During the last #EAPchat, we talked about the difference between general ESL/EFL and EAP in terms of seriousness and credibility at large. You can see the transcript here. If asked, how would you answer this question: Out of general English and EAP, which is more serious?

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Edit: By “serious” I refer to the tone of the  classroom, the type of instruction and  expectations of those enrolled. I don’t mean as a profession.

I’d have to go with EAP.  No, it’s not because that’s the context I teach in or that I work at a university.  It’s because over the 15 some odd years I’ve been teaching, the last three in EAP involved the most complicated intricacies of context-dependent language, the biggest ratio of academic content to edutainment, and the highest stakes for students enrolled.  Yes, that’s my experience.

Defining general English and EAP
What may need defining here though is my definition of “general English” and “EAP”.  The general English programs I include here are the ones abroad that native speakers travel to and are employed by private language schools; their students often register for 45-90 min classes everyday before or after work. Levels are linear where students progress usually by default. It’s what’s commonly refered to as “visa schools” here: young adult international students come to Canada to stay for shorter durations, attending grammar-based or integrated skills classes each day, sometimes with electives like Survival English or Film English.  The learning curve is quick and steep, particularly at lower levels. In both cases, student motivation for language learning often comes second to either vacation or work.  It rarely contributes directly to future schooling or promotions.

Is this all general English is? No, of course not.  I leave out one particular context I have little experience with: settlement (or LINC here) language instruction for newcomers.  I imagine that if it comes down to survival, language learning can be quite high stakes.  However, in a country like Canada, or more specifically a multicultural city like Toronto, one could live here a lifetime and survive quite comfortably with almost no L2 oral communication whatsoever (and many do).  Likely this is not the case for newcomers in places with little support.

With EAP, I speak primarily about learners preparing for tertiary study in an English-speaking university in an English-speaking country.  These programs focus on not only language but also academic skills needed to succeed at an undergraduate and even graduate level.  This is no easy task, even if you are a native speaker.  EAP here involves a foundation or bridging year with no levels, for example, between arrival to the university and an unsupported first year course load.  Stakes are high here: if you work hard, you succeed at your degree.  If you don’t, you must look for alternative plans, deal with disappointed parents and enormous lost tuition fees.  The learning curve is arduous and slow. This combination of courseload and pressure leaves little room for entertainment during class time.  Is this everyone’s EAP? No, of course not.  Some schools have a graduated level system in EAP also. Others involve concurrent discipline-specific courses.  But what everyone has in common is the academic nature of the language.

A point was brought up during the discussion that I hadn’t fully thought of before: is EAP a more widely respected topic at conferences than general ELT? I tend to think it comes down to what interests you as an attendee.  Because the annual conference I help organise is attended largely by settlement, new and unemployed teachers, EAP-based sessions aren’t any more popular than listening practice with music, for example.  Having said that, trends are trends: critical thinking, an oft-regarded EAP focussed skill, was extremely popular.  And beyond this, who tends to get more funding from employers to attend conferences? I’d venture to say it’s EAP teachers to the larger extent (not speaking from experience on this one though).

In the end, it may ultimately depend on learning context and the learners themselves.  So, what’s next? Maybe a discussion about what fun activities are valid in EAP contexts?  Maybe a discussion about what serious situations are required by general English programs?

Please weigh in.

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20 Responses to Is EAP more serious than general English?

  1. Kevin Stein says:

    Hi Tyson,

    Great post. I’m in an environment about as removed from yours as possible and it was nice to get a peek into your (and the EAP) world. One thing that kind of stuck out for me was sense of focus that you and probably other EAP teachers bring to their classes. Although I am spending some class time preparing students for TOEIC and doing some skills training so they can pass their univeristy entrance exams in Japan, I usually feel pretty confident that simply improving their basic English usage is going to have good returns when it comes to the standard tests. Do you find the opposite to be true, that helping students improve their academic English leads to general improvement in their basic communication skills?


    • seburnt says:

      I’m not really sure whether I believe this opposite is true or not, Kevin. What perhaps lends itself to an improved basic communication is the fact that students are taught what is appropriate in terms of asking questions, making conversation and participating in tutorial dialogue. This also spills over into office hour interaction, which certainly isn’t purposeful at first.

      Having said that, most of my students come into our program with basic communication skills fairly intact, if by basic, you mean comprehensibility. If it’s appropriacy and confidence, then these do improve especially within university contexts.

  2. Nathan Hall says:


    While you bring up some really good points, I am having a difficult time with this topic. I know where you are coming from and I have a good deal of respect for you, but this post comes off sounding a bit elitist. I am struggling with why you decided to write on this topic. It sounds like a bit of a ‘whose the best?’ type of commentary and a bit judgemental. Like I said earlier, I know this isn’t who you are so this is only an observation from the outside looking in.

