They have to talk and you have to listen

The importance of collaborative conversations in online classrooms

I used to repeat this mantra to a rather garrulous colleague who taught translation studies in the languages department where I worked. He was a larger than life character who liked to entertain his students with personal anecdotes of his many adventures in far flung locations. We collaborated on short English courses for interpreters who wanted to improve their spoken fluency and repeating the mantra seemed to be the only way to make him stop and think about his impact on student learning. Now we’re seeing an analogous situation in the recorded online lessons from the Pre-sessional programme in 2020 that my colleagues, Sue Argent and Judith Gorham, and I are analyzing. We find some of the teachers spend the short (one hour) synchronous sessions talking most of the time. Students stay silent or contribute one or two-word responses in the chat function. Indeed one of the more experienced teachers, who has taught on the programme for over 15 years commented in his evaluation: ‘I found myself monologuing and not being able to stop doing this’.

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Should EAP teachers read research?

In order to compete in the EAP field, teachers need to be able to read research.

I recently attended an online discussion of the IATEFL Research Special Interest Group, hosted by Graham Hall asking the questions: (How) do teachers read research, why, and (how) does it help them/us in the classroom … and beyond? It was an interesting discussion with a variety of viewpoints across a range of teaching contexts. The overall aim was to understand how research and theory might impact on teachers’ practice. For some teachers, the reasons for not reading research were the time and effort involved in understanding difficult academic texts, which don’t always give a clear indication of what their findings mean for professional practice. These teachers felt they didn’t need to engage with new theories in order to teach effectively in their classrooms.

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Trips, tours and random walks: using Legitimation Code Theory to understand spontaneous teachable moments

Understanding the dynamics of spontaneous teachable moments in online classrooms

Spontaneous teachable moments – often referred to as unplanned learning opportunities or critical moments (Myhill and Warren, 2005) – are those moments in your lessons where you sometimes need to depart from the planned flow to address specific student needs (Haug, 2014). The triggers for these moments arise in a variety of ways, e.g. student responses and questions or a particularly difficult sentence structure or unfamiliar lexis in a text or a link to an assessment task. If you think back to the last spontaneous teachable moment that occurred in one of your classes, you might consider how effective you felt it was in contributing to student learning.

  1. To what extent did it function as a distraction, taking up time that did not serve the needs of most students in your class?
  2. Were you able to connect back to the main aim of your lesson so that your students were aware of the learning point?
  3. Did you experience any confusion in your knowledge of the concepts you were teaching that prevented you from fully exploiting the teachable moment?
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What can you see in texts?

Learning to see further in and with texts

How do you select texts to use with your EAP students? Do you choose them yourself or encourage students to bring articles that interest them to class? What do you notice in a text that helps you to decide it will be useful for your students? Below is a text from Access EAP: Foundations (Unit 4, lesson 3 p. 70) that was adapted for use with low proficiency EAP students (CEFR B1) from a published academic article. What features of this text seem salient to you? If you were using it with a group of students, what tasks would you develop?

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Evidence-based teaching and learning: core corpus skills for EAP

Workshop presentations on core corpus skills for EAP

Yesterday I attended an excellent BAAL Corpus Linguistics SIG event on Core Corpus Skills for Academic Purposes, hosted online from Coventry University. The aim of the day was to discuss the role corpora can play in EAP teaching and learning and to address a gap in the BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework and the Can Do Statements, which do not currently refer explicitly to data-driven learning and corpus approaches. This is a timely intervention as the TEAP Competency Framework is currently under review, informed by practitioner expertise.

The day was very well organized with brief presentations lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. The speakers kept to time and the audience could ask questions in the chat function as the talk proceeded for discussion at the end. The slides and talks are all available online. In the afternoon participants broke into groups to discuss specific modules in the TEAP competency framework and suggest how to include corpus approaches.

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Should we teach grammar? No but yes but

Teach the grammar that adds the most value.

