The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Making authentic academic texts manageable

Academic texts are dense and complex and can be tricky for native speakers to read, so for EAP students they present all kinds of challenges. This in turn poses a challenge for EAP materials writers. Do we use absolutely authentic texts because that’s what our students (will) need to deal with, or do we simplify them in some way to make them more manageable?

There are good arguments in favour of using authentic academic texts in EAP materials. As Alexander, Argent & Spencer put it:  “Teachers may be concerned that the content and vocabulary of [authentic] texts will present too many difficulties and should be left to a later stage, but the reality is that, for EAP students, there is no later stage.” (EAP Essentials, 2008). If students are already having to deal with academic texts as part of their studies (or will very soon have to) then it doesn’t make much sense not to tackle similar texts in an EAP class. Indeed, I’ve known former students complain that their EAP course didn’t prepare them for the reality of study in English because it was too easy, making for a shock when they got thrown into their subject courses.

However, using a complex academic text in EAP materials can have drawbacks too:
- students just get lost and confused and end up losing confidence and motivation
- decoding the text becomes a distraction; the teacher ends up spending most of the lesson ‘going through’ the text (whether they intended to or not) and the main focus of the lesson gets rather sidelined

Weighing up these two perspectives is tricky and depends in part on the aim of the materials and the target audience. If you’re working on wider reading skills, a long authentic text might be exactly what you need, whereas if you’re focusing on micro-skills (citation, hedging, vocabulary, or other language features), then it could become an unwanted distraction. Similarly, the level of text that in-sessional students on a discipline-specific (ESAP) course can cope with will be very different from what foundation level, pre-sessional and/or mixed-discipline students will be able to manage.

It’s an issue I came across again in some recent writing work and it prompted me to look back at what I’d said about choosing texts in How to Write EAP Materials. The tactics I suggested there for making authentic academic texts more manageable included:
- use short texts: sometimes a very short text (such as an abstract or a definition) or a short extract from a longer text provides just enough context to illustrate a particular language point
- lower the cognitive load: by choosing texts aimed at high school students (such as A level or IB texts) or very introductory undergraduate texts, you maintain the academic style, but the content is less daunting
- abridge texts: sometimes just taking out a complicated example can make a text easier to understand without losing too much in terms of authenticity

One additional tactic that I’ve been using a lot in the materials I’ve been working on recently is to do a lot of the decoding work for the student. By which I mean that you provide a heavily scaffolded task to get the basic decoding out of the way relatively quickly before moving onto the more specific focus of the lesson. Different options include:
- give students three or four single-sentence summaries of the text and they have to choose the best one (and explain their choice)
- give paraphrases of key points which students have to mark as either true or false, or give a set of paraphrases that students have to put in order to create a summary
- give ‘student’ citations (either written or spoken for variety) which paraphrase key points and students match them to the relevant sections of the original text

By providing simple paraphrases of key points in the first task, you’re doing a lot of the work for the student in getting to grips with the main ideas in the text. This means that you can get onto dealing with the specific focus of the lesson (analysing a particular language feature or working on a micro-skill) more quickly. It also provides useful examples of paraphrasing, introduces some key synonyms and is ‘authentic’ in the sense that it shows students what they might do themselves when citing from a text.

I guess it all comes back to keeping the aim of the lesson in mind. If the aim isn’t to work on understanding a long reading text, but you still need to show the language in context, then find ways to help students through that part so that you can get onto the real goal of the lesson with minimum distraction.

How To Write EAP Materials is available to download as an ebook via Amazon and Smashwords.

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Great post, Julie, which exactly responds to some of why I often start out with more 'journalistic' texts, as you put it, for use with ARC in the beginning: they're often shorter; they still can include dense meaning to decode; they often have accompanying visuals that break up the text; and they contain rich vocabulary, but not overly complex grammatical structures (much of the time). This reduces cognitive load, but also scaffolds skills we want them to attain from ARC before tackling the more academic texts they will be exposed to, which is where I work up to.

3:11 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Absolutely, Tyson, it all comes back to the aim of the task, doesn't it? You choose or adapt a text that will be appropriate for the language or skill you want to focus on. If you're teaching reading skills, the exact genre may be less significant (at least in the early stages) than other features of the text. I was working on academic vocab, so I needed fairly authentic academic texts to show how the words were used in context, but I didn't want students to get too bogged down in decoding the specific texts.

4:14 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Exactly. What I find with the types of texts I start out with particularly, is they contain a very strong amount of topical vocabulary--discipline-specific without being too technical--which if learned, helps the students sound more credible when they write about that particular topic. Plus, they tend to mention contextual references (culturally assumed understanding of how people, places, and events) to support ideas without going into detail about them--something that is very useful for readers to recognise and learn not to skip over.

4:37 pm  

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