BALEAP 2019 – On the Edge of My Seat

Although the official title of the BALEAP 2019 conference was ‘Innovation, Exploration and Transformation’, my experience would steal the title of co-organiser Alex Ding and Ian Bruce’s 2017 publication, ‘The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner: Operating on the Edge of Academia’. Many of the talks I attended explored the question: What are EAP teachers? Even the one session which started with the speaker saying she was fed up with discussing identity couldn’t keep away from it entirely – even in opposition. However, conferences are the sessions you go to and over three days this one had around 170 of them so the following summary is of my experience, rather than anything comprehensive. Abstracts of all the talks I refer to can be found in the online programme here.

What are EAP teachers?

who am i

There seemed to be two answers to this question. The most widespread was that EAP is a discipline in its own right and through research EAP teachers should be challenging HE and the EAP materials industry’s attempts to turn EAP into a low-skilled service. Plenaries by Nigel Harwood (are we teachers or cleaners?) and Cynthia White (take action, guys!) and Alex Ding and Ian Bruce’s session (don’t trust the system and scholarship=capital) argued this explicitly while David Camorani reported on the ‘self-marginalisation’ of EAP teachers when talking about their role. A hot topic during the coffee breaks pit stops was Olwyn Alexander’s incendiary comment during the ‘Lessons from the BALEP Past’ panel plenary that teachers need to do research in their own time, rather than as part of their job: If EAP is an academic discipline shouldn’t universities pay for research to be done? If we don’t research, what is to distinguish us from private providers?

The second and less widely represented answer came from the Sunday Symposium titled ‘How a focus on context could transform EAP teaching practice…’ starring Julie King, Andrew Norther and Robin Mowat from Imperial and Gary Riley-Jones from Goldsmiths. They argued that the role of EAP teachers is to develop contextually relevant products to serve ‘clients’ both within and beyond the institution. They described how at Imperial they support researchers to produce research which is a more tangible benefit than other types of EAP – such as academic literacies? i.e. contributing to REF scores and other research-oriented metrics. To paraphrase Julie King (Director of the centre), output is everything, with the centre’s goal to change the world through effective communication of knowledge. ‘Future-proofing’ the department was mentioned a few times, which I took to mean demonstrating the value of a university-embedded EAP department in the face of external private providers. Gary Riley-Jones talked about context in a different way, in that after speaking to students and lecturers in the Art school he identified that students needed most help dealing with ‘The Crit’ – a dreaded open presentation and discussion of their work with tutors and peers. His response has been to act as a rehearsal coach for these students who perform The Crit and he responds in an unplanned, Dogme kind of way. For him this forms part of a ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’ acute for Art students as they grapple with self-expression through their work and the subsequent exposure to open criticism.

Putting the ‘E’ back into BALEAP

Andy Gillet (of UEFAP fame) called for BALEAP to focus more on language, and there were some excellent talks on this. Michael McCarthy ‘s on word lists was a teacher friendly introduction to how they can be used when designing materials as a ‘short cut to pedagogy’. The thrust of the talk was introducing 4 new academic word lists under the banner of OPAL (Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon), divided into words and phrases for both writing and speaking. This free online tool can filter each list by academic function e.g. adding, comparing, making contrasts, which could help heed Ding and Bruce’s advice (see above) to check the validity of information about language in EAP coursebook materials and develop more context-specific materials in house.


David Oakey’s talk about the gap between research and practice in phraseology also referenced OPAL but I was so bowled over by his erudition that I couldn’t keep up with some of what he said (handout here)! However, his final point was about the lack of take up by teachers of corpus research tools and judging from my own experience, I think this is sometimes the way that findings from corpora are presented to teachers. For example, take a look at Pearson’s The Academic Collocation List and practical lesson ideas don’t exactly jump out at you! He gave some examples of how EAP materials have incorporated these in more useful ways (see p.2 of the handout) and I think OPAL could help make corpora a bigger part of teachers’ work life.

Fake news and ones that got away

The 2021 BALEAP theme is focused on pedagogical approaches and Philip Leeke’s workshop pre-empted this with resources he’s used to try to ‘inoculate’ students against fake news: the Calling Bullshit website has online courses in… doing just that; the Sheffield Methods Institute ‘why numbers matter’ video series explains how numbers can be used and abused in research; and TinEye, a reverse image search tool, lets students ascertain the source of any image.