In my last post, I suggested that it was not an efficient use of EAP class time to teach grammar because it was almost impossible to meet all the needs of students with varying language proficiency and it was difficult for them to see how the grammar point could transfer to their writing. I was responding to a question about grammar from a course designer who gave me some examples of grammar: ‘active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs’, i.e., the structural, sentence-level, verb-focused grammar that underpins theories of Second Language Acquisition. While I certainly would not teach that type of grammar in an EAP class, I would teach functional grammar and, in particular, the writer-responsible grammar of sentences as they unfold in paragraphs and texts to meet the needs of a reader. Rather than a system of rules and constraints on what can be said, the orientation of functional grammar is towards language as a system of choices for meaning making (Halliday & Martin, 1993, p. 22). When I have taught a particular aspect of this functional grammar, students have often responded to say: ‘Why hasn’t anyone taught us this before?’ It is one of the key ways that students can become aware of their reader and make their writing more academic.

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Should we teach grammar? Yes but no but!

Students need grammar but they don’t need grammar classes.

I was asked recently by a head of pathways programmes at an international college whether we should teach grammar in EAP. This manager was under pressure from some teachers to introduce a more structured approach to teaching and testing grammar. Some years previously, prompted by feedback from an external moderator, they had developed a bespoke grammar workbook, which was ‘aligned with the topics taught in the course, [covering] the language features which are considered to be salient in scholarly English [and targeting] areas where students show weaknesses when it comes to academic writing’. The workbook covers language patterns, such as noun phrases, active and passive voice, conditionals and modal verbs. However, teachers on the programmes have a number of issues with the resource:

  1. There is little time to teach grammar in the course
  2. It feels artificial to teach grammar this way (grammar rules and explanations, followed by practice)
  3. It does not address all issues that students have when it comes to grammar
  4. It’s dry and students do not engage with it
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EAP by inoculation

The last vestiges of medical metaphors shaping practice in EAP

I’ve been immensely cheered this week by news of at least three potential vaccines against Covid19. While these vaccines are not expected to be available to the general public until at least spring next year, the news itself has given me a real boost to think we might have a route out of the current lockdown to something approaching the normality we used to take for granted. I’m firmly in favour of vaccination as one of the wonders of medical science, which has enabled most people to live safely in a world teeming with virulent bugs of one sort or another. I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry and so have an awareness of how stringent the regulatory procedures are to ensure vaccines are safe for the majority of people.

However, this welcome news of a vaccine put me in mind of an EAP metaphor, EAP by inoculation. This is one of a number of medical metaphors in EAP such as writing clinics and remedial courses, which position EAP students as unhealthy due to low English language proficiency and in need of treatment to cure this. As the EAP field has matured, these negative orientations have given way to more nuanced approaches which recognise the complexity and specificity of academic communication in different disciplines. However, my experience of visiting Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes for the purpose of BALEAP accreditation has shown me that EAP by inoculation is still prevalent in approaches to course design and assessment in PSE programmes.

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Redefining EAP – does EAP mean whatever we say it means?

During conversations I’ve had recently with colleagues and mentees for the BALEAP TEAP Portfolio, they’ve described scenarios in the institutions where they work that I would consider to be EAP but they seemed not to. For example, how many of these are EAP for you:

  1. A teacher in a secondary school who teaches English literature to final year students
  2. Undergraduate students studying chemistry who have been asked to prepare and deliver TED talks
  3. Students on a PGT course in marketing who have an assessment that involves choosing five consumer items and making a video log (vlog) to explain why these are important to them
  4. A teacher supervising PGT dissertations for a mixed group of first and second language English speakers
  5. A careers department helping students with employment interview technique
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Feeling connected online

Attitudes to the value of teaching online

I recently heard a conversation on Music Matters (UK BBC Radio 3) between the presenter Tom Service and Ray Chen, a young Australian violinist, ‘who redefines what it is to be a classical musician in the 21st Century’, by embracing and celebrating social media as a way to connect with his audience in these strange times. Most other musicians are also recording concerts in their homes for online audiences, with some creative collaborations, but the usual comment is that they can’t wait to get back to the concert hall and a real audience. They see their online concerts as inferior kinds of music making, presumably with unreal audiences. In contrast, Ray Chen embraces social media, with 151K subscribers on his Youtube channel. He sees his Youtube concert platform and so-called live performances as equally valid. For him, the essence of the connection in an online performance is how much the performer and the concert goers really want to be there.

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