Principled Washback – IELTS and Academic Reading

In a previous post, I looked at research that analyzed the IELTS writing tasks in juxtaposition with university writing tasks. In this post, I will summarize similar research on academic reading tasks, apply this research to briefly analyzing TOEFL reading tasks, and then discuss implications for principled washback.


Moore, Morton, and Price (2012) created an IELTS reading task corpus, created an academic reading task corpus, and interviewed a number of faculty members in order to get a holistic and in-depth view of the demands of academic reading. Their work is exhaustive and long (89 pages), but I hope to summarize it here as concisely as possible.

The purpose of their research was to analyze the validity of the IELTS reading section and make suggestions for improvements. One impetus for this was IELTS washback on ESL and EAP courses. According to the authors, “Washback is considered harmful then when there is a serious disjunct between a test’s construct of reading and the broader demands of real world or target language tasks” (p. 6). Therefore, this work is very important in deciding how much of a disjunct, if any, exists. Continue reading

My Favorite EAP Resources

Taking some inspiration from Joanna Malefaki, I thought I’d share some of my favorite EAP resources. I’ll list my most used resource for each of the functions below. Feel free to share your resources that you use in the comments!

For texts

For journalism-style texts, which have broad usage in EAP, I use Newsela. Newsela offers many free and paid services, but most of all I use them as a source of graded current event texts. You can find a single article written at four or more different language difficulties, and the original article (“Max” level) is always included.

For videos

TED Talk has enough videos to appeal to anyone and they are easily exploitable for a range of functions.

For listening practice

It’s hard to list only one, but I’ll start with Randall’s ESL Lab, which offers listenings at a range of levels, and includes short academic lectures. More listening sources are here.

For citations

I show students how to use to make their citation life easier.

For looking up definitions

My favorite online dictionary has always been Webster’s Learners Dictionary because of the simple explanations of vocabulary. You don’t want to be bogged down with difficult vocabulary when you are looking up the meaning of difficult vocabulary, do you?

For teaching and learning vocabulary

Hands down, Quizlet is the go to tool for teaching and learning vocabulary. I use it personally for things I am studying, and I know my students love using it too. I can’t say enough good things about Quizlet! Check out their new “Gravity” game – it’s really fun.

For using academic phrases

I often use or direct students to use the Academic Phrasebank, which is a quite comprehensive list academic language use patterns.

For checking linguistic hunches

There are many corpora I use to check my linguistic hunches. The one I rely on the most for quick, in class checks is Netspeak, which offers a simple Google-like search interface with very simple search language. However, I’ve found many instances of the same text represented in their corpus, so I wouldn’t trust them with anything more than basic pattern checking.

For finding comprehensive grammar information

I love using, which offers great examples, explanation, and most of all – quizzes, for a variety of different grammar points. This is a great resource to adapt or supplement with.

For professional development

It’s a toss up between Twitter and Google Scholar!



On Teaching History

Many educators have argued that the best way to learn something, anything, is through context. For ELT, this often means language through content. In fact, content-based instruction (CBI) is an approach predicated on this idea. I had the great pleasure to actually experience the power of CBI recently, and came from the experience with a new appreciate for the wonders of teaching content more than language.

Last year, I came to learn that American history was a required course for all international students at my university. In fact, I learned that this is a requirement at many US universities. I also had learned that international students struggled with this course – and why wouldn’t they? Being raised in entirely different cultures, many whose histories did not intertwine much with American history, lacked the necessary background. If American students raised in American with high school history courses under their belts have trouble with American history courses, then the trouble is likely to increase exponentially for international students.

Since part of my job is to prepare pre-university students for academic study, I felt compelled to introduce American history as a supplement to the EAP curriculum already in place. Through my own fascination with history, especially with watching the “Crash Course” series on YouTube, I had been reminded that history should not be viewed as a collection of facts and dates (the whats of history) but rather an understanding of causes and effects (the whys of history). Going into this history supplement, I also knew I would have to make it relevant to both their various cultures and life in the twenty-first century.

Before beginning, I worried that students would be resistant to learning a foreign country’s history. However, I remembered when I lived in South Korea and was eager to learn as much as possible about Korea’s language, culture, and history. I was never resistant to or bored of learning the history of my host country. I hoped my students would feel the same. How relieved I was when, after presenting the idea and the reason behind it, my students thought the idea was great. I had the green light to continue.

