By Averil Bolster and Peter Levrai

15 November 2017 - 08:00

Woman in blue blouse sitting on step reading book
'Extensive reading helps develop fluency, which will help when faced with challenging texts.' Photo ©

Prasanna Kumar used under licence and adapted from the original

What is English for academic purposes?

It is a course that prepares learners to study in English-medium institutions. Those could be in their home country where some degree programmes are taught through English, at a branch campus of a university from an anglophone country, or in an English-speaking country.

The challenge is writing materials which will benefit students in any of those contexts.

Know the difference between English for academic purposes and general English 

In a general English classroom, you could have fifteen or more students with different interests and objectives. Academic English teaches the skills and competencies learners need in their studies. This means helping learners develop research and reading strategies, encouraging critical thinking and helping organise ideas into logical, evidence-based arguments.

It is a long way from teaching the present perfect and irregular verbs, but you do have a clearly defined target.

Understand the course material 

If it is your first time teaching this type of course, complete the assignments yourself before it starts. Go through the process of breaking down a question, doing the research and drafting your essay. You will experience the possible sticking points learners will meet, and also become familiar with the assignments' content and expectations. This is particularly helpful when you are working with learners who come from varied educational backgrounds so you can break it down for them, step-by-step.

Lecturers are interested in ideas as well as good English 

Here is a sample essay introduction:

'Nowadays, more and more people are concerned with the issue of renewable energy. It is a complex issue which has a significant impact on our lives with various pros and cons. This essay will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy and recommend what should happen in the future.'

It has no major linguistic errors, but it doesn’t say anything. You could replace ‘renewable energy’ with ‘vegetarianism’ or ‘online gaming’ and it would work equally well.

We interviewed lecturers from different departments and asked what they were looking for in student work. Their interest in ideas – based on support and evidence – came through the strongest. Lecturers want language to be as clear as possible so the ideas don’t get lost, but what matters most are the ideas themselves.

Find meaningful resources for your class that encourage critical thought 

There are excellent resources available to help students develop both their language and academic skills. If learners are struggling to understand a referencing style, send them to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). If they need help with cohesion there’s some great advice on UEfAP.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are also a great resource. They cover topics that are relevant to all academic disciplines and can be examined from multiple perspectives. Although they are global goals, they can be examined on a local level, with learners thinking about their communities and how their actions have an impact on the world. There are teaching resources available from sites like 17Goals and on platforms like The Conversation and The Guardian.

What should learners do outside the classroom?

Encourage your learners to read, widely and deeply. They need enough information to engage with a topic effectively, and they should also be reading things for fun. Extensive reading helps develop fluency, which will help when faced with challenging texts. Aiding learners to continue their education beyond your classroom is an inherent part of an academic English course.

Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are for teachers too 

In the English for academic purposes classroom you will most likely talk about 21st century skills, such as problem-solving and adaptability, and the 4Cs – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Teachers should also use these skills ourselves. Collaboration in particular is a powerful tool for learning. Work with colleagues in your department and across the university to develop an appreciation of different perspectives, and the challenges your learners may face when you ask them to collaborate.

Adapt to university culture 

A major aspect of English for academic purposes is 'academic acculturation' – helping learners to adapt to the new culture at university. The teacher should be part of this culture too. Try to think beyond your classroom. Make the connection clear by inviting learners to transfer ideas to other courses, or to bring work from their other courses into your classroom.

Technology does not replace your lesson plan – and it must have a purpose 

Classroom technology has become the norm for many teachers and learners. It can be beneficial to use e-tools and games in a lesson, but it is important that they have a purpose.

Backward design is a helpful planning resource. It involves identifying the outcomes of the course, deciding how you will know if you’ve reached those aims, and planning the actual lessons. This structure helps teachers set a clear target. It also helps you avoid the common planning mistake of having an activity without a clear learning goal.

Averil Bolster and Peter Levrai won the ELTons award in 2017 for their course, Develop EAP: A Sustainable Academic English Skills Course, and were 2016 ELTons finalists. You can register now for their 16 November webinar Building sustainability into an EAP course. 

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