Teach to the target rather than to the level

Following on from my last blog post about the difference between ELT and EAP in terms of classroom delivery, I wanted to think about that difference in terms of syllabus design. If, as I contend, EAP lessons should be aimed appropriately at the maturity of students, deliver lesson outcomes efficiently for time-poor students and be challenging rather than simply enjoyable, what are the implications for syllabus design?

Image by Sunil Kargwal on Pixabay

There are two basic approaches to syllabus design: give the students (and their teachers) more of what feels comfortable and familiar in an English language classroom or give them what students can expect to meet in a university classroom. The first is teaching to the language level of the students, using a topics and skills syllabus derived from tests such as IELTS, with a focus on explaining incidental vocabulary in discipline-related texts. The second involves understanding how subjects are taught at university, pitched beyond the current level of language competence of all students. No-one starts their degree knowing all the discipline-specific language. Subjects such as Biology, Physics or Management Studies are taught by presenting high level abstract concepts, such as evolution, thermodynamics, leadership. These concepts are unpacked and illustrated, in their respective disciplines, through lectures, reading, case studies and laboratory or field work, providing opportunities for embodied cognition, learning & remembering through experiencing (Sarma & Yoquinto, 2020). Students gradually acquire discipline-specific vocabulary through lectures, reading and active self-directed learning.

The approach adopted depends on how much power the stakeholders in an institution can wield to shape the syllabus. If the International Office, responsible for recruitment, is the most powerful, the syllabus will be a topics and skills one because that is what the ‘market’ recognises and likes. The assessment is likely to mirror IELTS or similar tests. Students, it is claimed, do not want to be challenged on their Foundation or Pre-sessional programmes. If the programme looks too difficult or unfamiliar, they will look elsewhere for an easier one. I suspect there is some truth in this. I remember visiting an institution for accreditation purposes some years ago and speaking to a group of students about the level of challenge in their classes. I asked if they thought the learning on their degree would be the same or more challenging than what they were currently experiencing. One very fluent student said of course lessons on his degree would be more difficult but he had come on the pre-sessional for a little holiday before starting the tough work of his degree so he was happy with this lack of challenge.

If the course designers have a close connection to subject lecturers to be able to shape their syllabus in more academic ways, and if they work in an institution committed to academic excellence, then the syllabus is more likely to mirror the target academic context more closely. Students will be given more control over the selection of discipline-specific concepts to explore in written work, using sources they locate themselves. Strategies for expanding their active vocabulary, e.g. through the use of corpus searches, will be discussed but students will make the choice about which discipline-specific vocabulary they want to study and remember.

Of course, the approach to the syllabus is also determined by the designers themselves and the kind of academic experiences they have had. If they have an interest in research and an understanding of the fundamental purposes of a university to build knowledge and develop creative thinkers who can cope with changing and uncertain futures, they will look to provide a truly academic experience for pre-sessional students. In this case, they are also likely to be embedded in the procedures and quality processes of their institutions and understand how universities work. If, as is perhaps more likely, the designers have come to a management position through working on programmes with a language and skills focus, they will perpetuate that kind of thinking in their own syllabus design. They are likely to sit outside the administrative business of the institution and take a transactional view of their role in preparing students for degree programmes.

Needless to say, I’m in favour of teaching to the target by fully understanding the academic context and designing courses to simulate those experiences. I never wanted my former students to be able to turn to me and say: ‘You never told me it would be this difficult!’

Sarma, S. with Yoquinto, L. (2020). Grasp: the science transforming how we learn. London: Robinson.

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.

One thought on “Teach to the target rather than to the level”

  1. Really interesting! I’d never really thought before about how the positioning of foundation or pre-sessional EAP provision within a university can so fundamentally affect syllabus design.

    Liked by 1 person

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