The preparatory tale

The majority of preparatory English programmes state their exit level as B2 (according to CEFR). However, nearly 50% of the student total in these programmes is made up of A1 level students and the time period to bring them up to B2 is approximately nine months. Within this short period of time, the aim is to equip students with necessary language skills so that they can continue their language studies in their freshman year to cope with their academic studies in their related fields during their tertiary education. For this reason, rather than introducing only the language structures accompanied with controlled mechanical exercises, the focus in preparatory programmes has been on finding materials with which students will be able to learn and practise both receptive and productive skills which will form the bases for the freshman courses.

Finding the most appropriate materials and applying the best methods to help students learn English and/or improve English as a foreign language have always been challenging for many preparatory schools in Turkish universities. Many of these schools struggle with the difficulty of having consistency in the materials they are using in their programmes. In recent years, this challenge has become even more complicated with the introduction of learning management systems since curriculum teams of preparatory schools have also started to study the technological compatibility of the materials they are considering using in their programmes.

Curriculum approach and materials

The type of curricula these programmes follow plays a great role in determining suitable materials. While some schools believe following a discrete skills approach is more beneficial, others claim programmes with an integrated skills approach work more efficiently to meet the needs of their students. There are also some schools which combine the two. The choice of the approach may also depend on certain issues like the number of staff, the hours allocated to the programme, the amount of workload/teaching load and the amount of room for collaboration between teachers and between different units (Testing Unit, Curriculum Unit, Teacher Development Unit and Administration).

However, curriculum teams working in programmes supporting either approach face different problems. Materials with an integrated skills approach may fail to include exercises and tasks that meet certain objectives of the programme, and materials with a discrete skills approach, on the other hand, might involve more objectives than needed, which requires skipping quite a number of units or tasks in the published material in order to be able to complete the programme within the given time period and also in order to avoid confusion by introducing an overloaded programme to the students. For these reasons, many preparatory schools prepare their in-house materials followed by a needs-analysis process.

Receptive & productive skills and materials

Many curriculum teams state that finding materials that meet the objectives for receptive skills is comparatively easier than for productive skills. Still, depending on their course objectives, in some institutions, it is possible to see in-house supplementary materials, including new tasks or exercises to provide more extensive reading and listening in order to meet objectives such as recognising different structures in discursive text, contrasting arguments, problem solution presentation and cause-effect relationships, understanding text organisation, understanding attitudes and viewpoints, following arguments, understanding a clearly structured lecture on a familiar subject and taking notes.

The situation, however, is quite different in productive skills. Preparatory programmes in Turkey exhibit less alignment when it comes to these skills. Their course objectives may differ from one another to a great extent in that one institution might expect their students to learn how to write a coherent and cohesive essay evaluating different ideas and synthesising information and arguments from a number of sources, whereas another might only target paragraph writing or writing personal emails. As for speaking, while the strategies for joining a group discussion and presenting ideas in a group could be enough for one institution, giving a clear, systematically developed presentation highlighting significant points and relevant details on academic topics might be required by another.

From K12 to university: the importance of themes in materials

Another important point is choosing materials with appropriate themes. Preparatory programmes serve as a bridge to take a big leap from K12 level to tertiary level. Preparatory schools are said to be in a way a continuation of high schools. However, within a nine-month period, these students are expected to be ready for their departmental studies both in terms of their level of English and the skills they will be using in their courses. Although defining the themes they will come across in their specific fields become a more important factor for freshman curriculum teams when deciding on their materials, it is still an issue for preparatory programmes. The students in preparatory schools must feel that the content of their English courses differs from that of K12 schools. This differentiation can be achieved by giving them the opportunity to study English via materials that include themes appropriate to tertiary level.

The effect of technology on materials

Finally, the need to keep up with the pace of technology and subsequently the need to increase the motivation level of Generation Z have introduced a new concept to preparatory schools of many universities in Turkey: conducting lessons via learning management systems (LMS). Our institution has welcomed this concept: all our classrooms have been equipped with the required technology and we have taken our first steps towards a more ‘technological’ education approach. These systems have brought advantages to preparatory programmes since they provide rapid feedback opportunities, especially in terms of checking plagiarism in academic texts written by students. Moreover, they have brought transparency and flexibility. Yet, the problem of finding suitable published materials has become even bigger, because not all published materials are compatible with LMS.

“In EAP courses, the focus shifts from using the language as the main topic, to using the language as a tool to understand and produce output on a more specific topic: the chosen department of the learner.”

In conclusion, it seems that the challenges of finding the most appropriate EAP materials and applying the best methods to help students learn English and/or improve English as a foreign language will continue to be a vicious circle for many preparatory schools in Turkish universities.

The freshman tale

Let me begin by stressing the importance of EAP courses; although many do not hold them in high esteem, they are a contributory factor in a student’s academic success. This perhaps is the first challenge for EAP teachers: convincing others of their importance. Then, of course, other issues follow.

