Specificity Vs Transferability

Tuesday 6 March 2012

by Louis Rogers

One key question in EAP is the extent to which language training should be specific to each students needs and how much should we focus on transferable language and skills development. Personally when I moved from a General English setting to a Business English classroom I found the transition to be a positive experience. I felt the need for the teaching to be a performance less of an issue as finally my students and the class felt like it had a very clear focus and purpose. I also felt the same when I moved into an EAP environment. However, the longer you spend in a field such as Business English or EAP you start to question exactly how well does this course meet the needs of my students? Specificity is after all a spectrum. So is a catch all EAP course really meeting the needs of our learners? Yet if we are to become more specific then how specific can we or should we go? Also which do we place more weight behind; specificity or transferability? Would we be doing students a disservice by ignoring the changing and varied nature of academic studies by making courses more specific?


It’s quite a common debate in EAP as to whether we should teach English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) or English for General Academic Purposes. Strong cases can be made for either. For example, there are general skills that are required in a range of academic disciplines such as listening to lectures and taking part in seminars. However, there are clearly vocabulary sets that are discipline-specific and genres of writing that feature more greatly in one field than another. So how useful is an EGAP course to our learners?  And how specific should an ESAP courses be? Personally I tend to fall into the group that would argue for EGAP for a number of reasons.

Take for example a broad discipline such as Business, the Universities Colleges and Admissions Services (UCAS) lists more than 3000 courses at undergraduate level in the UK alone. Accountancy lists over 700 courses and can be combined with other subjects as diverse as Law, IT, Geology, Psychology, and Logistics. Obviously this is a very simple position to take but this doesn’t even consider each degree down to a modular level. On the face value of a course title similarity seems at times obvious; however, at modular level it can become much more diverse. Even considering single honours such as, Real Estate can ask students to specialize in three broad areas; Finance, Law and Economics. How wide and varied would the ‘specific’ needs of these students be? It is also arguably the aim of many universities, and some even put it in
their mission statement, that they want to develop students via an interdisciplinary

Of course these arguments clearly don’t negate the potential need for and importance of ESAP. Specificity enhances motivation and learning so where possible we should take steps to address this. For example, by providing support in wider academic areas such as Management, Law or IT – as many universities do.  If we do go down the EGAP path we need to be confident that the language focus is actually broad enough and transferable enough across disciplines. Using for example Averil Coxhead’s AWL and the Academic Keyword List developed by the University of Louvain. Or even just by simply talking to as many content teachers as possible to draw out similarities
between courses, as was done in developing the critical thinking syllabus in the DELTA Academic Objectives series.

I feel it is not an either/or situation. ESAP is sometimes held up as something we should aspire to and EGAP shouldn’t be derided for being too generic. Both clearly has a valuable place in EAP, however, I feel an ESAP course should always keep in mind the interdisciplinary nature of academia therefore remain as broadly specific as possible. I would be interested to hear other people’s view on the ESAP and EGAP arguments. I feel it’s an interesting area for debate and fully expect a strong case can be made for both!


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  1. […] meeting your students’ needs Posted on 8 March, 2012 by Simon Thomas Louis Rogers discusses the interplay between teaching for specific needs and teaching transferrable skills in English for a….Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]

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