I was the reading and writing teacher for this course and I worked with a colleague who taught the listening and speaking portion of this course. We identified broad themes in the mandated coursebook that we could connect to different periods in American history. We then scoured an amazing online resource for American history accessible to English language students: Voice of America’s “The Making of a Nation,” a 246-episode radio program that covers Columbus to the 2004 presidential race. Each program contained a transcript and an audio file. What made “The Making of a Nation” even more exciting to use was the fact that it was written in Special English. This meant that, without worrying about complicated grammar or vocabulary, students could focus more on the what, whys, and hows of the events that took place in history.

In my classes, I used the transcripts as readings integrated into almost all the work we did. For example, in a coursebook chapter on multiculturalism, we read the coursebook readings – tales of two immigrants adapting to life in a new country. We then read an article I adapted from two articles on immigration from “The Making of a Nation” (I combined and reduced two articles, replacing vocabulary with vocabulary we had learned from the book). After reading and working with that text, we then read, for an Academic Reading Circle, a current events article about young migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe without parents. All the work here involved comparing, contrasting, evaluating and synthesizing concepts of immigration. Students gained a very holistic view of immigration and were able to ground their opinions in both historical and modern experiences.

Other tasks we did involving history were based on readings about World War II, first taken from “Making of a Nation” and then an excerpt from one of my favorite books, “Rise to Globalism“. In particular, we focused on the differing theories of whether the dropping of the atomic bombs were justified. Using the information found in these articles, students wrote argumentative paragraphs which integrated what they read as evidence.

The highlight of the course, for both myself and the students, was a field trip to the local history museum and a local historical site. We got a guided tour of the artifacts and displays of the museum. Much of what the guide talked about (native Americans and settlers, the Civil War, and World War II) was covered by our classes, so students had the already existing schemata necessary to comprehend what they were seeing and hearing. During the museum tour, we asked students to take lots of pictures of the objects. Then, we asked students to look through the objects in order to identify a socio-cultural trend (e.g. self-reliance, division of labor, women’s rights, trade). They then wrote expository essays about these objects, integrating research into their papers in order to support their arguments.

Working with content over language was an exhilarating experience which gave students greater insight into America and Americans. By learning about history, students were able to make sense of many issues affecting the country, and even themselves as immigrants in America and citizens of the world. I was very happy with not only their progress in this course but their genuine enthusiasm for learning the history of their host country. I hope it had as much of an effect on them as it did on me.


Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 3

In my last two blog posts on Research Bites, I summarized research that looked at EAP coursebooks from several perspectives.

  • Harwood’s (2005) research concludes that EAP coursebooks at the time of research  were unsatisfactory: they contained inaccurate yet reified information, and they were found to be pedagogically unsound, not matching up with the research of the time. Much of Harwood’s critique is based on an analysis of corpus research that compared what EAP coursebooks taught to expert use in academic disciplines. This research found that coursebooks did not teach or accurately portray important language items. He found that coursebooks’ “claim to teach a style of writing which holds good across the academy” was naive and simplistic” (p. 155).
  • Tribble (2009) classified the writing tasks of 27 coursebooks into three categories: Intellectual/Rhetorical (English composition style which focuses on the factual and formal representation of a specific rhetorical function), Social/Genre (a focus on textual and genre analysis), and Academic Literacies (a vague category to which no books were categorized). He found that a great majority of books were Intellectual/Rhetorical in orientation. The problem here is that the Intellectual/Rhetorical orientation is a narrowly focused writing style that is appropriate for first year English composition writing but not for the broad and varied styles of writing across the various disciplines. In other words, the Intellectual/Rhetorical orientation reflects only a narrow portion of real academic writing students will encounter, and therefore may not be preparing students for the realities of undergraduate writing.

I found these articles quite useful and relevant to understanding why coursebooks may or may not be suitable for EAP. They look at coursebooks from multiple perspectives (corpus studies and writing task analysis) and come to the same conclusion: coursebooks are inaccurate. Their research, which reveals what is lacking, also points to what should be done to address the problems. From Harwood, we learn that coursebooks should be written with expert and student corpora in mind. They should be based on clear research on linguistic patterns, language and discourse use, and second language acquisition, rather than author and publisher’s assumptions. From Tribble, we learn that more coursebooks in the Social/Genre category should be created as these are likely to produce writing that mirrors the undergraduate experience. Writing books should aim at genre analysis and rhetorical variation rather than the narrow focus they have now. Essentially, both authors are arguing for books that offer a more realistic and authentic experience.

