EAP pre-sessional courses focus mostly on academic skills and culture. Their is no grammar-based syllabus. Grammar is taught where and when it is needed. But what is this grammar? What do students who will be studying at a UK university need to know? If you asked the students, they wouldn’t mind reviewing ALL “the grammar”. That is what many are familiar with and what is somehow “tangible”. But it’s neither possible nor useful to do that. It’s not possible because there is no time. And it’s not very useful, because grammar practice or knowledge in isolation is not going to get them very far when they have to write academic essays, participate in seminar discussions, or present research findings. And often it is not that students don’t “know” grammar (such as the modal verbs), but they need to learn to use these in an academic context (e.g. modals for hedging). So, how do we decide which grammar points to teach or review in the limited time we have in a pre-sessional course?
Alison Ramage, an online colleague and friend of mine, who also teaches pre-sessional EAP courses, did some research on this for her MA dissertation. She has kindly accepted my invitation to write a blog post about this, which follows:
Teaching on a university pre-sessional can be both challenging and fun, that´s why we´re all here, doing it! However with so much demanded in such little time, it can also be massively frustrating. With so many students coming from cultures that have completely different academic styles to us in the West, more time has to be spent on skills other than just being able to write clear, precise academic English. Thus, what we think of as traditional English language skills, such as grammar, are often given very scant attention. In the first pre-sessional I taught on, only two hours a week were allocated for grammar instruction and the topic was at the teachers´ discretion. Given such little time, who was I, or even how was I, to decide what grammar would be the most useful for my students in their university careers? It was this question that lead me, a couple of years later, to my MA question and a final dissertation entitled “A Taxonomy of Grammar Items to Support the Academic Writing of Arabic and Chinese L1 Students”
It´s not a title we´re ever going to see on the bestseller lists, but my intention was to create a list of the most useful grammar items that we can teach our Chinese and Arabic students. Items which have a high surrender value and which the students can see are immediately useful for their writing. Something that I hoped would be practically useful rather than theoretically interesting. My decision to focus on Chinese and Arabic students was not difficult; these two language groups not only form a considerable number of our students, if not the majority, but also they have similarities which make academic writing in English difficult for them. Obviously there are the issues of orthography and grammar, but there are also differences in academic rhetorical style which impact on the way these L1 groups use the English language.
To reach the answers to my research question I had to find the answers to several other questions first:
Firstly, through the literature:
- What grammatical items are typical of, and identify, written academic English?
- Which of these identified grammatical features of written academic English are likely to be especially problematic for Arabic and Chinese L1 learners of English to assimilate?Once this group of grammar items had been identified I undertook discourse analysis on texts from each language group to answer the third research question:
- How well, if at all, do students from these language groups show competence in using these grammar items?
By working through this process in a scholarly and rigorous way I hoped to provide information that is both theoretically sound and practically useful.
So, briefly, the answers:
1. The grammatical items which are typical of, and identify, written academic can be considered as follows:
- Articles: In particular the zero article for generalizations, uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns.
- Verb tenses: Although there is no clear conclusion about which particular verb tenses are the most important, research suggests that clear use of past and present simple, together with the present perfect are the most useful
- Passive voice: While still not as prevalent as the active voice in academic writing, its use is significantly greater than in other genres. Being a competent user of the passive voice will enable students greater flexibility and thus precision in their writing.
- Nouns (nominalization): A higher proportion of nouns in relation to verbs is a clear identifier of academic writing, and again, being able to use nouns and create compound nouns flexibly will enable students to deal with the high density of information that is often required in written academic English.
- Modals: “Hedging” which is a common feature of written academic English genres of writing is created by appropriate use of the modals of certainty.
- Subordinate clauses: In particular ‘wh’ clauses are common in English academic writing, both in subject and object positions as their complexity allows for the handling of greater quantities of information which is often required in written academic English.
- “be+copula”: While this verb form has been identified as being over-used in higher levels of academic writing, creating a too simplistic text, it is a basic structure for giving information in English. Thus, it needs to be considered as something to be learned and used appropriately.
2. Those of the above which are likely to be especially problematic for Chinese and Arabic speakers:
- Articles: Of all the identified features of written academic English, these appeared most frequently in the literature and seemed to produce the most problems, even for students at a higher level. Particular difficulty was noted with the zero article for general use which is that aspect of article use most closely identified with written academic English.
