The medium is not the message

When McLuhan wrote ‘the medium is the message’ he was referring to the potential for any new technology (the medium) to change the way we perceive what is being communicated (the message). A simple example would be the change from oral to written cultures meaning messages were received through eyes not ears. We can see this happening in language teaching but not necessarily always in a good way. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve used a variety of different technologies such as language labs, tape recorders, video recorders and of course, in the last 20 years, digital online resources. As each new technology was introduced, there was enthusiastic uptake from some practitioners but the technology changed the way we viewed aspects of practice. For example, recordings of a variety of English accents on tape and video enabled a wider range of pronunciations to form models for learning but enabled teachers to question received pronunciation and then native speaker models of language.

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Exploratory Practice – an essential aspect of research-mindedness but is it research?

I recently attended the first AGM of the BALEAP teacher Education in EAP Special Interest Group (TEdinEAP SIG) which showcased the considerable professional development activity the SIG has undertaken since its establishment just over a year ago. The meeting then broke into smaller groupings to discuss an article on Exploratory Practice (EP) by Judith Hanks (Hanks, 2017), who had given a talk to the SIG in December. I’ve been aware of EP since its early inception when Judith Hanks presented a session in the first Research training Event Series for BALEAP. I think EP is an excellent way to engage students’ curiosity about their language learning, increasing their motivation by involving them in choices about the content of the language curriculum (Bond, 2017). It has proven value as a means of engaging teachers in scholarship activity to explore the principles underlying their practice.  I am less convinced by the labelling of Exploratory Practice as research. You could argue that labelling doesn’t matter but I think difficulties arise if students enter their discipline studies assuming that ‘research’ they did in their language class will be similar to research in their discipline.

Retrieved online from https://mythologian.net/ouroboros-symbol-of-infinity/

Exploratory Practice has the potential to encourage deep reflection around language learning but how easily does it transfer to other kinds of research activity? Hanks (2017) refers to EP as research without ever defining that term so it is worth looking at the definition from the Higher Education Funding Council for the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to be carried out in UK universities:

Research for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; and the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to substantially improved insights. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials as well as the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research (HEFC, 1998)

I don’t believe EP as it is presented in Hanks (2017) or Bond (2017) would meet this definition for the students involved in the activity. The emphasis is on ‘original investigation’ leading to ‘substantially improved insights’ in knowledge and understanding – not just for the individual student or teacher but for a discipline. Bond (2017) claims that EP ‘moves students towards an understanding of what a research-led pedagogy might look like’ but if students plan to study Health Sciences, Business Administration or STEM subjects, they need to differentiate exploration of puzzles in language learning & teaching from puzzles in the social and physical sciences and the methods for exploring them. Although EP encourages an orientation towards research-mindedness It is not clear to me how students might transfer their EP activity to research in their disciplines.

It seems to me that there are different levels of exploratory activity, which could be given different labels:

  • finding out what I don’t know = learning
  • finding out what people around me think = journalism
  • finding out about reasons for puzzles in my practice = scholarship
  • careful systematic documented data gathering whose innovative conclusions could be challenged publicly = research

I argued in a previous post that teachers need to read research and I believe EP to be an excellent means of encouraging this. For example, as one of the participants in the SIG discussion suggested, EP could be used on a Pre-sessional course to encourage teacher professional development. Teachers could be encouraged to share puzzles about their EAP teaching and then gather data about different teaching practices through peer observation. They could carry out a quick survey of teaching literature to find out if anyone had published about their puzzle. For me this step is crucial because, if it is missing, teachers can never escape their own context to discover different practices in other contexts. They end up in a self-reflective loop, eating their own tail. Teachers could then present their own findings in comparison with the literature to understand their puzzle more deeply.

Bond, B. (2017). Co-constructing the curriculum through Exploratory Practice. The Language Scholar Journal. University of Leeds.

