We are writing a set of distance learning English modules as part of a Business Induction course for overseas students preparing for entry to the Heriot-Watt Management Programme. We have access to a corpus of 900,000 words, the Stage One (first year) Management Programme texts and we are using MicroConcord to concordance these files. In our session we presented the opportunities, insights and problems experienced while researching and preparing the course.
The first opportunity this method offered was the ability to survey all the texts exemplifying the language for particular rhetorical functions in EAP (cause and effect, argument etc.). By concordancing these key words we are able to identifying the types of texts most characteristic in the Management Programme. Since the texts are in electronic form, creating tasks of all kinds from them is relatively fast and easy.
Using authentic undergraduate texts has produced some surprises. For example the commonest type of graph+text represents causal relationships, e.g. a supply and demand curve. The supporting texts are very different from those associated with graphs simply presenting data, which students typically encounter in IELTS preparation but which appear not to be much used in business studies.
Many of our intuitions from our years of EAP teaching have been confirmed. However, concordancing has allowed us to be selective, to prioritise and to add important language items we might have otherwise missed. It has also enabled us to collect a bank of collocations directly relevant to students.
Having collected closely targeted texts and language, we then use the concordance search in a more conventional way to examine what the language is actually doing. Many interesting insights have emerged. For example, rather is almost entirely contrastive in use rather than (sic!) functioning as an adverb of degree. Tentative links for evidence and conclusion (suggest) are more frequent than stronger forms (demonstrates). Prove is virtually absent.
There are also problems in using this method. The texts cannot usually be models for the learner writers we are teaching through the materials. The academic writers of the texts use language with such sophistication that they can structure texts for interest and impact. We provide the more pedestrian model answers the students need at this level. This has forced us to look at how we can help with reading comprehension, giving us a reason to focus on note taking, summarising and writing exam answers. The result should be that students will move into the degree programme equipped with highly appropriate study skills and familiarity with many important concepts in business studies.
We have had to make difficult decisions about what to include and leave out, involving criteria other than frequency. Some forms are relatively infrequent but very crucial to understanding a particular area of business studies (e.g. lag) others are difficult to pin down to a rhetorical function (e.g. approach). The most difficult problem has been knowing when to stop analysing and start presenting. Concordancing and the analysis of its results can be very beguiling to a language teacher! We came to the conclusion that we should stop one level of analysis beyond the level we want students to achieve.
Considering the wider implications, we realise the corpus is limited, but feel it is valid for our purpose and an important motivating factor for students. Using a corpus does raise other questions. Local varieties of English, e.g. Malaysian English, have many different idioms and collocations from those in our corpus. These varieties are used for business and even academic study and need to be acknowledged and discussed. A more challenging marketing problem for the UK generally is that traditional British academic style is perceived as difficult, in comparison with the best Australian and US materials, for non-native speakers. As our programme is being revised, the principles of plain English are being applied to address this issue. EAP specialists might well have a role, therefore, in customising the corpus for the students in addition to customising the students for the corpus.