Selecting suitable, appropriate and relevant materials for undergraduate EAP courses is a struggle felt at universities all over the world. In Turkey, like in many other countries with tertiary education programmes taught in English, EAP curriculum planners and course designers have many challenges to overcome. As well as issues like the ones present in preparatory schools, undergraduate EAP courses face other challenges ranging from the English entry level of students to the individual needs of each faculty, or even department, that the students belong to.

Before discussing these in detail, however, I want to give a brief explanation of how an EAP course differs from a general language course. In EAP courses, the focus shifts from using the language as the main topic, to using the language as a tool to understand and produce output on a more specific topic: the chosen department of the learner. This results in EAP courses being centred around the completion of certain academic goals. This brings up the next obstacle in undergraduate courses. Because the skills themselves, not the language, are important, students are not usually streamed in the same way as in a language driven class. Therefore, within one class, there may be a whole range of levels of English. Of course, before being eligible to attend their first-year department courses, students are required to pass an English proficiency exam. However, some may pass with a minimum score of 65, which can be likened to approaching B2 level, while others may achieve a much higher score of 80 or above, which would put them at or around C1. This creates a need for materials that are appropriate for mixed-ability students.

Another problematic area arising from this is the content of the course. The curriculum of an EAP course is almost exclusively designed around academic language skills, not language items. There are many differing ideas about which academic skills should be focused on and exactly where to start. If students have studied EAP skills to some extent at the preparatory level, they will already have some knowledge. A challenge here is to decide on how much to repeat. In addition, some students pass straight into their department without completing a preparatory course, and although their English proficiency may be high, this does not mean their academic skills knowledge is, too. This leads to another type of mixed ability: a skill related one.

For the undergraduate freshman programme at Izmir University of Economics, the solution to most of these problems could be found through conducting needs analysis with both the faculty lecturers and undergraduate students. From the information obtained from these two groups, the most important EAP objectives could be determined. These concentrate on using input sources like lectures, interviews, research abstracts, actual student research and textbooks to produce outputs, like summaries, exam-like written responses and presentations, in an academically acceptable way. Specific examples of objectives include using evidence to support ideas (through summarising, paraphrasing and quoting), using correct citation form, identifying cases of plagiarism, conducting questionnaires, elaborating on ideas and explaining/supporting ideas with graphs and charts.

The next area of difficulty for any EAP course involves the actual material to be used and how specific the academic context is. Should material be related to each individual student’s department or should it be more general and focus on the wider scope of general academic texts? In EAP programmes worldwide, these questions have been considered and reconsidered, and opinions have changed for a variety of reasons. Ideally, each faculty or department would like their students to focus on contexts specifically related to their own fields, which introduces a completely new set of teaching issues, as EAP teachers are not qualified in such specialised contexts. Furthermore, the range of material needed to take on such an endeavour is vast, and every year becomes even more ominous due to ever increasing academic fields being opened up in faculties such as engineering. Therefore, unless the university is a specialised one, it makes logistical sense to focus on EAP in a more general way, with all undergraduate students using the same material.

Choosing this general EAP material is the last major challenge. It introduces one final element to the EAP area: level of intellectual maturity. From my 20 years’ experience of teaching EAP both in the UK and Turkey, I can say that in Turkey, there is a gap in the market for ready to use undergraduate academic materials. Much of the material available is designed for use in pre-sessional courses, so is geared towards overseas students studying in host countries at a more advanced Master’s or PhD level. Universities like Reading University in the UK write their own materials and trial them with their own students. These materials, although dealing with the academic skills that are focused on at the undergraduate freshman level, are intellectually too advanced for students who have only recently graduated from a high school level of education.

To try to address the above problems, at Izmir University of Economics, Freshman ENG 101 and 102 courses have gone through a series of major curriculum and material changes. These changes have culminated in the production of in-house published materials utilised by all freshman English classes. They are the end products of extensive piloting, long feedback sessions and rewriting, reorganising and new additions. The process has been challenging and will never truly be complete, but in my opinion is the best route to take for an institution’s search for an effective EAP course. As well as addressing the needs of the students and their faculties, the process of piloting and discussion of materials encourages teachers to reflect on their own teaching at the same time. This is important in any course, but is maybe more important in an EAP course, where the teaching needs to guide, motivate and steer students towards their academic goals. Here teachers may need support to ensure that they maintain the right balance between teaching the content (which should be used as a tool) and skills (which should be the focus). Finally, this process serves as a way for EAP teachers to encourage and motivate each other, which as I mentioned at the beginning is probably the first hurdle that they meet when entering EAP teaching.

Kısmet Funda Akgül is a senior instructor, teacher trainer and course coordinator of freshman EAP courses at Izmir University of Economics. She is an organising member of Forum on Curricular Issues (FOCI). She has over 25 years’ teaching experience.

Anita Afacan is a senior instructor at Izmir University of Economics who is part of the freshman English materials team and a member of the Teacher Development Unit. She has over 20 years’ teaching experience in universities in Turkey and the United Kingdom.