After a blissful few weeks’ teaching in Vietnam it was a bit of a shock to the system beginning my first pre-sessional at Warwick University. I have some EAP experience, mostly in-sessional at undergrad level, but the postgrad pre-sessional is quite unique so this was a real crash course. The Warwick course has 2 strands: Text Based Studies (TBS), and Speaking and Listening. I was surprised / a little anxious to be assigned the TBS strand, which culminates in an assessed 2000-word essay submission from students in week 5. It was a very steep learning curve, not least because I arrived straight from Vietnam at a Sunday induction meeting, then 1 day to prepare for a Tuesday start! The course was a bit of blur, and as so often happens I’m full of ideas as to how to teach it next time which is a shame really, so I thought I’d record some of my impressions in the form of lessons (re)learnt for future reference (disclaimer: obv this is specific to the course I did)…
Assume nothing! This course was a good reminder in not making assumptions about level and academic background. Due to a mix up with IELTS scores I went in with diagnostic tasks expecting quite a high level based on the general profile of the intake, and quickly discovered this not to be the case, particularly with writing. Being accepted on a post-grad course does not always guarantee a particular level. Similarly, although all students had a first degree, most of them had studied in their own country/L1 and academic backgrounds varied wildly. I was surprised over the course at how much time we devoted to basic study skills and critical thinking. As well as my first pre-sessional, it was also my first time teaching mostly Chinese students and I was also surprised at how different the teacher/student dynamic was. This combined with the general unfamiliarity of everything for some students resulted in a few classroom tumbleweed moments
Authentic texts – Quality, not quantity The course was very much a reading for writing course. I am not an expert in my students’ fields of study (e-commerce, supply chain & logistics, to name a few). Finding then reading authentic academic texts (worth doing I think to help them transition to a fully immersive MA), accessible for their level, was challenging and time consuming. I wish I’d had more time pre-course to hunt them down and it wasn’t hard to put myself in my students’ shoes and realise the sheer and exhausting cognitive load of selecting and reading academic texts in a second language. Some published EAP coursebook materials are built around key texts exploited in many different ways (like the Garnett series) although the drawback is texts being universal aaren’t the most relevant/engaging. Others take a more bottom-up approach (e.g. guides like Study Writing) but I’d now firmly favour a course plan based around whole authentic texts, using activities from published material for inspiration. I reckon I overloaded my students a little at first and in future would definitely make a few well-chosen texts the backbone of the course, as it became quickly apparent just how much more time and focus students needed to firstly process them thoroughly and get the most out of them. And actually students didn’t seem to find it boring (as i’d expected) to continue recycling texts over a number of days. I was pointed towards some nicely graded texts in key subject areas on the Open University website open courses for example, as well as more challenging but still conversational articles in the Harvard Business Review.
Make life easy for myself (and the students) Preparing this course the first time round is intense. In particular, the writing strand demands, yes, seeing a lot of student writing, and I was worried I’d have to wave goodbye to all my weekends, but a couple of things kept this in check without compromising on student attention. I marked the diagnostic writing with a correction code, but found focusing on student errors at a discrete level unhelpful in their first essay drafts. The most efficient and significant improvements came when students addressed the fundamentals of genre and style, content, cohesion and coherence, and organisational aspects of their writing. Unless language really interfered with style or intelligibility, I avoided highlighting language problems almost completely and instead kept a running list of common errors (e.g. article use, word class etc) in a word document until we approached the proofreading stage to use for class activities. This saved us a lot of time and made a lot of sense to me.
Another great suggestion from one teacher (thanks Mark!) was to have students select and summarise a text useful for their essay title each week, which then formed the basis for a morning “seminar” allowing students to engage critically with the texts having read them in their own time, and also swap and critique them. This also let me monitor and check writing without having to formally correct them as homework (although I did ask sts to send it me to take a peek at their progress).
Another great source of material is, unsurprisingly, the University site itself. Things like the Warwick PLATO referencing tutorial made a good weekend homework with minimal prep and helped refresh my own memory too. Always one step ahead (just!).
Wow, summarising and paraphrase are really difficult skills! Whether written or verbal, so much of academic study involves these and students needed constant constant practice. It’s so important to embed this into ALL aspects of the course (see above). Playing DIY taboo with words from the academic wordlist was a good warmer to introduce the concept of paraphrase, for example.
EAP vs ELT – Don’t forget your roots! EAP has always seemed like the grown up sibling of ELT to me and I felt a little bit of an imposter at first (yet surely EAP is the offspring? I’m confused). Yes, it is a serious, academic (some might say dry) area, and at points I noticed this influencing my teaching approach – I don’t think I’ve ever photocopied so much in my life, I’m a serial tree killer 😦 But actually, having a TEFLy background was an advantage in the end. Games, group work, fiddly bits of paper, these all have their place in these classrooms, even more so perhaps. If only I’d brought a set cuisenaire rods the fusion would be complete!
Moodle + Padlet x Dictionaries are our friends Another colleague Anna Calvey was full of nice ideas for learner training with dictionaries, particularly getting students to create a dictionary review on the course Moodle. Low prep and definitely needed – My students were L1 dictionary/translation serial offenders but this really helped. Combining dictionary work with the Nottingham University Academic Word List highlighter was very effective – So easy to pop in texts from class and create gapfills and other vocab activities. Next time I’d really REALLY ram the academic lexis theme and dictionary training home right from the start, as it was easy for lexis focus to end up relegated of extra support on essay assignments, but these things will stand them in such good stead later on their courses. Using the moodle really helped to foster community and bring students out of the shells, albeit with lots of examples. I’ve been dying to make more of padlet too and it really came into its own on this course with them all shackled to their smartphones anyway. They even got me on Wechat, I’m already a sticker addict.
Uff there was so much to get my head around on the course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, sorry for the unfiltered waffle! Now that I’m thinking about it, I might just go ahead and publish a sketch of my new improved 5 week EAP writing course so people can benefit from the experience (myself included) when the next pre-sessional season comes around! Would anyone find this useful? Gimme a shout and persuade me!!