Monday, June 23, 2008

How to teach ESP & EAP to low-level students? Don't

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

We try to teach ESP to low level students and beginners and it doesn't work. Employers and administrators demand results. They have students with little English and they need English users who can conduct business in English or get degrees etc. and so they give them to us. If we tell them that NSs have a vocabulary of 20K word families and that in real business and academic situations a lot of these words come into play, even if infrequently, they will reject our 5 year immersion courses and find someone who will promise the earth.

I don't do much ESP but I do run courses with an EAP bias. I try and keep them general but the university has some students with 1800 words or less studying business admin. and humanities subjects so they want them to write academic reports and papers and to be able to communicate sophisticated ideas.

What happens? Well, firstly, they are expected to write in a genre that they cannot read. They do not have the vocabulary to read academic journals and papers and can barely understand their textbooks. We have a textbook that tries to get around this by using texts from newspapers and magazines and then asking the learner to write essays full of "nevertheless" and "moreover".

I firmly believe that you cannot write in an academic genre unless you can read and understand that genre. Each academic genre is special to its subject. Some social sciences have more use of first person pronouns than more technical papers. A scholar who is an authority in a field can use more first person pronouns than a student. And there are many other differences.

A second problem is that if the learner has a small vocabulary they find it difficult to place the meaning, context and collocations of the sophisticated words they are being taught. They also find it difficult to see the rationale behind the "rules" they are taught to write by.

Even with more advanced students there is still a real problem. Take a learner with 6000 words plus the EAP list and subject specific vocabulary. They can read academic material and with a 95% comprehension can often guess unknown words from context. However, these unknown low frequency words they come across are not there for trivial purposes. Most of them are there because they are necessary for meaning and expression of the topic. When it comes to writing, the poor student is expected to write with the same sophistication as the NSs they compete with in the international job market and with a similar degree of expertise as found in the articles they read. When they write they will find that every 20 words there will be a word
they need but do not have.

It's a mess.


Alex Case said...

Very good points. I think a huge part of the problem is having exams like IELTS, TOEIC and BULATS pretending that they are suitable for everyone and so people wanting the EAP and ESP vocabulary to get better marks in them and often setting back their long term language development. I can think of some cases where doing some kind of ESP or EAP from a fairly early stage does make sense though:

- For people who are or will be in a sink or swim position with their English, for example people who answer the phone everyday. Learning the language they need now, even if it is not what you would normally for their level, will boost their confidence and motivation. It will also provide a structure around which you can build a more step by step syllabus.

- In a similar way, some decent low level Travel English and Business English textbooks are coming out that are more suitable for some students than even the best General English ones.

- If as you say academic reading is the first step towards academic writing, then the best low level course for your students should at least have those long term aims in mind, something that is not true of the Headways and Cutting Edges.

John Brezinsky said...

Dick's comments hit home. People from outside the langauge acquisition world have unrealistics expectations and are unwilling to even begin to listen to how unrealistic they are. It is certainly possible for someone to acquire the proficiency required of advanced academic study--but not in a year.

Those of us in publishing have to deal with exactly the same problem. We have to find a way to address the very real needs of low-level students who have been thrust into near-impossible situations as well as all of the other potential situations across a range of proficiency levels. Dick rightly focuses on vocabulary, and there are also a whole host of other issues.

I sympathize with Dick's frustration with his current textbook (hope it isn't one of ours), and I would like to encourage anyone who feels that his/her students' needs are not being met to contact the publisher. We can't always move at the speed of light, but we appreciate the variety of needs that people have, and we do listen. Low-level books in an EAP series are notoriously difficult to write, and feedback is always welcome.

Jerry said...

Alex, you said there were some good travel English and business English textbooks. I'm looking for some books like that. Can you recommend some?