Redefining EAP – does EAP mean whatever we say it means?

During conversations I’ve had recently with colleagues and mentees for the BALEAP TEAP Portfolio, they’ve described scenarios in the institutions where they work that I would consider to be EAP but they seemed not to. For example, how many of these are EAP for you:

  1. A teacher in a secondary school who teaches English literature to final year students
  2. Undergraduate students studying chemistry who have been asked to prepare and deliver TED talks
  3. Students on a PGT course in marketing who have an assessment that involves choosing five consumer items and making a video log (vlog) to explain why these are important to them
  4. A teacher supervising PGT dissertations for a mixed group of first and second language English speakers
  5. A careers department helping students with employment interview technique
Retrieved from

All of these are EAP for me because they involve purposeful communication in English to meet the needs of a specific academic audience. In my first blog post, I referred to Ian Bruce’s (2011, p.6) definition of EAP ‘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’. In each of the scenarios I’ve listed we can see instances of spoken or written English use (texts) connected to academic discourse practices. I find it helpful to think about the definition of EAP in terms of Halliday’s concept of Register , whose ‘development […] reflects a need to explain variation according to use, and arises from a concern with the importance of language in action’ (Lukin et al., 2011). The concept is central to Halliday’s theory of language to account for language choice and change.

  1. English – the role language is playing – spoken and written instances of language use at university (mode)
  2. Academic – the audience being addressed – academic teaching staff who assess student work (tenor)
  3. Purpose – the purpose of a communication – academic discourse practices (field)

Register analysis captures the changing nature of communication in academic settings as teaching staff strive to address the employability needs of their students once they graduate. In this analysis, the target audience is powerful and the expectation is that successful communication will meet the needs of the audience whatever these are. Often students are now expected to write for multiple audiences: an academic audience – the lecturer who sets their assessment – but also an imagined external audience – one they might encounter in the real world outside the institution. These changing needs may not fit EAP practitioners’ expectations of what constitutes academic activity and communication but they happen at university and are valid for EAP practitioners to support for that reason.

  1. The secondary school teacher is preparing his students to meet the academic discourse practices (field) of the literature degree they plan to study
  2. The science department is preparing its students to pitch their research to an external audience (tenor), e.g. a funding council or the assessors of a prize to apply their science to a real world problem. They will have to use a different style of language (mode) in the presentation to suit these different audiences
  3. The marketing department is asking its students to apply to themselves the concepts and theories (consumer identity, brand loyalty) they are studying (field)
  4. The teacher is helping PGT students to plan, carry out and write up their dissertation research (field)
  5. The careers department is helping students to use language (mode) effectively for an external audience (tenor).

So let’s get away from normative definitions of EAP as EGAP or ESAP – especially now with the seismic shift to teaching online – and simply see EAP as supporting academic communication and scholarly activity, however that is currently defined within institutions we have access to.

Bruce, I. (2011) Theory and Concepts of English for Academic Purposes. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lukin, Annabelle; Moore, Alison R.; Herke, Maria; Wegener, Rebekah; and Wu, Canzhong (2011). Halliday’s model of register revisited and explored. Wollongong University: Faculty of Arts papers, 187-213.

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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