A few sessions I missed which sounded great were Jenny Kemp’s ‘Develop your corpus competence and your understanding of discipline-specific student needs’ and Sally Zacharias’ ‘What can cognitive linguistics do for the EAP community?’ If anyone has notes from these, I’d be keen to see them.

Lingering Questions

I finish with two questions I haven’t been able to make sense of:

  1. Why do TESOL and EAP speak to each other so little? It seems to me that findings from SLA in particular could be really helpful to EAP, yet I saw no mention of the SLA literature in the presentations I attended.
  2. Perhaps connected to the above: Is ‘international student’ now a boo word? Some throwaway comments during the conference seemed to suggest this and that all HE students should be considered EAP students, regardless of L1. The implications of this would be huge, or have I missed something?
international Ss

Know teaching? Show me.


Last year I took a Second Language Acquisition (SLA) module as part of my TESOL master’s course. It was a great experience: every week there was a new epiphany where the secrets of language learning and teaching were revealed again and again. Intuitions I’d had over years of teaching were crystallising, assumptions I’d made were being challenged… I felt soon I would be like a geeky version of Neo in The Matrix, and ‘know’ teaching.

However, when I try to pin down in what ways my thinking about all this has changed, I’m at a loss. In a job interview shortly after finishing the module I was asked how research has informed my teaching and my response was: it’s helped me realise I’m a much less effective teacher than I thought I was. The follow up question was along the lines of how I’ve addressed this realisation, and rather than claw myself out of the hole I was digging I replied that I hadn’t figured it out yet. Although telling your employer you know you’re ineffective should probably come after getting the job rather than during the interview (though I did get the job!), this exchange propelled me to try to articulate the ideas I’ve learned, which is why you’re reading this now.

Bill VanPatten. from:

I’m going to sketch out a few ideas on this blog starting with three principles of SLA from a talk from Bill VanPatten (who by the way is a really accessible way into the subject): language learning is slow, piecemeal and predictable. The rest of this post riffs on the first principle, kinda. Please note my ramblings here are not VanPatten’s but my own.

It’s slow

Language acquisition is a slow process of building a mental representation of a language. This process seems to be mostly implicit and unconscious so memorising explicit facts or rules about language (e.g. the various uses of the present prefect or articles) doesn’t change the representation of what is inside our students’ heads. This makes sense to me having seen students work through explicit grammar-rule heavy coursebooks without their language use changing in any satisfying, cause and effect way. Instead, many scholars suggest that learners should engage with meaningful and comprehensible input. I understand meaningful input to mean meaningful to your particular learners: texts which inherently engage, anger, entertain, inform them. Comprehensible input I suppose is that which students can make meaning of without having to look up every word. Doing this seems to support SLA however coursebooks instead fill lots of their pages explaining and practicing grammatical rules (which doesn’t seem to have an impact on mental representation).

If things were as binary as implicit=good, explicit=bad, I wouldn’t need to write these posts and might even give more tangible answers in job interviews. There are a number of caveats. One seems to be that that when students only have meaningful input without any explicit language teaching, some quite fundamental grammatical concepts don’t become part of their mental representations. I’ve had conversations with some people who say that this ‘proves’ that we need a mix of both explicit language teaching and meaning focussed input which is exactly what coursebooks do (and that my CELTA and DELTA courses validated) by providing short graded texts which students first engage with for meaning then analyse for a particular linguistic form. For me this misses the point of the research: some aspects of language can’t be acquired through exposure to input, not all aspects. Similarly, many aspects of language can’t be acquired through explicit teaching. It makes more sense to me to figure out what these are and then focus on when and how they can best be taught to become part of learners’ mental representations, rather than wasting our time doing things in class that do not contribute to SLA. This is one area I think a bit more research might actually help me teach better.

Vocabulary learning appears to be a similar story, in that explicit learning of vocabulary through word lists can be really useful to learn the basic meaning of a word while deeper knowledge such as collocation or register needs implicit learning though meaningful input. As for ‘skill’ learning is a different can of worms.

