The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

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!



05 Oct 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Some useful points, but it’s not just IELTS and EAP courses per se which can be considered at fault. As balancing the books becomes harder for HE institutions, bringing over foreign students becomes far more lucrative, especially students from China, who made up 80% of the students that I taught in the last three summers. The cohort of students lower than IELTS 6.0 in all skills is huge and institutions ignore them at their financial peril, As a result, there is a huge incentive to run EAP courses to bring those students up to speed to take part in university courses, which means that a fair few of the students who start are seriously substandard, though very few actually fail.

    That said, anecdotally I have found that students who have gone through the rigours of an EAP course, with its emphasis on all the study skills you deconstruct, tend to do better on their subsequent courses of study than those students who are accepted purely on the basis of their IELTS score. A good EAP course will give the students a chance to experience the rigours of formalised study that they will encounter, though they need to be close to the required level in the first place. I agree with you that IELTS 4.0 is far too low to be considered for any university course of study, and would require probably a year of general English, with a gradually increasing focus on academic topics.

    Comment by Marc Loewenthal | 05 Oct 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Marc – You are quite right to single out Mammon and government underfunding of HE institutions as being at fault. The conversion of public-serving institutions into profit-turning entities is a matter of concern that, somewhat disappointingly, seems to matter or concern very little. The crux of the issue is whether or not it is accurate to say that universities are really running “EAP” courses for lower level students. Wiser heads than mine (I am thinking of the one that sits atop Olwyn Alexander’s shoulders) say that lower level students are perfectly capable of learning EAP whereas I tend to think that EAP is a commercial invention and that all lower level students are capable of in learning how to use English as an additional language.

      I appreciate the intention behind your sharing anecdotal evidence with us and intuition would seem to bear you out. Students who study on an EAP course are likely to do better than those who do not. However, for the finding to emerge (not entirely) out of its anecdotal status would require a control group: for example, would those same students have performed equally well, if not better, had they followed a simple ELT course? You would probably (possibly?) agree that even non-“EAP” language learning can be quite rigorous and formalised. One doesn’t need to bang on about note-taking, avoiding plagiarism and holding one’s ground in a seminar.

      My feeling is that everything that comes before a student reaches a threshold of language ability that permits independent study at a higher education institution should not be categorised as EAP but as ELT. We are still focussing very much on language proficiency and, invariably, the context within which that language is to be used is of less concern than actually using the language effectively. Once students are embarked upon a programme of study that is not specifically language focused and need additional lessons that help them acclimatise to the cultural peculiarities of their new context, then I think we are talking about EAP.

      This is of particular importance in the UK ELT context where there are many courses that bill themselves as EAP and yet which, according to my idiosyncratic understanding, are nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, because Accreditation UK expects “EAP” teachers to be at least TEFL-Q, this categorisation of courses is stopping perfectly good teachers who “only” have TEFL-I qualifications from getting work.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 07 Oct 2013 | Reply

  2. The most important part of any good EAP course is academic writing. I’ve done lots of EAP courses for post doctoral students in Spain, and I concentrate, almost exclusively on writing. The subtext is that by participating in such a course, the students improve their ability to communicate orally in English too. It’s content-based English teaching is what it is; or, as we used to call it at my school when we introduced courses in De Bono’s Lateral Thinking and courses in Wine Tasting, “English through stealth”.

    If those who do EAP courses are at a level that their English is “crap” then it goes without saying that they’re doing the wrong course. EAP courses should only be offered to those who have an “Advanced” level of proficiency. IELTS is scored on a nine-band scale; only those students who are on band 7 of the 9 band scale should be doing EAP courses. In the Cambridge exam scale, only those who have already passed the CAE should be doing EAP courses.

    Yes, I know: this is not the case, and I agree with you that the majority of EAP courses are totally inappropriate. As usual, you have your finger on the pulse of current ELT practice, and, once again, I tip my hat to you for your comments. It’s refreshing to read what you say, and I totally agree with you that most students who we find in in EAP courses would be much better off improving their general level of proficiency than being led through pedantic lessons on how to improve their note-taking skills, how to use Powerpoint (god help us all) and other absurdities.

    I applaud your unpicking of all the daft components of a typical EAP course. It’s, for me anyway, enormously refreshing to see somebody question all the bullshit that’s talked about EAP.

    But there is a place for EAP. The basic component of an EAP course should be an examination of the genre of academic writing. Students should be invited to examine a variety of academic texts and to critically assess them. The two pillars of any written text are coherence and cohesion, and EFL students can be helped to understand how these twin pillars work. The special requirements of an academic text can also be explained, practised, and polished. If the syllabus of an EAP course is well-constructed, if its aim is well-defined, and if the students are at the right introductory level and really interested in writing a good academic text, then an EAP course can be enormously rewarding for all concerned.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 06 Oct 2013 | Reply

    • I can see nothing to disagree with in what you have written, Geoff – perhaps a better title for this post would have been “EAP” is pants.

      The last paragraph in particular chimes perfectly with my own understanding of what an EAP course should be. All else is folly!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 07 Oct 2013 | Reply

  3. Yes exactly what I’ve been thinking over the last couple of years.

    Comment by Liane Robinson | 02 Aug 2015 | Reply

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