The TEAPing Point

Explorations in EAP

Demand High EAP

Those of you keeping up with New Movements online and off in the World of EFL will know of Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s relatively new endeavour, Demand High ELT. In their own words, this movement asks:

  • Are our learners capable of more, much more?
  • Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?
  • How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?
  • What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?

Just before Christmas there was a new post from Adrian entitled ‘Demanding Higher in a Conversation Class’. In this post he argues for employing the tool of minimal interference during a student discussion, to allow for teacher upgrades to student performance. At one point he says:

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment: These students have not paid their time/money to come and have that debate on public transport. If that was their overriding focus they’d go elsewhere for such a debate. They have come to learn English, and they don’t want me tiptoeing round a mediocre conversation about transport out of desperate fear of stopping the flow. (my emphasis)

The point is clear enough and the post is somewhat of a challenge to what might be considered standard practice in fluency-oriented TEFL tasks, but the phrasing here suggests a phenomenon that I see almost everywhere in EFL:  a separation of language and content. I don’t mean to single out this post particularly, of course, but it provides a useful springboard into why this matters for EAP.

It seems that notions of language use in EFL represent largely the development of language-as-system, not the development of language-as-reflector-of-personal-meanings. In the view expressed in the post above, aboutness appears not to matter. Content (‘a debate on public transport’) serves merely as the (essentially unimportant, replaceable) container for system and skills work.

For the EAP context I think it is misleading to construe language as separable from context and content. Three decades of work from the likes of Mike McCarthy & Ron Carter (e.g. 19911993) and, in particular, Michael Halliday & colleagues (e.g. 2004) show us that language and context are co-constituting. In EFL, we seem to get away with ignoring this, perhaps because future communicative needs tend not to be as clearly defined as for students heading to university departments. In EAP, however, I think making the same mistake is dangerous and risks turning EAP into what I call chEAP – a form of teaching practice that underserves students as preparation for the Academy.

During the summer, I was sitting in on a seminar discussion class with students heading ultimately to the Law School. The theme was the death penalty. The teacher did a wonderful job of warming up the students, eliciting some foundational ideas, creating a spidergram of these on the whiteboard and then getting people started on the debate. What happened, however, was that the students quickly latched onto a famous case in China with which they were all familiar (it was a monocultural group) and this become the basis for most of the discussion that took place.

In a language-as-system view this is unproblematic. Students have been ‘practicing their fluency’ and the teacher might have Demanded Higher by intervening sotto voce to provide some on-the-spot pronunciation and word choice refinement (etc). In a very short time, however, when students are in their academic departments, it will not be nearly enough simply to speak; students need to have something contentful to say. Contributions cannot just tread-water comfortably in the safe terrain of personal anecdotes. Collective contributions should, in principle, advance the awareness and knowledge of the group. Seminar participation, like academic reading and writing, needs to be about knowledge building (Scardamalia & Bereiter 2003, inter alia).

I strongly believe we need to be (re)creating a climate of knowledge building in the EAP classroom. For this very reason, the students in the class I was watching had all been required to read 2-3 academic papers on the death penalty. They had encountered ideas that may well have gently rocked and challenged some of their existing awareness, such as the suggestion that the capital punishment system in certain parts of the world is inherently racist. Yet none of these notions or examples emerged in the discussion. I think the students themselves thought their job was ‘just to speak’ and not to co-construct and co-extend understandings in the service of collective knowledge building. They didn’t think that content mattered much beyond staying on topic.

The teacher and I talked about these things after the class and we came up with a visual way of representing what had happened. We drew a simple graph like this:

EAP seminars as knowledge building

EAP seminars as knowledge building

In knowledge building terms, the students had ended up plateauing very early (red line). We agreed, however, that if they had brought in ideas from reading and had worked on these together, they would have engaged in plenty of ‘language practice’, but would also perhaps have pushed their academic knowledge forward (blue line). We also agreed that drawing a variation on this graph might actually be a useful activity to do with the students (‘How far did our discussion advance our understanding of the issues? What more could we have done?’).

Like Adrian, I think there’s also a time to interfere minimally during a spoken discussion, but for a different reason to those he lists. I think we can Demand Higher in EAP by pushing students towards more challenging content. In the class above, the teacher needed to interrupt to remind students of a theme, a case study or a theory from their reading. Challenging ideas (central to academic practice, of course) force students to stretch the linguistic resources they have to fit the new requirements of context.

Once students start truly engaging with ideas beyond collective everyday experience, however, accuracy is likely to break down – and I think this may be a time to contribute as a participant, but it is not a time to interrupt. The skill of the EAP teacher needs to include recognising that systemic work on language should probably happen in the moment only where content is fairly familiar – where cognitive load is relatively low. Where students are actually battling with ideas, wrestling with concepts (as they should be), we need to refrain from interrupting, except perhaps where misunderstanding is taking students too far down the wrong path.

