What is EAP?

There is a quite interesting discussion going on in the EAP forum at IATEFL and the post below is my personal take on the question posed there. One of the issues brought to the fore whether our focus should be on language development or study skills.

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all regarding the balance between language, study skills and critical skills. It all depends on the needs of particular groups and the strengths and weaknesses they have – and it even varies from group to group studying at the same academic level

Besides that, it seems to me that even when we decide to focus on more than one of them, we still have this sort of dialectical mentality. It is always a matter of X or Y. Most of the times we still see the world in Saussurean terms of binary oppositions. Why not X and Y and Z? They can happen simultaneously if we design activities that can foster all of them, even if, unavoidably, the focus will shift from activity to activity. As I see it, the trick is to keep language, study skills and critical skills in a sort of dynamic tension.

Another issue raised was if there is a place for literature in EAP. I think there are number of things to consider.

I believe poetry, short stories and plays can also be used to teach English to EAP students. Even when students are extremely focused on their field of interest, they still have other things that appeal to them. To imagine, for instance, that an engineering student is a monolithic entity made of formulas is a misconception – they are also human beings and literature appeals to humans in all cultures, cognitively and affectively. In my experience, a short poem can be a nice little break between masses of technical articles and can create some memorable learning moments. However, I never use literature as a ‘light relief’, also because good literature is never ‘light.’ What I mean is that it can provide a nice change to students that are usually overwhelmed by academic articles. I always have a very well-defined rationale and teaching purpose for every text I use. It may be a grammar structure, or vocabulary field, or a particular skill, or the discussion of a particular issue. Literature provides the rich prompt to do that.

Another thing to bear in mind is that using literature in language teaching and learning does not mean to take our students to the depths of literary criticism. There are other approaches to it.

I think it comes back to the questions of what teaching EAP really means. Is it a matter of just training students to paraphrase and use technical vocabulary? Or is it to teach them also to become critical readers, capable of making interdisciplinary connections and develop the capacity to identify a writer’s stance, tone and purpose? I go with the second option and if this is so, a poem or short story carefully selected may be a very useful and memorable learning tool.

Sure thing you can do without it. It is perfectly possible to use only academic and general texts to do that. EAP students can live perfectly well without literature. As anyone can live without ever going to the theatre or the cinema, without looking at a painting, without music, without flowers in the garden. You can survive – it just makes your life experience a little bit poorer.