EAP: Overqualification and Professional Boredom

My first experience with EAP was when I wanted to study at an English-speaking university. This was an American institution of higher education in which students who were not native speakers of English had to attend EAP courses that aimed at developing language skills. Once we reached a proficient level of English (what we now call C2), we were officially accepted to the University. Then, as part of the general education requirements, we had to attend three composition classes: an Introduction to Academic Writing course, a Research and Academic Writing course, and a Literature and Academic Writing course.

Six months ago, I received my first offer from a UK university for an EAP teaching position (in the UK, these courses are called ‘pre-sessionals’). Having read the requirements for this post, I immediately thought that this was going to be a very demanding but exciting role. They were looking for people who had an MA and/or a Cambridge Delta (preferably both) and an extensive teaching experience.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to the materials or the curriculum of this course prior to induction. During induction, we were given our books, the tutors’ handbook, and the ‘suggested’ timetable. Those of you who are familiar with English people would understand that by ‘suggested’ they really mean ‘the one to follow and not deviate from.’ And, quite frankly, any deviation from the prescribed timetable and/or materials is neither promoted nor welcomed.

This 10-week course focuses mainly on developing academic writing and presentation skills while there is little emphasis on language development. So, basically, all we have to do is follow a course-book, which has not been updated recently.

I am not saying that we cannot be creative or that we cannot find a way to ‘spice things up’ in each lesson. What I am saying is that we are neither required to do so, nor praised if we do so. On the contrary, we are discouraged from not following the material. This inevitably has a negative effect on learners but it also has a negative effect on teachers: professional boredom.

My question, therefore, is: What is the reason for asking highly qualified professionals to do a job that can be done by someone without an MA, without a Delta, and definitely without so many years of teaching experience? Isn’t that counter-productive?

25 thoughts on “EAP: Overqualification and Professional Boredom

  1. I think the managerial team have to ensure that certain topics are covered, which is why they have a timetable. They also have to try and ensure a certain standard across teachers. I know from my own EAP experience that if you give one piece of material to two teachers with ample experience, it will be delivered differently. The best way for management to control what’s happening in the class and guarantee quality – given that they are working with teachers they barely know – is to allow for few variants as possible and keep a tight grip in things.

    I think what they are looking for is people who can support learners well in the classroom. Teachers who have enough training and experience to be able to answer language and EAP-related questions.

    • Hi Anthony,

      Thanks for commenting. I do agree with what you’re saying. They have to ensure a certain standard across groups.

      All I am saying is that I could have offered the same support and the same answers after completing my CELTA.

      What happens now, after the Delta and the MA is that I can question the decisions of the course designers and, even though, I could adapt the materials and do things in a more… contemporary way, I cannot. And that’s frustrating, isn’t it?

  2. Hi Angelos!
    Well, it does sound weird, to say the least. Quite discouraging actually.
    I was wondering the other day what kind of qualification recruiters look for this kind of position, so thanks for sharing that with us. They don’t seem to require specific EAP experience, do they?
    It seems to me there’s a lot more acceptance to non-native speakers in the EAP world. A good surprise for a change.

  3. More or less the same thing happens all the time here in Korea where I teach. Academic panels – who don’t teach the subject – decide which materials should be taught and teachers are expected to use the material, which invariably has little relationship to student requirements or needs. Smart teachers who can get away with it can go their own way – fortunately there is often little real oversight of the actual content taught here though. If you stick with the required curriculum, you can guarantee classes will be boring as hell and useless for students, but you keep your job.

  4. Hi! Interesting post. I can’t speak to the specifics of your curriculum and the skills covered, but one factor in requiring master’s-level qualifications in many EAP environments is that instructors could be teaching postgraduate students. There is lack of credibility to be teaching the academic skills around reading, carrying out and writing up research if you’ve never done it yourself.

    Also, to echo the comment above from Anthony, the trick and the challenge on large pre-sessionals is maintaining some sort of standardization across groups, where you have a very short timeframe to achieve very specific goals. As was mentioned, give 5 teachers the same language point or skills to teach, and they will come up with 5 completely different lessons, which is a great thing in most contexts. But unlike self-contained language schools who can set their own outcomes, most pre-sessionals are accountable to the university they are preparing students to enter, it’s their raison d’etre, and so there has to be some way of ensuring that all students on the pre-sessional have the chance to arrive at that standard, no matter who their teacher. And a more prescriptive teaching timetable is one way to try to do that.

