Carrier content – the delivery vehicle for language & skills development

My experience of visiting Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes for the purposes of BALEAP Accreditation has enabled me to see a wide variety of approaches to materials design for language and academic skills development. A persistent challenge for course and materials designers involves the choice of carrier content for tasks and activities. ‘Carrier content refers to the subject matter of an exercise; it is contrasted with the real content which is the language or skill content of an exercise’ (Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998, emphasis in the original). Carrier content usually comes in the form of texts because the focus of language development at the upper intermediate level (CEFR B2) of EAP students should be contextualised within longer stretches of discourse. Texts are the means of delivery for helping students to understand how language operates beyond the level of words and sentences.

I’ve noticed a significant misunderstanding in the choice of carrier content. Materials designers tend to focus on the topic – what the text is about – rather than performance – what the discipline uses the text to achieve, and hence what students are expected to do with a text. They use the excuse – and it is an excuse – of having to teach multidisciplinary classes in order to avoid selecting subject specific texts as carrier content. They select texts on the basis of topic: what they assume will interest students, but this often means that the texts they choose reflect their own Arts & Humanities backgrounds and left-liberal ideologies. Although materials designers consult subject specialists about the choice of carrier content texts, it is highly unusual to find them checking with students what texts they would like to use for language development. However, the designers are quite happy to assume students are interested in the topics they have chosen and will have opinions on these that they can discuss.

The BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework (p 8) states that an EAP teacher will be able to ‘distinguish between teaching subject content, procedural knowledge (e.g., how to go about doing a task) and language knowledge.’ Of these three aspects of text, the final two should be the primary focus for text selection the ‘real content’ highlighted in the quote above. However, a study on teachers’ beliefs and practices of teaching and designing materials for ESP courses (Basturkmen and Bocanegra Valle, 2018) found that teachers focused on discipline-specific vocabulary in their materials development, possibly because they found this the most challenging as did the respondents in Alexander (2007). The likely outcome of a focus on discipline content rather than procedural or language knowledge is that the tasks and activities will be below the cognitive level of the students, who already have at least a high school understanding of their subject or have completed an undergraduate degree in it. Teachers need to be courageous and focus on the performance aspects of texts – their purpose – rather than their content. This is particularly important for STEM subjects, where most materials designers would really struggle to understand content at the same level as their students. Materials designers and teachers need to see themselves as partners in knowledge with their students. They have the linguistic knowledge but the students have the content knowledge and they are usually delighted to be asked to explain their subject within appropriate linguistic frames to the classmates and teacher.

To illustrate this I’ve added some materials on the EAP materials page, which focus specifically on the development of a reading framework based on the role of problem-solution structures in argument (Women in STEM) and the genre analysis of a research article (Workplace teaspoons). The first example uses the problem-solution framework, very common in STEM subjects, to step students carefully through an argument about the possible causes for the lack of women in STEM careers and the best solutions. The second one is a spoof article that follows – at least initially – the same process involved in designing and writing up research. The topic is trivial but easily understood so that the focus can be on the performance. What is the text being used to achieve?

Alexander, O. (2007) Groping in the dark or turning on the light: routes into teaching English for academic purposes. In Lynch T. & Northcott, J. (Eds.) Symposium on Teacher Education in Teaching EAP. University of Edinburgh Institute for Applied Language Studies. Available online at Publications – EAP Essentials (

BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework (2008) available online at teap-competency-framework.pdf (

Baştürkmen, H., Bocanegra-Valle, A. (2018). Materials Design Processes, Beliefs and Practices of Experienced ESP Teachers in University Settings in Spain. In: Kırkgöz, Y., Dikilitaş, K. (eds) Key Issues in English for Specific Purposes in Higher Education. English Language Education, vol 11. Springer, Cham.

Dudley-Evans, T. & St John, M-J (1998). Developments in English for Specific Purposes: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. 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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