Teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is about more than developing students’ English language and study skills; it also involves Academic Purposes, i.e. research and scholarship. I’ve been interested for some time in ways to develop the research capability of students with an intermediate level of English proficiency (CEFR B1, IELTS 4.5). I got the opportunity to explore this further with a revision of the Heriot-Watt Foundation English programme, in which the research component is foregrounded. Students now develop their language proficiency within the context of research in their discipline. This required a fundamental rethink about how to present the research process for intermediate level language learners, going back to first principles for research.
I started by asking the Foundation students what they were curious about in their discipline and we noted that children are natural researchers because they are curious about the world. From typical questions children ask, we derived some fundamental questions about research in the disciplines:
For science and engineering
- What exists?
- How does it come to exist?
- What does it do?
For social science
- What do people think about what exists?
- Why do people behave the way they do?
We then characterised the concept of research by looking at published definitions and decided that there were four key components:
- A concept – an abstract idea that forms the basis for a piece of research
- A real world context in which to study the concept
- A problem or puzzle in the context that relates to the concept
- A question that links the concept to the problem in the context.
The research question formulates the problem in a focused way that enables it to be researched and thus to move the discipline forward. Some examples of Foundation students’ research questions:
- What is the minimum concentration of a chemical pollutant in an indoor environment required to model it accurately?
- How can Shunfeng [a Chinese logistics company] develop its third party logistics operation effectively?
Foundation students can use the framework to access key ideas in complex research articles. They explore the research activity of members of their discourse community and characterize their research using the same framework. They share their findings in class discussions and complete an assessment task to profile a researcher. All the time, they are expanding their repertoire of academic vocabulary and grammar structures.
The students, all postgraduates, have found the experience to be highly motivating. Just because they have a low language proficiency does not mean they cannot grapple with complex academic concepts as long as these are presented in accessible language.
The challenge for teachers is to operate well outside their comfort zone to engage with ideas their students find motivating but they may find incomprehensible. Is it asking too much of teachers to work in this way?