    • Thanks for taking the time to post a comment here, Jennifer.
      As you say, I do teach postgraduate students at the moment but we do not follow a different curriculum to the one followed by undergraduate students.
      Also, I am not working for an external EAP provider. Pre-sessionals are offered by the language centre of the university.
      However, my question is not why there is such a need for standardisation. As you say, these are huge courses and there has to be a way through which the university makes sure that learning outcomes are met.
      The issue is that there is no need for such a specialisation on the teachers’ part. Following a set curriculum is something that less experienced teachers can do, methinks.

      Does this make any sense?

      Angelos

  5. It gets a lot more challenging and interesting when you are called upon to use discipline specific materials to carry the syllabus — even more so if your class contains postgrads heading off to a range of different disciplines. Probably this is an argument for not using a coursebook exclusively, although this does give consistency, as others have pointed out. Although I am a coursebook writer myself I can sympathise with your complaint about out of date ones that don’t give you the space to do this.

    But my biggest bugbear is coursebooks with no language development — as you have found. Language development is particularly interesting when you’ve got mixed disciplines in the class. Postgrads can compare the language and genres of their disciplines and gain useful language research skills for their future courses and research writing.

    • Hi Sue,

      Thank you so much for reading this post.

      I am very happy you left a comment because it’s a great opportunity for me to clarify that I don’t have anything against coursebooks: they make my life easier and they make me be even more creative as I always have to think of ways to adapt them for the particular learners each time.

      And it is coursebooks like yours (I am referring to EAP Essentials) that make me angry when I am told to work with less good materials.

      As you point out, some EAP coursebooks suffer from lack of up-to-date skills and language development focus. Now, if the courses were slightly more flexible, this would have been a great opportunity for massive adaptation and some materials development; unfortunately, there isn’t.

      I only hope that they will get to read our end-of-course feedback and will implement some of the suggested changes.

      Thank you so very much once again. I hope we meet in person soon.

      Best,

      Angelos

  6. Your post makes me want to drop to my knees in thanks that I teach in the LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) program where we have a LOT of academic freedom and can co-create a curriculum with the students. No course book is used; everything from news articles to what we ate for breakfast can become fodder for the week’s lessons. I don’t think I would last long at the job you describe.

    • Hi Kelly,

      Thank you for your comment. I think part of my frustration is because I am used in an American-style EAP, which makes total sense in my head. As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t have an issue with coursebooks. I do have an issue, though, with the fact that I have to work with coursebooks that were written in the previous century (no kidding!) for a different audience.

      I wish one day I come and work in your part of the world for a little while. I have some good friends who really seem to enjoy it.

      Best,

      Angelos

  7. Sounds like a pretty dull experience. Maybe for low level proficiencies, following a detailed plan might be advantageous, but for what I’d consider the target market for EAP programs (perhaps 5.0+ IELTS), I don’t see how this type of curriculum addresses authentic issues generally the goal of EAP programs. You’re right – having a skilled practitioner does imply some freedom to apply these skills.

    • Dear Tyson,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I wish we could use materials like your ARC but…

      The problem is that courses like these were designed many years ago but have not been updated ever since. What should be done is to have an curriculum committee, the members of which would be of different ages and backgrounds so as to ensure that the course meets the real needs of the learners. Not to mention the development of communication channels between the language department and the learners’ future professors.

      In any case, the only things left are to provide the directors of the course with detailed feedback and to do things in a more personalised way even if there is no provision for it.

      Once again, thank you for the post (and for writing a great resource book).

      Best,

      Angelos

  8. Great post, Angelos, and I couldn’t agree more with what you said! It’s an unfortunate reality I guess that the more “serious” studies become, the less creative teachers are encouraged to be. I feel though that this lack of improvisation and innovation at higher levels of education actually deprives learners from engaging in learning. I just wrote a post on why engagement matters at all levels of education and how it is only through experimentation that all of us can become lifelong learners. You can take a look at it here: http://mariatheologidou.blogspot.gr/2015/07/engage-to-motivate-learning-throughout.html

    • Thanks for your comment and the link, Maria.

      I understand that the need for standardisation can lead to decisions that are not always in favour for our learners. Learning to going around these decisions is a good lesson to be learned.

      Best,

      Angelos

  9. That’s a very strange situation indeed. I’ve never worked at a place where they’d discourage you from adapting the coursebook. I’m doing a presessional at the moment too, and we’re openly told that we should feel free to adapt the materials to suit our learners. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should scrap the schemes of work or reinvent the wheel every class, but I think any sensible DoS will agree that sometimes materials have to be adapted. As long as your lesson fulfills the aims specified in the schemes of work, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to use other materials. Which course book are you using? If it’s really that ancient and inappropriate, I’d definitely just select materials from other, more modern EAP books that fulfil the same aims. In defence of schemes of work and course books, even if they’re a bit boring – they save you a lot of work 🙂 Mind you, I don’t think a presessional is meant to be fun. There’s no time for that, really. Lots of hard work for the students.

