The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Writing EAP for self-study: Part 1

Back at the end of February, I created a series of videos about writing EAP materials to be used by other teachers (you can find them here). Not long afterwards, the world of education underwent a massive shift as the coronavirus pandemic spread and teaching suddenly moved online.  

From what I hear from EAP colleagues, a lot of EAP teaching, especially upcoming pre-sessional summer courses, is now being planned as a mix of synchronous online sessions plus a lot of asynchronous self-study. More self-study content has become a necessity because synchronous online teaching is draining for both the teacher and students, and also because of issues around time differences where students are in, say, China and their teachers are in Europe or North America. 

From experience of working on various self-study materials over the years, both print and digital, I know that it involves quite a different set of challenges from those around creating classroom content. So, if you suddenly find yourself having to create, or adapt, materials for students to work on remotely, here are a few of my top tips – part 1 here with part 2 to follow.


Yes, I know I say this again and again, but making sure the aims of a piece of material (a task or a series of tasks) are clear both in your own head and to your audience is absolutely essential. When you prepare material to teach face-to-face, what you put on the page can be fairly minimal because you do a lot of talking around it while you're in class. As a teacher, you naturally explain the aims of an activity, how it links to what you've done previously and how it might link forward to something that's going to happen later. You can respond to puzzled looks, questions and slightly left-field responses. When you take yourself out of the equation though and the student's just faced with words on a screen, it may be less obvious why they're doing something.

That doesn't mean you should write a whole essay introducing the aims and rationale for each lesson ... TDLR!  But you should find ways of pre-empting questions like:
  • Why am I doing this?
  • How's it relevant to my future studies/my discipline?
  • How does this fit in with what we've already done/what we did 'in class'?
  • How does it link to the other activities I’ve been assigned?
  • What do you expect me to do with this - will I be tested on it, will we discuss it in our next 'class', will I need to use it in an assignment?
  • Will anyone be checking my answers/what I've looked at?
  • How much do I need to understand, is it okay to just get the gist or am I focusing on details?
  • What do I do if I don't understand something/have questions?
Some of these things you might choose to handle during synchronous online sessions - in much the same way that you'd introduce homework in class, but remember that in an online environment, students are perhaps more likely to miss crucial instructions. As Shaun Wilden pointed out in a recent edition of the Who’s Zooming Who podcast (worth checking out if you don't know it), it's easy to forget that in a remote teaching situation, our 'class' aren't altogether in the same place, so they can't ask the student next to them “What did she say about …?” or check with their friend on the way out of class whether what they're doing for homework should be written or typed or handed in. 

Make sure that any key information about aims and expectations are set out clearly (and concisely) at the start of each set of activities - bullet points are good.


A lot of the same issues also apply as students work through the material. When you're not there to explain activities in person, everything needs to be crystal clear. In the same way as when you’re writing for other teachers, materials for students to use independently need to have instructions that are simple and unambiguous, you need to be consistent in how you use terminology and also with the wording of rubrics. Tasks also need to be carefully staged and signposted to guide students through what they need to do.

Making sure that activities are divided into short, manageable chunks becomes even more important when students are working on their own. That doesn't necessarily mean dumbing down the content or the tasks. In EAP, we're often working with very intelligent, sophisticated students ready to study engineering or business or whatever at postgraduate level. And yes, they need to develop the autonomous study skills they'll be expected to use in their future studies, but ... right now they're sitting in their bedroom at home with likely little support, wondering what's going to happen with their studies and potentially trying to get to grips with academic study completely in English for the first time … on their own. Cut them a bit of slack! 

Make sure that tasks are broken down into manageable stages with clear instructions at each stage. Don't cram three instructions into one rubric unless you really need the student to do all three things simultaneously (and even then break them down into bulleted sub-tasks). Use clear headings and subheadings so students can see at a glance what each task is about – is it a vocab activity that follows on from a reading they’ve just done or is it preparation for the listening that comes a bit later?

And make sure you show how each chunk links to the next. Borrowing again from the Who's Zooming Who podcast (sorry for stealing all your ideas guys!), Lindsay Clandfield was talking about putting together presentation slides and mentioned the idea of having an introductory slide with an outline of your session at the start which you then repeat after each section to show where you're up to, maybe greying out what's been covered and highlighting what's coming up next. 

The same principle can be applied to a series of online tasks as a way of helping students see what a study chunk involves and how they're progressing through. If they can see there are three tasks linked to the same reading text, for example, they might choose to work on them altogether rather than lose their thread, and then take a break and get a coffee before they move onto the listening activity that comes next.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at scaffolding and providing enough support for students working alone, as well as the thorny issue of answer keys.

If you’re looking for more ideas for creating your own EAP materials, then How to Write EAP Materials is available as both an ebook and in print (via Amazon).

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