The ELT industry and SLA, From:

What is confusing is that although much of the above principles are generally agreed on by academics, the ELT industry (coursebooks, big training courses and most language schools) seems to operate in a parallel world underpinned by the idea that all aspects of language are learned in the same way: through explicit teaching and practice of rules. The reality of SLA is slower and far less service-oriented than ELT presents it to be: to acquire language the ‘customer’ has to work far harder than the ‘provider’. Not the most appealing tag line when you’re trying to make a sale for a two-week language course!

So, to try to wrench this back to the purpose I’m writing it for, how can I use any of this in my teaching? Firstly, just knowing that the explicit rule stuff is unlikely to make any difference is a relief: I can ignore it if possible and if I have to do it, I will spend less time on it; Despite the industry apparatus around us, the classroom is still just me and my students and it’s up to me how much I let it affect us. Secondly, figuring out what is important to my students and providing lots of meaningful input for inside and outside the classroom seems to be a good use of everyone’s time. I’ve used the Academic Reading Circles framework to do this, with students collaborating to make sense of a text from different perspectives. Similarly, extensive reading (ER) seems to be very beneficial – though I’ve not tried it with students in any systematic way yet – and the Extensive Reading Foundation website and ER podcast are two SLA-informed resources to get started with this. As for the explicit teaching side of things, I want to look into what aspects of language are best taught explicitly and when they are most effective, which I imagine is also dependent on students’ first languages.

In future posts I’d like to have a go at VanPatten’s two other principles of SLA and see how they can inform teaching in a busy UK language school.

Until then.



Lightbown, P. M. and Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned (4th Ed). OUP.

This was the core text on my MA module. It’s a readable summary of SLA research and, in the chapter 6, how it can be applied to the classroom.

Reviewing Academic Reading Circles (ARC)



A review of Seburn, T. (2016). Academic Reading Circles. The Round (E-book version).


Situation: your students can read academic texts and answer comprehension questions in class, but when you scratch below that surface you get the sneaking feeling that the text hasn’t been understood the way you want it to be.

Challenge: You have 2 hours a week for 10 weeks to get your students to improve the following reading skills:

  • analyse academic texts for their intertextual references
  • identify common ideas across different texts
  • relate the content of academic texts to their own experiences
  • use texts as a source of language study
  • use texts as a source of content for writing / speaking
  • improve their group work and speaking skills

Impossible, you say? Well, in Tyson Seburn’s 2016 book he lays out how he and his colleagues at the University of Toronto have attempted just such a feat over the past 10 years, through their Academic Reading Circles (ARC).

What is ARC?

The purpose of ARC is to get university level students in the habit of reading challenging texts actively and engaging deeply with both content and language. Each week students are put into groups of 4-5, given a ‘common’ text and assigned a role which determines how they should read it (see the ARC Roles section below). They complete their role individually outside of lesson time, then in a following lesson present and discuss their findings to their group – that’s how you can do this in 2 hours of class time! Each student, each week, also produces a handout summarising their work in that role. The cycle continues with new texts given out and the roles rotated until, ideally, everyone has a go at each role multiple times.

ARC Roles: who does what?

There are five student roles with each focussing on different reading skills:


*I also included ‘teacher’ as a sixth role, summarising some of the comments Seburn makes about what teachers’ responsibilities are; this is the only role that is not rotated!

Before starting the discussion, the leader needs to make sure that all group members agree on the basic comprehension points of the text. This is so that further analysis, discussion and debate is based on a mutual understanding of the topic.

So, how useful is this book?

It’s tried and tested: ARC has been honed over the years and Seburn uses examples of how his own students have responded to the different roles. One inspiring one was a Korean student’s personal response to the text in her role as ‘Connector’, astutely comparing ideas in a common text about Canadian road laws to a situation in her home country – something I dream of my students doing. As I read on through the book the feeling grew that this was possible to implement at my work; Seburn provides guidance on sources for the common texts (Scientific American, Time) and judging the level of difficulty of the text, for which he suggests using the Flesh-Kincaid readability test. For roles, there are useful heads up for example looking out for uses of statistics in texts so the ‘Visualiser’ role has something to work with. There is also an ARC blog with more explanations, example texts and lesson materials.

It’s needed: in my experience working with university level students (and their subject lecturers) they need to write more critically and more accurately. Accordingly, EAP lesson materials cover writing techniques well (e.g. this) but often take a light touch with reading. These writing lessons are one part of the puzzle but as Christine Nuttall says, “reading and writing are… two sides of the same coin” (2015, p.204) and better writing won’t happen until students can critically and accurately… read!

