Teaching EAP: Five things I learned from EAP Essentials

By Alexandra Paramour

Category: English for Academic Purposes

EAP Essentials published by Garnet Education has played a formative role in helping me get to grips with how to teach EAP. It was my very first introduction to teaching English for academic purposes and my trusty companion as I embarked on my first pre-sessional course. Seven years on, it’s still the book I keep going back to and recommending to other EAP teachers.

Nuanced but highly accessible, EAP Essentials is packed full of tips for teaching EAP that have seen me through five pre-sessional courses and an in-sessional job as an academic skills tutor.

Here are just a few of the key concepts from this book that have shaped my teaching and my thinking about academic skills.

What are the key concepts of EAP Essentials?

1. Quotations and birthday cakes

One of the main skills that students need to develop in their studies is academic writing. It was EAP Essentials that introduced me to the term ‘dominant writer’ (p.201) – an academic writer who can use sources skilfully to support their own narrative. Once students grasp what being a dominant writer involves, they’re well on the way to academic success. But getting to this stage is no simple task. It requires a whole range of sub-skills, including the ability to judge when to use direct quotations in their writing and, crucially, when not to.

EAP informs us that ‘[Q]uotations are like birthday cakes, to be brought in on special occasions only.’ (p.204). Ironically, this has become one of my favourite quotations to bring into academic writing lessons. Demonstrating the power of a food-based metaphor, this line has stuck in my mind since I first read it and seems to resonate equally strongly with students.

2. Becoming a ‘genre detective’

As the authors of EAP Essentials reassuringly point out, EAP teachers can’t turn students into fully developed academic writers or predict every genre they might encounter. But we can prepare them for the journey and this means training them to analyze different kinds of texts.

We can show them how to uncover a text’s hidden ingredients by identifying its intended audience, purpose and the key features of the genre. We can draw their attention to the rhetorical functions in the text and its organization. In particular, we can help them to see the different ‘moves’ or stages it consists of – such as outlining the structure of the text or highlighting a gap in the literature.

Developing skills in text analysis enables EAP teachers to engage confidently with materials from any subject area and pass these same skills on to our students. But while text analysis is invaluable for any degree course, it can be an understandably hard sell to less linguistically-oriented students. Encouraging them to become ‘genre detectives’ (p.210) is a much more engaging way of framing the task.

Training students to become genre detectives not only makes them more effective, strategic readers, but it also gives them the tools to produce varied types of texts themselves – skills that they’ll need many times in their studies and throughout their working lives.

3. Clarity about criticality

‘My tutor says I need to be more critical. What is it that I’m not doing?’ When I worked as an academic skills tutor, this was one of the questions students would ask most frequently, often after receiving a disappointing grade.

How best to help students understand criticality is an ongoing challenge, and while there are many useful resources out there, I still draw regularly on the sage advice of EAP Essentials.

One core principle offered in the book is to remember that our students have critical thinking skills already. It offers several useful tips on how to help students become aware of these existing skills, understand why they’re so important in higher education and transfer them appropriately to academic tasks.

Another principle shared in this book is the value of questioning. Abstract definitions of critical thinking can be more confusing than helpful. Far more effective is to model the questions to ask when engaging in different academic tasks – questions as seemingly simple as ‘Why was this text written?’ and ‘Why I am reading it?’ (p.269).

4. ‘Study competence’ vs. ‘study skills’

The term ‘study skills’ has become a bit divisive. For some, it simply refers to core academic skills – such as note-taking or time management – that will help students succeed on any degree course. For others, however, it evokes rigid or prescriptive attempts to teach these skills outside of any meaningful academic context. It was EAP Essentials that introduced me to the concept of ‘study competence’ (p.283), a term coined by Waters and Waters in 1995 and a more satisfying way of thinking about academic skills.

‘Study competence’, the authors explain, refers to a deeper capacity for learning and studying. It’s about giving students opportunities to experience and reflect on the skills they’re developing through activities that are directly relevant to them. For instance, students might hone their time management skills through engaging in an authentic academic assignment and, as they do so, they plan, monitor and evaluate the time they allocate to each stage of the task.

Study competence draws on students’ existing expertise, promotes autonomy and acknowledges the role of underlying dispositions, such as motivation, metacognition, agency and self-awareness. In other words, it encompasses everything that makes learning a complex process and human psychology so fascinating to explore.

5. Adding to, not replacing, your general English teaching skills

For anyone making the transition from general English to EAP teaching, EAP Essentials is a must-read. It doesn’t downplay the learning curve involved or the differences in philosophy between these branches of teaching. For example, whereas general English learning objectives are typically driven by the students’ current level, EAP is about helping them to fulfil their imminent academic needs and goals as best they can. As the authors starkly remind us, ‘The stakes for the student are high and the time is limited’ (p.27).

Yet, the authors are keen to emphasize the value of a background in communicative language teaching when it comes to devising creative, interactive, learner-centred lessons. They also stress that EAP teachers aren’t expected to be experts on all aspects of academia. Indeed, one of the joys of EAP teaching is being on a more equal footing with our students and becoming fellow learners.

A key takeaway for me is that moving over to teaching EAP does not erase or replace a general English teacher’s existing skills and identity – it simply adds to them and makes us more versatile. And this, in my view, is a powerful way of helping international students understand and value their own journeys too.

Moving forward with teaching EAP

For anyone new to EAP teaching, EAP Essentials is every bit as indispensable as its title suggests. For those with more experience, you’ll find yourself returning to it frequently. It’s full of insights that apply not just to EAP teachers but to all university students and academic writers, whether English is their first or second language. In short, it’s a book that I’d urge anyone teaching in higher education to read.

View a free online inspection copy or purchase your copy of EAP Essentials.

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