    • Hi Marek and thank you for your comment. You are totally right in saying that it is lots of work at pre-sessional courses; yet, this does not mean it cannot be fun.

      As you say, any sensible DoS would encourage adaptation of materials, only… there is no DoS in our institution (!).

      As you suggest, I do use materials from other books/sources and try to make the lessons as personalised and up-to-date as possible but this is something that I should be told/asked to do. At the moment, I feel there is a ‘do it your way just don’t let us know’ mindset with which I totally disagree.

      I will send you more information about materials, etc. in a private message, if you don’t mind.

      Thank you for your comment,

      Angelos

  10. I sympathise with your frustration Angelos…I get the feeling that this particular university language centre has become a bit stagnant for whatever reason. If you were to do a curriculum overhaul what would you change and why? Is it as simple as just deciding on a more up-to-date, appropriate book to use? Is it possible that you could (without being presumptuous) put forward a simple and preferably cheap proposal for some basic changes? Maybe you or someone else could take on the curriculum overhaul testing it as you teach it over a few cycles – now that WOULD be a meaty challenge for an experienced and qualified teacher…

    • Hi Sohia,

      It was so nice to read your comment; it’s been a while since our online meeting that morning (well, morning for me, late evening for you if I am not mistaken)

      As I wrote earlier, I have adapted the whole course, basically. However, this is not something that anyone of the people in charge would like to know.

      Writing a proposal is something that I have started doing and will send it to the powers that be after the end of this course. However, the department keeps on getting one accreditation after the other, which makes them less open to suggestions and changes, as they believe that they are doing a very good job. (Which they do in some areas, don’t get me wrong).

      What I think would be very interesting is to get the learners themselves write feedback on the course and the materials. This might make them think twice before preparing next year’s course.

      Thank you for the suggestions.

      Best,

      Angelos

  11. It sounds like your real beef is the choice of coursebook at your particular institution. I know a lot of pre-sessionals are using the lastest flurry of new EAP coursebooks and others use bespoke materials put together in-house. Maybe you’d find either of these options a bit more stimulating.

    I’d also say that even within the narrow confines of a fixed EAP programme, you do need a pretty high level of expertise and confidence if you’re really going to deal effectively with whatever students at this level might throw at you. I don’t think most newly CELTA-qualified teachers could explain the subtleties of academic hedging or get across what makes a good thesis statement, could they? For me, the challenge on pre-sessionals is not in the basic input materials, it’s in dealing with what comes back from the students. I find it’s in the feedback that you really get down to what the students need to know, where the gaps are in their understanding and where your teaching muscles get properly stretched.

    • Hi Julie and thank you for commenting on my post.

      It seems to me that what is needed here is some experience with advanced studies (be it MA, Delta, etc.) We’re supposed to prepare learners for postgraduate studies, so we should have some personal experience of what being a postgraduate student is like.

      As per their needs…. In theory, what you’re saying is what we should be dealing with. Unfortunately, all my learners (IELTS 5.0+) cannot write a single sentence correctly (no exaggeration, here) so most of my input has to be focused on basic writing skills.

      Perhaps, one of the reasons why I believe a CELTA is enough is because I did my CELTA having eight years of classroom experience. I don’t think that someone with no classroom experience and a CELTA would be equipped well enough to teach such a course.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Best,

      Angelos

  12. Hello there. I am a GE teacher (some IELTS and BE experience) but considering a switch to EAP (via an MA) but the posts suggest that EAP might be a wee bit boring (as no room for creativity/fun/cartoons/human stories, etc.) Might I ask if this is true or false? I would be pathetically grateful for any advice on this. Thanks, in anticipation. (PS Of course, EAP may have positives that GE does not – i.e. highly motivated SS who do their homework).

    • Hi John and thank you for your comment – I think it all boils down to what you’re interested in. EAP has characteristics that many find to be very inviting: teaching educated adults, focusing on skills, working at a university, etc. There is also room for creativity and autonomy. This post talks about a particular university and there was no intention to generalise. I will go back to EAP teaching and I think all teachers should try it out and see if they like it or not.
      I hope this helped a little bit.

      Thanks,
      Angelos

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