Evidence-based teaching and learning: core corpus skills for EAP

Workshop presentations on core corpus skills for EAP

Yesterday I attended an excellent BAAL Corpus Linguistics SIG event on Core Corpus Skills for Academic Purposes, hosted online from Coventry University. The aim of the day was to discuss the role corpora can play in EAP teaching and learning and to address a gap in the BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework and the Can Do Statements, which do not currently refer explicitly to data-driven learning and corpus approaches. This is a timely intervention as the TEAP Competency Framework is currently under review, informed by practitioner expertise.

The day was very well organized with brief presentations lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. The speakers kept to time and the audience could ask questions in the chat function as the talk proceeded for discussion at the end. The slides and talks are all available online. In the afternoon participants broke into groups to discuss specific modules in the TEAP competency framework and suggest how to include corpus approaches.

Tatyana Karpenko-Seccombe,  from Huddersfield University, introduced basic corpus tools and skills. She showed how the complexity of corpus tasks can be graded in line with growing learner proficiency and independence. Simon Smith, from Coventry University demonstrated his use of corpus tools to compile domain-specific vocabulary lists from Moodle module content, in this case for an Accounting and Finance module. This can help teachers to gain insights into the discourse of the discipline they are supporting.

Vocabulary tasks in Access EAP: Frameworks to show students how they can use corpora.

Carole Macdiarmid, from Glasgow University, gave a brief introduction to the BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework and the planned revision and Jenny Kemp, from Leicester University and former TEAP Officer of BALEAP, looked in more detail at the way corpus approaches might inform some of the competency statements. She showed the different levels of engagement with corpus approaches that she had moved through in her teaching career: from using a corpus to answer her own questions, understanding student needs and creating classroom tasks, through to helping students and teacher colleagues to develop their own corpora. She linked each step in her development to specific competency statements.

Finally, Karin Whiteside from the University of Reading and Cathy Malone from Oxford Brookes University presented innovative applications of corpus approaches. Karin provided a close step-by-step analysis of her decision-making processes in designing online materials for ESAP in-sessional students. Cathy showed how she had compiled a corpus of reading material from an undergraduate social science course to use as evidence for genuinely collaborative discussion of literacy practices with the lecturers who taught the course.

I’m a huge fan of corpus approaches to inform teachers’ understanding of the literacy requirements of academic disciplines. I first learned about them in the 1990s at BALEAP Professional Issues Meetings (PIMs) and conferences when Tim Johns presented his Kibbitzer series of Key Word In Context (KWIC) searches using WordSmith Tools. The 90s was a very exciting time as the Collins Cobuild Project was under development at Birmingham University generating lots of spin-off English guides. I have two on Reporting and Metaphor, which are still available second-hand. In 2001-2, I collaborated with Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, using an early version of WordSmith Tools, to research a corpus of 1 million words of undergraduate Business Studies texts for an EAP distance learning course. That scholarship informed the content of EAP Essentials, especially chapter 5 Vocabulary, and the Access EAP series.

As I listened to the talks and discussions during the day, I couldn’t help reflecting on the importance of combining corpus approaches with other ways of looking at text. Otherwise it is possible to be miss important elements or give priority to less significant features. For example, if your teacher training has sensitized you to looking at verb grammar, then that is what you will notice in a Key Word in Context (KWIC) search. But as many corpus researchers have been finding over the last 25 years, that is not the most salient aspect of academic grammar (see for example, Francis, 1994; Biber & Gray, 2010, Flowerdew, 2015). The two most frequent words in most academic corpora are the and of. It would be easy to treat these as closed class words and ignore them but, in an article entitled “The Meaning of of”, Sinclair (I think because I’ve lost the reference) showed they were common because they were  mostly found together in noun phrases with the structure the + general noun + of + specific noun. The second noun gives the main meaning to the phrase while the first noun controls the grammar and helps to focus the meaning (see Alexander, Argent & Spencer, 2018, p. 81).

Similarly it shouldn’t be necessary to use a corpus to discover functional aspects of text, e.g. that problems are usually associated with causes. As far back as 1985, Louis Trimble was analyzing rhetorical functions such as cause and effect in texts at the discourse level and functional analysis is at the core of Systemic Functional Linguistics. My colleagues and I used functional approaches to interrogate our Business English corpus, for example, searching for the string “can be defined as” and then looking at the whole text around that point to discover other related structures for definitions. Nesi & Gardner (2012) is a seminal work in corpus studies that combined macrostructures (genres), concordances and keywords to provide a detailed account of assessed writing in UK Higher Education.

Thus, I believe corpus approaches are crucial for teacher development, as this workshop demonstrated, but EAP students are time poor and motivated to learn English to achieve their goals by the most efficient means possible. Teachers need corpus skills as one of a number of tools to use in combination in order to research and select the most salient language patterns and text structures to present to their students. Corpus researchers also need to be aware of the rich history of the field in order to avoid unwittingly replicating analyses that have already been described.

Alexander, O., Argent, S. & Spencer, J.A. (2018). EAP Essentials (2nd Ed.) Reading: Garnet Education.

Biber, D. & Gray, B. (2010) Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: complexity, elaboration, explicitness. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9/1, pp. 2-22.

Flowerdew, J. & Forest, R.W. (2015) Signalling Nouns in English: A Corpus-Based Discourse Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Francis, G. (1994) Labelling discourse: an aspect of nominal group lexical cohesion. In Coulthard, M. (ed.) Advances in Written Text Analysis. London: Routledge.

Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2012) Genres across the disciplines: student writing in higher education. 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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