The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, June 01, 2020

Writing EAP for self-study: Part 2

In my last post, I talked about aims, staging and signposting; how important it is when you're putting together EAP (or other) materials for asynchronous self-study that it's crystal clear to students exactly what they're expected to do, how, why and in what order. You need to put down on the page/screen all those bits you naturally fill in as a classroom teacher. In this post, I'm going to move on past the initial setting up of tasks and touch on how we can support students as they work through activities when we're not on hand to answer questions, give hints and generally point them in the right direction. I'll also dip into the thorny issue of answer keys and feedback.


How do we support students through tasks when we're in the classroom? As well as trying to give clear instructions, we wander round the class, we observe, we listen in and sometimes ask the odd question. The conversation might go something like:

Ensuring that students are on track both with the task itself and with the key ideas in the content right from the beginning are essential to the success of the overall task or series of tasks. If students get the wrong end of the stick early on, they'll get completely lost and you're setting them up to fail. When you're not on hand looking over their shoulder, you need to find ways to build that support into the material.

One way of doing that is by trying to pre-empt problems and misinterpretations. Build in extra (quick) questions that make sure students haven't misunderstood a key point and give them immediate feedback. If they have gone wrong, they need a question + feedback that will explain their misconception before they go on. More about answers and feedback below.

Start off with more guided questions and tasks, especially with a new group or new task type.  Posing an open question to a student who hasn't got used to dealing with academic language/content in English or isn't used to your approach to language teaching could leave them completely stumped. Multiple choice options, on the other hand, give them a starting point and an idea about the kind of response you're looking for. Then, when they come to a similar question in the next task, you can open things up a bit – maybe give them options again, but ones that paraphrase the text less closely or give them part of an answer to complete.

Examples are a simple way to show students what type of response you’re expecting. Tables, charts, diagrams or mind maps with some info already included and gaps/sections for the student to fill in can be more helpful than a blank page in getting them started or organizing their ideas.

Make sure students know where to look for help if they get stuck. Dictionaries are an obvious source of language support, but don't assume students will have great dictionary skills already. The bilingual dictionaries they're probably already using might help with very specific terms that will likely have a direct equivalent translation (thermodynamics, hyperinflation, chemotherapy), but they don't always hit the mark when it comes to words that can have more than one meaning (contract, nature, uniform), metaphorical uses (a major obstacle, a solid foundation) or groups of words that have to be interpreted as a phrase (come to the fore, at the expense of).  And just giving students a list of links to learner's dictionaries at the start of a course won’t mean they'll necessarily know how to use them or remember where the link was when they're stuck in the middle of a reading text.  Put the dictionary link right there on the page with the text itself or if you think a particular word or phrase is likely to cause issues, you could even embed a link to a dictionary entry within the text. (The links above take you to different online dictionaries, just so as not to show any favouritism!)

Other types of in-built support will depend on your course/content, but glossaries of terms can be helpful (and can even be developed collaboratively by a group to give students more buy-in), grammar reference material, checklists, referencing guidelines, marking criteria, etc. Importantly though, don’t just deposit them on an LMS and expect students to find them, provide regular links or reminders at appropriate points.


Working on self-study material for publication, there’s always pressure to provide answer keys for everything and for activities to have simple, unambiguous answers. With good reason. You can’t be sure whether students will be using a self-study book alongside a face-to-face course and have a teacher to check answers with or whether they'll be working completely alone and have no way of knowing whether their response is close enough to the suggested answer or actually a glaring error. That’s fine when you’re dealing with basic A2 vocab practice – the answer is clearly banana, not apple or cherry – but it becomes more of a challenge at higher levels and especially once you get into the complexities of EAP.

When you’re designing materials for your own course though, you have more choice about how you deal with answer keys and feedback. For each section of material and even for each individual task, you need to decide whether it’s going to be most useful for students to check their answers as they go along, to check them at the end of a section, to hand in responses (in some form) for feedback or to hold over a discussion for a synchronous ‘class’. Those decisions will depend in part on the flow of the material. As I mentioned above, if it’s important that students have understood a key idea before they move onto the next part of the task, then any comprehension check questions will need to be followed immediately with answers and quite possibly a bit of explanation. For language practice activities, on the other hand, it might be better to let students work through a task or sequence of tasks, then go back and check their answers at the end.

The next choice to make is whether or not to design tasks that have unambiguous correct and incorrect answers, whether to have suggested answers to compare against or whether to leave options completely open. In part, that will depend on the nature of the task, but it will also depend on how much feedback you have time to provide either within pre-prepared feedback commentary, one-to-one or during ‘class time’.  I think if you’re providing suggested or sample answers for all but the most basic tasks, then students need to know that they can (and should!) ask about them if they’re not sure. You don’t want the confident student assuming that what they’ve put is ‘close enough’ when it’s actually well wide of the mark, nor an unconfident student feeling like they’re constantly failing when in fact their responses are perfectly acceptable, just not word-for-word identical to the key.

The benefit of a digital medium is that you don’t have to cram your answer key into a few short pages at the back of the book. You have space for a bit of explanation or commentary, for example, to show what would be the best answer, what would be okay, but not quite as concise/accurate/appropriately academic, and what would be clearly incorrect and why.

If you want more open responses, either written or oral, then do you want students to submit them for individual feedback – do you have time for the marking? If so, the students need to know what format to submit their responses in, when and how. Set that out clearly alongside the task, don’t expect them to remember. Or do you want to follow up with some kind of discussion in class time? Then students need to know there’s going to be a follow-up which they should perhaps make notes for and have to hand for the next synchronous session.

Of course, all of these things will depend to a degree on your students, your course and the platforms you’re using. As an overriding principle though, when you’re creating content for self-study, imagine how you’d teach it face-to-face and consider what extra information, support, guidance and feedback you’d normally give, then think about how you can put that on the page in a clear, concise way that feels supportive rather than overwhelming. I think this tweet sums it up quite nicely:

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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