    General English classes and private language schools are often looked down upon from those working in university programs. Seeing as I work for one of those “visa schools”, I understand where some of this comes from. Yes, there are those who only are there to provide “edutainment”, but the generalized stereotypes, paint-with-a-wide-brush type of statements can actually be quite harmful. We are colleagues and we deserve to be treated with a little respect. Not all of those who teach at private language schools are worksheet-loving, textbook-dependent hacks. I work with a great group of teachers, many who spend a great deal of time preparing directed lessons based on relevant material in order to help their students achieve their goal of becoming more proficient in their language skills. What they do with this new found knowledge varies and even includes going to post-secondary institutions.

    Sorry for ranting. I’m not actually upset, although it may appear that way. I just wanted to make sure others had a chance to see the larger picture. It isn’t us against them. It is ‘we’.

    • seburnt says:

      Thanks for your point-of-view here, Nathan.

      I can’t say I anticipated my opinion based on my experience being interpreted as elitist or segregating. The post really stems from a dialogue that was had at the last #EAPchat, where several people weighed in on how EAP tends to be viewed as the more serious of the two teaching contexts, both in terms of reputation and stakes, probably topic and activity choice too. It got me thinking about my own perceptions. In no way was it (or my post) meant to demean or marginalise the teaching quality or dedication in the private language sector. I too have worked with several professionals there, but also some not so.

      In the end, I think another discussion (which probably will warrant a post itself) on why EAP tends to feel required to have serious in-class tone in the class when it could accomplish many goals with more entertaining methods–something that definitely could be learnt from general English teaching environments.

  3. Dan Ruelle says:

    A very interesting post, Tyson, about a topic that up until the last #EAPchat was one I had never seen discussed by language teachers. For me, I think the “seriousness” of EAP is fundamentally because these classes act as a hurdle to higher education for these students. By a hurdle I don’t mean EAP classes are stopping them from their academic pursuits but rather that they must pass these courses before continuing in higher education in English. These classes, and other high stakes activities related to foreign language proficiency (such as a language test for immigration or joining a professional body) naturally bring with them a sense of importance or seriousness.

    However, I think it is sometimes unfortunate that EAP classes have this label as I have found that the power and effectiveness of well thought out “entertaining” activities in classes can be immense. I have also found that students quite enjoy a more relaxed classroom environment as there is enough stress for them to cope with the demanding tasks we expect them to achieve.

    Perhaps it is us, the teachers, who are perpetuating the stereotype of EAP classes needing to be serious, rather than the students…

    • seburnt says:

      Yes, perhaps it is us who perpetuate this too. However, there is argument for the idea that because we are preparing them for higher education study in English, where professors and classes don’t elevate the learning through much entertainment or humour (I’m thinking a lot about commerce, engineering or life science study in particular) no matter how well thought-out it may be, EAP instruction should mimic this approach to a certain degree. I’m not saying that that element of fun be completely removed from our classes, but more that we are the transition from high school into university, so that transition needs to include a closer representation to what they’ll encounter in future classes than not.

  4. Carolyn says:

    Hey Tyson!

    I really enjoyed this one. I like your statement of “complicated intricacies of context-dependent language” – very nice. And I agree with your wavering between EAP and survival language when it comes to high stakes. I know that I help many of my students attain better employment so they can better support their families. That being said, they are likely less focused as they have so many other concerns. I think EAP classes take so much longer to dig down – the lessons are more complex and the skills take a while to master. Humour and fun may tend to be easier to interject in topics that require less concentration? Just a thought.


    • seburnt says:

      Yes – the struggle with the idea that ‘there is no time for fun in EAP’! I like some ideas that have come out of posts from @Sharonzspace and @yearinthelifeof regarding content for EAP skills… zombies, in particular.

  5. Julie Moore says:

    Hi Tyson,

    Well done for tackling such a tricky subject – great post and lots of food for thought. I’d actually been
    formulating a reply when I just read Dan’s above and realise he’s said much of what I was thinking!

    For me, I think EAP can seem ‘serious’ to those in the wider ELT community in the sense of being
    dull, pretentious and uninviting. I’ve been involved in EAP for some 7 years now and I still find
    myself feeling excluded when I hear some EAPers using endless academic terminology that I don’t
    understand. It’s only quite recently that I’ve discovered that usually when I find out what those
    terms mean, they were concepts I already understood perfectly well and was putting into practice
    quite happily!

    I understand that working in a university environment, EAP teachers feel the pull of the academic
    community to be more, well, academic. But I think all the talk of “discourse communities”
    and “epistemology” can be very alienating to those in other ELT sectors. I’d like to think that we
    could make EAP a bit more accessible, by communicating what it’s about in a way that’s a bit more
    approachable and appealing.

    Yes, I agree that EAP is at the more ‘serious’ end of the ELT spectrum in terms of being high stakes
    and high level, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, stimulating and yes, even ‘fun’ to teach.
    Like Dan, I enjoy the grown-up, relaxed sort of environment that you can have in an EAP classroom. I
    may not play games in the classroom as such, but I do have a laugh with my students and I certainly
    have a laugh with my colleagues :)

    • seburnt says:

      Hi Julie – thanks for the point-of-view. I agree with some things and see the ideas from others but not fully attach myself to its ‘epistemological’ approach. Hehe. Sometimes when I read articles (or even blog posts) that lean toward the academic format (high brow vocabulary, referencing systems, complexly-written concepts, etc.) I can also shut down and lose my way through the ideas. It can take me a few reads to put everything together. I imagine others in our community can feel this way too. In this way, I believe that we can certainly aim to simplify and clarify our ideas for the wider ELT audience and be more ‘accessible’.

