In at the deep end: Teaching students where they have to go.

Olwyn Alexander, Heriot Watt University & David Bowker, University of Paisley

There have recently been a number of reactions against globalising or generalising tendencies in English language teaching. In a reaction against grammar and level as organising principles in language teaching Scott Thornbury has called for materials-free (or materials-light) teaching which is intended to recognise ‘the socially constructed nature of learning and the socially directed purposes for which language is used’.

Kumaravadivelu has challenged the concept of method as an organising principle for language learning, teaching and teacher education, proposing instead a post-method pedagogy based on a set of parameters: particularity, practicality and possibility. These consider the social context of the classroom and the teacher’s understanding of what works and doesn’t work pedagogically in that context as central in generating a theory of practice. Kumaravadivelu suggests that language teachers cannot satisfy the pedagogical needs of learners without also satisfying their social needs.

Hyland has argued the case for putting the specificity back into ESP and resisting the concept of a ‘general ESP approach’, the so-called ‘wide angle perspective’ which attempts to generalise a set of ‘value-free’ technical skills and strategies that can be applied across disciplines. He notes that academic discourse is not uniform and monolithic but is socially constructed within specific communities, which have different ideas about what is worth communicating and how it can be communicated.

Common to all these papers is the need for teachers to be sensitive to the context that the learners will find themselves studying in. Learners in turn have a duty not to hand over all responsibility to the teacher and become passive recipients of a syllabus. In this presentation we looked at the context, the teacher(s) and the learners in two different settings to assess how successful we have been in putting the specificity back into ESP and supporting learners to swim not sink when they jump in at the deep end.

Case study 1 Paisley Foundation Course David Bowker

At the University of Paisley we run a two-semester Foundation Course for (so far) Chinese students, most of whom are planning to take degrees in the Business School. Each semester consists of three modules. Most students take two ‘general’ modules in academic and business English and one module of their choice from their prospective degree programme. The opportunity to take a content module appeals to prospective students, but it is difficult to provide adequate support when students are taking a range of different modules.

The Business School’s recent introduction of a common core framework, whereby different degree programmes share some compulsory modules, has meant that we can justifiably get our students to take the same module, for which we can give them support. However, rather than allowing them to enrol on the full undergraduate module (a Year 1 module, called Understanding Organisations), we decided to run a cut-down parallel module. The course leader was very supportive, supplying me with course materials and assessment tasks, and agreeing to have his lectures videoed. In terms of the content-teaching models outlined by Brinton, Snow and Wesche (1989), the course was a mixture of sheltered and adjunct instruction in that:

We ran this course for the first time last semester, and, while there is plenty of room for improvement, I believe this type of supported ESAP course can be very useful in giving our students a clearer idea of what they will be required to do in their degree courses. In particular, it forced them to come to grips with assimilating difficult course content from different sources (lectures, lecture notes, textbooks) and enabled them to experience realistic assessment tasks (including group presentations based on case studies, and an essay-based exam). The fact that some of them managed to cope quite well (and that others managed to cope at all) was a useful lesson for me, as (over-) nurturing EAP tutor. At the same time, it forced me to confront issues that I would probably not have dealt with on an EGAP ‘Academic English’ course, such as the need to familiarise students with the different parts of their management textbook so that they could read it efficiently for different purposes depending on the particular assessment task they were working towards. Finally, end-of-course feedback suggested the students found the course motivating and confidence-building.

Case study 2 Heriot Watt Integrated MSc Olwyn Alexander

The Integrated MSc is a new mode of delivery over two years for potentially all taught masters programmes at Heriot Watt. Students study mainly English in the first year but also register for undergraduate or postgraduate modules in their subject department in the first two terms. In the third term they complete a project, which, together with the results from their subject modules, can be used as evidence that they are ready to proceed to their main degree course.

A strength of this particular Integrated mode of study is that it came into being at the request of one of the departments at Heriot Watt: which had identified students with two years of funding and a low level of English as suitable candidates. This meant the institution supported the idea of integration from the beginning and did not have to be persuaded of the benefits.

Integrated students were accommodated within the pre-entry language programme, which allowed the introduction of more specificity and rigour into that programme and a reduction in its IELTS focus at least for the postgraduate level. Students were registered with their subject departments and felt they belonged to their department and not to a cosy English language ghetto. This sense of where they belonged meant they could act as mentors to those studying English independently and in some cases introduce them to their target department.

While students had access to their subject departments, language tutors’ access was limited. We still had to cater for a range of degree subjects in language classes and we had to rely on students to make connections between their module assignments and our lessons. We also have a high proportion of casual hourly-paid staff and it seems unfair to ask them to customise courses to the extent required when they are only paid for their contact time.

Increased specificity was possible in our third term, where the assessment was based on a project related to the student’s field. We committed the whole term (6 teaching weeks) to the project and ran writing classes to (re)present the conventions of the genre they would be using: essay or report. In addition we had a two-hour writing class for technical writing (IT and engineering), translation writing and business writing, where we helped the students to write project proposals and carry out their research.

I taught the translation writing class and I also teach the English component of the Arabic MSc in Translation and Interpreting. I held regular meetings with the course director to discuss the specific needs of the students and share insights from our two different perspectives: translation and writing. The course director came to the first session of the translation writing class and talked to the students about the type of projects she felt would be most useful. She then came to watch the students make oral presentations of their projects and helped to grade them. This gave her an insight into who would be able to cope with the MSc. This collaboration was so successful that at the very least I am going to invite other admissions tutors to sit in on the presentations in future.


While very different, both these programmes illustrate the value of specificity in EAP. Students take their language studies more seriously and motivation is higher when they can see a connection with their target degree programme. Of course a key to success in programmes of this kind is getting support and co-operation from colleagues within the institution.


Brinton, D.M., M.A. Snow, and M.B. Wesche. 1989. Content-based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House
Hyland, K. 2002. Specificity revisited:how far should we go now? English for Specific Purposes, 21 (4): 385-395.
Kumaravadivelu, B. 2001. Towards a Postmethod Pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 25 (4).
Thornbury, S. 2000. A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues.