The focus of this workshop was on some teaching materials used with a multidisciplinary pre-sessional group of students. Interviews with academic tutors highlighted strategies that they believe many students need to develop further in order to be more successful on their courses. In the light of these findings, an approach to enhance awareness of the concept of criticality and to give the opportunity to integrate ideas from reading into writing is suggested. With this approach in mind, some recent newspaper and internet articles on the topic of truancy were the focus of small group discussion in the workshop.
The teaching and learning context
The scenario that has given rise to the ideas discussed in this paper is a pre-sessional multidisciplinary group in a UK university. The group of students described below is imaginary although the information is based on real data and represents a mix of students that could well exist. The profile of learners is as follows:
English language proficiency level: enter course at approximately 5 - 5.5 IELTS, aiming for 6.5.
Length of course: can vary from one month to one year; average is 1 semester
2 Masters in Law; 2 Masters in Politics; 2 MBA, 1 Masters in Librarianship and Information Management; 2 MSc in Dentistry; 1 Phd in Landscape Architecture; 1 Undergraduate Business and Finance; 1 Undergraduate Computer Science.
Offers: some have unconditional offers, some have conditional offers (6 or 6.5 IELTS) and some have applied but have no offers and some may not yet have applied.
The group is fairly eclectic in all regards and therefore it is challenging to decide on the best approach to prepare learners for their desired academic target domains. I find it useful to visualise a pre-sessional course as a bridge which links the learners previous experiences with those that they are going to meet on their academic courses. It is particularly important to acknowledge, value and respect the language, learning and literacy experiences which learners bring with them and gradually build on these to take students to the starting point of their academic courses. Because the change in learning styles and academic literacy practices may be quite significant for many students, I believe we should be careful not to jump to the other side of the valley too soon as we may run the risk of perceiving student needs as a deficit rather than viewing their previous experiences as an asset to be incorporated into the learning styles of a new context.
Findings from recent research
In the earlier stages of a multidisciplinary pre-sessional course, I tend to take a step back from the target academic domains and look for more general materials which will introduce useful strategies and processes for academic study. To identify the strategies and processes that might be most useful for learners, findings of a recent research project which tracked a cohort of pre-sessional students are drawn upon. As part of this research, I asked academic tutors from a number of different departments (the majority of courses were related to business, management and finance) to articulate what students need to be able to do in order to be successful when doing their assignments. The findings from these interviews are summarised in the box below:
The following were suggested by academic tutors as strategies which many students need to develop in order to fulfil their potential on Masters programmes.
reading with a critical eye;
awareness of different opinions / viewpoints / theories / positions on the same subject; evaluating the different viewpoints; establishing one's own position in relation to these;
importance of having an opinion and being able to back this up with evidence and reasons;
understanding of argument; how to develop a logical, coherent and well structured argument; how to use evidence to back up an argument;
importance of engaging in debate;
awareness of there being no definitive answers; being able to challenge tutor and quotes / assumptions in assignment titles and back this up with reasons;
synthesis, comparison, contrast and evaluation of information from different sources of information; being able to show this effectively in their writing;
unpacking assignment titles; reading them carefully, working out what they mean and what's expected.
reading articles (e.g. Financial Times); identifying central arguments and the reasons given to back them up; examining the way conclusions are reached from the arguments; identifying the different opinions on a topic and the underlying assumptions of the writer of the text.
As we can see from the themes identified, there are a number of contested terms such as critical, argument and evidence which have different meanings in the specific contexts of different disciplines and courses (Lea and Street 1998). On a pre-sessional course I believe we can develop understanding and experience of these ideas in a general sense so that learners are aware that they are important concepts which they should clarify more precisely when they become participants in their target academic domains.
The above research findings serve as a valuable reminder of the importance of emphasising the following with learners:
I find that the majority of learners are very ready to engage in debate but it is often a matter of gaining the confidence to do so and recognising that this is part of the discourse of the learning context. In my quest for materials to enhance such strategies, I have been developing the idea of using current affairs as a source of ideas. Stories are used where there are different viewpoints involved and I try to catch news stories on the crest of a wave so that the issue of debate is unresolved. For example, in the summer 2001, on the pre-sessional course, we followed the story of a group of asylum seekers stranded in a Norwegian ship off the coast of Australia when the Australian government refused them entry. The students discussed the situation from all different perspectives and formed their own opinions about the possible solutions. We were then able to compare whether their own suggested solutions were in agreement with the outcome in reality. Issues such as these can motivate students to follow the news to find out how situations are resolved and to develop their own viewpoints on whether they agree or disagree. The material can be useful for activities such as critical reading, vocabulary development, seminar practice and finally for integration into writing.
