I’ve started this blog as a retirement project because I’m planning to leave the institution where I work in a year or two but I’ll want to keep a connection to the practice of EAP. What I’ll miss most when I retire will be the interaction with EAP students in a Higher Education (HE) context, together with the opportunities to design materials, tasks and lessons based on authentic academic texts and purposes. I hope this blog will enable me to reflect on my own practice in EAP before I finally take the retirement plunge.
My understanding of EAP practice accords with the definition given by Ian Bruce (2011, p.6) ‘the study of English for the purpose of participating in higher education. This study will be centred on the texts (spoken and written) that occur in academic contexts and will include the discourses and practices that surround and give rise to such texts’. For me, this definition captures two key aspects of EAP practice:
- the need to have a theory of text, in order to analyse how texts are used to get things done at university;
- the need to understand scholarly activity and the performance that is valued and rewarded.
A theory of text enables EAP practitioners to recognize text types (genres), their purposes & organisation, and to uncover patterns (rhetorical structures) in text beyond the level of sentences. Text analysis is crucial for working with subject-specific texts whose content you do not fully understand. The theories of text that have worked for me are Systemic Functional Linguistics, developed by Michael Halliday and Jim Martin, among many others, and Genre Theory, developed by John Swales and others. However, I’ve co-opted and simplified elements of these theories for teaching purposes, as explained in chapter 2 of EAP Essentials (2019, 2nd edition).
Scholarly activity in an HE context involves carrying out research to build new knowledge and understanding of the natural or social or virtual worlds we inhabit. All degree studies are really apprenticeships in acquiring the skills to contribute to research in a specific discipline, although nowadays the most valued research tends to be multidisciplinary. The top science journal, Nature, aims to publish research of interdisciplinary interest so contributors to Nature have to communicate concepts in their disciplines to educated non-specialists. Students and academic staff in HE contexts have to do the same and EAP practitioners have an important role to play in facilitating this. For me, the best way to understand what research involved was to try to do it myself. In that way, I came to understand the difference between finding out what I don’t know and exploring what the discipline still doesn’t know but wants to find out.
Understanding how to analyse texts and how to do research are valued performances in the HE context and form a large part of the knowledge base of EAP. They give EAP practitioners confidence to go beyond a narrow focus on topics, language and skills in course design and establish academic credentials to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines.
Bruce, I. (2011) Theory and Concepts of English for Academic Purposes. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.