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?


2 thoughts on “Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 2

  1. One problem I really have with the genre-focused writing books is the chapters’ subject material, which is often simply not of much general interest, and their hit-and-run approach to topics; you can sense from the books that there is not a process of moving from more easily accessible material to difficult material in the same discipline–no “scaffolding.” To get better college-level essays rather than five-paragraph student essays, maybe we should try the approach you mention, the Social/Genre approach.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Em, I think you’re right. I think at the foundational levels, genre-specific writing may be more suitable, but for upper levels, where tasks should be of mixed-genre, we typically see extended genre tasks. Almost all of our texts are Intellectual/Rhetorical and it may do us well to investigate a Social/Genre approach.

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