“EAP is a waste of time”?

In several talks during the last few years, Stephen Krashen has stated that teaching EAP is a waste of time. I like Stephen Krashen and most of what he writes. So if he says that teaching EAP is a waste of time, the only conclusion that I can come to is that he must misunderstand what I think EAP is. As I do not think what I – and other people I know around the world – do is a waste of time! He said this in a talk with the title “The Route To Academic Language” at Temple University, Japan in 2012: https://www.tuj.ac.jp/tesol/news-events/20120704-form-video.html He also said it in a talk to the IATEFL Young Learners & Teenagers Special Interest Group earlier this year. This is available at: http://yltsigevo2014.wordpress.com/stephen-krashen/ Cheryl Zimmerman has responded to a question posed on the OUP blog: “How would you answer Krashen’s assertion that teaching EAP is a waste of time”? http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2014/03/04/qskills-how-would-you-answer-krashens-assertion-that-teaching-eap-is-a-waste-of-time/ While her contribution is interesting, she does not really address what Krashen is saying in his talks. All she refers to is Krashen’s input hypothesis and that other people have suggested that receiving comprehensible input is not enough. For example Merrill Swain modified Krashen’s hypothesis with her output hypothesis, Michael Long puts forward his interaction hypothesis and Richard Schmidt emphasises the importance of paying attention to form through noticing. So I think we can do better than Cheryl Zimmerman, though,  and discuss what he actually says. I like Krashen, I always have done, I follow him on Twitter, I retweet him a lot, and what he says before he talks about EAP makes a lot of sense: reading is important. In the IATEFL talk, Krashen emphasises that he learned to write academically through reading articles he was interested in. He did not read on order to learn to write but because he was interested on what he was reading:

“I found out that there was one person who had done the core research in the area. Doreen Kimura from Ontario, Canada. I read all her stuff. It started in 1957, all her journal papers. From her, I learned academic style and how to do experiments, how to write up experiments, how to apply statistics. I wasn’t aware I was doing that. I was reading it because I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and to help us prepare for our own studies. But a by-product was getting academic style and getting all this knowledge and information.”

and he argues that this is the only way we can learn academic language:

“This is how we get academic language. My claim is that you can’t do it any other way. No-one has ever done it through studying. It can’t be done. I’m going to make the claim today that English for academic purposes is a waste of time. No-one – it has never worked. Not a single sentient being on this planet has ever developed significant amounts of academic language competence through study of academic language. It can’t be done. First of all, the system’s much too complicated. There’s too much grammar, too much vocabulary. It can’t be done one at a time.”

He supports this by research carried out by himself and Christy Lau, a while ago. I assume this is Lao & Krashen (2000). In this study translation students doing an English course that emphasised reading for content and pleasure did better on tests of vocabulary and reading rate than social science students who had taken a traditional academic skills class. The results are significant, but although we are given a large amount of information about the reading course, we are not given much information about the academic skills class apart from the fact that it covered oral skills (e.g. an oral presentation), writing (essay organisation, editing and proof-reading), listening (note-taking during lectures), and reading (taking notes from academic texts). The students did a research project which was graded on content, organisation, and the quality of the abstract and bibliography. It seems very general and there is no evidence that the course interested the students or that the content was relevant to them. We also do not have much information about the test used: it measured reading speed and the number of words known. It is not clear what reading speed was measured and how it was measured or exactly which words were counted in the vocabulary test. The translation students were also at a higher level than the social science students. In both his talks, after he says that EAP is a waste of time, he talks about sheltered subject classes, content-based classes and CLIL – which most EAP courses make use of to some extent. He also talks a lot about free voluntary reading, self-selection, interest etc, none of which is unusual in EAP. As well as this, he says that “teaching must be compelling’”. I agree and I think that EAP, especially ESAP –  when the students are working with the language of a subject they are interested in, on tasks that they see as relevant to their future lives – can be. So I think he misunderstands much of what I think of as EAP. He is thinking of out of context language instruction and skills classes and that is not what I think of when I talk about EAP – content-based classes, sheltered classes, students choice of reading texts, relevance, integration with academic subjects, self-chosen relevant written projects, etc. The EAP teaching that I know about is context driven, purposeful, interesting and therefore seems quite in line with most of his ideas. We also need to remember that much of the research he refers to is with young children. He gives a nice example of how he learned academic writing, through comic books, Robert Heinlein, Chomsky, Kimura etc, but it took him 10 years or more, from teenager to graduate school. As is the case with most ESP & EAP courses, our students do not have that amount of time. And I think that our knowledge of how academic writing works – based on writers such as Hyland & Swales (which Krashen seems to find irrelevant to education) can be valuable to speed up the natural processes that Krashen writes about.

“If you read the stuff our colleagues do – like Hyland and Swales – I’ve read all this stuff, where they analyse academic texts and I find their work is brilliant linguistics. It’s not applicable to teaching, to pedagogy.”

So, overall, I would say that the EAP teaching that I am interested in and have experience with is context driven, purposeful, interesting and therefore seems quite in line with most of Krashen’s ideas.

References

Lau, C. Y. & Krashen, S. (2000). The impact of popular literature study on literacy development in EFL: More evidence for the power of reading. System, 28, 261-270.

7 thoughts on ““EAP is a waste of time”?

  1. “So I think he misunderstands much of what I think of as EAP. He is thinking of out of context language instruction and skills classes, and he doesn’t seem to be talking about what I mean by EAP – content-based classes, sheltered classes, students choice of reading texts, relevance, self-chosen written projects, etc. The EAP teaching that I know about is context driven, purposeful and therefore seems quite in line with most of his ideas.”
    MY COMMENT: If we define EAP the way you do, I am all in favor of EAP. In my papers, I defined EAP as skill-building – describe academic language then try to teach it directly.

  2. The TIME argument: “As is the case with most ESP & EAP courses, our students do not have that amount of time. I think our knowledge of how academic writing works – based on writers such as Hyland & Swales (which Krashen seems to dislike) can be valuable to speed up the natural processes that Krashen writes about.”

    The research suggests that doing it right, via comprehensible input, is actually faster, more efficient. Supported by our studies comparing free reading and “study.” For some interesting examples, see benikomason.net. And formal study can’t do the entire job, the system is too complex to be learned. As for Hyland and Swales, I think their work is brilliant. What it shows us is how complex academic language is, and provides evidence that it is hopeless to teach and learn more than bits and pieces of it.

  3. “We also need to remember that much of the research he refers to is with young children. He gives a nice example of how he learned academic writing, through comic books, Robert Heinlein, Chomsky, Kimura etc, but it took him 10 years or more.”
    I described what I did over ten years, but that doesn’t mean that it takes that long.
    Is the research limited to young children? No, but much of it is done with young people, children, adolescents and young adults. Here is an example of a 75 year old man who made excellent progress acquiring academic language, as measured by TOEIC, from reading alone: Mason, B. (2013a). Substantial gains in listening and reading ability in English as a second language from voluntary listening and reading in a 75 year old student. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 8(1), 25-27. (Available at IJFLT.com)

  4. Unfortunately, your debate doesn’t take into account the diversity of learners. Some people learn better through reading and imitating, others learn better through reading and studying. Learners of the latter category need a certain level of awareness to become successful.

    • I think it does take account of the diversity of learners. ESP always starts with all the needs of the learners, whether professional, academic, educational, psychological…

      • Sorry, my comment was unclear. I meant the diversity of learning strategies (some based more on imitation and others on studying language structures). This diversity implies that there isn’t one method which would be the “right” or “best” method, but that a variety of methods should be offered so that learners can choose the method most appropriate for them.

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