There are essentially three strands to what I am trying to do in relation to the texts:
When reading students are encouraged to identify the different opinions which exist on a topic and to identify the reasons or the premisses given in the text to justify the different viewpoints. They are encouraged to consider how they are positioned as the reader, i.e. how the writer persuades the reader to take up certain assumptions about the topic being debated and how certain shared understandings may be assumed. This also means they must try to identify what the writers stance on the topic is, by considering their purpose for writing the text and their attitude. This can include looking at the way language is used and the way the information is presented and what is omitted from the text. Therefore, the aim is to encourage students to adopt a questioning approach to both the propositional content of the text and the ideological content.
I draw on two frameworks for developing a critical approach to reading texts:
Allwright et al. (1996)
Catherine Wallace (1992) drawing on Kress (1989) for questions 1-3
After a careful analysis of the texts, another strategy I try to develop through the use of these materials is the integration of the reading into writing. Therefore, after the critical reading and unpicking of a text or group of texts on a topic, a writing task is created which asks students to develop a stance on the issue and weave information from the texts into their writing.
This could involve creating a context for the writing, for example, by giving student writers a role to play. For example, in the writing task based on the asylum seekers story mentioned above, student writers could be asked to play the role of the lawyer representing the asylum seekers or an advisor to the Australian government.
Or, because the final hurdle for many students before they get to the other side of the pre-sessional bridge may well be an IELTS test, one could ask student writers to do a discursive essay similar to task 2 on the IELTS writing test but at the same time encourage students to draw on their reading for this piece of writing. This acknowledges IELTS but also recognises the importance of integrating reading into writing which will be an essential literacy practice for students when on their academic courses.
In the early stages of a pre-sessional course, the technicalities of referencing (e.g. integral or non-integral references, reporting verbs etc.) would not necessarily be the focus. Sometimes, particularly in the early stages of using activities such as these, the focus on citation practices can be a distraction from the creative use of ideas from reading in writing. Hence, student writers can be encouraged to use information and evidence from the texts without direct copying to support the arguments they wish to present. This provides scaffolded support in these particular literacy practices before a focus on academic citation practices is introduced in a subsequent reading-to-write activity.
The workshop discussion
In the workshop, I circulated three articles on truancy which has recently been a topic of particular interest in the news in the UK after the imprisonment of a mother whose daughters persistently played truant from school. I asked participants to consider the value of these materials in the EAP context outlined above by posing the following four questions:
The feedback from the group discussion on these articles revealed interesting and different opinions about their usefulness in an EAP context. I highlight two particular points which were made.
The cultural specificity of the texts was mentioned and it was pointed out that students would need a considerable amount of background knowledge to firstly, relate to the topic of truancy and secondly, understand the political context in the UK. I have found, in practice, that the issue of truancy is in fact very accessible to most students especially when we start by looking at its meaning and significance within the different cultures represented in the classroom. With regard to the political context, I have found students pick up quite quickly on the personalities involved and when they begin to follow the stories in the news find it useful and rewarding to gain an understanding of the current political context in the country where they are living. However, the issue of cultural specificity is an important one and a vivid reminder of the importance of making links through comparison and contrast with the cultural backgrounds of different students.
The colloquial and idiomatic language used in the texts was noted as being different to that required on many academic courses. This is undoubtedly the case but the view was also expressed that our focus on an EAP course should not be so narrow that we do not expose learners to colloquial language. This may after all be the kind of language they will encounter when interacting with those who speak English as their first language. It is also worth remembering that conventions are constantly changing and never static and that we should be wary of prescribing the expectations and language of different academic disciplines too rigidly.
In conclusion, I'd like to suggest that reading and writing activities incorporating current affairs texts from newspapers and the internet can be useful with multidisciplinary pre-sessional groups, particularly in the early stages of a course. The materials can be used effectively to encourage a questioning and evaluative approach to reading and then for written work which draws on this reading. The limitations and queries about their relevance which were raised in the workshop discussion are important to bear in mind and it is therefore crucial to consider the right moment to start to move from a focus on EGAP to ESAP. This will vary considerably according to the needs and interests of different groups of learners. Ultimately the most effective learning is likely to take place if collaborative decisions can be made about materials between all the participants in a particular teaching and learning context.
Allwright, J., Clark, R. and Marshall-Lee, A. (1996) Developing a critical approach to study, in Hewings, M. and Dudley-Evans, T. (eds) Evaluation and Course Design in EAP Review of English Language Teaching Vol. 6, Number 1 Prentice Hall MacMillan in association with the British Council
Kress, G. (1989) Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lea, M. R. and Street, B. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach Studies in Higher Education 23/2:157-172
Ridley, D. (2002) Tracking the Experiences and Progress of a Cohort of TESOL Centre Pre-sessional Students: Implications for Support and Language Proficiency on Entry Sheffield Hallam University: Unpublished research report
Wallace, C. (1992) Critical literacy awareness in the EFL classroom, in Fairclough, N. (ed) Critical Language Awareness London: Longman