This research, however, is not without its weaknesses. Harwood himself critiques the corpus studies as unfair to English language learners. Expecting their language use to match with the expert corpora studied is quite unreasonable. Harwood suggests researchers, and writers, would do better to consult a mix of corpora.

Furthermore, several people on Twitter pointed out, rightly, that this research is at least five years old – coursebooks should have changed to keep up with the current research. This does seem like a logical argument. However, the revision process can take a long time, and as the research pointed out, most revisions “rehash” the same material, save for a few updates in text or activities here or there. The underlying structure of these books, and the pedagogy incorporated in them, rarely changes – for that means the current coursebook would cease to exist as it has been published an entirely new book would be produced, and have to be piloted, marketed, and so on. From an economic standpoint, it’s better stick with the “tried and true,” no matter how untrue it may be. In addition, as the Harwood’s research pointed out, it seems like these books were very poorly researched in the first place, if researched at all. Why would one expect the quality of research from the same authors to increase?

To be fair, more coursebooks have been created based on corpora, and many are incorporating the Academic Word List. However, much of these still fall under the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition. On the list of Tribble’s 27 books are books that I still see being used today. These books have changed very little since Tribble’s review, which means they still inadequately prepare students for academic writing. Take Oxford’s “Q: Skills for Success” series, a series of Oxford EAP coursebooks. A recent 2013 review of the books comes to the same conclusion as Tribble and others:

Q: Skills for Success 4 seems better suited to a course focused on general ESL skills development or standardized exam preparation. EAP courses aimed at preparing students for university study through direct exposure to and practice with real-life academic topics, skills, and genres might be better served by another textbook.” (MacDonald, 2013)

The discrepancies between what coursebooks actually teach and what academic reality is need to be addressed. I’m hoping the articles I’ve summarized on Research Bites can spark a productive discussion. Through reading this research, I’ve thought of a number of interesting questions I think are suitable beginnings for the dialogue we need to have.

  1. What coursebooks, if any, are actually suitable for the EAP classroom? What is this based on?
  2. What features of academic writing are generalizable enough that they can be included in an EAP coursebook?
  3. Is the Social/Genre approach, which relies heavily on textual and genre analysis, appropriate to address the needs of a classroom where various potential disciplines are reflected?
  4. Must we teach discipline-specific genres or is it enough to teach the basic genre analysis skills so that students can apply them once they reach that level of specificity in their discipline?
  5. What corpora are accessible to EAP teachers and researchers in order to verify or nullify many of our academic assumptions (e.g. the dismissal of modals or the real use of personal pronouns, both of which Harwood discusses)?


Harwood, N. (2005). What do we want EAP teaching materials for?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4(2), 149-161.

MacDonald, J. (2013). Q: Skills for Success 4 Reading and Writing, Listening and Speaking. TESL Canada Journal, 30(2), 91-88. Retrieved from

Tribble, C. (2009). Writing academic English—a survey review of current published resources. ELT journal, 63(4), 400-417.

How to Move Your Blog from to Your Own Domain in Four Steps

Having your own blog is great. There is nothing more rewarding than sharing your ideas with the world. Even better is when discussion gets started in the comments! You are providing space for conversation and the exchange of ideas. Having a blog also lends credibility and professionalism to you, holding evidence of your ideas, skills, work, and most importantly, dedication. offers bloggers a free and simple platform to create this conversation space. However, the URL for WordPress blogs can be cumbersome and unattractive. In many ways, the domain name is as important as your content. It is the first thing people see, it remains visible in the address bar no matter what page you are on, and it can make or break the decision to visit your site. Having a top-level domain, a dot com, makes your site more credible, will likely increase visitors, and offers many other benefits.

In the text and video below, I will show you how to move your blog to your own host and your own domain in four easy steps! It requires no web programming skills and only takes about 10-15 minutes. Once set-up, you can set your theme, do a little customization and tweaking, and then, voila, you’re up, running, and better than ever.

Afterwards, I’ll also explain some of the benefits of having a self-hosted WordPress blog on your own domain. I hope you find this useful!