Hanks, J (2017). Integrating research and pedagogy: an Exploratory Practice approach. System, 68. pp. 38-49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2017.06.012

Higher Education Funding Council (1998). Research Assessment Exercise 2001: Key Decisions and Issues for Further Consultation, Guidance Note ref. RAE 1/98, HEFC.

How NOT to get published in an academic journal

Some things to consider when attempting to publish your research

I’ve been a peer reviewer for articles submitted to the Journal of EAP (JEAP) for a number of years now and in the past year, I’ve collaborated with Sarah Brewer, current Chair of BALEAP, as guest editor of a special issue to celebrate 50 years of BALEAP and 21 years of JEAP. Reviewing articles can be frustrating work because authors who submit them don’t seem to understand how to tailor their submission to the requirements of the journal editors and its readers. They write for themselves and not for an academic audience. Below I’ll list some of the issues I’ve had with article submissions:

‘I’ll just submit and get some feedback’ – this is extremely unkind to journal reviewers who do their work voluntarily and usually have to fit reviewing around their busy day jobs. JEAP wants to encourage new researchers to publish, and has established a Researching EAP Practice strand as a stepping stone to more rigorous studies with larger datasets. However, submitting a draft you think isn’t publishable just to get feedback is impolite. The journal reviewer is not like a supervisor. Their feedback is intended to bring your work to publishable standard but they have to see that the potential already exists in your draft.   

Photo by Eva Darron on Unsplash

‘My supervisor wants me to publish my PhD research in an academic journal’ – this leads to a confusion of genres. My friend and co-author Jenifer Spencer has a nice metaphor for the difference between PhD theses and academic articles. Both are like a journey but a PhD is a train journey: plenty of time to look out the window and take in different aspects of the view along the way. Academic articles are like plane journeys, focused on the destination. The researcher has to select only the most innovative findings that make a contribution to an ongoing research conversation in the journal. There is not space in an article to include detailed literature reviews or methodology sections or all the results found in a PhD thesis. Instead the purpose of these sections is to provide evidence that there is a gap in the research field and that the study has been carried out rigorously.

Following on from this lack of understanding of the requirements of the article research genre, I’ve reviewed submissions that the author labels as ‘essay’, essentially a review of literature relating to a topic. This is not a genre that you would find in a research journal and perhaps it is worth exploring why. An essay (derived from essai in French) is a test, a learning genre. Essays are set to enable students to show what they know about particular aspects of an academic subject. The questions posed are convergent as there is an expected yes/no answer. The answer may lie along a scale, to what extent yes/no, but it comes to a closed conclusion. Literature reviews in research articles in contrast are divergent. They establish what is not yet known, which the researcher hopes to explore. The conclusion will not be closed but open, providing innovative insights that lead to the need for further research. The conclusion to an essay gives the author’s viewpoint on a closed question. The conclusion to a research article gives the authors claim to new knowledge, which moves understanding forward. It is true that many research journals publish reviews of the literature that can look like essays. However, these are usually commissioned from active and established members of the research community, not new authors, and they are also divergent, opening up avenues for further research.

As well as a lack of understanding of the appropriate research genres, new researchers sometimes fail to establish a conversation with the journal they are submitting to. They may have been turned down by their original choice of journal and simply submit their article unchanged to another one. If this practice were employed in applying for a job, it would mean submitting a generic CV without tailoring it to the particular position you are targeting, usually resulting in a failure to get the job. The editors want to see authors contributing to a research conversation in their journal so it is important to analyze what has already been published in the journal in your area and show how your research keeps that conversation going.

