EAP is pants
The day thou gavest, Lord, hath ended
The darkness falls at thy behest…
Summer seems a lifetime away, but the break was good and my brain has settled. I apologise if anyone happened across this blog and wondered if I was ever going to take it up again. Truth is, I wondered the same thing. In my break, I read a lot: Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury…in short, not the standard ELT reading. But with the restart of lessons, the old questions come back to haunt me. And I come back to haunt you. Let’s start with EAP: any different from ELT?
Of course, I know there is some difference. Students who are studying EAP have a very specific context and a very particular reason for wanting to learn English. There is no point in assuming that the approach to teaching an erstwhile foundation student should be the same as the Lithuanian kitchen porter who stops by a couple of evenings a week for a lesson. So, I am not going to write too much now about whether EAP and EFL are the same or different.
But is EAP really any different from English Language Teaching? Let me define what I mean by EAP because I think there is a lot of variation in what people understand. I work in an environment where the students I see are typically around IELTS 4-5. They want to get on to courses that will get them into university, but the institution says that their English isn’t good enough to get onto these courses. So they come and study EAP on our courses. We’re supposed to teach them things like writing essays, presentation skills, note-taking, referencing, summarising and paraphrasing, These, it would seem, are the skills of EAP. If they successfully pass the course, we send them on to study a foundation course where they get EAP lessons to help them develop their skills in writing essays, presentating, note-taking, referencing, summarising and paraphrasing.
All of which begs the question, why? Let us take the super trooper spotlight beam of mind-blowingly obviousness and shine it up a few sentences:
the institution says that their English isn’t good enough
Which suggests to me that what we need to be doing is focusing less on students’ ability to spot nominalisation or to uncover the main clause hidden between the unterminable noun phrases and modal verbs and focussing more on their ability to increase their lexical resources, to use a reasonable range of grammar and employ a reasonable degree of accuracy. Let the “skills” of note-taking, seminar participation, presenting, and what-have-you develop upon a strong linguistic foundation rather than hope that a strong linguistic foundation will emerge from the Sisyphean production of substandard dross. Can I get a “hell, yeah!!!”?
What is the point of asking students to read linguistically demanding texts and annotate them if they have an IELTS Band of 4.5 (i.e their English is crap)? Well…they’re going to have to in the future, so you need to start preparing them for it. By the same logic, I should take away my son’s Dr. Seuss books and give him mortgage agreements and inland revenue forms to read.
What is the point in going through the motions of] teaching students how to take notes? Well, there are some who think that note-taking must be taught and that those of us who say that it can’t be taught are “mistaken.” But then they weaken their argument by saying things like
To effectively summarize, students must keep, delete, and substitute information…To effectively keep, delete, and substitute information, students must analyze the information at a fairly deep level…Being aware of the explicit structure of information is an aid when summarizing.
SO, we are essentially being told that summarising requires students to be able to process information in quite a deep manner: they need to understand it, they need to be able to manipulate it, they need to be able to relate to it, they need to be able to see how it applies to the world within which they live. This requires a dang sight more than linguistic skills.
Today marks the 20th anniversary celebrations of the remote incremental paradigm shifts in the field of phenomenologocial research into the recapitulating relationship between the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic. The exploratory research points to quality relative matrix approaches, suggesting that the time has come for the ELT industry to revamp and reboot whatever ‘Outside the box’ policy contingencies that have been laying in wait. We need to get on-message about the logistics of global pedagogical innovation. We’ must move forward with our plans to implement integrated monitored flexibility.
As Mr. T. might say, Summarise that, fooooool. Instead of wasting time getting students to note-take and summarise, why not ask them to listen to a text and then to highlight all of the chunks of language that you think are going to be particularly productive. Then get them to memorise these chunks. Then get them to start producing them. Then give them feedback on how well they have done this. To…ahem…summarise, why not teach them bloody English?!?!
Seminar skills. Ah. Seminar skills! Also known as the ability to join in a conversation and to formulate ideas when your vocal chords are twanging. I am going to be bold and make an assertion here: it helps a lot if you have
a) some knowledge about the topic under discussion;
b) some knowledge about the subject to which this topic belongs;
c) some thoughts and opinions about the topic;
d) some inclination to share these thoughts and opinions with your peers.
In an EAP classroom, this typically involves the teacher coming up with a fairly generic discursive theme: capital punishment, for example. Most seventeen year olds from other countries where capital punishment is a fact of life don’t seem to have particularly trenchant opinions about capital punishment, unlike the middle-aged EAP teachers who come from a society that regards capital punishment as the apex of barbarity and symbolic of the amorality of less developed cultures (for which, read humans). Most seventeen year old students seem to have more interest in discussing the merits of Louis Vitton’s marketing strategy over that of Christian Dior’s. The teachers despair. What it boils down to though is that seminar skills will emerge from a free conversation about something the students give a sh*t about. But we need to offset this with the proviso that oft-times when students are asked to discuss a topic that they give a sh*t about in the language classroom, it becomes a subject that they no longer give a sh*t about and the teacher’s plans are scuppered. Context, my dears, is everything.
I’m not even going to start talking about presentation skills which I regard as teacherese for “doing sweet fanny adams” while my students are shaming me with their PowerPointular dexterity. Where I work, “asking students to carry on with preparing their presentations” is what absent teachers ask colleagues to do when they have singularly failed to prepare a lesson or give any thought to how to purposefully occupy the students for an afternoon. If any colleagues are reading this and think that they know who I am, know this: every time you tell me that you would like your colleagues to get the students to carry on preparing their presentations, I secretly think to myself that you are the most execrable type of teacher known to humanity and that you should be ashamed to lift the mask that hides your foul putrescence. I despise you and I know why your students despise you too. LOL.
So…having held forth on seminar skills, presentation skills, note-taking, reading academic texts, summarising, I turn my wrath to writing. We ask students to go off an do some longer piece of extended writing that features some elements of academic research. Don’t we? No…invariably we give students essay titles that are really faux, substandard, market knock-off imitations of IELTS. IELTS has almost become synonymous with EAP in many teachers’ brains and writing has become synonymous with production-line formulaic vacuity. Writing, mes lecteurs, is a form of expression. It requires lexical dexterity…lexterity, if you will. And you need a decent-sized mental lexicon in order to be lextrous. You also need to have read a damn lot in order to be able to assimilate and then produce the structures of what the rest of the world will regard as meaning-carrying text. I now differentiate between “writing for an English exam” and “writing”. The former is a mishmash of prefabricated chunks that can be wheeled out and interspersed with poorly thought-out unoriginal pap. The latter is something that I rarely see students do, no matter what they are asked for. In any event, students need lots of exposure to texts and to lexis…and the sort of texts that they need exposure to are rarely, if ever, to be found in academic journals.
I’m going to wrap it up now. I hope I have put forward an acceptable diatribe against the concept that low level students need to be wasting their time and their parents’/governments’ money on EAP; instead, the Secret DOS thinks that they need to spend time memorising lexical chunks, doing close readings of short texts, reading extensively and writing accurately and impressively at sentence and paragraph level. They should never be asked to do anything with PowerPoint and assessment should be focussed on their ability to produce accurate texts, either spoken or written, with a suitably appropriate range of lexis and grammar. More KET/PET/FCE/CAE/CPE than IELTS.
Here me now! I have spoken!