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Teaching english for academic and special purposes

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

Автор: Елаков В.В.

English for Academic Purposes is probably the most challenging branch in language teaching, especially in our country, where it has only recently started to develop as such. EAP teachers often feel isolated both from professionals in their students’ specializations and their co-workers in other institutions. They also have difficulty in getting or exchanging information in the field. So, nowadays some linguistic associations have been organized with the aim of providing university, college, and vocational school teachers with an opportunity to share their experience and knowledge, obtain new ideas and information on methods and techniques in teaching ESP, and actually get together and form their own professional community.

The main aim of this article is to provide some insights into current practices in the teaching of English for Academic Purposes, and through a set of parameters related to research in the area to provide suggestions for improvements in the educational approach and the academic content. For this purpose, it seemed necessary to briefly review the relevant literature related to these basic trends and, further, analyze the present EAP situation in the sphere of its teaching. We trust that our suggestions will be of value to those involved in the teaching of ESP in Kazakhstan and other countries with similar conditions and help promote both teaching effectiveness and the quality of learning.

The object of the article is teaching English as a foreign language and its methodology. The subject is English for academic and special purposes as a branch of teaching English as a foreign language, where different approaches to teaching EAP / ESP are analyzed supported with main principles and evaluation techniques related to this field.

The observation and analysis of scientific literature on the problem was the chief source writing this article.

The first recorded use of the term “English for Academic Purposes” appears to be in 1974; by 1975 it was in more general use. The published proceedings of the joint seminar at Birmingham University in 1975 on “The English Language Problems of Overseas Students in Higher Education in the UK” were entitled “English for Academic Purposes”. “English for Academic Study” was used by the British Council as the title of its collection of papers, mostly on English for Science and Technology. One of the papers was “Developing Study Skills in English”.

Study skills were coming increasingly to the fore in the 1970s in practice material for students of English. An early book in the USA was “Study Skills for Students of English” by R. C. Yorkey (1970). In the UK, J.B. Heaton wrote “Studying in English: A practical approach to study skills in English a second language” (1975).

EAP takes place in a variety of settings and circumstances. These range from an entirely English-speaking context (e.g. UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) to the students' own countries. These countries may have English as a Foreign Language (EFL), e.g. Germany, Kazakhstan; or as an official / second language (ESL) or medium of instruction in schools and / or colleges. The students may need EAP for higher education studies in their own country, e.g. for reading academic texts; or for higher education in L1 countries, e.g. all skills may be needed. They may also use EAP on pre-departure courses in their own countries before studying abroad.

We can now look at EAP in a little more detail. It has two divisions: it may be either common core or subject-specific. These two divisions have been described as English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) and English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP). A large proportion of the common core element is more usually known as “study skills”.

Subject-specific English is the language needed for a particular academic subject, e.g. economics, together with its disciplinary culture. It includes the language structure, vocabulary, the particular skills needed for the subject, and the appropriate academic conventions.

The first requirement of students will be the development of study skills to an appropriate level for the subject(s) to be studied, in conjunction with the development of language proficiency. Once students are over the basic hurdle of study skills and language adequacy, they then have to “learn the academic code”. This will involve a number of elements, depending on the level of education being pursued, i.e. undergraduate, post-graduate, research and so on. It may include adapting to a new academic system, within a different cultural environment, which has its own conventions. It may also involve observing the nature of the relationships between academic staff and students, and among students themselves. In turn, these relationships involve attitudes and expectations, some of which are expressed through language.

A dictionary explanation of study skills encapsulates the essence:

“Abilities, techniques, and strategies which are used when reading, writing or listening for study purposes. For example, study skills needed by university students studying from English-language textbooks include: adjusting reading speeds according to the type of material being read, using the dictionary, guessing word meanings from context, interpreting graphs, diagrams and symbols, note taking and summarizing”.

A reasonably comprehensive list of study skills includes receptive and productive skills that shows the integrated relationship of the skills. The receptive skills are seen necessary inputs to the productive skills, with each receptive skill having its place with each productive skill, depending on the appropriate study situation or activity. Note-taking is seen as an adjunct to listening or reading (i.e. receptive skills), but also as a lead-in to, or link with, the productive skills of speaking or writing, e.g. listening to a lecture, taking notes, and then making use of the notes to make comments in a seminar or in writing an essay.