Finally, new authors often treat their audience as a teacher or supervisor because that is who they are used to writing for. They fail to understand that JEAP readers are critical readers with no time to waste on papers that don’t deliver innovative contributions. I wrote an earlier post about reading academic articles efficiently and new authors should keep in mind this efficient reader when they write. Critical readers need a review of ALL the literature to be cited in a paper at the beginning. They do not want to see new literature cited in a discussion. These readers want the author to build a picture of the current research field so they can decide if they agree with this. They will then use this argument to challenge the author’s subsequent claims. The literature review and discussion sections of an article should be capable of being read together – without the methods and results – to see if the author has established a coherent claim. In summary:

  • Be clear about the research orientation and requirements of the journal you’re targeting
  • Try to find research conversations within the journal that you can join
  • Locate your study within the relevant literature so your reader can recognize the conversation you want to join
  • Create an argument for a critical reader to justify doing the research and doing it in a particular way
  • Define the concepts underpinning the research so the reader can check if they agree with your definitions
  • Be clear about the contribution you can make so you don’t waste the reader’s time

I would also strongly recommend Luker (2010), which I found extremely helpful when setting out on my own research journey.

References

Luker, Kristin (2010) Salsa Dancing Into the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ownership in EAP – Integrity, argumentation and authorial voice

An important and highly relevant Professional Issues Meeting on finding a voice in academic writing

I recently attended the BALEAP Professional Issues Meeting (PIM), hosted by University of York’s International Pathway College, which explored the concept of ownership in EAP. Most presenters focused on the concept of writer’s voice and how to encourage students to develop a confident academic voice in their writing. The PIM was held online and was a showcase for the positive affordances of online meetings. The technology enables colleagues from around the world to contribute and participate, greatly enriching the discussion. The use of the Wonder.me application enabled people to meet up and chat informally during the lunch break.

The first plenary by Sheena Gardner also highlighted the importance of technology, in this case corpora, for informing teaching content. Sheena presented a recent study (Gardner et al., 2019) using multidimensional analysis to explore clusters of lexico-grammatical features of academic essays across disciplines and levels of study in the BAWE corpus of student writing. The differences uncovered could be used in a general EAP course to raise students’ awareness of discipline-specific requirements rather than teaching one-size-fits-all essay writing.

The second plenary, a workshop by Mike Groves and Klaus Mundt, explored a recent trend in academic writing, the use of machine translation tools such as Google Translate. These tools have become so accurate in recent years, at least at the lexico-grammatical level, that their use is advocated for academics who need to publish in English (Luo & Hyland, 2019). My co-author for Access EAP: frameworks, Sue Argent, explored the use of early translation tools in unit 8 section 1 as a carrier topic for helping EAP students to recognise stance in relation to a claim. At the time of writing (2012-14), most authors thought that human translation was superior in terms of speed, accuracy and cost, because translation between languages was certainly not just a matter of replacing words.  However, Computer-aided Translation (CAT) was becoming recognised as a useful tool for translating highly repetitive texts such as technical documentation. In 2012, the Duolinguo project was just getting started. People signed up to learn a language by translating sentences from web texts with the resulting translations from hundreds of learners combined to arrive at the best translation.

Things have moved on apace in ten years so that academic institutions now recognise that they need to adopt a policy on students’ likely use of machine translation tools to write essays. These tools may soon replace essay writing mills as the latest bogeyman in the plagiarism pantheon. Mike and Klaus set out in their workshop to answer the question: ‘[whether] or how MT transfers a writer’s voice from one language into another?’ Participants were asked to choose one of three texts to work on, all translated from different languages using MT. Our task was to discuss aspects of the text that seem strange for a reader in English. My group chose an environmental science text, the introduction to a study of heavy metal residues in lakes and waterways, from a Malaysian source. It was clear that at the level of lexico-grammar the writing was accurate but beyond that it quickly became incoherent. The expected genre-moves or the general to specific development of an introduction were absent and the sentences did not connect smoothly from given to new information to lead the reader through the text. Other groups discussing different texts commented on academic style, for example the use of hedges and boosters when making claims.

Our findings from the workshop mirrored approaches adopted by colleagues in the department of translating and interpreting where I used to work. Translation students were introduced to translation tools to facilitate quick and efficient translation as a first pass through a text, especially a technical one. However, the main focus of practical translation sessions in the degree studies was on argumentative texts where style and nuance of the language played a major role. When it came to assessment, the lecturers had to select texts carefully so that an effective translation could not be achieved only with MT. From the evaluation of the texts in the PIM workshop, we could see that the discourse macro structure, at the level of genre, and microstructure, at the level of theme/rheme links between sentences, were not captured with these machine translations. The appropriate choice of hedging and boosting for the specific genre was also inaccurate.