I got the impression that most students left this particular discussion with essentially no more awareness or knowledge of the death penalty debate than they had before the session started. While procedurally everything the teacher did would have ticked all the boxes in a DELTA observation, I think this session partly underserved the needs of the students.

Most people would agree with me that EAP should always be demand high. EAP teachers need to be thinking in their planning about appropriate levels of challenge, not just their Use of The Board or degree of Student Centredness. The mistake, I feel however, is to see ‘demand high’ only in linguistic terms. EAP should be demand high in academic and conceptual terms too. Merrill Swain, writing about advanced language use, helps us think in this direction:

[I]t is too simplistic to think of language as being only a conveyor of meaning. Rather we need to think of language as also being an agent in the making of meaning. (Swain 2006: 96, emphasis added)

By taking content seriously (e.g. in a seminar class), students are able to engage in what Swain calls languaging – speaking for thinking and knowledge building (not just for language practice). Our students need to be placed in supportively scaffolded situations where they are using language to mediate problem solving, to talk over data, to co-extend their awareness of a theoretical notion, or to share their understandings of a conceptually challenging text.

Drawing original inspiration from Vygotsky, Swain summarises:

Speaking and writing […] do much more than convey a message. They serve as tools of the mind, mediating the cognition and re-cognition of experience and knowledge. (Swain 2006:106)

I think it is crucial that we see EAP practice in these terms. This, for me, is appropriately Demand High EAP (and, in fact, the overarching ethos of Demand High ELT would appear to allow for this view). Such an approach helps avoid what I have, here and elsewhere, dubbed chEAP. This term is knowingly pejorative, because I think our learners deserve better. It is our responsibility to aim for a teaching & learning preparation that engages students in forms of academic participation that are broadly consonant with those they may encounter in their departments. Crucially, this means putting content at the centre of EAP practice.

Content should not be an empty container for language work, but rather the driver of its development.



Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2003) ‘Knowledge Building’. In Encyclopedia of Education. (2nd ed., pp. 1370-1373). New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.

Swain, M. (2006) ‘Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency’. In H. Byrnes (Ed) Advanced Language Learning: the contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky. London: Continuum.


8 comments on “Demand High EAP

  1. Shona Whyte
    7 January 2013

    Interesting issues which also apply to other teaching contexts. In a recent undergraduate EFL presentation course, some of my students struggled with feedback from me which concerned topic and audience, rather than grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation – their reaction was broadly “you asked us to talk, we talked, what more do you want?” I think Vygotskyan approaches involving mediation and languaging are relevant, but that task-based teaching, where attention is paid to the format and audience for language production, can help by creating a context for debates, discussions and presentations.

    • Steve Kirk
      8 January 2013

      Thanks for commenting Shona. I agree entirely that a task-based methodology is needed – and in fact this is inherent in the views I express in the post above. It is precisely by adopting a TBL type approach that content can become the driver of language development. When language is the vehicle rather than the object of the task, and where the task provides appropriate (cognitive) challenge, learners are, as I suggest above, encouraged to stretch existing linguistic resources to the demands of the task.

      I like your consideration of audience. This is as important for academic speaking as it is for writing, of course, and relates not only to language use (as perhaps we may be inclined to focus on) but also to content. Thanks.

  2. A really good post, Steve – I think you highlight one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching EAP so much – precisely because it’s about helping students to express ‘real’, intelligent, interesting ideas and helping them along with the language they need in order to acheive this. I love having the licence to push students about what they say as well as how they say it.

    Personally, I tend to do quite a bit of prodding and challenging in discussion classes as feedback. I write copious notes as students carry out their discussions – about language, content and skills (such as managing the discussion) – and then we’ll talk about these afterwards; often combining the elements. Sometimes bland content is about culture and expectations (esp. by students from certain backgrounds) and sometimes it’s about language – where a student doesn’t express a more interesting idea because they can’t find the language. I’ve been known to ask students to resume a discussion for another 5 minutes after feedback (sometimes with a bit of a follow-on question), during which I’ll interject (“Why do you say that?”, “Can you give me an example?”, “Does that apply elsewhere or just in …?”) whenever I feel they’re slipping back.

