Increasing and Preserving Academic Learner Engagement through Enhancing EAP Curricula

In the recent past, I began to notice an eerie phenomenon happening with the learners at the private language institute where I teach. Learners who had been highly motivated, eager participants in ESL classes were rapidly losing steam once they entered the EAP level, to the point where their attendance was flagging, their assignments were late (or not submitted), and their general attitude to learning was blasé.

As an empathetic teacher (and the institute’s lead curriculum designer), I was deeply disturbed by this trend, and set about coming up with some solutions to inject new life into these high level programs. From my perspective, many EAP learners were losing heart as they neared the “finish line,” right at that crucial time when they should have been taking stock of their learning successes and really flourishing.

Development of an Enhanced EAP Curriculum

The first step in attempting to remedy learners’ lack of motivation was to create a full curriculum similar to the programs I had designed for each of the ESL levels at the institute. While the bulk of this work is very time-consuming and involved breaking down each page of the core publisher textbook into lesson plans, enhancing the curriculum was not actually that huge a feat. For each of the institute’s two EAP levels, I created PowerPoint slides, designed supplementary handouts, and incorporated authentic materials such as visual aids and videos to enrich the depth of the content. What was most important to me was providing the same opportunities for learners to actively engage with these high level curricula as they were given throughout the ESL levels. Part of this came with carving out time for critical discussion, peer and self-editing, and more frequent collaboration, including survey projects done with other classes and institute faculty and staff.

To truly motivate learners, Morgan (2009) advocates for positioning them as “active meaning makers and not passive recipients” and finding opportunities to utilize both teachers’ and learners’ “identities as texts” (p. 91): Each new EAP lesson plan included discussion and a range of other activities that would ensure learners applied content to their own lives and experiences. At the same time, teachers were afforded valuable opportunities to explore learners’ personalities, learning styles, and past and current knowledge about, and attitudes toward, the program’s various subjects.

When delivered initially, the immediate impact of these “newly renovated” courses seemed positive: I was able to witness firsthand the effects of the program upgrades by teaching each of the EAP levels, as I was still in a position where I taught both TESOL and ESL and EAP. However, I suspected that I would still need to examine the programs over time to ensure they were still proving effective with the various groups of ESL learners coming into the programs. An instructor in Chun’s (2016) critical pedagogies case study asks: “How many EAP teachers are willing to investigate their own teaching methodologies and the proceedings in their classrooms unless an observer/researcher obliges them to?” (p. 128). In my view, if we want to provide fully engaging, meaningful experiences for any learner, we can’t afford not to make these investigative efforts. These need not be full-scale research projects or massive overhauls of an entire curriculum; instead, the most important action we can take may be as simple as asking questions-consulting with stakeholders by soliciting learner and instructor input via informal needs assessment.

 

Needs Assessment and Critical Discourse Research

Within a year of designing these EAP courses, an ideal opportunity came with a research paper I wrote for my New School MATESOL ESP course, for which I conducted a needs assessment and critical discourse analysis of the receptive skills (reading and listening) portion of the curriculum in one EAP program at the institute. This assignment allowed me the luxury of examining the program (and the stakeholders’ perspectives on it) without actually taking away from the time I routinely give to my TESOL training courses. The experience of carrying out learner surveys, focus group sessions with core EAP instructors and interviews with the institute director brought home the value of regularly (and critically) investigating the effectiveness of the content we offer our learners.

 

Sample Research Findings

When conducting the needs assessment, I admittedly went into the project assuming that both learners and teachers had similar perspectives on, for example, which of the program’s listening and reading tasks were most effective. However, I was amazed to discover that, not only did the two parties’ views differ on several counts, but when asked which activities were most effective for reading and listening, teachers seemed to value personalization tasks less than the learners: 33% as compared with 56%. The teachers’ perspective seemed to stand in marked contrast to Morgan’s (2009) recommendation of utilizing learners’ experiences (and their personalities themselves) as a crucial component of classroom material:

From the data, it was also apparent that all teachers seemed to prioritize post reading and listening tasks in which learners applied content or worked with it productively (during follow-up discussion or by writing summaries), while slightly more than half of learners did. Another difference was in the perception of pre-reading or pre-listening vocabulary practice, which 67% of teachers valued as compared with 100% of learners. To my mind, sharing the results of this study with the core teachers and the director of the institute could work to increase awareness of what learners at the institute see as most beneficial to their own learning and promote student-centredness in our programs. The time it took to conduct the needs assessment in its totality is minimal in comparison to the value of having this data to inform curricular adaptation and thereby benefit all of the stakeholders affected.

More recently, I had the opportunity to witness these EAP learners in action while evaluating several TESOL Practicum sessions and observing my colleagues for their annual teacher reviews. I saw a group of deeply engaged EAP learners who were in fact consulted regularly on their previous knowledge, their perspectives on various issues, and their general comfort levels with the tasks being carried out in class. It is interesting to consider that fewer teachers than learners reported to value personalized tasks, yet teachers regularly take advantage of such opportunities during their lessons.

Photo by Jennifer Jones

Strategies to Boost EAP Engagement

In the New School TESOL webinar “Putting the Pizazz Back in EAP,” I focused on examining what we ideally want for our EAP learners and recommended strategies and solutions to enhance, promote and preserve learner engagement at the EAP level. Below is a checklist of items that can be implemented, in part or in whole, to deepen the learning experiences of our academic learners:

  • Conduct regular informal needs assessment verbally, on paper or via survey
  • Ensure that learners are part of the discussion and solicit input on curricular decision-making
  • Carve out “wiggle room” within a standardized curriculum such that particular needs are met while content stays true to what learners are assessed on
  • Incorporate short, engaging,(ideally) authentic texts to emphasize real-world value and promote greater interest in EAP course book content
  • Use learner or teacher-generated material to supplement and learner or teacher experiences to shape lessons and spark discussions
  • Solicit formative feedback and consider this feedback when adapting materials and lessons
  • Refer learners back to needs assessment findings and formative feedback to have learners reflect on possible adjustments, emerging needs and personal progress
  • Seek occasions to delegate the “teacher” or “expert” role to learners
  • Encourage goal-setting by term, by unit, by skill and by language system
  • Incorporate time for review and process-focused work and balance this with attention to product

 

Final thoughts and Conclusion

From my experiences with developing the EAP curricula and subsequently conducting the needs assessment, the critical discourse study, and the later practicum and observation sessions, it has become apparent that, when consulted and made an active part of curricular decisions and classroom activity, learners will absolutely rise to the occasion. To greater enhance the EAP learning experience, we need to ensure that learners are playing a focal role in how the curricula is delivered and that we encourage them to apply course content to their personal experience and academic or professional goals, whether or not this is explicitly prompted by the publisher materials we use.

 

References: 

  1. Chun, C. W. (2016). Addressing racialized multicultural discourses in an EAP textbook: Working toward a critical pedagogies approach. TESOL Quarterly, 50(1), 109-131.
  2. Morgan, B. (2009). Fostering transformative practitioners for critical EAP: Possibilities and challenges.  Journal of English for Academic Purposes 8, 86-99.

 

 

Author’s Biography: Jennifer Jones has been in the ESL field for more than thirteen years and has taught in Canada for the past twelve. She is Head of Academics and Head TESOL Instructor at London Language Institute, where she runs the TESOL Program and has developed curriculum for all ESL and EAP levels.