The world of ELT is full of specialisms. Whether it is working with different age groups, ability levels, exam classes, or people learning English for specific purposes, it is impossible for anyone to call themselves a ‘general English’ teacher. For a long time, I have seen my specialism as teaching young learners in the lower secondary (10-13) range and above. However, teaching young learners is a very broad term in itself. Each age group has different needs and considerations based on their level of maturity and stage of education. As learners get older, their needs become more targeted as well. As university applications loom, they may need to prepare for tests like FCE and IELTS. They may even have to take exams for other subjects like physics and economics in English, which brings with it a whole host of other considerations.
That is the situation I find myself in now as a teacher at an international school. I work with high school students, who take all their lessons in English and will sit high stakes exams in the next couple of years. IELTS preparation simply isn’t enough for them. They need something more specific. They need English for Academic Purposes (EAP).
Think EAP and we usually think of university and students who have either started their studies or who are in a foundation programme. So why EAP in a high school setting? In his January 2016 article in Modern English Teacher The Future of EAP, Edward de Chazal discusses the growth of EAP in international settings as English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) becomes more popular. While he focuses mainly on international universities, he also highlights ‘secondary EAP’ which makes sense as an increasing number of international schools are now following EMI curricula. In my experience, students at these schools are often fluent conversationalists but struggle when it comes to the demands of academic writing. Indeed, in my current context, several of my students excel at maths and physics but struggle with the demands of more language-heavy subjects in humanities.
Over the course of this term, I have been developing a pre-university EAP programme and these are the considerations that are shaping it:
More than just IELTS
A common trend that I have witnessed in different schools in different countries is to respond to senior students’ needs by running IELTS courses. While these are undoubtedly essential for international students looking to apply to EMI universities, they are of limited use in terms of developing academic proficiency. A 250-word IELTS opinion essay is, of course, a very different task from a 1,500-word academic essay. Even at the high school stage, my students are often undaunted by the prospect of completing an IELTS task in 40 minutes when they are often asked in other classes to produce much more in a lesson.
IELTS preparation can come later. First, students need to build up their academic proficiency.
Learning Background & Study Skills
One factor that immediately comes to the fore is the educational background of my students. We have a mix of those who have studied at international schools for several years and grown accustomed to education in English, and those who have recently transferred from local schools where English was taught as a foreign language subject. The new arrivals may often have a high level of English, but the transfer to an EMI setting can be a shock.
Here, we encounter an interesting paradox: the existing students are familiar with academic writing conventions (at a secondary level at least) but often lack awareness of advanced (or even intermediate) grammar; the pupils new to the EMI environment, by contrast, are usually grammar experts but find it a challenge to transfer that linguistic knowledge to their academic work.
A large focus on secondary EAP, therefore, has to be on developing academic proficiency. For those new to learning through English, this means becoming familiar with different writing conventions, working on reading, research and referencing skills, and revising drafts to improve not only grammatical accuracy but also content.
For the other group, more used to an EMI setting, they need to develop more awareness of register and tone (their written work can often be very ‘conversational’) and the role grammar plays in this. While this does often mean groups of students with different needs, it does also create an opportunity for collaboration as they can pool their strengths to support each other.
EGAP or ESAP?
A common topic for discussion in EAP (as discussed in Louis Roger’s article Teaching EAP groups from different academic fields: the pros and cons also from the January 2016 issue of Modern English Teacher) is whether to focus on general academic English or group students by disciplines and take a more specific focus. In a secondary EAP setting, the general approach simply makes more sense. Students are pursuing multiple subjects of study (at least three for A-levels, and six for programmes like International Baccalaureate (IB)) so even a single student may be cross-discipline and have different needs for different purposes.
The social sciences often provide a safe middle ground as topics from subjects like economics and epistemology can be adapted to include content relevant to both science and humanities students. Language and education are also relevant topics, providing ample inspiration for discussion and consideration of how we learn and develop language (linking back again to study skills).
Subject specific terminology is also a consideration. However, in my experience, there are two important factors to consider here: first of all, even students with quite low levels of English are often familiar with a wide range of terms relevant to their specific subjects; secondly, as a key study skill that will serve them well throughout their continuing education, students need to learn how to understand and learn new terms and phrases, more so than they need to learn the terms themselves (why am I thinking of ‘fish’ and ‘fishing’ now?).
Working with Specialists
There is also the fact, of course, that I am no expert when it comes to business studies, computer science, or psychology. Luckily, in an international school environment, expertise is close at hand. I have found that working with subject specialists is vital to secondary EAP (and ‘regular’ EAP as noted in Marian Barry’s 2012 Modern English Teacher contribution EAP can be cool). It allows me to get a clearer picture of the struggles students are having when trying to access course material in English, as well as feedback on how the EAP input and explicit focus on study skills are working.
The offer of feedback and advice works both ways, of course. Regular meetings with subject teachers creates the opportunity to give tips on supporting language needs in lessons such as grading language and avoiding wordy task instructions. It also helps if they are aware of strategies being employed in EAP classes such as recording and defining new terminology so that we are on the same page when it comes to encouraging study skills.
This programme is still a work in progress though and it is something I will continue to develop based on student progress, emerging needs, and further research and reading (my own as well as the students). If you also have experience of EAP in a secondary setting, I would love to hear from you in the comments.