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Is EAP more serious than general English?

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.

PS – A few people have received 404 errors when trying to comment.  Why this is, I’m not sure as it is the first time to ever happen.  You’ll see I’ve added their comments below (so my Gravatar appears next to their names).  If this is your case, please send your comment to me through the Contact Me form that is a sideways button on the right-hand side of every page.  Best!

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Kevin Stein

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?


Nathan Hall


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’.

Dan Ruelle

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…

Cecilia Lemos

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?


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

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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