Have you tried one yet? An ‘intelligent virtual assistant’ that engages in what can feel like authentic extended conversations. The Beta version of Chat GPT, developed by the company OpenAI, is available to play with and I’ve come across several articles assessing it’s functionality.
This article from Forbes magazine suggests it can help to brainstorm ideas, understand complex topics, summarise research, act as a writing assistant and translate into 95 different languages. Do all these functions sound useful for a student looking to get help with essay writing? Of course they do!
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Luker, Kristin (2010) Salsa Dancing Into the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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
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?
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.
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.
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:
There is little time to teach grammar in the course
It feels artificial to teach grammar this way (grammar rules and explanations, followed by practice)
It does not address all issues that students have when it comes to grammar
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.
Helping students to gain confidence to move away from close paraphrasing of sources.
I teach a class to Foundation students called Text Practices, which is designed to move students from focusing on what a text is about, the topic, to understanding what a text is doing, which is how lecturers and researchers at university view texts. I’ve just marked the first assignment and it has made me realise how little impact I’ve actually had on helping students to escape from the prison of the texts they want to use. With one or two exceptions, the students ignored my advice to write more simply than the sources they read in order to show what they have understood. When they borrowed ideas from sources, these were often ’patchwritten’ or ‘plagiphrased’ by copying sentences and substituting synonyms for some words.