least at the lexico-grammatical level, that their use is advocated for academics who need to publish in English (Luo & Hyland, 2019). My co-author for Access EAP: frameworks, Sue Argent, explored the use of early translation tools in unit 8 section 1 as a carrier topic for helping EAP students to recognise stance in relation to a claim. At the time of writing (2012-14), most authors thought that human translation was superior in terms of speed, accuracy and cost, because translation between languages was certainly not just a matter of replacing words.  However, Computer-aided Translation (CAT) was becoming recognised as a useful tool for translating highly repetitive texts such as technical documentation. In 2012, the Duolinguo project was just getting started. People signed up to learn a language by translating sentences from web texts with the resulting translations from hundreds of learners combined to arrive at the best translation.

Things have moved on apace in ten years so that academic institutions now recognise that they need to adopt a policy on students’ likely use of machine translation tools to write essays. These tools may soon replace essay writing mills as the latest bogeyman in the plagiarism pantheon. Mike and Klaus set out in their workshop to answer the question: ‘[whether] or how MT transfers a writer’s voice from one language into another?’ Participants were asked to choose one of three texts to work on, all translated from different languages using MT. Our task was to discuss aspects of the text that seem strange for a reader in English. My group chose an environmental science text, the introduction to a study of heavy metal residues in lakes and waterways, from a Malaysian source. It was clear that at the level of lexico-grammar the writing was accurate but beyond that it quickly became incoherent. The expected genre-moves or the general to specific development of an introduction were absent and the sentences did not connect smoothly from given to new information to lead the reader through the text. Other groups discussing different texts commented on academic style, for example the use of hedges and boosters when making claims.

Our findings from the workshop mirrored approaches adopted by colleagues in the department of translating and interpreting where I used to work. Translation students were introduced to translation tools to facilitate quick and efficient translation as a first pass through a text, especially a technical one. However, the main focus of practical translation sessions in the degree studies was on argumentative texts where style and nuance of the language played a major role. When it came to assessment, the lecturers had to select texts carefully so that an effective translation could not be achieved only with MT. From the evaluation of the texts in the PIM workshop, we could see that the discourse macro structure, at the level of genre, and microstructure, at the level of theme/rheme links between sentences, were not captured with these machine translations. The appropriate choice of hedging and boosting for the specific genre was also inaccurate.

Where does this leave EAP students and their teachers? The workshop task to evaluate examples of machine translated writing was certainly a powerful way of showing students the limits of machine translation. They need to consider more closely the expectations of their academic audience (their lecturers) and how global aspects of structure and style in writing help to establish their voice and get their message across. In the introduction to Access EAP: frameworks unit 8, Sue set out our approach to academic voice:

…the intention is to move the spotlight away from cheating and to show students how to draw on their ideas, knowledge and experience to write with their own voice. A student with ideas will read critically, a student who reads critically will have something to say, a student with something to say will strive for a voice and a student with a voice does not need to steal the ideas or words of others.

Gardner, S., Nesi, H. and Biber, D. (2019) Discipline, level, genre: Integrating situational perspectives in a new MD analysis of university student writing. Applied Linguistics. 40(4), 646-674. doi/10.1093/applin/amy005 (open access)

Luo, N., & Hyland, K. (2019). “I won’t publish in Chinese now”: Publishing, translation and the non-English speaking academic. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 39, 37–47.