I recently attended an online discussion of the IATEFL Research Special Interest Group, hosted by Graham Hall asking the questions: (How) do teachers read research, why, and (how) does it help them/us in the classroom … and beyond? It was an interesting discussion with a variety of viewpoints across a range of teaching contexts. The overall aim was to understand how research and theory might impact on teachers’ practice. For some teachers, the reasons for not reading research were the time and effort involved in understanding difficult academic texts, which don’t always give a clear indication of what their findings mean for professional practice. These teachers felt they didn’t need to engage with new theories in order to teach effectively in their classrooms.
In my view, this is not a position that an EAP teacher can reasonably hold as Ding & Bruce (2017) would no doubt agree. These authors make the point that in order for EAP teaching to be taken seriously in Higher Education institutions and move from the ‘edge of academia’ to a more equal status with teaching in the disciplines, then, in terms of personal learning, development and autonomy, an EAP practitioner needs to ‘recognize the importance of applying to his or her own practice the standards expected of students and other academic staff’ (BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework, 2008: 3).
One of the participants in the online Research SIG discussion, Glen Hill, made the point that he would want doctors in his GP practice to stay up to date with newest trends in care and latest developments in pharmaceuticals, e.g. Covid vaccines, and not rely on just the things they learned in medical school. Similarly, EAP teachers should view their practice as more than interaction with students to practise structures of language and skills, which they may have studied on a Diploma level qualification, based on out of date research in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). There are concepts to teach in EAP such as text practices (how academic researchers use texts to achieve their aims) and text processes (how texts unfold in predictable ways to support those aims). There are orientations to knowledge acquisition in academic disciplines, such as research-mindedness, critical evaluation and writer’s voice. EAP researchers and those in education more generally are working to develop better understanding of these concepts and attributes whereas SLA researchers are not. EAP teachers need to be aware of these EAP research activities, at the very least so that they appear credible to their students as academics.
In EAP, we would like to see evidence-based teaching, i.e. based on data from real teaching situations which has been critically evaluated and peer reviewed. Researchers usually collect data in a systematic way to answer a specific question. This is seen to be more reliable than anecdotal evidence. Teachers telling anecdotes don’t usually have to make explicit the underlying theories that inform their practice but authors of research articles do – in their literature reviews. This gives teachers a better start with critically evaluating the findings. Of course research articles are building knowledge and their findings might only be true for now until someone presents new data and new conclusions. Reading research helps to develop our critical perspective. Trying ideas in our classroom also contributes to that.
I first learned to read research on my masters degree but I remember trying to read about Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) in a collection of papers by Halliday and Martin (1993) called Writing Science. It had a seductive title for someone trying to help international students preparing for science degrees but it was impenetrable because I didn’t have sufficient background in SFL theory to understand it. The authors were starting too far forward for me to catch up. So it’s important to establish the starting point and something of the history of the theories you’re reading. It can help to read books entitled ‘Introduction to…’ which is what I did next.
My two co-authors and I wrote EAP Essentials to help ELT practitioners new to EAP engage with underlying theories and relevant research. We thought that it was important to show how the concepts we were writing about would play out in classroom settings, which is why the book has lots of case studies of teaching practice together with classroom materials, which worked for us in our Further and Higher Education contexts. I remember, shortly after the first edition was published, meeting a teacher who claimed ‘I don’t read research,’ but commenting that her way into the book had been through trying out classroom materials and then reading the relevant section that explained the underlying principles.
The point is that the EAP discipline is developing through research activities and degree inflation is already a reality as more EAP centres require masters degrees for temporary pre-sessional work and PhD qualifications for open-ended contracts. In order to compete, EAP teachers entering the field now will need to demonstrate their engagement with scholarship, which means reading understanding and being able to talk about research.
BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework (2008). Retrieved online 12.2.21 at teap-competency-framework.pdf (baleap.org)
Ding, A. & Bruce, I. (2017). The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner: Operating on the Edge of Academia. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Halliday, M.A.K. & Martin, J.R. (1993). Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power. London: The Falmer Press.