  6. Tyson!
    I see you are back to the Simpsons – wondered when they would appear on your blog again!
    Seriously now, if you had asked me that a few weeks ago I would have unhesitatingly said EAP. Its still my answer, but I must say I was quite shocked to discover that for some of students, paying for the classes and showing up physically for the lessons seemed to max out their “seriousness”. Not only don’t they do the work at home, they don’t listen in class and are contanly professing shock at what was supposed to be done (or how it was supposed to be done) or even mundane things like the fact that there is no class next week. And these are students studying for a high-stakes test!
    I can’t compare to language schools like you can but I did compare to high-school students who didn’t fork out so much money and are not as carreer oriented.
    Its all individual…

    • seburnt says:

      I think we may be off on different ‘seriousnesses’. ;) Sometimes I can’t really fathom the tuition my students pay for a year with us and the thought of failing the program and not getting into the university program you’ve planned for so long…

  7. ElizabethA says:

    Hi Tyson, I’ve been involved in EAP for all of my teaching life, and my view is diametrically opposed to yours :-O
    a). not all EAP is “primarily about learners preparing for tertiary study in an English-speaking university” – fortunately for the world (see MAK Halliday on “Social Semiotics”) – my EAP students will do ALL their studies and their research in French, but need English i]. to read the results of others and (later) ii]. to communicate their own results.
    b). Teaching Scientists is fun We never have to “look for content” … we’re swimming in it. And since the students have the content knowledge and the teacher has the language knowledge, we can really flip the class and work in conditions of real communication.
    IMHO, all it needs to be an EAP teacher (at least for science studies) is an interest in the subject – and the students and collegues will teach you the rest :-)

    • seburnt says:

      Ha! I wasn’t suggesting all EAP was what I describe, but just the EAP I was referring to with this post in particular. I’m glad to hear there are are “diammetrically opposed” views. Learning about other contexts for EAP is actually quite exhilarating (and enlightening too!). My perspective is obviously affected by teaching in Canada.

      Now did I say somewhere that we have to search hard for content? ;) My students concurrently take a first year History credit course, from which much of my content derives or at least supports. Also, being pre-first year students, they have little content knowledge, let alone about History. Being from China mostly, their understanding of History is rarely as ‘world-view’ as it tends to be presented in the course. I must say, I’ve learnt a lot about history myself, but not from them.

      I appreciate the reading you sent too. Enjoying it.

      • ElizabethA says:

        Just when you think you’re zooming in to something more specific than just EFL, here again is another illustration how much EAP ESP are all things to all people;-)
        I feel quite sure that your History students improve their English far more than if they “just” enrolled on a Language course; it’s the doing-something-with-the-language which counts I think.
        And for the teachers in my English for Science situation, I always remember the day a 100% Liberal Arts trained colleague exclaimed straight from the heart, “I wish I’d done Civil Englineering…. it’s sooo interesting”
        Does anyone write up a summary of the #EAPchat? I’d love to join you but unfortunately there’ are only 24 hrs in a day :-(

        • seburnt says:

          Doing something with the language is the key, right?

          No one writes summaries of the #EAPchat. I did one but found it such a chore. I’d rather have blog posts inspired by the discussion (such as this one we’re commenting on now). You can read most transcripts here though.

  8. Hey Ty,

    Being from general English (mostly) myself I have to agree that EAP is more serious – or at least seen that way. Maybe it’s because EAP students are more focused and have a very clear (and concrete!) objective in mind. Maybe it’s because of the age range. Maybe…

    All I can say it’s that in EAP session in conferences I have attended most attendees DO look more serious, in their suits and jackets :-)

    But hey, it’s all English, right?

  9. Nancy says:

    Hello, after reading this article I became confused. Is using EAP in only higher education? What about school? Do you consider teaching essays, such as cause and effect, problem,solution or pros and cons, in schools general English or EAP?

    • Tyson Seburn says:

      Hi Nancy – thanks for commenting! While EAP often is regarded as a higher education field or at least working towards tasks that are usual in higher education, this probably would account for the idea that yes, it is. EAP courses do happen outside of HE itself e.g. within private language schools whose students aim to study undergrad or grad degrees within English as a medium instruction universities, of course. These types of courses also may appear for younger learners too, like in high schools outside of an English L1 environment.

      This is all prefaced on the notion that we’re talking about the field of language learning (i.e. as opposed to the ‘General English’ course you might typically find within high school curricula in Canada, for example). I’m not certain what your teaching context is, but I sort of get the sense that yours may be that from your use of ‘school’?

      In any case, there are academic English education throughout a variety of curriculum, both in mainstream education and language learning for sure.

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