WATCH the video

Continue reading


Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 2

In my previous post, I summarized a 2005 study that analyzed EAP coursebooks from anti-coursebook and corpus-based perspectives, arguing that most coursebooks (at the time) were under-researched, did not represent academic writing, and presented language in pedagogically unsound ways. Here I’ll summarize an article from 2009 that analyzes 27 coursebooks and looks at the writing traditions they fall into as well as their relevance to academic writing. Just like in my last post, it’s important to bear in mind this research is at least 5 years old. However, many of the texts analyzed still remain in wide publication, likely not radically changed from the editions surveyed here.

Tribble, C. (2009). Writing academic English—a survey review of current published resources. ELT Journal, 63(4), 400-417.

Tribble begins with a discussion of what he identifies as three major trends within EAP writing instruction. This serves not only as useful background building but also provides a framework for analysis.

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition
    • This tradition originated and is mainly found in North American universities and shares a lot in common with the writing approaches of freshman English.
    • This tradition emphasizes “formal” and “factual” writing while writing in a specific genre or rhetorical function such as comparison, contrast, classification, definition, etc.
    • This tradition focuses on the “Process Approach” to writing.
    • The programs this tradition is based on is considered “free-standing” and is not typically linked with specific disciplines. The materials developed for this tradition appeal to a large audience, but Tribble questions whethere they they can be transferred from one educational culture (i.e. composition and rhetoric) to another (i.e. discipline-specific).
    • This tradition often moves from sentence, to paragraph, to essay.
  • Social/Genre Tradition
    • This tradition is closely associated with the UK and related countries.
    • This tradition focuses on textual and genre analysis as a way to learn about context-specific writing.
    • Texts are analyzed and imitated in an attempt to learn the style of a specific discipline.
    • Tribble states that this tradition draws heavily on scaffolding and moves from analysis of “necessary to the completion of specific academic tasks” to independent writing.
  • Academic Literacies
    • Also known as “writing across the disciplines” in the US.
    • There are few published materials (as of 2009) in this tradition.
    • This tradition is seen as unique in that “it contests currently held views of
      what constitutes academic discourse and challenges teachers in higher
      education to question their own practices and the demands that it makes of their students” (p. 403).
    • Citing Lea and Street (2008), academic literacies is defined as: “social practices; at level of epistemology and identities; institutions as sites of/constituted in discourses and power; variety of communicative repertoire, e.g. genres, fields, disciplines; switching with regard to linguistic practices, social meanings and identities” (p. 403).
      • Honestly, the meaning of academic literacies remains quite vague to me and none of the textbooks considered fall into this tradition.

Tribble then explains his methodology of analyzing the books, which includes categorizing them into the traditions mentioned above and then trying to answer the questions: What works? For whom? And in what circumstances? For each of the 27 books (all published between 2006 and 2007), he looks at “Orientation” (the traditions above), “Apparent target users,” and “Main methodology.” He also includes comments on major features of the book.

Some of the titles analyzed include Oxford’s “Effective Academic Writing” series, Pearson’s “The Longman Academic Writing” series, “EAP Now!,” and the “New Headway” series, among others.

Tribble’s conclusion of the analysis – of great important to this post – is that most coursebooks fall into the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach and develop “essayist literacy” skills, perfectly suitable for freshman comp but lacking for more discipline-specific skills, especially the development of “evidence-based writing skills” (p. 411) Eleven of the seventeen were Intellectual/Rhetorical, the rest being Social/Genre. Social/Genre titles included the “New Headway” series, as well as non-serial coursebooks: “English for Academic Study: Extended Writing and Research Skills” (Gamet Education), and “Study Writing” (Cambridge University Press).

Tribble also looked at EAP supplementary materials. He looks at two vocabulary books drawing from the Academic Word List “Inside Reading” and “Academic Vocabulary in Use” and finds them to be innovative in that they provided an “account of how lexis is used in the construction of academic discourse” (p. 412). He also looks at EAP study skills books, and EAP teacher education books. He seems to have high praise for “EAP Essentials: A Teacher’s Guide to Principles and Practice” (Alexander, Argent, and Spencer, 2008, Garnet Education).

Concluding his article, Tribble summarizes his two main concerns:

  • Most books are in the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition and therefore are not suitable for preparing students for “the challenge of writing extended, factual, evidence-based, and disciplinarily specific texts” (p. 416).
  • Differences in EAP traditions are not clearly signaled by the texts themselves, which may cause mismatches between what students need and what they actually get.

After reading Tribble, I looked at my own writing textbooks to see which tradition they are in. They all fall squarely within the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition. My questions for discussion are:

  1. What tradition are the majority of your coursebooks?
  2. Do you think the Intellectual/Rhetorical skills can be transferred to discipline-specific writing.
  3. Is the Social/Genre approach suitable for pre-university students, especially those who have no declared major in mind?



Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 1

I was more than happy to participate in “The Great Coursebook Debate” of 2015, chiming in with my own thoughts that not all coursebooks are equal (or equally bad), especially in EAP. It was my view that to demonize them all was to make a ridiculous and illogical claim. Though my ideas enjoyed some praise, I may have written too much, too soon. I stumbled upon two articles that seem to somewhat contradict my view on the subject. These articles offer unique, well-researched perspectives on the issues of coursebooks that are not likely to be found on the typical blog. In this post, I’ll summarize the first article, which analyzes the concept of an EAP textbook from anti-coursebook and corpus-based perspectives. Continue reading

Guest Post: “Spoken Syntax” and Corrective Feedback

The following guest post (the first on my blog!) comes from my colleague and friend, author of “How We Really Talk,” Em Turner Chitty. She is writing about a gesture-based oral corrective feedback method she uses. She recently presented this idea in a workshop and I thought it should be shared with a wider audience. You can find her presentation here. Below is her post. Enjoy!


In most English language programs, the “Four Skills” of English are taught: Grammar, Reading, Writing, and Listening/Speaking (as a single course).

One of an ESL teacher’s biggest challenges is that we too often produce students who can perform well on standardized reading, writing, and listening tests, but who cannot struggle their way through a single complete spoken sentence.

It’s not only the phonemic aspects, the accent, the rhythm, etc., that trip students up; it’s the syntax itself–the syntax that they can produce very respectably in written form but can’t conjure out of their mouths.

Rookie errors when speaking, such as the following, are endemic:

  • failing to tack the -s onto a verb like “He sing” or a plural noun like “My four friend.”
  • failing to “cascade” past tenses after the original past tense form in stories (“He wrote a letter saying he visit London last year.”).
  • failing to use the right tense for a conversation in context.
  • failing to use prepositions correctly.

In conversation courses, teachers are usually adjured not to correct spoken grammar, in order not to disturb the fluency of the speaker. While this approach spares the student humiliation, it does nothing to improve his or her spoken syntax.

Spoken Syntax Conversation Circles

In my classes, I have been working with a model for helping students correct their speech; the focus, note, is on spoken syntax, not on pronunciation.

Here is the method:

  1. A small group (no more than 10, with teacher) sits in a circle so that everyone is equal. The teacher is a facilitator, a mediating but not a dominating presence.
  2. The teacher trains students in the use of hand gestures that will be used to nonverbally elicit correct syntax from students as they are speaking.
  3. The teacher asks students to consider a list of prompts that would tend to elicit answers in the target tense. For example, “Tell about a time when you were scared,” or “Tell about a time when you got lost.” These requests will both lead naturally to storytelling, which takes place in only two main tenses–simple past and past perfect.
  4. Students read the questions/prompts to each other in pairs or the teacher may read them. Students mark three questions that they find interesting.
  5. Going around the circle, the teacher asks each student to say the number of a question that is interesting to him or her. The teacher then asks the question to the student, stressing that the answer should be in several sentences, that is, longer than a very brief answer.
  6. The student answers the question.
  7. As the student is speaking, the teacher notes any syntax errors as they are occurring. Maintaining eye contact, the teacher chooses a relatively major error, say, in tense, and silently makes the correcting gesture as soon as the student makes the error.
  8. The student typically pauses and self-corrects.
  9. If the error is a matter of an idiom or usage issue, the teacher says, “We would say…” writes the idiom or usage on the board, and asks the whole class to repeat it five times to themselves. The conversation then returns to where it left off.
  10. The teacher asks students to note the incorrect and correct usages in a notebook that they keep for the purpose.


Features of this method

  • It is gentle, in order to keep the affective barrier of stress at a minimum.
  • It relies to a good extent on nonverbal (gestural) correction, so that the flow of spoken English is not interrupted even as the corrections are occurring.
  • Students are taught a certain repertoire of gestures to correct their use of verb tenses and common prepositions at the outset of instruction.
  • Students keep active Speech Journals during the class so that they can record the corrections that other students have to make.
  • Topics for conversation are not trivial. They are things that really matter, from questions like “Would you say you are lucky or unlucky so far?”

