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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

Like we've talked about today, I wonder really if the fundamental problem is the designer of the EAP courses themselves (i.e. the length and syllabus). In an ideal world, there is time for both aspects. Otherwise, integrating the two together may be the next-best alternative.

7:31 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Tyson,

Yes, this post was really in response to the specific program I'd been teaching on rather than aimed at EAP in general.

Having said that though, with my other hat on as an EAP writer, I do get lots of feedback from teachers asking for more materials that focus on language. So maybe others are feeling that many students really need some explicit language input and that language sometimes gets squeezed out by skills?

9:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much of the time it's challenging to come up with the language that is most useful for any EAP student (i.e. in a widely appealing text). We tend to focus on language that comes up for in the History lectures/readings, as well as academic chunks of language that will help connect their ideas in essays and other written responses. Honestly, we usually make materials ourselves when the language opportunity arises. I guess in this way we're all (or should be) EAP writers for our specific programs.

Btw, "the Toblerone Twins"?

1:03 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Tyson,

By 'language', I don't necessarily mean specific vocabulary. I think there are lots of general lexicogrammatical areas that are useful across disciplines - hedging, noun phrase structure, subtle evaluative language, etc. - and then there's all the tidying up work on things like prepositions and articles that even the most competent students often need to improve.

And I know it's nice to be able to come up with your own materials to suit a particular need, but if you're in the middle of a busy program, wouldn't it be nice to just be able to grab a ready-made practice activity in a given language area rather than trying to reinvent the wheel every time?

BTW - "the Toblerone Twins" goes back to the first blog I set up - a travel blog with my partner when we were living in Switzerland years back (thus the Toblerone reference) - it's still going: http://www.tobleronetwins.blogspot.co.uk/ Then Blogger just carried the name over into subsequent blogs I set up using the same account.

9:28 am  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Yes - I don't mean specific vocabulary when I say "language" either. And yes, sometimes it's nice to have a set activity to use when busy, but I rarely use an unit or activity as is simply because I rarely use manufactured articles from texts, so the language practiced in an activity or coursebook text often doesn't include the language used in materials I source. I don't think it's necessarily reinventing the wheel. It's tailoring specifically to the content I'm using. That's all.

4:25 pm  

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