22 June 2011

Which model best fits English for Academic Purposes at university?

By Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen

English for academic purposes (EAP) is taught at universities in what I refer to as a support model. In the support model, English-medium universities conduct English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses as standalone subjects to help a segment of their undergraduates learn the English they need for university studies. The EAP is a purely supporting, remedial, non-credit add-on subject. The students who study them spend many hours improving their English for which they get no recognition in terms of credits earned. This often causes resentment and even if students have no objection to doing these extra English courses, they tend to prioritise their mainstream studies, thereby neglecting the very subject that could help them do better in their study programs.

Such students may in fact have good or satisfactory competences in their first own languages, but are simply disadvantaged by their lack of English. When their English-medium universities provide EAP as a non-credit, supporting, add-on course, English becomes even less attractive to them. It ought to be argued that for these students, for whom English is a second or a foreign language, their studying and passing an EAP course is as much an achievement as for a European undergraduate taking and passing a foreign language such as Japanese, while studying at a Japanese-medium university.

For EAP to work effectively towards achieving the university’s language competency learning outcomes, it is suggested that a developmental model works better. By this, I mean that EAP should not be a one-off subject, but developmental in the sense of being tiered into a three-year undergraduate program in the same manner that an engineering program might have an introductory Mathematics, followed by Engineering Mathematics I and II for the development of mathematical understanding and skills. Further, it should be embedded in mainstream units through the allotment for marks for well-written and well-presented English, say, in a Business Proposal presentation or a Technical Report assignment. Building academic language communication into the curriculum and into selected mainstream subjects would ensure that undergraduates will pay attention to their language communication skills and give them the opportunity to develop them systematically.

Many students, foreign learners and native speakers, are still developing their English language skills when they enter university and they will continue to do so through their years of study. The model that we need is a developmental model of learning that sustains the learners through several years rather than the current, patchwork, support model. The current support model treats EAP as a remedial subject meted out to poorer performing students, a negative consequence being that it tends to generate demotivation, hostility and resentment among the students who are forced to take it. It will lose much of its negative flavour, and accomplish a positive learning outcome, if we use the developmental model: that is, if it were designed to incorporate the principles of language acquisition in a holistic EAP approach that is properly woven into the university curriculum, from the students’ entry point to their graduation.

The rationale for the developmental model would be as follows: (1) When EAP is perceived, not as an extra subject that they are forced to study, but an essential part of their curriculum, students will work as hard at it as for their other mainstream subjects. (2) There will be no problem of poor uptake as the subject is part of the curriculum. (3) The university will achieve its learning outcome of producing graduates who speak and write with competence in their professions and areas of discipline. (4) The very real problem of poor English language competence among graduates will be a thing of the past.

What is needed is a different approach: a fresh look at the incoming students (the knowledge and skills they bring with them to the university); a fresh look at the actual and desired exit learning outcomes; and a fresh look at how a comprehensive EAP program might meet the language needs of students at any point in their three to four years of studies. This entails jettisoning the supportive, remedial, punitive, and sometimes voluntary notion of EAP, and welcoming it instead as a skill-based body of knowledge that sits in the broader field of human communication; that directly aids the students in studying their discipline subjects; and that produces graduates with language communication skills marked by intelligibility, fitness for purpose and for the profession of their choice.

Associate Professor Dr Wang Su Chen is Head of the School of Language and Foundation. She may be contacted at swang@swinburne.edu.my