We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

Learning from the history of the EAP research field

I’ve become more interested in the history of EAP as I reach the age where the exciting developments that I lived through and that shaped my practice can now be termed history. As I encounter EAP practice in the centres I visit for BALEAP accreditation and the individual portfolios I assess for BALEAP fellowship, I quite often see that one of the key developments that moved the field of EAP forward in my working life seems to have been lost. This is not true for every centre or many EAP practitioners but it is nevertheless a trend that worries me. The development I’m talking about is the understanding of the way in which genre and genre analysis is foundational for EAP practice.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay 
Read more: We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

I’m not going to trace the whole development of genre studies but just my involvement and understanding of these. I’ve listed the seminal books that changed my thinking at the end of this post. In the early 1990s, my first EAP teaching was at Heriot-Watt University, a brief period teaching an academic writing class. I had some experience of writing myself and had wanted to be a writer but did not then have anything I wanted to say. I found a little book on paragraph writing, based on topic sentences, thesis statements and cohesive devices, but this did not match my own writing experience. This disconnect between my own experience and published advice was the beginning of a classroom puzzle. Later, when I was teaching urban design students studying a masters degree at the Edinburgh College of Art, one of them introduced me to Weissburg & Buker (1990), a textbook with a genre-informed approach. It’s interesting that these authors cited the writers of the extracts they used for their examples but did not feel obliged to cite the authors on which their approach was based. Very likely one of these was John Swales, whom I discovered when I studied for a masters myself in 1994-96 at Edinburgh University.

Genre was a key topic for PhD research in the 1990s and 2000s as Generative Grammar had been in earlier decades. A host of studies investigated a wide variety of genres in different disciplines. A number of books on classroom applications appeared by Swales & Feak, Johns and Paltridge (1998 – 2001) and John Swales (2012) issued a revised and updated version of his earlier book, focusing specifically on research genres. With such a solid research foundation with obvious application for EAP teaching, why is it that I’ve encountered a lack of understanding or application of genre analysis as the basis for EAP course design in some settings? I don’t have empirical data to support my intuitions, just my own observations of institutional and individual accreditation so my views are of course subjective. However, I believe that drivers for this trend are the enormous success of IELTS and other language proficiency exams and more recent research in discipline specificity, but perhaps most importantly the fact that many EAP course designers and teachers don’t write.

IELTS is a general English exam that has become phenomenally successful since Liz Hamp-Lyons wrote her PhD on its development in the late 1980s. Now, on average, 60,000 people take an IELTS test every week. As an industry, it generates far more textbooks and trains far more teachers than research-informed EAP. It is likely that the course designers who do not use genre approaches have been trained to help students achieve the grades they need in the IELTS test. To pass the reading and writing parts of this test, the formulaic approach (topic sentences, thesis statements and cohesive devices) will be sufficient. The reading material is set at the level of difficulty of a student entering undergraduate studies, often drawn from journalism. The writing involves a deadline: 150 words in 20 minutes to describe visual information and 250 words in 40 minutes to respond to a point of view or problem, written in ‘academic or semi-formal/neutral styles‘. None of this helps students to write for an academic audience.

Another confounding factor, paradoxically, is the increased emphasis on discipline specificity, which has led to a separation of EAP course design between English for General or Specific Academic Purposes (EGAP vs ESAP). I have seen claims that ESAP courses cannot teach genres because classes contain students going on to many different disciplines and it would not be possible to cater for all of these in one class. Of course it would not be possible to teach the specific genres of many disciplines in one class but EAP course design should be about teaching genre analysis so that students understand how to approach each new writing task they meet. If I am asked to write a genre I haven’t encountered before, e.g. a research proposal, I immediately look for some exemplars to analyse so I can see how the structure and style matches the audience and purpose. However, a course designer trained through IELTS, who has not read or written much beyond their masters degree and not applied genre theory to the analysis of multiple texts, may not understand that genre analysis is a general skill that students can be asked to apply to their specific disciplines. The differences can be shared in class.

In fact, course designers who claim not to be able to teach genres do in fact teach one inauthentic genre, the essay. In this formulaic approach, a text of varying length (some are overly long) has an introduction that catches the reader’s attention, a thesis statement, body paragraphs with topic sentences and a generous sprinkling of vocabulary from the pepper pot of cohesive devices with the hope that these will link unrelated sentences together. This may work as a vehicle to show command of the grammar and vocabulary of the language but it does not provide a transferrable skill to set students up for an academic writing career. I certainly don’t sit down to catch the reader’s attention in my introduction but rather to be explicit about definitions of the concept I want to write about to ensure a shared understanding from the outset. I don’t try to write topic sentences for paragraphs I have planned in advance or ensure my text is full of cohesive devices. Instead I think about what claims I want to make, how I can support these with evidence or examples and how I can link the claims to create an argument that develops through my text. In revising I might change the position of paragraph breaks or the position of information in my sentences between theme and rheme. All the time I imagine a critical reader who is looking to question my claims.

One way to improve the situation might be to ask teachers to write the same texts that their students write. In my early apprenticeship with Sue Argent, my writing ability improved a lot when I began writing functional paragraphs to share and critique with my students. We shouldn’t be asking students to do things we can’t do ourselves.

Johns, Ann M. Ed. (2001) Genre in the Classroom: Multiple Perspectives. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (now Routledge).

Paltridge, B. (2001) Genre and the Language Learning Classroom. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Swales, John M. (1981) Aspects of  article introductions.  Birmingham, UK: The University of Aston, Language Studies Unit.

Swales, John M. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, John M.  (2012) Research genres: exploration and application. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, John, M. & Feak Christine (1998) English in today’s research world. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. https://www.press.umich.edu/elt/compsite/ETRW

Weissburg, R. & Buker, S. (1990) Writing Up Research: Experimental Research Report Writing for Students of English. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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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