Perceptions of teaching EAP

Teachers who are transitioning from ELT to TEAP may have beliefs about teaching which do not fit the new teaching context.

I’ve been assessing portfolio submissions for BALEAP TEAP accreditation. Applications for Associate Fellow of BALEAP are usually teachers who are moving from General English Language Teaching (ELT) to EAP. This transition is often achieved by teaching on one or a number of pre-sessional summer programmes at a university to gain EAP experience, and then finding year-round work with a private company that provides foundation programmes for university entrance.

Candidates for the TEAP Associate Fellow are required to write a reflective account and provide evidence of their practice, aligned to the TEAP competency statements in the C modules: Teaching & Learning (C1) and Assessment (C2). Their reflective accounts sometimes show the candidates’ unacknowledged beliefs about teaching when they attempt to show that they understand how ELT is different from TEAP. Some of their beliefs about EAP teaching are listed:

  • EAP is dry and boring
  • EAP is skills driven rather than language driven: skills include critical thinking, note-taking and argumentation
  • It is necessary to stay on track in an EAP lesson rather than encourage emergent learning
  • The EAP classroom is teacher centred compared to the ELT classroom with the teacher as a disseminator of knowledge rather than a facilitator

None of these beliefs as they stand would lead to effective teaching and learning in an EAP classroom.  I’ll respond to each of them in turn:

EAP is dry and boring – this belief stems from a topic-based approach to ELT, where topics are usually chosen by the teacher (or the coursebook) based on students’ presumed interest. Many ELT teachers have an Arts and Humanities background with sometimes limited numeracy. Thus, they find Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects less interesting.or accessible. Students, however, have chosen to study their STEM subject and may already have several years of undergraduate study, so their subject interests them sufficiently to continue to explore it. New EAP teachers need to move away from topics that they choose as the basis for lessons and allow their students to select aspects of their subject through which to display their English proficiency.

EAP is skills driven rather than language driven – I think this belief comes from over-familiarity with Secure English Language Tests (SELTs) such as IELTS, which of necessity reduce the complexity of language to skills that can be tested consistently. The skills listed above are at different levels of cognitive challenge but are lumped altogether as skills. Instead it would be more useful to follow Waters & Waters (1995), who differentiate study skills (note-taking in lectures – a surface skill) from study competence (knowing that lectures provide a guide to required reading). Critical thinking and argumentation are graduate attributes required to build knowledge in a discipline. Skills, competencies and graduate attributes are all developed and exemplified through language. This more nuanced classification would enable TEAP applicants to demonstrate they understand the difference between subject content, procedural knowledge (knowledge of how to approach study tasks) and language knowledge, required for the Teaching & Learning module (C1xi).

It is necessary to stay on track in a lesson – EAP courses and the students who take them are time-poor. They demand the most efficient syllabus and lesson delivery possible so as not to waste students’ time while achieving key learning outcomes. Emergent learning, by which may be meant digression from a planned lesson, can certainly be a feature of EAP classrooms but it needs to be purposeful and not simply a random pursuit of novel topic vocabulary or grammar structures which have emerged from a classroom discussion. An EAP teacher also needs a deep understanding of academic language, study competencies and graduate attributes in order to make a justifiable decision on-the-fly about whether an unplanned learning opportunity is worth following or an unnecessary distraction from key objectives.

The EAP classroom is teacher centred – the need to follow a prescribed syllabus and achieve key learning outcomes efficiently can lead inexperienced teachers to adopt a ‘sage on the stage’ approach to teaching (McWilliam, 2009). Indeed, ELT teachers often leave their good communicative teaching skills at the classroom door, when they transition to EAP teaching. However, EAP is inherently communicative because students, lecturers and researchers all join the academy to discuss their ideas and contribute to building knowledge in their discipline. The EAP teacher cannot simply be a facilitator (a ‘guide on the side’ in McWilliam’s terms) but must be a ‘meddler-in-the-middle’, challenging students to justify responses to questions and tasks. Students can be formed into teams to work on tasks, thus encouraging greater student autonomy and reduced reliance on the teacher.

ELT teachers transitioning to EAP need to examine their beliefs about teaching carefully to be sure they do not disadvantage their students by a less efficient but, in their view, more pleasurable classroom experience. I developed a questionnaire for teachers to explore their beliefs about teaching low level EAP, which can be found in the EAP materials page.

BALEAP TEAP Scheme Handbook (2014). Retrieved from on 20.2.20

McWilliam, E.L. (2009). Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3). pp. 281-293.

Waters, M. & Waters, A. (1995) Study Tasks in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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