Reading, as a skill, is normally linked with writing. This is a fundamental characteristic of the target academic situation in which students are typically reading books and journals, noting, summarizing, paraphrasing, and then writing essays, etc. In practice material for reading, the link with writing is normally included. Although the focus may be on various reading strategies and comprehension practice, the resultant exercises usually involve writing (apart from some multiple-choice questions and yes/no, true/false formats) [4; 45].

Reading for academic purposes is a multifaceted subject. However, there is one fundamental aspect which can be the starting point for other considerations. When students read, it is for a purpose. Clearly, students can have different purposes in their reading; these will include:

- to obtain information (facts, data, etc.)

- to understand ideas or theories, etc.

- to discover authors' viewpoints

- to seek evidence for their own point of view (and to quote) all of which may be needed for writing their essays, etc.

In the process of reading, students will be concerned with the subject-content of what they read and the language in which it is expressed.

Both aspects involve comprehension, though of different kinds. Depending on the reading purpose, different reading strategies and skills will be involved in turn; the skills can be divided into sub-skills.

Some of the main strategies, skills and sub-skills utilized in reading are as follows:

- prediction;

- skimming (reading quickly for the main idea or gist);

- scanning (reading quickly for a specific piece of information);

- distinguishing between:

- factual and non-factual information;

- important and less important items;

- relevant and irrelevant information;

- explicit and implicit information;

- ideas and examples and opinions;

- drawing inferences and conclusions;

- deducing unknown words;

- understanding graphic presentation (data, diagrams, etc.);

- understanding text organization and linguistic / semantic aspects, e.g.;

- relationships between and within sentences (e.g. cohesion);

- recognizing discourse / semantic markers and their function.

All of them play a part in comprehension.

The skills listed above are frequently taken as the basis for practice material in textbooks. Sometimes the skills are taken separately, or in combination, and used as the focus for the unit or exercise, but more frequently they are integrated within units in the form of activities / tasks / problem-solving, which are topic- or content-based [1; 25 – 27]. The texts that are used as the basis for the practice are usually authentic, though possibly adapted or abridged, depending on the language level. Although the focus of the practice is on the reading skills, some exercises are usually included on the comprehension of certain aspects of the reading passage together with word study / vocabulary practice and some relevant grammatical focus.

As academic writing is so important for students of all kinds, and as it is such a wide umbrella term, it is hardly surprising that there is range of approaches and types of practice for it. Sometimes these depend upon an underlying philosophy, sometimes upon the starting-point of the students, sometimes upon the purpose and type of writing, and sometimes simply on personal preference.

The different approaches in the USA are usefully summarized and put into context by Silva. The starting-point was controlled or guided composition, with its emphasis on the manipulation of language structures and sentence patterns. In Britain, such an approach, based on substitution tables, stemmed from the work of F. G. French, and in New Zealand from H. V. George - both in the 1960s. This led, in general EFL, to books on composition writing making use of substitution tables or writing frames [2; 35 – 39].

The next major development in the USA was “current traditional rhetoric”, in which the central concern was the logical arrangement of discourse forms in the context of the paragraph. In Britain, this approach is better known as rhetorical-functional, or simply the functional approach. From an initial concern with sentences and paragraphs, the focus switched to essay development with its structure of introduction, body and conclusion.

All the above approaches, and others to come later, can be subsumed under the umbrella term “product approach”. In a nutshell, the product approach is concerned with the finished product - the text. In the 1980s, especially in the USA, dissatisfaction was expressed with the limitations of this approach. It was suggested that with the provision of the aimed for model, and practice that called for parallel writing, often to a “template” design, students were restricted in what they could write or how they could write it.

As a reaction to the above, the process approach began to develop. This is concerned with the processes of writing that enable the product to be achieved. The processes involved match the mental processes inherent in writing in the mother tongue, namely, planning, drafting, rethinking, revising, etc. They allow students to express themselves more as individuals.

In the product approach, a model is provided and various exercises undertaken to draw attention to its important features. Students are then required to produce a similar or parallel text.

