Sorting the EAP connoisseurs from the ELT amateurs

Interpreting candidates beliefs about EAP

I’ve just completed my last round of recruitment for Pre-sessional English (PSE) teachers, who will start teaching the final PSE Online programme 2020 from this week. We’ve taken them through a week of induction, which has allowed me to assess whether I made the right decisions in appointing them. The first week of teaching coming up will also be a good test of their ability to deliver the programme as it is designed, rather than as they imagine it should be designed. This final programme is so short (5 weeks of teaching and three days of assessment) that I really need teachers to quickly get to grips with the underlying principles and be able to deliver them.

On the one hand, I’ve enjoyed the regular round of recruitment for summer PSE teachers. I like meeting teachers with a wide range of experience in many different contexts and listening to them talk. However, interviewing takes up a lot of time, at least 20-30 minutes per online interview. There are usually around 80 applications for teaching each year and I try to interview many of these, not all of whom actually have the qualifications and experience specified in the advertisement. This year student numbers have increased and class sizes are smaller for PSE Online so I’ve appointed 38 new teaching staff alongside the 22 returning staff. This means I conducted around 45 interviews. That’s a lot of interviews, especially as I find they require a lot of emotional energy.

Image retrieved 4.7.20 from

The PSE Online programme is delivered via a coursebook, Access EAP: Frameworks, which uses graduate attributes as its top level organising principle for the themes of the units. So when I’m interviewing I’m looking for evidence that the interviewee understands some of the graduate attributes listed on page 285:

  • Critical Reflection
  • Awareness of how knowledge is advanced
  • A spirit of enquiry
  • A global and ethical understanding
  • Effective communication
  • Autonomy

I ask candidates to choose one from the list and say how they have developed it in their teaching. Strong candidates with EAP experience and an interest in research and scholarship will pick one from the first five, whereas weaker candidates will choose 5 or 6 because these are more recognisably close to their previous ELT experience. They may still give a good answer but they haven’t left their comfort zone.

I then ask candidates to look at an extract from the coursebook that I’ve sent them in advance, Unit 8 Section 4 Arguing from sources, which develops understanding of writer’s voice. Two student texts are presented in answer to an essay instruction: Critically evaluate definitions of health as a concept for health professionals. Text A presents a nuanced discussion of health, interpreting evidence from sources (extracts provided) to support their stance. Text B is a ‘string of pearls’ simply listing paraphrases from the sources with no persuasive structure. It is quite telling how many interviewees select Text B because it has the phrase ‘in my opinion’ in its conclusion.

Both of these tasks allow me to listen to the candidates talk about their beliefs about teaching EAP and their understanding of what is involved. The weaker candidates demonstrate that they believe EAP involves teaching language and skills (note-taking, listening to lectures, skimming, scanning and reading for gist). The stronger candidates demonstrate that they believe EAP involves supporting students’ academic performance in a research-intensive environment. I find it interesting that even candidates who have completed a PhD, are occasionally unable to understand the concept of writer’s voice and choose Text B. But I also find it really encouraging that candidates who may have little direct experience of ELT or EAP teaching can, nevertheless, reference their backgrounds in the disciplines PSE students plan to study and their own experience of university study. These are the candidates who are more open to the approach in Access EAP: Frameworks and the ones I enjoy working with.

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.

10 thoughts on “Sorting the EAP connoisseurs from the ELT amateurs”

  1. Yes, this is a thoughtful insight into the interviewing process, especially one that is so specifically targeted for a particular purpose. It is a careful way to screen candidates for such a very brief and focused remit as that involved in short term pre-sessional courses. It is also fair in that it favours those not only with the right experience but also with the ability to make use of it in a reflective way to feed into their development as teachers.

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  2. I think some ELT teachers may not know much about EAP beforehand (although hopefully they will have done their homework before they are interviewed) but some may not be happy with being called amateurs as some of them may be very experiences in their field. Many EAP tutors have a background in EFL and start teaching EAP on summer courses due to the demand for teachers and teach very well on these courses. Perhaps ‘novices’ is therefore a more appropriate word. However, I can see the need for filtering out stronger candidates and I think it can help to have an academic qualification of at least Master’s level before starting to teach on Pre-sessionals so that tutors have some awareness of the types of academic skills which pre-Master’s students will need to develop.