Time (Tense) Gestures Modified from American Sign Language

Simple present tense

Both hands start crossed in front of face and widen out to create a forward arc (spanning all time, neither past nor future)

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 7.15.27 AM
Simple past tense

Dominant hand is turned with palm facing backward and moved over dominant shoulder.

Past perfect tense

Sign for “past” repeated (two times total)

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Hands “spin” around each other, ending by pointing forward with dominant hand.

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Present perfect tense

Dominant hand starts extended from the side and moves in toward the body (from past to present)


Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 12.57.24 PM
Missing “Be” verb

Dominant hand is held perpendicularly over other arm.


Preposition Gestures


Dominant hand’s fingers are bunched into the “cup” of the other hand.

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Two hands are piled on each

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Non-dominant hand is crossed by dominant hand; on the latter,
fingers are pointed downward.



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Hands start palms together, dominant hand slides
forward away from the other hand.

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Opposite of “to”–dominant hand starts in front of body and slides backward to meet the other hand near the body

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Two fists next to each other with index fingers touching


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Two fists touching, then separated laterally.


Article Gestures

“a, an”

Index finger of dominant hand is held up


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Loosely bunched fingers of dominant hand are held up


Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 1.04.01 PM

Index finger of dominant hand points down and touches palm of non-dominant hand.


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Principled Washback – TOEFL, IELTS, and Academic Writing

I have already written about teaching students formulaic language to help with their writing, especially in terms of organization, unity, and coherence. However, I may have made a fundamental mistake in assuming that preparing students for test-based and academic writing at the same time was a good idea. In other words, I fell victim to the assumption that test-based writing had anything in common with academic writing, and hence there was room for transferability of skills (in either direction).

As I pointed out in my last post on IELTS and academic writing, it turns out I was wrong. but perhaps not entirely wrong. It really depends on which test students will be attempting. The research I summarized in my last post provides a good model by which to judge how academic a task is. According to the research, an academic task should have the following elements:

  • Genre: it should be an essay, case study, review, literature review, research report or some other academic genre
  • Information source: It must be written based on information outside the student. It must require understanding primary or secondary outside sources and not rely on prior knowledge (opinions, values, feelings).
    • Correctness: Related to the information source, content must have right or wrong answers. (note: this is based on my own interpretation of the research above)
  • Rhetorical function: The essay should employ evaluation, description, summarization, comparison or explanation. It should avoid hortation (should questions).

For the IELTS, as will be explained below, Writing Task 2 (which carries the most assessment weight) bears little resemblance to academic writing expected in university coursework. TOEFL iBT writing, on the other hand, may be more aligned with university work, as my anecdotal evidence shows. Both of these findings have clear implications for EAP and principled washback. Nevertheless, I still believe that, by covering essential academic skills such as argumentation, logic, and formulaic language, students will become better prepared for test-based writing en route to academic writing (and this is the point of principled washback). This belief is supported by evidence that EAP programs without a test focus are just as effective as IELTS prep courses.

Below, I briefly outline which tests I think are and are not related, compatible, comparable, or conducive to academic writing. Finally, I list a few essential skills that are common to both and should be taught in any EAP writing course.

IELTS Task 1 – Yes

For IELTS Task 1, students look at visual data and must summarize it, focusing on major trends and explaining differences. This clearly employs academic skills and represents an academic task common to many disciplines. One important aspect that makes this task align more with academic tasks is the fact that students must be able to interpret, evaluate, and compare information external to their own knowledge. Most academic tasks require working with knowledge external to the student while most test-based tasks only work with student knowledge. Indeed, this is one of the major criticisms of test writing discussed in my previous article. Unfortunately, while IELTS Task 1 represents an academic task, the value and importance to the overall IELTS score is overshadowed by Task 2.

IELTS Task 2 – No

Task 2 has been discussed at length here.

TOEFL iBT Reading-Listening-Writing Integrated Task – Yes

For the first TOEFL iBT writing task, students are given a passage to read. Then listen to a brief lecture. The reading and lecture are on the same topic, but offer differing or contradictory perspectives . The reading passage reappears alongside the writing task. The writing task is almost always: “Summarize the points made in the lecture you just heard, explaining how they cast doubt on points made in the reading.” Sometimes it will ask you to explain how they “challenge”, “support”, “answer”, or “strengthen” some proposition. Students are given 20 minutes to write a 150-225 word essay.