- Subordinate clauses: Because of the totally differing ways of constructing this type of clause in both Arabic and Chinese, combined with its importance in academic writing, subordinate clauses do need to feature on the list for analysis.
- Passives: Although there is some debate about how useful these are in written academic English, there is general agreement that being able to use the passive when required is a valuable linguistic skill for academic prose. Both Chinese and Arabic deal with this type of construction in a different way from English, so this voice should also feature on the list for analysis.
- Verb tenses. While there is no doubt that verb tenses generally cause a great many problems for all learners of English as well as for Chinese and Arabic L1 users, accurate use of the present and past simple are the most useful for written academic English
- Modals for hedging. Although there is very little mention of this structure as being difficult for either language group because it features strongly as typical of written academic English, it will feature on the list for analysis.
- Be+copula: At lower language levels for both Chinese and Arabic L1s, this grammar feature was seen as being particularly problematic. While evidence suggests an overuse among higher level users, it is still a grammar feature that needs to be mastered in order to communicate clearly in written academic English.
- Nouns: While a higher frequency of nouns and the use of compound nouns does form one of the major features of written academic English it has not been given as being a grammar feature of particular difficulty to Chinese and Arabic L1s. That said, compound nouns are considered to be one of the most difficult aspects of English grammar. For these reasons, noun use was not analyzed.
3. The question which drove this research project was ‘what are the most useful grammar items that can be taught to Arabic and Chinese learners of English to support them in their written academic English?’. Through an extensive review of the literature and practical quantitative discourse analysis a taxonomy of these items has now been identified and is given below in order of interest. The first may surprise you, it certainly surprised me when it came out in the discourse analysis.
- Modals for hedging were used very rarely by the students yet this language form is a key feature in English academic writing. The lack of precision in expressing degree of certainty can “affect the impact of the argument, and how the academic competence of the writer is evaluated.”
- A limited variety of verbs were used by many students; this came out of looking at the use of nouns by the students. Being dependent on a narrow range of items, in this case, verbs, indicates a lack of flexibility and precision with the language which can also affect how the academic competence of the writer is evaluated.
- Subordinate clauses and passive structures were used but only by students who felt confident about producing them and then only infrequently.
- The use of the zero article for generalizations, uncountable and plural countable nouns was, overall, not very accurate. While this may not impact too much on the overall communicative competence, a higher accuracy rate would undoubtedly improve the quality of the texts.
- Verb tenses and be+copula structures were generally produced at an adequate level of accuracy although there was room for improvement in the student texts.
The aim of my research was to provide something of pedagogical value to pre-sessional courses at universities where there are often considerable time pressures. Thus the taxonomy needs to have a high surrender value for the students and be manageable for the course planners. Thus, my recommendations are as follows:
- Introduce the concept of hedging very early on in the course. Students at this level should have a basic familiarity of the uses of ‘may’ and ‘might’ but may not be familiar with the convention of hedging in academic written English.
- Include regular vocabulary input sessions to expand the students’ range of verbs. These verbs can either be taken from an ‘academic word list’ appropriate to the course or from disciplines that the students will be studying in their faculties.
- Passive structures and subordinate clauses should both have special input sessions focusing on their use in an academic context. These should also be timetabled for early in the course so that the forms can be practiced and acquired by the end of the course.
- Verb tenses and be+copula structures do not merit specific input sessions unless there is either time available on the course or the teacher notices these as particular weaknesses in the students’ first written assignments.
I very much hope that these few simple ideas will help you with planning your pre-sessional, if you would like to read, or skim through, the full dissertation please feel free to send me an email.
After careers in Publishing, Politics and the City, Alison Ramage Patterson started her TEFL career rather late in life in 2001 with a CELTA at IH London. After working in countries as diverse as Russia, Spain, Malaysia and Kazakhstan she completed her DELTA in 2009 followed by some years working in Saudi Arabia. During her time in Saudi Arabia she developed a specialism in EAP, with particular emphasis on writing. She has designed and facilitated EAP courses for the British Council in Jeddah. During this time she also taught on pre-sessionals in the UK. Now based in Menorca, Spain, she divides her time between materials writing, online teaching and language support, and face to face lessons.