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

Listening Journals: Redux

Listening Journals are a project/concept I have been toying with for the past few years and have been putting into practice into all my listening classes. I have presented the idea to colleagues in numerous settings and the ideas have been well received.

The basic premise is that students need both extensive and intensive listening practice. Extensive listening practice involves students listening to interesting, enjoyable and meaningful listening texts at or around their level. Intensive listening practice, in terms of listening journals, is exploiting these texts to practice important bottom-up listening skills (e.g. decoding). The journals in their various permutations set students on weekly or daily listening tasks that involve both aspects of listening while giving them a space for metacognitive reflection.

I still enjoy the idea, and my students have derived great benefits from it, but in my mind, it had become stagnant and disorganized as I had applied it in my classrooms. After talking with a colleague, I decided to restructure and simplify the format of it as a way to make it easier for students to complete and easier for me to assess. In addition, I think this idea makes it easier for other teachers to adapt.

For this redux – this re-visitation to my idea – I designed an actual printed journal (you can download it below) for my students that contained the template structure of the journals, as well as the possible listening sources they could choose from (chosen to be appropriate for their level).

Here is an overview of how the journal works. Parts one and two cover the extensive listening experience. Part three represents the intensive practice while part four is for reflection.

1. For each journal entry, students need to visit one of the websites below and choose something interesting to listen to.

The following websites I found suitable for intermediate to upper-intermediate level students. My listening resources page certainly has more sites for a range of levels.

      5. (advanced)
      6. (advanced)

2. Students should listen as many times as they want, focusing on understanding the main ideas and details. If students want to, they can preview the script in order to deal with any unknown or problematic vocabulary. After reading the script, students are to provide a short response. A response means a response to the context of the listening text such as a short opinion or an explanation of what they learned. A response is not a summary, though a summary is acceptable if that is one of your class goals.

3. Students now use the text to complete intensive listening activities. One of the websites listed above ( already contains activities on most of their listenings (quizzes and gap-fills). The other websites do not, but all contain the transcript. I have demonstrated to students how to take the transcript and produce an interactive gap-fill with a simple online tool. I focus on gap-fill activities because they require students to practice their decoding skills, focusing on processing sounds to hear distinct words and therefore better training their ears for listening. Other activities such as transcription or note-taking can also be used.

Furthermore, I have students write down new vocabulary as part of their activities. Among the various difficulties with listening (decoding, accent, speed, linked words, stress, etc.), vocabulary is often considered hindrance to understanding. Building their vocabularies is an important part of the listening experience.

4. Finally, I have created a simple form for students to reflect on their listening experience and skills. I used to use a more complicated series of questions for this section, but due to the level and student feedback, I have reduced my emphasis on this area. Still, it is an important area. Students need to be able to judge their listening skills, including their strengths or weaknesses. This allows them to find tune their future listening practice. Although I provide a simple form, students still need to be instructed on how to complete it and the reasons behind it.

In implementation, I have set this to be an independent project that needs to be completed throughout the term. I have set a specific number of journals as the goal (20) and have set three collection dates to assess student’s progress. This gives the students more autonomy in terms of completing them and makes assessing this project easier.

The purpose of this post was to explain my slimmed down version of one of my favorite and (in my opinion) most effective projects. I consider this Listening Journals 2.0. Below is the example journal as I have given it to the students. Feel free to download and adapt it as you see fit.

Listening Journals (Fall, 2015)

(Please note this file uses legal sized paper. It is printed double-sided as a “booklet” through the Adobe Acrobat print options.)

Research Bites: WTF: What The Font? – Typography and ELT

Two weeks ago, before the start of the new semester, I was at the copier running prints of some snazzy little document I made which was set in the font Georgia, an “elegant but legiblewtfMicrosoft font. Looking at my document, hot off the press, I remarked aloud: “Hmm…that doesn’t look right.” Immediately, I found myself in conversation with three nearby colleagues about favorite fonts, the fonts we like to use, and what we had knew about how students may (unconsciously?) perceive fonts. What amazed me about this conversation, besides the inherent geekery, was how the minutiae of teaching life may have some small but nevertheless real effect on our students and their learning.

Since that conversation, I have mulled the idea over in my mind, being very careful about my font choices on materials, as well as overall aesthetics. Thanks to a conversation with some students today over ice cream, I was inspired to write this post.

I set out to write a simple “serif vs sans serif” research summary, but I was actually disappointed with the results: no real difference, too many contradicting studies. However, through the rabbit hole of research, I stumbled onto a rather interesting article that proposed the benefits of disfluency (i.e. harder to read texts), at least for L1 readers. No research has been done (yet) on disfluency for L2 readers, but the idea is intriguing.

Below, I summarize research on the role of typography in L1 (actually a summary of summaries) and L2 reading. In part 2 of this post, I will discuss research on disfluency and its implications for material design.