For this task, I think ETS were trying to do their best simulating academic writing while controlling for content-specific knowledge. In other words, they seem to have tried to focus on certain academic writing skills such as summarization, evaluation, explanation, and argumentation while limiting the need to understand subject-specific content (which would negatively affect the validity of the test). In addition, this task relies on understanding both textual and aural outside sources and is therefore a good simulation of academic work.

TOEFL iBT Independent Writing Task – No
TOEFL PBT Test of Written English – No

Both of these writing tasks are similar in nature to IELTS Task 2 above and therefore do not represent academic writing.

Essential Skills

So, how can these sorts of tests be addressed in the EAP classroom? As I have argued before, although EAP is just as effective in preparing students for these tests as IELTS prep courses, and therefore we could choose to avoid test prep all together, we still must contend with the fact that students demand of us preparation for both academia and tests. We need to deal with these demands in a principled way, teaching essential skills that prepare students for both, or teaching academic skills disguised as test skills. So, what kind of skills should we be teaching?

  • Organization – Getting students to understand logical organization, that is how to organize elements to present ideas in a clear manner no matter the genre or rhetorical function, is a major part of ESL and EAP writing. Whether students are writing a compare/contrast essay, an argumentative essay, or a research paper, organization still follows a basic logic – topics need to be introduced, background needs to be given, a thesis (central idea) needs to be formed and then supported, ideas need to connect back to this thesis, and the paper needs to be summarized and concluded. So, if students understand the basic requirements of English writing, they can be applied and expanded upon further whether it is for a test or for a multi-page research project.
  • Formulaic language – To help with organization, cohesion, unity, and flow, students should learn to use academic phrases and syntax that can aid them in making their writing clear and logical. These are applicable in almost any domain. It is worth taking the time to teach students how to utilize the Academic Phrasebank, which can help them greatly in their academic writing careers.
  • Visual Literacy – Students need to learn to understand and interpret data from charts, graphs, and other visual sources of information. This is key not only for IELTS Task 1, but across the disciplines. Some ideas include working with infographics or having students make their own.
  • Argumentation – Students need to learn how to make a sound argument in their writing. Argumentative writing is a primary writing skill on most test tasks and is also very common in academic writing. Having students work on making logical arguments supported by their own ideas is a great practice task. Having them further support their ideas through research moves the task into the academic realm. Being able to make a clear and concise argument based on outside information is a key that students must have. If students are being prepared for making logical arguments using evidence, then students should have no trouble at all “dumbing down” their skills on tests and writing solely from prior experience. The point here is not so much the information source, but making logical arguments and learning to fully support a thesis.
  • Writing from sources – Clearly, writing from sources is the sine qua non of academic writing. Students should be able to comprehend sources, especially secondary sources, and then learn how to summarize them, evaluate them, compare them with other sources, and synthesize them in order to use them in their writing. These essential skills are imperative for academic success, and along the way students will become prepared for writing on the TOEFL iBT as well.

The idea here is to teach EAP mostly as usual, but be willing to explicitly explain how EAP skills will be useful or can be modified for tests. Some activities, such as listening or reading comprehension, can be modified to incorporate elements of testing, especially if those elements are conducive to learning academic skills (e.g. reading comprehension questions or understanding implied meaning through paraphrase). Students will feel they are getting more bang for their buck and you can rest assured you are not falling victim to true washback and are therefore cheating your students’ education.

Research Bites: IELTS and Academic Writing Compared

EAP teachers have to contend with two goals that are often at odds with each other: preparing students for academic writing and preparing students for high-stakes academic tests such as the IELTS and TOEFL. While not mutually exclusive, it is important to consider the nature of these tests and what should and should not be incorporated into EAP pedagogy. I have been arguing elsewhere that both elements can be combined in the classroom in a way that fosters academic skills primarily and test-taking skills secondarily. Again, it depends on what is being tested.

The IELTS test has grown in popularity in recent years and, as its popularity has become more global, it has become a greater concern for more students, and therefore, more EAP teachers. An important question to consider is: should we spend valuable class time preparing students for IELTS writing tasks? For Task 1, I would argue yes, as it clearly represents an academic writing skill: interpreting and summarizing visual data. For Task 2, which holds more weight in terms of test scores, maybe not. The research below explains why. Continue reading