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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How is EAP teaching different from ELT?

Communicative activities have to be purposeful and efficient timewise.

At a recent seminar on EAP teacher competencies, one of the delegates asked how teaching EAP is different from teaching general English. My immediate response was to refer to the constructive alignment between learning aims, content and assessment (Biggs, n.d.) because I assume that EAP teaching has to be driven by a deep understanding of students’ needs in their target context (Gillett, 2011). However, in clarifying his meaning, the questioner referred to activities and techniques that a teacher can use in the classroom. Are the kinds of communicative activities used in an ELT classroom now redundant? I wrote a previous blog related to this issue but in this one I wanted to focus on the assumptions about communicative classroom practice in EAP and ELT that underlie this question.

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Professional development and the role of BALEAP

Professional development in an EAP career

I have just been given honorary membership of BALEAP: the global forum for EAP professionals. I’m delighted to have received this recognition because BALEAP has played such an important role in my professional development from my very early days of EAP teaching. This organization has provided me with access to a large network of like-minded individuals and given me opportunities, through Professional Issues Meetings (PIMs) and biennial conferences, to test my developing scholarship against expert audiences. Later in my EAP career I became involved with the BALEAP executive committee and its working parties, as TEAP Officer, then Chair of BALEAP and of the Accreditation Scheme.

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BALEAP2021 conference selections

A personal selection of presentations from the BALEAP 2021 conference hosted online by the University of Glasgow.

I’ve been attending the BALEAP biennial conference, hosted online this year by the University of Glasgow: Exploring pedagogical approaches in EAP teaching. While I was still teaching, I would have been looking for presentations that helped me to reflect on my materials development and classroom practice. Now I’m retired I have the luxury of sitting back to take a wider view so I have been more interested in talks that stimulate reflection back over my 27 years as a teacher, materials writer and scholarly explorer of underlying principles for my practice.

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Study Skills vs Study Competence

Trust your students to know about and be curious about their discipline.

I recently read a new take on an old problem in a blog written by my friend and former colleague, Nick Pilcher, and his co-author Kendall Richards. They deconstruct the generic concept of study skills, a label used by many but understood by few. Nick and Kendall call study skills a Tinkerbell concept: ‘a nostrum that people believe in as providing a magic cure for all ‘student ills’ (sic) but which only exists if people believe in it’. They argue that ‘study skills’ in general don’t exist because each discipline requires specific skills. It’s not study skills you need to be able to write well in a discipline but subject knowledge and the guidance of subject lecturers.

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