Assessing EAP websites

Some quick and simple diagnostics for assessing the quality of EAP websites.

I’m a member of the BALEAP discussion list, one of many education and research discussion lists in the UK, hosted by Jiscm@il. It is an excellent resource for connecting with EAP professionals in other parts of the world and asking for advice on a wide variety of EAP topics. Recently there was a request for recommendations for online EAP resources and several people responded with lists of their favourite sites. I’m always wary of sending students to online resources because – like everything else on the internet – there is no guarantee of quality, even if sites are hosted by universities. Because EAP students are time-poor, any online resources need to deliver worthwhile content as efficiently as possible. Internet resources are only useful if the writers creating them have a sound understanding of EAP principles.

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I have some diagnostics for assessing online EAP resources, which can tell me quickly whether the writers are basing their materials on sound EAP principles or on intuitions and folk beliefs about academic discourse (Harwood, 2005). I look at the writing component of any website to assess how the writers have dealt with cohesion, with nominalisation and with paragraph development.

Cohesion concerns the links that writers create between ideas across sentences. The canonical text is Halliday & Hasan (1976), which classified the range of resources for linking something in text with what has gone before. These resources include reference words, usually pronouns, transition signals such as in contrast, although, ellipsis and substitution. Two other resources mentioned only briefly towards the end of Halliday & Hasan (1976) are thematic development and lexical cohesion using general nouns, e.g. journey in the following example summarises the message in the first sentence in the theme of the second sentence:
We travelled to Edinburgh by train. The journey lasted four and a half hours.

Halliday developed the concept of thematic development in more detail in subsequent publications. An explanation of this for pedagogical purposes can be found in Alexander, et al., (2018) pp. 68 ff. EAP websites which only refer to the resources in Halliday & Hasan (1976) and do not refer to thematic development show that their authors have not kept up with more recent developments in text cohesion so the websites are not going to add enough value to be worth spending time on.

Thematic development is an important cohesive resource in academic writing. It proceeds through nominalisation, where ideas expressed in one sentence are compressed into a noun phrase summary at the beginning of a subsequent sentence. An example from Alexander, et al., (2018) pp. 72 ff underlines the noun phrases in theme position which create cohesive links:
The group is an important unit in the study of organisational behaviour. Studying groups is especially valuable when group dynamics are analysed. Group dynamics is concerned with the interactions and forces among group members in a social situation. When the concept of group dynamics is applied to the study of organisational behaviour, the focus is on the dynamics of members of formal or informal work groups and teams in the organisation.

Nominalisation is the most important resource for creating cohesion in academic writing (Biber & Gray, 2010). The final sentence in the above example includes the most common noun phrase structure in academic writing: the + general noun + of + specific noun. The ubiquity of this noun phrase structure is the reason that the and of are the two most common words in an academic corpus. However, this noun phrase is often omitted from EAP websites.

One of the EAP websites recommended on the discussion list referred to nominalisation as adding variety, objectivity and an impersonal tone to texts. It claimed that nominalisation also makes writing more reader-friendly and concise by allowing writers to pack a great deal of information into sentences. In fact, nominalisation makes texts less reader friendly and more difficult to read. Texts which are simplified for lower proficiency levels usually reduce nominalisation. These claims do not help students to understand the key role of nominalisation in thematic development of texts, or its contribution to making reading more efficient and writing more logical.

My third diagnostic looks at the way EAP websites handle paragraph development. As soon as I see the phrases topic sentence and thesis statement, I know that the materials are based on folk beliefs that date back to the 19th century when Alexander Bain set out to help applicants pass a civil service exam in the United States by specifying a template for paragraphs. I have never started to write by asking myself the question: what is my topic sentence? I try to write from general to specific ideas, giving readers the big picture before filling in the details. I use metaphors to help students think about the unfolding process of writing paragraphs: wide angle vs narrow focus in cameras or the experience of walking into an art gallery and seeing a picture in the distance. You can see the general picture, and as you approach, the details become clear. I borrowed an idea from Sam McCarter (1998), organising a paragraph by increasingly specific questions for Classroom materials 2.9 in Alexander et al., 2018.

Unfortunately, very few EAP websites pass my diagnostic tests for cohesion, nominalisation and paragraph development, showing that intuition and folk beliefs are alive and well, passing from one coursebook to another (Harwood, 2005) and onto the web with little critical evaluation or sound research-based EAP principles.

Biber, D. & Gray, B. (2010). Challenging stereotypes about academic writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9/1, pp. 2–20.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Harwood, N. (2005). What do we want EAP teaching materials for? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4(2), 149–161.09

McCarter, S. (1998) A book on Writing. London: Intelligene.

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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