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.

2 thoughts on “Research Bites: Coursebooks and EAP, part 3

  1. Q: Skills for Success gives me nightmares. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody speak so slowly as the people on the CD for Speaking and Listening 1.

    I don’t think I’d expect much different from a new edition of any textbook. Surely if one were out to make a break with the past one would launch a new series with a new author. The big publishers can certainly afford that.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for the comment.
      I’ve only used Q: Listening and Speaking 5. There is variability between recorded listening texts and authentic ones (some of which are way too hard) but in general, I found it to be a terrible book.

      I agree that new editions won’t be anything revolutionary. Rather, there would be a new series. I wonder if any new series has truly broken the mold for EAP?

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