Analytic & Synthetic EAP

The title refers back to David Wilkins’s (1976) distinction between analytic and synthetic syllabuses. He argued that a synthetic language teaching strategy was one in which the different parts of the language were taught separately and step-by-step so that acquisition was a process of gradual accumulation of the parts until the whole structure of the language has been built up. The learner’s task was then, therefore,  to re-synthesize the language that has been broken down into smaller pieces with the aim of making his or her learning easier.

An example from that period was a typical coursebook such as Kernel Lessons (O’Neil, Kingsbury & Yeadon, 1971), which started with the following chapters

  1. Present simple and position of time adverbs
  2. Present continuous
  3. Simple past tense Regular and irregular verbs
  4. Mass and unit
  5. Some, any, a few, a little
  6. Past tense with ‘ago’ and questions with ‘how long ago?’
  7. Adjectives and adverbs
  8. Comparison of adverbs
  9. Going to do
  10. Requests and offers and take/get/bring/show  someone something
  11. Present perfect with ‘for’ and ‘since’
  12. Have been doing/have just done/haven’t done yet/had better do
  13. Past continuous and past simple

An EAP book of the same period (Ewer & Latorre , 1969), although using more academic subject matter,  divided the language up in a similar way:

  • UNIT I SIMPLE PRESENT ACTIVE: The Scientific Attitude
  • UNIT 2 SIMPLE PRESENT PASSIVE: Numbers and Mathematics
  • UNIT 3 SIMPLE PAST ACTIVE AND PASSIVE: Scientific Method and the Methods of Science
  • UNIT 4 -ing FORMS I: Pure and Applied Science
  • UNIT 5 REVISION OF UNITS 1-4: Directed Research
  • UNIT 6 PRESENT PERFECT; PRESENT CONTINUOUS: Science and International Co-operation
  • UNIT 7 INFINITIVES; -ing FORMS II: Underdevelopment and the Sciences
  • UNIT 8 ANOMALOUS FINITES: Sources of Error in Scientific Investigation
  • UNIT 9 PAST PERFECT; CONDITIONALS: Straight and Crooked Thinking
  • UNIT 10 REVISION OF UNITS 6-9: Science and the Future
  • UNIT II GENERAL REVISION UNIT: The Role of Chance in Scientific Discovery
  • UNIT 12 GENERAL REVISION UNIT: The Scientist and Government

Wilkins contrasts this synthetic approach with what he called an “analytic” approach, where there is no attempt at this careful linguistic control of the learning environment. The example given – in 1976 – of a non-synthetic or analytic approach was a notional or functional syllabus or approach to language. A general English textbook of that period such as Strategies (Abbs, Ayton & Freebairn, 1975) would have chapter headings such as:

  • Unit 1:
    • Set 1 Identification
    • Set 2 Invitations
    • Set 3 Likes and dislikes (1)
  • Unit 2:
    • Set 1 Description: People
    • Set 2 Description: Places
  • Unit 3:
    • Set 1 Impatience
    • Set 2 Not knowing
    • Set 3 The past (1)
    • Set 4 Surprise and disbelief

An EAP book following this approach was Cooper (1979), which organised the language and the learning as follows:

  • Sequencing
    •  Instructions
    • Processes
    • Past Events
  • Classification
    • Lists
    • Diagrams
    • Texts
    • Definitions
  • Comparison & Contrast
    • Similarities
    • Differences
    • Concession
    • Analogies
  • Cause & Effect
    • Consequences
    • Explanations
    • References
    • Elaboration

or Jordan (1980):


  • Unit 1 Description
  • Unit 2 Definitions
  • Unit 3 Exemplification
  • Unit 4 Classification
  • Unit 5 Comparison and Contrast
  • Unit 6 Cause and Effect
  • Unit 7 Generalisation and Qualification
  • Unit 8 Interpretation of Data
  • Unit 9 Argument
  • Unit 10 Drawing Conclusions

This continues to the present day with Bailey (2006):

  • Argument
  • Cause and Effect
  • Cohesion
  • Comparison
  • Definitions
  • Discussion
  • Examples
  • Generalisations
  • Numbers
  • Opening Paragraphs
  • References and Quotations
  • Restatement and Repetition
  • Style

Although this was a great development in the way we see and teach language, it seems to me, though, that this is still a synthetic approach. This approach is still dividing the language into parts – albeit larger parts, called cognitive genres by Bruce (2008) – which the learner has to put back together again.