It’s contextualised: Seburn points out that ARC is supplementary to an EAP course, complementing other aspects such as writing, grammar, vocabulary etc. I’d be interested in seeing how ARC can be integrated into a broader course alongside extended writing, more formal presentations and some discrete grammar and vocab teaching.

An ARC by any other name…

Bartu (2001) describes a similar course run at Boğaziçi University in Turkey, based on the theory of critical discourse analysis (CDA). This introduces students to guided questions about the texts they are reading, for example, considering the purpose of the text (why has this topic been written about?), the people involved (what identities / relationships are implied?) and the function of the text (what will the effect of this text be on other readers?). There are similarities here with the ARC roles. However, unlike ARC the first half of Bartu’s course is spent explaining the theoretical concepts underpinning CDA, while ARC might perhaps spend a lesson or two modelling the different roles before students start independent work. Also, assessment is not touched on in Seburn’s book, while the Boğaziçi course assesses students 3 times: mid-way through the course via a written exam then an end-of-term presentation and report. The marking criteria used for these tests stems from the guiding questions in the CDA.


Many of my students on the International Foundation Programme arrive unable to engage with academic texts any further than literal comprehension – useful for IELTS but not so much for University. Using the ARC process to give guidance and repeated practice of exploring such texts could help them build positive reading habits, develop autonomy (most of the reading happens outside of class), and make good use of classroom time – group discussion and close reading. The goals of ARC are those that many EAP teachers hold for their students and this book is a useful and practical guide to getting started, any takers?

ABrownechildren-reading-girl-readingAnthony Browne’s Gorilla



Bartu, H. (Spring 2001). Can’t I read without thinking? Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(2) pp.593-614.

Nuttall, C. (2015). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. London: Macmillan.

Mentioned links

The ARC book page on The Round website:

The ARC blog:

Giving visual feedback on writing: finding the perfect imbalance

yinyangMy students are mid-way through an reading-into-writing EAP course. They’ve read a bunch of texts and need to use the ideas in these texts to support their arguments when answering a ‘…to what extend do you agree?’ (TWEDYA) essay question of around 1000 words.

As I interpret it, a TWEDYA question asks students to consider both sides of the argument but come down in favour of one side – agree or disagree. This is in contrast to prompts of the descriptive ‘explain’ or discursive ‘discuss’ type, which ask students to present points or arguments without making a judgement (Note: This is a generalisation, as Michael Fordham argues in this post).

Last week my class submitted their essay plans and I noticed a common misinterpretation of the TWEDYA prompt as ‘do you either agree or disagree?’, ignoring the ‘to what extent’ aspect. Their misinterpretation was a variation on three themes: 1) I completely agree, 2) I completely disagree, 3) I agree and disagree in equal measure. I was happy with none of these: 1) & 2) because they didn’t consider counterarguments, coming across as uninformed on the issue, and 3) because their point of view is unclear, coming across as a list of points rather than a developed argument. Any of these errors limits their ‘content and evaluation’ score on our writing criteria, which at the higher levels wants students to show complex understanding of issues, and clear lines of argument.

Last term they took a very similar approach to which I had responded with written feedback to 1) and 2) students along the lines of:

Good choice of sources to support your argument, Student. However, your argument is a bit one-sided – you need to include arguments against your points (counterarguments) to show you have thought about this topic.

And for the 3) students it went something like:

Good choice of sources to support your argument, Student. However, this is a very balanced plan, and while it’s good to present different perspectives on the topic, you need to be clear what your overall thesis is.

However, at the next submission most of the the 1) & 2) students had written 3) style perfect balance essays and all the 3) students had put together 1) & 2) style uninformed ones. We were going in circles!

Using visuals to square the circle

I gave the same written feedback again this term, however I knew that my comments wouldn’t be enough to fix the misunderstanding as it seemed to be a more ingrained response to the question prompt (and my comments) rather than them just trying to wind me up. Perhaps it’s the lingering effects of all IELTS prep they did to get here, in which any of the 3 errors wouldn’t stop them scraping a 6. Whatever the cause, I wanted to elaborate on this feedback in class and try to offer an alternative to words, I wanted to try to express it visually.

