Colleagues in departments tell me that they want international students to be able to participate, think critically analytically, and to be in touch with what’s going on in the real world. This last issue seems – to me at least – to be underrepresented in the wider world of EAP teaching, but it’s a potentially rich seam of potential for the teacher and learner alike. Students who can apply theory to practice are valued by their departments, and if doing so involves applying the academic to the real world then perhaps EAP courses should be paying more attention to what’s going on outside of the classroom.
In the early stages of EAP courses, I like to get students involved in a reading-to-write project using whatever is in the news and of interest to them. The students pick a news item (from a “simpler” source like the BBC News if proficiency levels are low), read a text that reports it, and then attempt to write a very brief summary (50-100 words, depending on the students) to explain to me what it’s about. I’ll typically given them question prompts as guidance (see below).
As well as writing summaries, the students note down new / interesting vocabulary and any challenging / interesting grammatical structures they encounter when reading. As a by-product, I thus get insight into the way that they are identifying and recording lexis (and of course ways in which this can be improved) and the way that they are processing texts at sentence level.
One advantage to reading about current affairs is that a story reported by one news source is likely to be reported elsewhere in similar but different ways by other news sources. If the story is significant enough, there’s also a very good chance that comment will be published on the issue within editorials. If students read several versions of the same story, they’ll notice the same item-specific vocabulary recurring and will hopefully realise how important recycling and repetition is in vocabulary learning. With a little help they should also start to see subtle differences in style and purpose, particularly where comment pieces are encountered.
Earlier this year I offered to step in and cover a Reading and Writing class on a very early stage of a pre-sessional course. I had 15 students, around half of whom had IELTS scores of 5 and 5.5, while the other half had 6s and 6.5s. Given the range of levels within the group, I felt the best option was to ditch the coursebook and give the students a project in which I could at least attempt to apply the maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, which I’m aware I have just bastardised from Marx.
I gave the students the task of reading a short text of their choice and summarising it, with the following prompts to guide them:
- What’s the text about?
- Where did you find the text?
- Why did you choose to summarise it?
- What do you think about the content of the text?
Students posted their summaries to a private blog I’d set up for the group, and it quickly became clear that many of them were following the story of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. They were writing about the story and making comments on each other’s posts. The summaries, however, were not particularly well composed. One of the better summaries posted at that early stage was the following:
To work on summarising skills, I reverted to the common universal cultural currency of Titanic and did a session on summarising plotlines of films for a variety of different readers and purposes:
The students all then very keenly wrote summaries of their favourite films for each other on the class blog, and comments and recommendations were exchanged. In our next class together we began a sequence that involved reading a comment piece related to the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, with lots of scaffolding around reading and understanding the piece before any attempts were made to summarise or respond to it, including a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what the text SAYS and what the text DOES:
The students then wrote summaries of the Guardian comment piece, guided by the following prompts:
- What type of text is it?
- What is the text about?
- What is the writer’s purpose?
- What’s the most important point that the text makes?
- How does the writer make this point?
- What is your reaction to the text? (what is particularly interesting or surprising? is there a point that you strongly agree or disagree with? Why?
The Powerpoint file below includes the various steps taken together with the class, along with three summary paragraphs summarised as feedback. I chose two student-written paragraphs – one well-written but not grasping the argument of the source text and another not-so-well written but with elements of emerging critical awareness – for the group to discuss the merits of and wrote a model text of my own for further analysis.
Once students were engaged with the subject, it was easy to engage them with the text and with responses to the text. Opportunities arose to explore subject-specific connections to the topic. What legal responsibilities do the airline have to the relatives of their passengers? What about ethical responsibilities? What perspective does an accountant have on the tragedy? What about a marketing student? What technology in the plane could help to determine its location? It doesn’t take a huge amount of thought or imagination to ask questions that relate current affairs to students’ subject areas, and even if the teacher struggles for inspiration, students are capable of making their own connections.
Student feedback on the reading-to-write project was positive; several noted that they had never been asked to respond to the content of texts they read before, and that the whole issue of considering what a text does rather than merely what it says was new and challenging, but clearly important. The following weeks saw a flurry of blog activity with all students posting improved summaries. These were only first steps for the students, of course, so critical engagement was, in most cases, nascent at best. But the crucial first steps were taken in most cases, and in a world where some international students arrive in the UK ten weeks before a Masters programme having never connected with written English beyond IELTS preparation exercise, this has to be a positive.