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English for Academic Purposes – 7 Myths and Realities




Ahead of his talk at IATEFL 2012 about integrating skills, language, tasks, and critical thinking, Edward de Chazal talks about some of the myths and realities about English for Academic Purposes.

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is one of the fastest-growing areas of English Language Teaching (ELT). You may have come across a few myths and misconceptions flying around. It’s dry and dull, right? Actually no. I’ve come up with seven myths like these, and I’ll argue against them all.

1. EAP is dry, serious, and dull

It’s certainly serious, but it needn’t be dry and dull – is studying your chosen subject dry and dull? And do you find listening to people talk about their fields dry and dull? EAP is serious because it is all about gaining and researching new knowledge, making new connections, and communicating these ideas. Communication is at the heart of EAP, and the EAP classroom needs to reflect this. Unlike many general English language teaching (ELT) contexts, a lot of this communication is done through writing – so writing and reading are very important. Speaking and listening are too, and a lot of spoken and written communication takes place in slightly formalized and conventional set-piece events such as lectures and seminars.

2. EAP is objective rather than subjective

This is one of those often-repeated statements, but it’s highly misleading. Objectivity is associated with facts. Of course facts vital and necessary, but they’re not sufficient. It’s not the aim of university degrees to merely teach and learn facts. In response to facts we need such thinking activities as interpretation, speculation, and evaluation. These are all subjective. Subjectivity is based around people, and people’s responses – such as their evaluation of the same idea or piece of evidence – vary from person to person. From economists evaluating the merits of a policy response to psychologists speculating on the causes of a unusual behaviour pattern, the results are subjective. And subjectivity is not inferior to objectivity – it’s potentially more interesting and associated with originality, which is highly-valued in academic contexts. The interface of objectivity and subjectivity lie at the heart of academic life.

3. EAP is basically IELTS

No. On a scale of general to academic, most EAP practitioners would place IELTS much nearer the general end. IELTS is not officially described as an academic examination, and it does not venture far into EAP territory of reading and synthesizing texts, writing referenced essays, and critical thinking. IELTS reading texts and tasks might offer a flavour of academic ones, but without the rigour.

4. To teach EAP is to teach subject knowledge and content

In reality, the purpose of EAP is to meet the needs of students planning to study (or already studying) at university through the medium of English. Their needs revolve around language, the four skills, and study skills including critical thinking. The focus of EAP is not on the knowledge, or even specific language of any particular subject – from Accountancy to Zoology – but on core skills and generic language that can cover any discipline. If you’re teaching subject knowledge alongside language, that’s Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

5. Vocabulary in EAP means a focus on subject-specific words, and scientific terms and concepts

Just like our fourth myth, most EAP contexts are not closely concerned with teaching and learning subject-specific terms and concepts. EAP teachers leave that to the subject-specific experts! EAP materials include core and academic language which is generic to any discipline – e.g. analysis, significant, is based on, seems to suggest that. The job of the EAP practitioner is to gradually gain an understanding of the types of discourse and texts that students have to read and write in their discipline – how these texts are constructed and what language is used. We need to be able deconstruct these pieces of discourse, and enable our students to do the same. We need to understand, analyse, and reprocess meaning, but when it comes to systematically presenting subject-specific terms we just don’t go there. We’re all discourse analysts now!

6. To study in an English-medium university you must have an extremely high level of English

Not always so high. Students very rarely reach C2, in general ELT or EAP. Students usually have to reach a high B2 level (upper intermediate), or perhaps C1 (advanced) before they start studying. English language level requirements vary quite a lot, but they are not as high as many people expect.

7. It’s not the job of English-language teachers to teach critical thinking

Well, if you’re an EAP teacher, you’ll find it hard to avoid this. Critical thinking involves activities like identifying the stance of a writer, connecting items across different texts, and evaluating an idea – how plausible is it? Is it based on sound evidence? A student who struggles to critically engage with activities like these will struggle when they start their degree, and as EAP teachers we need to develop our students’ critical thinking skills – as well as our own!

What are your thoughts on English for Academic Purposes? What do you think are some myths and realities about it?

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  1. This is interesting and I generally agree with this.

    One point I would add is that EAP is not just about encouraging critical thinking but more specifically the language of critical thinking.

  2. I agree with Patrick — a good overview of some common myths.

    I’d just add that students can already think critically. It’s the job of EAP teachers to help them to acquire all the language they need to express this thinking in English, and also to encourage them to think critically in the context of study.

  3. I teach EAP as part of a general Business English course. Due to time constraints I focus on the basics of academic writing skills, such as how to structure ideas and link sentences and paragraphs together to show a logical flow of ideas. Although these are basic and necessary skills for students and later business people, students really struggle with them. I am surprised at what seems to me to be difficulty in “thinking logically” (is this also critical thinking – I tend to think of hedging in connection with this tem?) and as a result I often feel frustrated with my inability to help them produce good written work. This is my “reality” anyway.

    • I am even more frustrated with my inability to persuvade my students to follow the instuction.

  4. I read about ELP, and has been very interesting, I would like to share with my students the
    Myths and Realities.Thank you very much for your information.

  5. […] English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is one of the fastest-growing areas of English Language Teaching (ELT). You may have come across a few myths and misconceptions flying around. It’s dry and dull, right? Actually no. Edward de Chazal comes up with seven myths like these, and argues against them all.  […]

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