Serif vs Sans Serif and L1 Reading

A popular study by Errol Morris of the New York Times offered a serif vs. sans serif online quiz to readers disguised as a credibility quiz based on a scientific article. Those who read the article read it in randomly assigned serif and sans serif fonts, including Comic Sans. The results showed that those who read serifed fonts, especially Baskerville and Georgia, found the article more believable, and those who read it with sans serifed fonts found it less believable, with Comic Sans readers rejecting the article the most. For this type of study, while it is interesting, the effect on the reader likely has more to do with perception of the font than any actual qualities of it.

Alex Poole (2008), a user experience consultant, summarized a plethora of research on font legibility and readability (comprehension) among native English readers and found that:

  • There is scientific evidence for and against either font type, and most of the experimental evidence is weak or based on poorly designed tests
  • Some argue that serifs guide the flow of reading, eye tracking studies reveal we don’t read linearly and smoothly but in quick jerking movements called saccadic movements
  • While readers may prefer serif fonts, this is likely due to familiarity, and “perceived legibility seems to be inconsistent with user performance” (Lund, 1999, cited in Poole, 2008).
  • Sans serif fonts may be better for the web and digital mediums, but some evidence questions this.
  • There is no difference for children’s books or children’s reading (Walker, 2001; Walker and Reynolds, 2002).
  • Poole concludes that font type may not be worth measuring but “x-height, counter size, letter spacing and stroke width” may be more important. [Note: The evidence for this is quite old (70s) so it may not be relevant to modern readers.]

So, the consensus for English L1 readers is that font type doesn’t matter, but other font elements may. What about for English L2 readers?

Serif vs Sans Serif and L2 Reading

My research in this area didn’t turn up many useful, recent article, but I did find this one by two Iranian professors that had a good literature review, theoretical base, and experimental design. Because of the overall unimpressive findings of serif vs sans serif fonts in general, I am confident this article is representative of most ELT findings (lacking as they are).

Soleimani, H. and Mohammadi, E. (2012). The effect of text typographical features on legibility, comprehension, and retrieval of EFL learners. English Language Teaching, 5(8). Retrieved from

A literature review of research on L1 readers revealed that:

  • font type and font size are factors that can influence reader-text interaction
  • According to Huges & Wilkins (2000), 16-point serif fonts are preferred for legibility
  • Chandler (2001) found that font size, not the type, is important
  • Gasser, Boeke, Haffernan, and Tan (2005) found “a significant effect of serif fonts on information recalling.”
  • De Lange, Esterhuizen, and Betty (1993) found serif and sans serif fonts have equal legibility

The authors of the article then did their own experimental study.

  • Method
    • 120 intermediate learners
    • four instruments: timed speed reading test, untimed comprehension test, untimed recall test (2 weeks later)
    • conditions that were manipulated include font size (10 or 12), font type (Arial or Bookman Solid) and line spacing (set solid or double spaced
  • Results
    • The only significant difference that came up among all the various conditions was for the effect of font size and speed of reading.
    • A larger font (12 point) is more conducive to faster reading.
  • Conclusion
    • While their findings seem at first to contradict their literature review, the findings are quite in line with the general trend of inconclusiveness in terms of font type.
    • Their findings on font size are in line with most other research.

Conclusions and Implications

So, what do I make of my initial feelings at the copier, when I saw my Georgia font and was taken aback? As the research shows, it’s likely not any effect of the font choice itself but rather the overall design of the material and my own perceptions. Perhaps there was not enough white space, or the size of the font was unbalanced. In any case, based on the research, I doubt it would have had any effect on my students.

To me, though, aesthetics in material design is important. My sentiment, however, seems to reinforce the overall conclusion of this kind of research: beauty (and perceived legibility) is in the eye of the beholder.

Other Links of Interest



Chandler, S. B. (2001). Running Head: Legibility and comprehension of onscreen type (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

De Lange, R. W., Esterhuizen, H. L., & Beatty, d. (1993). Performance differences between Times and Helvetica in a reading task. Electronic Publishing, 6(3), 241-248. Retrieved from

Gasser, B., Boeke, J., Haffernan, M., & Tan, R. (2005). The influence of font type on information recall. North American Journal of Psychology, 7(2), 181-188.

Hughes, L. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (2000). Typography in children’s reading schemes may be suboptimal: Evidence from measures of reading rate. Journal of Research in Reading, 23(3), 314-324.

Lund, O. (1999). Knowledge Construction in Typography: The case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Reading: The University of Reading, Department of Typography & Graphic Communication.

Poole, A. (2008, Feb. 17). Which are more legible: serif or sans serif typefaces? [blog post]. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2001). Typography for children: serif or sans?. Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, The University of Reading. Archived in

Walker, S. and Reynolds, L. (2002). Serifs, sans serifs and infant characters in children’s reading books. University of Reading Information Design Journal, 11(3): 106-122. Retrieved from