  3. Steve Kirk
    8 January 2013

    Thanks for your thoughts Julie. I think more teachers need to do what you do, in ‘prodding and challenging’ their students. I have seen far too many teachers react to academic speaking in ‘evaluative’ rather than ‘discursive’ ways, praising students essentially for having spoken, rather than probing a little deeper into the what and the why of learner production. I love the kind of questions you’re asking at the end of your comment here, and I think this is precisely the kind of mediation that can push learners towards more contentful, more academic work. One or two of our pre-sessional teachers last year were masters at this kind of dialogue – and in fact this partially inspired me to make ‘EAP teacher talk’ the basis for a talk (thankfully accepted!) at the BALEAP conference in Nottingham in April :-).

  4. Steve O'Sullivan
    9 January 2013

    Hi Steve
    At a general level, curious, critical engagement with spoken and written text (what we continually ask students to have), and one’s own and students’ ideas about content ought to make for a much more interesting teaching and learning experience for the teacher, oughtn’t it, though this may be more easily achievable at ‘higher’ language and ‘higher’ academic levels. And some of the best such engagement can be unplanned (a bit risky, perhaps, when it comes to those carefully-staged observed lessons!?).

    At a more specific level, some types of unrecorded assessed presentation situations came to my mind when I read your post, when I’ve been almost subconsciously distracted – probably partly because of underwhelming content – into focussing on degree of ‘skill’ and ‘performance’. The quality of content and presenter’s critical stance (though I personally feel that much clearer, less intuitive, meta-definition is needed when it comes to this area) may be somewhat insubstantial. One gets lost in a ‘cheaper’ dimension, with the possible result that an over-generous score is awarded relative to the actual substance, which probably doesn’t do the presenter (student) or the assessor (teacher) much good in the longer-run. This can also happen when it comes to assessing writing, of course, though then there’s at least a chance to stop, to try to ‘get a grip’, and re-read. In trying to define what EAP is that more general EFL isn’t, however, the latter still feels like it continually exerts a considerable gravitational pull towards comfortable zones, whilst we’re busy trying to work out what is that we’re trying to do in EAP (see, e.g. Julie King’s blogpost here:
    Cheers. Steve.

    • Steve Kirk
      14 January 2013

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share these thoughts, Steve – and apologies for the delayed response. I agree entirely that content engagement can make for a more interesting teacher experience. It’s also true, I think, that this can make planning and teaching slightly less ‘predictable’ than unseasoned teachers may be used to, but I think this is part of what EAP needs to be. It is one of the reasons that we now see teachers having a PG qualification as so important, so that they have had the lived experience themselves of struggling with hard readings, trying to express themselves on cognitively challenging issues, etc. Like you, I think it makes for a more engaging class for the teacher to work (at least sometimes) like this, where we move away from our ‘evaluator’ role towards a participant and genuine co-constructor of ideas (ie. we are likely to learn from the discussion too). This also means, importantly, that preparation for teaching probably needs to involve keeping up with at least some of what students are reading!

      Your other major point also struck quite a chord. We realised last summer, for the first time, that our PS students could grade in the highest speaking band without actually having anything substantive to say. This is, of course, now at odds with what we think should be happening in seminar speaking. One of our tasks for summer 2013, therefore, will be to write in content-linked criteria. This will also serve to nudge teachers out of the ‘gravitational pull’, that you so rightly point out exerts an influence on us all.

  5. theeaparchivist
    15 January 2013

    Hi Steve. Another great reflection on EAP. I sometimes wish there was a ‘hear hear’ button on blogs! I think that as many teachers come to EAP via EFL without any real induction into it we often feel ‘unauthorised’ to get involved with content. This has a lot to do with our perceptions of who we are as ‘language’ teachers and where we fit in the institutions we teach in. You’re right to point out that effective EAP assumes itself to be part of the broader academy not annexed to it (in your recent post), but for teachers to really feel this is acceptable there needs to be a recognisable induction (via teacher training courses, mentoring programmes etc) into EAP. I’m glad to see more of this happening. I think the more we are aware of what we are ‘allowed’ to do in the classroom as EAP practitioners the more this will have a positive impact on classes like the one you describe above, and, most importantly, on the student experience.

    • Steve Kirk
      15 January 2013

      Hi Susie. Thanks for your thoughts. I think you’re right that many EAP teachers area not quite sure about what they are ‘allowed’ to do, getting hung up on confusions over, e.g., student- vs teacher-centredness and whether they’re supposed to be lecturers rather than teachers. We need to break down these dichotomies and help people see that good EAP practice exists in a third space.

      I think it’s also the case, however, that some teachers, given their EFL backgrounds, may not see why content matters at all, beyond being a convenient peg to hang language work on (though I know my views here differ slightly from those of some others). I think this is also an important misconception we need to break down.

      Like you, I believe teacher development, quality staff inductions and dissemination of alternative ways of seeing things (our blogs, perhaps?!) can open discussion spaces where we can work together on what we think appropriate and effective classroom practice in EAP should look like.

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