Back in May, I was lucky enough to attend Tania Pattison’s talk at the IATEFL conference in Belfast. The underlying message of her talk was that materials for teaching and learning academic English do not have to be as dry and dull as some people might have in mind. And I think that’s an important message to get out there! Tania’s talk presented some useful tips and reminders for those of us in EAP and materials writing fields, which I’d like to summarise in this post.
In order to be effective and engaging, EAP materials, especially at higher levels where students have done a lot of the same topics several times, need to be:
- and manageable.
FRESH Topics & Perspectives
Academic (and all?) English materials should include fresh or new topics so that they are engaging and interesting when students become engrossed in a topic and start exploring all the many directions that you can go with the information or perspectives on it. In this way, students are likely to want to discuss it, and thus use and practise useful language and skills to do so. Even if the topic isn’t entirely new, we might still be able to come up with fresh types of activities to get our students engaged in deep learning.
RELEVANT Input & Activities
The content topics, as well as the language and skills practised, need to be relevant to students’ current and or future academic concerns, as well as their lives and professions. In popular science and science journalism, for example, we might discover new innovations or specific topics that are related to our students’ academic subjects.
Tania’s examples here include looking at what happens in the body and brain when people use digital screens excessively, for example comparing the effects to coffee, or looking at symptoms such as insomnia and negative mental health. This is probably relevant to most students, and has a clear connection to biology as an academic subject.
The activities we ask students to do of course also need to be relevant to their academic progress. So, it makes sense to be doing things like analysing and discussing commonly held beliefs to promote critical thinking, as well as applying concepts to their own everyday lives, professions or study subjects. As I have recently written elsewhere, even activities like comparing and contrasting near-synonyms’ meanings and usage patterns activates these kinds of thinking skills while helping with vocabulary learning.
It helps with learning if materials include inspirational content. When students are impressed by the idea, person or place that they are hearing about, it can stoke their ambitions and promote deeper engagement with the topic and thus with their learning.
Tania’s examples here include reading or hearing about explorers, researchers, successful sports people, and so on. To link this with academic language and skills, students could, for example, conduct a SWOT analysis of teams or projects, and evaluate the factors in their success. This kind of activity would not only engage higher order thinking skills and promote advanced level language use/practise, but may also function to inspire the students to adopt certain elements leading to success.
CHALLENGING Different Skills
I think that most of us would agree that language learning materials need to be linguistically challenging for the students, and not too easy. Ideally, we’d like them to be working in their zone of proximal development, so there is a motivating challenge to the work that we are asking them to do. In EAP, it’s also beneficial to include challenges on thinking critically, evaluating new angles, and/or responding appropriately following academic conventions.
Thus, materials could encourage students to think outside of the box, to give and justify a stance, or to provide a critical review of something. The input could also involve an academic expression of attitude or stance, perhaps in contrast to a less formal expression of opinion, so that students are challenged not only to engage with the content, but also to identify language features that may be useful for their own work.
Nonetheless, the level of challenge in any learning materials needs to be manageable. In EAP, this means materials being targeted at an achievable level of difficulty, both linguistically and with regard to students’ academic career – so in their academic and critical thinking skills, too.
The aim of an EAP programme is to bridge the gap between the current level the students are working at and the “real” academic texts and input that they will need to deal with in their studies, by making the topics accessible and easier to process. This may include training generally useful and relevant academic vocabulary and language – not necessarily discipline-specific terminology – or employing things like infographics and other visuals, plus training on study skills and elements of English that are specific to academic usages.
University students face high expectations in many different areas of life, so the EAP materials we design/use should help them to progress and manage the challenge, without adding to their overwhelm. Tania’s idea here would be to find topics that are clearly connected to students’ academic study subjects, but approached from a more everyday life perspective.
In conclusion, then, EAP materials should enable students to learn something new in terms of language, facts/content, skills and perspectives. They should be fresh, relevant, inspirational, challenging and manageable. Then, the materials are likely to be motivating and help students to develop their confidence, and their language and academic skills, to face the challenges of studying at university through the medium of English.
And finally, thank you to Tania for (yet another) interesting and inspiring talk, providing these tips and reminders for us!