Since 1976, when Wilkins's “Notional Syllabuses” was published, the product approach has often been combined with the functional approach so that functional-product might be a more apt description [7; 47]. If you examine books following a broadly product approach, published in Britain in the last fifteen years or so, you will find that they all contain practice in some of the main language functions commonly found in academic writing. In addition, attention is given to the organization of writing, its structure, cohesion, various grammatical aspects and academic style; also, some incorporate elements of the process approach. Some of the books are organized into topics or themes, but most are organized according to language functions; the main ones are as follows:

- Description (including processes and sequencing);

- Narrative;

- Instruction;

- Explanation;

- Definition;

- Exemplification;

- Classification;

- Comparison and contrast;

- Cause and effect;

- Expressing: purpose, means, prediction, expectancy, reservation, result;

- Generalization and specificity;

- Discussion and argumentation (problem and solution);

- Drawing conclusions.

This process approach emphasizes the composing processes which writers utilize, and thus puts meaning to the fore rather than form. The approach accords with the principles of learner-centeredness, encouraging individuals to take more responsibility for their own learning. By means of discussion, tasks, drafting, feedback, revisions and informed choices, students can make clearer decisions about the direction of their writing.

From the point of view of academic writing, this approach has the advantage of drawing attention to the constant need to draft and revise; in other words, encouraging students to be responsible for making improvements themselves.

Perhaps the clearest exposition of what is entailed in process writing is contained in a resource book for teachers by White and Arndt. They see a process-focused approach to writing as an enabling approach... the goal of this approach is to nurture the skills with which writers work out their own solution to the problems they set themselves, with which they shape their raw material into a coherent message, and with which they work towards an acceptable and appropriate form for expressing it. This approach views writing as creative and the task of teachers as being to engage students in the creative process [5; 68 – 70].

Research has been conducted into examining the composing processes that students actually use or prefer while writing dissertations or research articles. A survey of the composing techniques of overseas postgraduate research scientists at Newcastle University was conducted; this was achieved by means of structured interviews. Among a number of results, the following are of particular interest:

- the students could have benefited from practice in co-authoring and from getting feedback from fellow members of the same discourse community;

- they would also have benefited from practice writing on their subject rather than more general topics.

Today it is realized that although there are numerous views on the methodology appropriate to ESP, nevertheless certain areas are almost always stressed as being of importance: for example, authenticity, problem-solving, communicative activities, learning by doing. It will also be appreciated that within the purview of EAP, not all the various organizational procedures, activities, tasks and exercises are appropriate or possible all the time. However, by having such a range of options available, it makes it possible to provide for a variety of circumstances and learning styles.

It should be noted that different writers often use different terminology when discussing activities, tasks, exercises, techniques, etc. Consequently, at times it becomes confusing; it is not always easy, in any case, to make distinctions. Perhaps this is not important. The intention is that activities may subsume tasks, exercises and techniques, or that exercises may be possible within an activity. It is fully realized that this may not always be the case.

We can see nowadays that the quality of EAP / ESP teaching is gradually improving. However, there are some vital problems to be analyzed and solved in this sphere. The first and the most important is the wrong syllabus. It does not provide the curriculum with enough number of hours to cover all the peculiarities of EAP / ESP learning, including the two branches of that: academic reading and academic writing. I suppose, the TOEFL or IELTS preparation course should be introduced into the curriculum as nowadays more and more students apply for international programs or they would like to study at higher educational institutions in the English-speaking countries. It should also be mentioned that EAP / ESP courses should be taught not only for students of “Foreign Languages”, but also for students of “Translation Skills” major, because students of both majors learn English for their profession and that is what ESP actually is.


1. Brumfit C.J. & Johnson K. The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1989 – pp. 25-69.

2. Ellis Rod. Understanding Second Language Acquisition, New York, 1991 - pp. 35-39.

3. Hutchinson T. & Waters A. English for Specific Purposes. A Learning-centered Approach. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987 – pp. 12-47.

4. Jordan R.R. English for Academic Purposes. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003 – pp. 1 - 207

5. Munby J. Communicative Syllabus Design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978 – pp. 65-79.

6. Penny Ur. A Course in Language Teaching. Teaching Listening Comprehension.

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

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