The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Academic English v Academic Skills

I've now come to the end of my summer teaching (just assessments this week) and as ever, it seems to have flown by. This is the sixth year that I've taught on the same summer pre-sessional course in some form and every year it's a bit different; different students, different issues and an ever-growing number of colleagues - we've gone from just a dozen teachers when I started to nearly 50! The thing that's most struck me this year though has been the change of emphasis in terms of what we're asked to teach. I guess the changes have probably been coming in gradually over the past few years, but this year, there seems to me to have been a really noticeable shift.

My sense is that there's now more time given over to teaching what could be described as "academic skills" or "academic literacy", which has all but completely edged out actual language teaching. Certainly, the writing tasks we're asking students to do are much more challenging, not just in terms of language but intellectually too. We're asking them to process a lot of complex information in a short time and then to evaluate and analyse it in an intelligent way - more a test of thinking skills and ideas than straightforward language ability.

The rationale behind this shift is, I think, based on the idea that we need to be preparing students for what they can expect when they go on to their main, mostly postgraduate, courses. The argument goes that there's no point in giving them simple essay tasks now that are nothing like what they'll have to deal with later.

My concern though is that in spending such a large part of our limited class time trying to coach them in thinking skills, we simply don't have time for the vital language input that they so desperately need. I'm currently mulling over ideas for some EAP grammar and vocabulary materials I'm going to be working on in the autumn and I'd hoped that my time in the classroom would provide me with some ideas and inspiration. But, in fact, I feel as if I've taught very little vocabulary and the extent of my explicit grammar teaching in four weeks was one quick 10-min activity on articles!

I usually come out of my summer teaching feeling tired, yes, but generally inspired and full of ideas. This year, I'm just feeling rather frustrated and deflated, and wondering whether next year I might take a break. Perhaps with the Olympics coming up, 2012 should be a summer 'off'?

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