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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Lesson plans – how you show you know what you know

Teacher metacognition for 21st century classrooms

I’ve been involved recently with observing EAP lessons and assessing submissions for the BALEAP TEAP portfolio. In both cases, I’ve viewed lesson plans, which were enacted in classrooms or linked to observation reports. It seems to me that the teachers often missed an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge about language and language teaching and about the attributes required for successful study at university through their plans. Teachers can have quite negative attitudes to lesson plan preparation, regarding it as an onerous chore and not something an experienced teacher needs to do. In some observed lessons, I’ve sometimes been presented with the bare minimum of a list of tasks, some timings and an indication of the student groupings for each task. This does not show whether the teacher understands the rationale for the tasks and how they link to learning outcomes and assessment. I might catch a glimpse of this as I observe activities in the lesson but there is much more scope for a teacher to show what they know in a detailed lesson plan than in a 60 minute observation.

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Grasping effective learning

A review of the past and future of learning from the Head of Open Learning at MIT

I like to read beyond the boundaries of the EAP discipline to gain insights into the way other disciplines (Learning Development in HE or Learning Technologies) are grappling with problems that I’ve experienced in syllabus design or teaching and learning. However, I don’t have time to read the primary research – there’s too much of it and it won’t be accessible to me as a non-specialist – so I’m always on the lookout for publications which digest the research for a general reader. I can then follow on from those with a more detailed look at specific aspects of interest. One such book came to my attention recently: Grasp by Sanjay Sarma, Head of Open Learning at MIT. The subtitle claims that the book explains the ‘science transforming how we learn’. I recommend this book for anyone grappling with the move to online learning.

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Asking the right questions

Designing feedback surveys to deliver evidence to drive or resist change

The summer Pre-sessional period is drawing to a close with institutions heaving a huge sigh of relief that they have managed more or less successfully to deliver their programmes online in the wake of Covid19 lockdown. Having written that last sentence, I realise it is full of dead metaphors (highlighted in italics) that writers often fall back on to connect with their audience. I’m not writing creative fiction here so these well-worn structures are useful to get us on the same page. (Now I can’t stop myself!) It got me thinking though about whether we aren’t guilty of doing the same thing when we craft feedback surveys for students and teachers at the end of Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes. Do we fall back on the same questions without stopping to critically evaluate how appropriate or useful the responses will be?

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Reflections on flipped learning

Learning through interaction in synchronous and asynchronous modes.

The Heriot-Watt Pre-sessional English (PSE) Online programmes are almost finished for 2020 with materials delivery and assessment now complete. In migrating the campus-based programmes online, we used a flipped learning approach. Bishop & Verleger (2013) provide a working definition of this concept by contrasting activities which require human interaction with activities which can be automated using technology. (see image) For programmes delivered wholly online the contrast would be synchronous versus asynchronous activities.

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Sorting the EAP connoisseurs from the ELT amateurs

Interpreting candidates beliefs about EAP

I’ve just completed my last round of recruitment for Pre-sessional English (PSE) teachers, who will start teaching the final PSE Online programme 2020 from this week. We’ve taken them through a week of induction, which has allowed me to assess whether I made the right decisions in appointing them. The first week of teaching coming up will also be a good test of their ability to deliver the programme as it is designed, rather than as they imagine it should be designed. This final programme is so short (5 weeks of teaching and three days of assessment) that I really need teachers to quickly get to grips with the underlying principles and be able to deliver them.

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