But most student assignments are NOT definitions, comparisons or classifications by themselves. The assignments may require the students to make use of these cognitive genres as they combine these texts into larger complete texts with a clear purpose and audience, called social genres by Bruce. However, the early textbooks did not provide any help for the students on how to do this. What was needed was the concept of genre, brought to a wider audience by, e.g., Swales (1990).

As EAP teachers we need to concentrate on our students’ purposes in writing, the genres that they need to produce and how these genres are realised. In order to do that, we need to investigate exactly which genres our students need and then do the genre analysis to work out the linguistic realisations of these genres.

For example (Gillett & Hammond, 2009):

  • Critical analysis
  • Portfolio of evidence
  • Negotiated
  • Article suitable for publication
  • Evaluation of care plan
  • Reflective journal
  • Critique of interview
  • Practical skills assessment handbook
  • Evaluation of skills
  • Complete skills handbook
  • Critical discussion
  • Court report
  • Practice experience and assessment portfolio
  • Essay
  • Workbook
  • Evidence based report
  • Developmental action plan
  • Complete learning contract

My colleagues Mary Martala and Angela Hammond and I tried to put this into practice in our Successful Academic Writing textbook (Gillett, Hammond & Martala, 2009) in which we described the composition of the following social genres:

  • Essays
  • Research proposals
  • Literature reviews
  • Reports
  • Experimental/research reports
  • Book reviews
  • Abstracts
  • Case studies
  • Reflection

This was, however, based very much on our intuition and experience. A few other well-established textbooks have tried (Dudley-Evans, 1985 ; Weissberg & Buker, 1990;  Comfort, Revell & Stott, 1985) and the more recent:  Bitchener(2010), but they are quite scientific in their approach.

However, the BAWE project (Nesi  & Gardner, 2012) provides a more rigorous research base for this kind of classification.

Nesi & Gardner distinguish five main purposes for student writing:

  1. Demonstrating Knowledge and Understanding
  2. Building Research Skills
  3. Developing Powers of Independent Reasoning
  4. Writing for Oneself and Others
  5. Preparing for Professional Practice

Furthermore, these can be realised by thirteen genre families:

  • Case Study
  • Critique
  • Design Specification
  • Empathy Writing
  • Essay
  • Exercise
  • Explanation
  • Literature Survey
  • Methodology Recount
  • Narrative Recount
  • Problem Question
  • Proposal
  • Research Report

These academic genres are not natural; they need to be learned. As Bourdieu (1996, p. 8) makes clear:

“Academic language is a dead language for the great majority of French people, and is no one’s mother tongue, not even that of the children of the cultivated classes”

Attention to teaching genres has finally resulted in the analytic approach that Wilkins desired. However, most modern textbooks are still – in Wilkins’s words – synthetic.  We therefore need analytic teaching material to help our students.

The British Council’s LearnEnglish website should have some materials – based on the BAWE  research soon.


Abbs, B., Ayton, A  & Freebairn, I. (1975). Strategies. London: Longman.

Bailey, S. (2006). Academic writing: A handbook for international students (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Bitchener, J. (2010).  Writing an applied linguistics thesis or dissertation: A guide to presenting empirical research. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.-C. (1994). Introduction: Language and the relationship to language in the teaching situation. In P. Bourdieu, J.-C. Passeron & M. de Saint Martin, Academic discourse (pp. 1-34). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bruce, I. (2008). Academic writing and genre: A systematic approach. London: Continuum.

Comfort, J., Revell, R. & Stott, C. (1985). Business reports in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cooper, J. (1979). Think and link. London: Arnold.

Dudley-Evans, T. (1985). Writing laboratory reports. Melbourne: Nelson Wadsworth.

Ewer, J. & Latorre, G. (1969). Basic English for science. London: Longman.

Gillett, A. J. & Hammond, A. C. (2009). Mapping the maze of assessment: An investigation into practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10, 120-137.

Gillett, A. J., Hammond, A. C. & Martala, M. (2009). Successful academic writing. London: Pearson Longman.

Jordan, R. R. (1999). Academic writing course (3rd ed.). London: Longman..

Nesi, H, & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neil, R., Kingsbury, R. & Yeadon, T. (1971). Kernel lessons: Intermediate. London: Longman.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weissberg, R. & Buker, S. (1990). Writing up research: Experimental research report writing for students of English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Wilkins, D. (1976). Notional syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the CAPTCHA * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.