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?