To do this I used the image of a scale, with a 🙂 and 😦 symbolizing the ‘I agree’ and ‘I disagree’ arguments respectively. I drew image one and explained this was inappropriate because it suggests that the writer hasn’t considered the issue fully by only presenting the L arguments.

Image 1: uninformed

I then drew image two – it’s supposed to be balanced – and explained that this also was not acceptable (amid gasps from students) as it did not offer an opinion/point of view/thesis, but just listed points.

Image 2: perfect balance… i.e. wrong!

I finally draw the ‘correct scale’: both sides of the argument have been considered but the weight of one side, L in this case, is heavier. I also noted that the counterarguments could be hedged (using modals, for example) to make sure that they express what side they are taking in the argument.

Image 3: the holy grail

How did it work?

I think I made my point because some of my students seemed quite perturbed that I was claiming the balanced scale was not acceptable and I think, in principle, they have a point: a good TWEDYA could indeed draw different conclusions from different perspectives, leading to a kind of ‘balance’, as in picture 2. An essay question asking To what extent do you agree that the UK will benefit by leaving the EU? could, if argued well, look at the economic, social, cultural arguments and come up with the conclusion that it will lose out in some areas and benefit in others.

Why didn’t I say this to my students? Am I limiting them in their expression by forcing them to take a side in an argument which they don’t believe in? Is my recommendation based on personal preference and hence possibly not a transferable academic skill?

My temporary answer is that I feel most of my students are too far from being able to develop such a sophisticated ‘balance’ argument – far both in terms of their content knowledge and in their English writing skill. And that steering them towards the picture 3 model is a step away from their current tendency to aim for arbitrary ‘balance’ (or one-sided ignorance) and towards more nuanced argumentative writing.

Eyes without a face

After a few years teaching I started to wonder what was going on in the school beyond my classroom: how did we get students through the door? What happened in the ‘back office’? Did the DoS have any other duties than patrolling the corridors and cracking jokes with us? Each school has different answers to these questions (especially the DoS question!) and not knowing them can sometimes incur the wrath of administrators and get in the way of being able to do your job.


For me an important question to ask early on (ideally at the interview stage) is: what does a school value in their teachers?

Ask this to management teams in schools and I imagine you’d hear adjectives like good, committed or collegial. But the problem with using vague language like this is that it means different things to different people. In one school I worked it took me 6 months to work out that these adjectives translated as ‘teachers who were willing to work through their weekends and cover any type of class’, be it snivelling 5-year-olds or (slightly less snivelling) IELTS students. Collegial? You got it! While those who openly questioned management policy were quietly labelled with a HAZCHEM sign reading: ‘DIFFICULT TEACHER: TREAT WITH EXTREME CAUTION’. In another school the path to good meant CPD: do you hit the books / attend conferences / share resources? Do you deliver training? If so, here’s a life-time membership to the ‘good’ club. At this school the teachers who didn’t attend optional meetings, had other jobs or non-TEFL related hobbies outside work seemed to be negatively differentiated from the ‘good’ teachers.

These attitudes contribute to a school’s ‘culture’, their “ideas, customs, and social behaviour.”. However, unlike film or music culture where the parameters of good/bad or high/low are argued and debated by artists, critics and audiences, a school’s culture is often set by one or two all-powerful people in management who make the call on contract renewals, performance appraisals, pay increases, timetable and promotions. And it’s often communicated through unarticulated, implicit messages. This is a kind of dictatorship without a written legislation and can make a teacher’s life really unpleasant. Most teachers do enough to stay off from the blacklist by following in the footsteps of Woody Allen’s social chameleon in Zelig.

The IH Teacher, British Council Teacher, University Teacher etc.

However, I’ve seen teachers who don’t pick up on these implicit messages or can’t / won’t make such adaptations become disheartened and isolated and eventually leave the school – often to the great loss of their students and colleagues.

I try to imagine a school which embraces a wider range of behaviours. I think I may have worked in one early on in my career, but it was when I didn’t know any better (or worse). Do they exist? Or, to make a school a place where most teachers feel they belong, do we need to valorise and ostracise certain types of behaviour, no matter how arbitrary the reasons?

First week back: what am I supposed to be teaching again?