    1. I don’t see ‘amateur’ as a perjorative label. It means lover of the work and I have certainly met some very enthusiastic people in interviews. I was trying to find a way of distinguishing an experienced teacher – one who has done a lot of teaching – from an expert teacher – one who has read widely and thought about how theory applies to their practice. I look for evidence of that in the interviews.

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  3. Interesting, but it is possible that many teachers would choose sections of the book due to what they prefer to teach because it is more interesting for them, rather than they do not like another section. So I wonder if you can really say that the candidates who preferred more ELT materials to be “weaker”. Also, given that international students can vary immensely in their levels, and that some instituiions have students with lower academic ability (and IELTS scores) than others, someone’s experience of teaching EAP will be different too. Therefore a “weaker” candidate might just be the type of person who wants to upgrade their EAP teaching skills, but due to experience he/she has only encountered lower level EAP students who were not suited to detailed EAP work. That candidate might be looking for a way in to teacher higher EAP, and needs to be given that chance – we all start from somewhere.


    1. Thanks for your comments Neil. I always do try to give teachers new to EAP a chance, so having a DELTA for example is not one of my main qualifications. Our programme is so research-based that I’m more interested in teachers with a solid research foundation, e.g. on a master’s degree. Then I need them to be able to talk about research and scholarship. That’s the basis of the task, which tests whether teachers have an understanding of academic writer’s voice. You’d only have that if you’d done some research. The other point you mention is that ‘many teachers would choose sections of the book due to what they prefer to teach because it is more interesting for them, rather than they do not like another section’. That’s precisely what we can’t have. If teachers choose the bits of the book they like (i.e. they understand) then they would disadvanctage the students and not prepare them well enough for the assessment.


  4. I do agree about teachers selecting ‘what they like’ being a sign of them being less suitable. This is not just a problem with EAP but with Business English and even when teaching basic EFL. I remember attending a conference presentation where the speaker exhorted us to ‘play Mozart’ to our students at the beginning of the lesson to put them in the right mood. I reflected on my class at that time who were predominantly Spanish young male waiters from local restaurants all wearing various Heavy Metal band T-shirts and imagined their response. Teachers should be teaching what the students need and what they are there to learn, not just what the teacher fancies. Maybe the word amateur has connotations of someone for whom language teaching is a bit of a hobby, where all the lessons should be recreational and enjoyable. What should be enjoyable is helping students to fulfil their aims and in the process learning about all sorts of things you never thought could be interesting!


  5. Hi Olwyn,
    I was interested in your comment in the final paragraph that a belief that EAP entails a focus on language over research skills is a sign of a weaker candidate. Can you talk a bit more about what your justification is for this? Given EAP’s grounding in fields like SFL and corpora I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to see EAP as language/study skills hybrid, especially when the ILOs of most pre-sessional courses are in some way CEFR linked and are aimed at students who narrowly missed out on language entry requirements. You mention in a reply above that your PSE is more research skills focussed, which would explain the preference, but which presumably would have been made clear in the JD. I think it’s a bit unfair though to claim that this is also a view that ‘strong’ EAP teachers should be expected to subscribe to more generally.



    1. Hi Phil, I think it’s about what I assume a teacher comes with already. So I assume they already have the expertise and understanding of ILOs linked to CEFR. I did specify an orientation to research in the Job Description because the way I designed the Heriot-Watt Presessional was to be a simulation of an authentic academic experience, using many of the assessment types common on HWU degrees, such as annotated bibliography, literature review and case study. The overall aim is to help studnets to see a link between theory and practice for their particular discipline. This means I need teachers who understand that link themselves, i.e. have an orientation to research. I don’t subscribe to EAP being language and study skills (a superficial ability) but language and study competence (Waters & Waters, 1995) a deeper understanding of scholarship, i.e. graduate attributes. As well as CEFR the ILOs are drawn from a list of graduate attributes (Access EAP: Frameworks, p 285. So I’m not talking about waht a teacher needs for a general EAP pre-sessional but what a teacher needs for the specific HWU pre-sessional.


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