How is EAP teaching different from ELT?

Communicative activities have to be purposeful and efficient timewise.

At a recent seminar on EAP teacher competencies, one of the delegates asked how teaching EAP is different from teaching general English. My immediate response was to refer to the constructive alignment between learning aims, content and assessment (Biggs, n.d.) because I assume that EAP teaching has to be driven by a deep understanding of students’ needs in their target context (Gillett, 2011). However, in clarifying his meaning, the questioner referred to activities and techniques that a teacher can use in the classroom. Are the kinds of communicative activities used in an ELT classroom now redundant? I wrote a previous blog related to this issue but in this one I wanted to focus on the assumptions about communicative classroom practice in EAP and ELT that underlie this question.

Without probing more deeply, it is not possible to understand the assumptions the questioner has about what constitutes communicative activity but he did refer to Guse (2011), a set of interactive activities for classroom practice, which had received somewhat negative reviews, e.g. Hopkins (2011). This reviewer concluded that the many of the activities were not aimed appropriately at the language level and maturity of EAP students, the activities did not deliver lesson outcomes efficiently for time-poor students and the teacher did not need to make a lesson enjoyable. I would agree with Andy Gillett (2011) when he says: ‘EAP can be considered to be an example of communicative language teaching par excellence’. So how is the definition of communicative activity held by Guse and presumably by the questioner different from that of Gillett?


Image by Manfred Steger from Pixabay 

What makes communicative activities in an ELT lesson meaningful for teachers and enjoyable for students? I think there would be a ‘buzz’. Students are moving around, there may be some music, with short bursts of conversation. Students are smiling and engaged in an activity which involves sharing personal information, likes and dislikes. They may be writing on the walls or doing the kind of grammar tasks they are familiar with and achieve easily. There is less challenge to the activities than in an EAP class and less sense of urgency in achieving learning outcomes efficiently. For example, if a short activity stretched to an hour and half because students were enjoying it, that’s fine, as this quote from a teacher of low proficiency students demonstrates (Alexander, 2012):

I spent some of the class doing grammar… a little kind of quick thing to satisfy them… something on the passive which is useful for academic writing… and they took it and ran and sort of an hour and a half later we were still doing it and it was incredible… they were so reluctant to let it go.

For me, the difference between communicative activities in an ELT class compared to an EAP class lies in the nature of the interaction. ELT students are a group of individuals having conversations, which dance quickly from one topic to another in order to maintain students’ interest and promote oral fluency in language use. EAP classrooms involve teams of students discussing tasks, which are challenging and may not have single right answers. The tasks relate directly to the learning outcomes of the syllabus, the assessments and the students’ target degree programmes. ELT classrooms aim to develop friendships between students and their teacher. EAP classrooms aim to build a community of practice in which students are interested in helping each other to improve their academic performance. Friendships may result but they are not the primary aim. The teacher’s role in an EAP class is one of ‘meddler in the middle’ (McWilliam, 2009): probing student responses to elicit a deeper more critical justification for claims, challenging students to perform beyond their level of language competence – as they will have to on their degrees.

Communicative activities in an EAP class have to be purposeful and efficient. They can be used throughout a lesson to check student understanding, e.g. with questions that review previous learning points or encourage reflection. This facilitates explicit transitions between stages of a lesson. They can engage students’ perspectives on a topic or issue to show students that they are expected to challenge the views of the sources they are reading. They can be used as pre-writing/speaking activities to clarify claims, stances and evidence in response to a task. Above all decisions to introduce communicative activities have to be principled and justified.

  • How well do they relate to the content and tasks in the lesson?
  • Will they achieve learning outcomes efficiently?
  • Will students understand the point of the activities?
  • Will they contribute to building learning teams and a class community of practice?

Alexander, O. (2012) Exploring teacher beliefs in teaching EAP at low proficiency levels. Journal of EAP, 11(2), pp. 99-111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2011.12.001

Biggs, J. (n.d.) Aligning teaching for constructive learning. Retrieved from Microsoft Word – Biggs.doc (heacademy.ac.uk) on 25.5.21.

Gillett, A. (2011) What is EAP? Retrieved from www.uefap/bgnd/eap.htm on 25.5.21.

Guse, J. (2011). Communicative activities for EAP. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hopkins, D. (2011). Review of Guse (2011). ELT Journal, 65(4) pp. 499–500, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccr057.

McWilliam, E.L. (2009). Teaching for creativity: from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3). pp. 281-293.

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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