Where does this leave EAP students and their teachers? The workshop task to evaluate examples of machine translated writing was certainly a powerful way of showing students the limits of machine translation. They need to consider more closely the expectations of their academic audience (their lecturers) and how global aspects of structure and style in writing help to establish their voice and get their message across. In the introduction to Access EAP: frameworks unit 8, Sue set out our approach to academic voice:

…the intention is to move the spotlight away from cheating and to show students how to draw on their ideas, knowledge and experience to write with their own voice. A student with ideas will read critically, a student who reads critically will have something to say, a student with something to say will strive for a voice and a student with a voice does not need to steal the ideas or words of others.

Gardner, S., Nesi, H. and Biber, D. (2019) Discipline, level, genre: Integrating situational perspectives in a new MD analysis of university student writing. Applied Linguistics. 40(4), 646-674. doi/10.1093/applin/amy005 (open access)

Luo, N., & Hyland, K. (2019). “I won’t publish in Chinese now”: Publishing, translation and the non-English speaking academic. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 39, 37–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2019.03.003

Better labelling for better transfer from research to the classroom in EAP

A post contributed by Sue Argent, co-author of EAP Essentials and Access EAP

A post contributed by Sue Argent, co-author of EAP Essentials and Access EAP.

The labels we use in our teaching matter hugely: new knowledge needs to be labelled accurately if students are to integrate it into their learning and retrieve it when needed. An example of labelling gone wrong in EAP is the ‘Topic Sentence’. When my students and I first learned about ‘The Topic sentence’, and the fact that it’s often put at the beginning of the paragraph, it seemed like a breakthrough in understanding text beyond the sentence. This gave it traction and many textbooks in the 90s and early 2000s used the label, often actually constructing texts to fit.

But when we went looking for topic sentences in real texts, we found anomalies. Sometimes the first sentence simply makes a link to the previous paragraph by restating the topic. Was that the topic sentence? If so, how useful is that? Following the ‘one paragraph, one idea’ and ‘general to specific’ principles it was surely more useful to ask students to find the main idea of the paragraph, or the paragraph’s claim in an unfolding argument or explanation – a claim or idea which is supported by detail in the rest of the paragraph. That main idea could be anywhere in the paragraph; and you had to use your brain to find it, not simply underline the sentence that mentions the topic, or, worse still, the first sentence of every paragraph. In fact, the main idea can occasionally be carried by two whole sentences, or begin in one sentence and finish in another.

Another issue I’ve had to grapple with lately is esoteric labelling. Sometimes it happens because more common sense labelling might seem to empty big ideas of their innovative thrust, for example ‘criticality’ and ‘autonomy’. We get used to these and absorb them. Sometimes it’s because the big ideas have come into view from way beyond the horizon of the EAP classroom: I still can’t instantly recall exactly what ‘field’, ‘tenor’ and ‘mode’ refer to in Systemic Functional Linguistics. We mostly have to live with the labels of these big ideas because they were established in their original publications.  It’s hard to see how they can penetrate the classroom. This difficulty really bothered me recently when I was involved in analyzing data for a research project on lesson observation with two colleagues (see a preliminary presentation of these results)

Figure 1: The autonomy plane showing the relation between content (positional autonomy) & purposes (relational autonomy) (Maton & Howard, 2018:6)

The analysis of each observed lesson involved tracking the teacher and students as they moved from one area of knowledge to another. Our framework for analyzing the data came from Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) and took the form of a two dimensional plane, known as the ‘Autonomy Plane’ (Maton & Howard, 2018, p. 6). It has four quadrants or ‘zones’ over which the class and teacher can roam as a lesson proceeds in real time: ‘sovereign’, ‘introjected’, ‘exotic’ and ‘projected’. Although we were successful in tracking the delivery of knowledge during observed lessons using this model, the labels were really bothersome. In a workshop presentation, one teacher complained:

‘What’s an exotic zone anyway? We need to think more about student needs!’