The first week back teaching. The last lesson plan I scrawled was at the end of November – that’s 6 weeks without an interactive whiteboard slide prep, 6 weeks without silent discussion class stand offs with fourteen 18-year-olds. And 6 weeks to agonise about what on earth I’m trying to teach these guys. Seriously, do I even need to teach them anything, in the PPP sense? Perhaps I should just set them tasks in English and let them get on with it. But is that even teaching? A festive Christmas conundrum.

In our first class of 2018 today I gave out their exam papers from the end of last term. In a self-reflection task, I asked them to look through their exam scores and complete the gaps in the 2 sentences below:

My strength is __________. I need to work on __________ and I’m going to do this in my self-study time by _______________________ (what, when, how often, with who).

I had forgotten how much prompting some students need to write stuff down – even if half of it is just copying! I had to ask one student 3 times, testing my ability to mask furious spluttering outrage with smiling teacherly assertiveness – probably not a pretty picture! I wonder whether not wanting to write things down is a ‘learning style’.

smiling teacher
The ‘teachers smile’ aka Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction

I then got them to present their sentences in small groups with the idea that they naturally respond to each other by sharing ideas on how to work on their weaknesses. This got mixed results: one group went on about reading PowerPoints before class and doing all the homework – probably useful, but not really my definition of self-study while another group drifted off topic to learning Japanese (!?). However, one group did exactly what I had hoped for – reflecting on the exam strategies they use, sharing stories of successful language learners they have known, and making plans to get together to work on their weak areas. Perhaps this group kept on topic so much longer than the other because I was sitting close to them, trying to unobtrusively eavesdrop? Perhaps it was the nationality make up (2 EU-educated and 2 Chinese-educated)? Or just a personality thing.

Finally, I asked the students to email me a final version of their sentences then and there in the class, directly from their phones. This took 10 minutes of class time but meant they finished the lesson having emailed me their study goals for the term. Plus, it meant they emailed me, a first ever for some of them! If I’d set it for homework I would have been lucky to get 50% of them to do this, and that would have been a good day.

So, was this teaching or just letting them get on with it? Or, by getting students to reflect on last term’s exam did I manage to delay having to answer my 6-week conundrum?

Big brother is most likely not watching you

teacherssecretAs a new teacher I used to imagine that in every school there met a sacred group of ‘teaching experts’, who debated why, what and how to teach. They drew on a wide and critical reading of current research triangulated with both a sensitive understanding of the local context and extensive reflective teaching practice. I thought coursebooks, methodology books, conferences etc. were developed this way, too.

The scales have gradually fallen from my eyes: schools and publishers lack the resources to ask these kinds of questions. They have students to recruit, complaints to respond to, external inspectors to impress. They also don’t have the drive to do so: teaching is an abstract idea for anyone who isn’t regularly in classrooms. The questions that keep teachers up at night are rarely being addressed by those in management or publishing houses.

And so it falls to us, teachers, to figure it out for ourselves.

So in response I start reading, start seeing gaps between what research says and what I do in my classroom. It starts changing my thinking but not my teaching: am I wasting this reading? By ‘wasting’ I mean not engaging critically with the content, not remembering it well and not applying it to my own teaching. The problem is, with some things I have read recently the implications are so huge – for example a move from the solid sands of PPP to TBL, or the difference between performance and learning – that I often feel like I don’t know where to start. It’s not much help that these theories don’t come with a photocopiable resource pack designed for International Foundation Programme students at Reading University (and ideally, MY group of students).

The result of this is that I feel guilty about my teaching: I know in a fuzzy way that there are better ways to spend class time but don’t do anything about it. The upshot of this is that I need to contextualise what I’m reading and maybe this is where blogging can help.


In his TEFLology interview Thomas Farrell says an awareness of our beliefs is what makes teachers powerful; if I can be powerful by simply thinking then I’m in! So, some things I’d like to be more aware of are:

  • In class: What kinds of things can I completely axe from my teaching? And what things should I be spending more time on?
  • Out of class: What kind of homework is most useful? And what about ‘learner training’ for self-study – is there any point?
  • My use of time: How can I get better at teaching in a more focussed way and avoid ‘theoretical cul-de-sacs’?

In the new year I plan to blog about these questions plus others that come up.

Happy New Year.