Where do I start? Thoughts on approaching the task of devising materials for STEM students.

Following a recent request to an EAP discussion list for help with devising an EAP course for students of Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM), my friend and co-author, Jenifer Spencer, has contributed this post with her suggestions. See also materials for STEM on the EAP Materials page

EAP tutors sometimes react with alarm when facing the task of devising courses and materials for STEM subjects. These reflections on how we can tackle this challenge have emerged from my experience of preparing STEM materials in different universities and freelance work with STEM  students and research professionals.

Available online at https://www.preciseconsultants.co.uk/news/the-rise-of-offshore-robotics-in-oil-and-gas/39738/

 Where do I start? How do I find out how people in this field communicate with each other?   How do I decide what language to focus on? Where do I find suitable texts to use as a basis for language study? The quick answer to all  three questions is ‘Look near at hand not far away!’ The best place to start is the department’s own website. The profiles of staff with their research interests become a starting point to introduce the discourse of the field. They provide useful introductory texts and links to open access publications by the lecturer, as well as useful models for initial writing tasks, prompting students to write about their own background and areas of interest.  These ‘local’ sources give you an immediate insight into what people are talking about in the field and how they say it. Other sources available in the university’s website are the Repository or Archive where previous theses are stored. These are particularly useful as examples of the  range of  genre structures – there is no single type of genre within a particular discipline or field.

Moreover, the focus of research and courses in particular disciplines can be quite different and often multidisciplinary. When writing a language course for Petroleum Engineers, I was surprised to find the course content and research focus were quite different from those in the university where I had previously taught. I was used to a  focus on computer modelling of chemical interactions in rocks and fluids. However, in the new university, the focus was mainly on geology and describing the different rock strata, resulting in completely different styles of discourse.  

Deciding which language to focus on can seem particularly challenging. My own experience, from accompanying  individual students and researchers  on their journey of drafting theses and journal papers, is that the most useful starting point is to focus on ontology and epistemology.  The latter is widely covered in EAP needs analysis and the resulting materials and methodology. In best practice courses, students are encouraged to ask ‘How do we know this? What evidence is there?’ and trained in critical thinking skills to answer these questions using the language appropriate to this aspect of academic practice. However ontology is rarely mentioned or glossed over (usually with a few quick quotes from standard research manuals).

Ontology may seem like an arcane concept, used by mediaeval theologians disputing how many angels fit on the point of a pin. However this word has re-emerged  in the field of computing, as a key word in programming discourse. The theologians, quite reasonably, decided that if they were going to conduct discourse about supernatural entities, they had to be able to explain  what sort of thing they actually were, their essence. This is the same case regarding the entities and concepts that are the subjects of scientific research. The language that has evolved to fulfil this need is often rather invisible. It answers the questions that search for the essence of what something is and answer questions like -What sort of thing is it? (e.g., a substance, an object, a model, a concept) ‘What can it do? (i.e. does it have agency?) and ‘What can you do to it?’ For example light can travel (the strongest form of agency, reflected by the use of intransitive verbs). It can illuminate other objects (transitively), and it can be (passively) reflected in a mirror or refracted in a transparent medium.

Similarly, consider the language used for the various components of matter.  In a student’s PhD thesis, I found that, prompted by a commercial grammar correction app,  he had substituted the general noun particles as a cohesive device for  molecules, ions  and atoms. On discussion we decided that the problem was that particles is used to describe small mobile entities whose exact nature (ontology)  has not yet been established (so we refer to dust particles or sub-atomic particles). This is an example of how this approach to language can involve a critical thinking partnership involving both the student and teacher.

The following two paragraphs are taken from the webpage of a robotics professor and might be used in the ways suggested above as a starting point for developing language work for students embarking on study in this field. 

Autonomous and resident robots have the potential to revolutionise how we work in the most extreme environments and contribute positively to our net-zero goals. Deployed offshore, in nuclear plants and in space, they can be supervised by a team of expert operators and analysts from the comfort of remote operation centres, bringing the right expertise to the situation at hand whilst reducing the carbon footprint and cost of remote operations

The building blocks of these systems are a combination of smart sensors, advanced control, embedded processing and situation awareness enabling the robots to stay safe and carry out complex operations whilst providing adapted feedback to the human supervisor. The shared autonomy models developed, enable people and robots to truly cooperate.

When reading this text, the teacher and students can discuss how the italicised verbs illustrate the agency and interactivity of the robots, answering the ontological questions What can it do? What can be done to it/ with it?

Note that the writer opts for these systems as a cohesive device to link the topic of robots at the beginning of the second paragraph. As a lay person, I might have opted for machines, as in the online Oxford dictionary definition:  ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer’.  However, the professional in the field views the robots as systems. focusing on the programmable aspect, for which context system is more natural.

Students can search other texts for collocations that embody key concepts, such as  those underlined.

(Thanks to Professor Yvan Petillot of Heriot-Watt University for permission to use this extract from his profile page).  

We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

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.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay 
Read more: We learn from history that we don’t learn from history! (Desmond Tutu)

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.

Swales, John, M. & Feak Christine (1998) English in today’s research world. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. https://www.press.umich.edu/elt/compsite/ETRW

Weissburg, R. & Buker, S. (1990) Writing Up Research: Experimental Research Report Writing for Students of English. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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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My EAP Practice

My definition of EAP practice and the underlying approaches to text and scholarship.

I’ve started this blog as a retirement project because I’m planning to leave the institution where I work in a year or two but I’ll want to keep a connection to the practice of EAP. What I’ll miss most when I retire will be the interaction with EAP students in a Higher Education (HE) context, together with the opportunities to design materials, tasks and lessons based on authentic academic texts and purposes. I hope this blog will enable me to reflect on my own practice in EAP before I finally take the retirement plunge.

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