The irony here is that in the original model, the exotic zone is exactly where to locate student needs, but the labels are difficult for to get your head around. Figure 2 shows a way of labelling Maton and Howard’s Autonomy Plane that customizes it for EAP. It’s a plane over which teachers already intuitively move with their students, and which can be used to make a principled map of the knowledge covered in a lesson.

*‘Waving up’ (Maton & Howard, 2018, p. 32) and ‘’power words’ (Martin, 2013) are handy labels for the processes of explicitly repacking and labelling new concepts respectively.

Knowledge can be discovered in the curriculum area or in the students themselves and can be related to the input of the lesson or to life beyond the lesson.

In order for EAP practice to benefit from academic research, particularly theoretical frameworks, we all need to take responsibility for making these insights transferable to the classroom, and much can be done by accessible labelling.

Martin, J. (2013). Embedded Literacy: knowledge as meaning. Linguistics & Education, 24, pp. 23–37.

Maton, K. & Howard, S. K. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building, LCT Centre Occasional Paper 1 (June): 1–35.

FOBO: fear of being observed

Making lesson observation less threatening and more developmental

I’ve been thinking about observation of teaching for a workshop I’m preparing for the BALEAP Teacher Education Special Interest Group (TEdSIG). Observation certainly seems to engender mixed feelings amongst teachers (Wang & Seth, 1998; Jay, 2017)). In an earlier blog post on observation, I explained that although observation of teaching was mandatory at my institution for BALEAP accreditation, I was concerned to emphasize the developmental nature of observations. I thought this might make the experience less stressful for new teachers and more rewarding for returning teachers. We set up a variety of types of observation: short buzz or walk though observations and peer observations. In 2020, with all classes online, we were able to conduct asynchronous observation through recordings of online lessons. Although this form of observation could have mitigated some negative feelings, most teachers were aware that a particular lesson would be observed at some point. Their reactions were consistent with reports in the literature (Wang & Seth, 1998; Jay, 2017)

  • T 3: I had no inkling the lesson would be observed […] I am glad of the opportunity to be seen as I really am without any pretence. For better or worse!
  • T 16: I was aware that this lesson would be listened to by others and that always makes me slightly uncomfortable!
  • T 20: I think I panicked about being observed and the students for some reason chose that day to be particularly unresponsive and I ended up reading the slides.
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Know how to perform as and for an audience

I’ve been attending concerts in the Edinburgh Festival, back onstage again this year in open-air venues with careful social distancing. Many of the performers are visibly moved to be back in front of a live audience again. One aspect of the Festival programming I’m really enjoying is the mix of classical music, folk and jazz. I’ve been struck by the different ways that audiences are expected to – or allowed to – interact with the players in these different musical genres. One really noticeable difference is when you are allowed to clap. In folk and jazz it’s OK to clap whenever the performer stops playing, even if it’s halfway through a set, but don’t dare do this in classical concerts. You’re only expected to clap once a complete piece (sonata, concerto, symphony, song cycle) has reached the final movement. So if you don’t know the particular piece you’re listening to, which is quite likely because the performers like to try out more obscure pieces, you have to guess when they’ve reached the end. Sometimes they have to help you by getting up from the piano stool or putting down their instruments as a signal that you can clap.

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The power of PowerPoint

Is it time to unplug the PowerPoint for more genuine learning tot ake place?

In my early teaching career, I met a colleague who explained that you only need three things to teach: a piece of chalk, a watch and a hanky (to blow your nose). This minimalist approach found expression in Scott Thornbury’s Dogme Approach in the late nineties and noughties – borrowing the tenets of Lars von Trier’s Dogme approach to film making. At that time, Thornbury and colleagues were responding to a flood of materials: coursebook, video, online, that seemed to get in the way of learning:

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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?

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