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.