Does EAP work?

I’ve long been interested in whether or not what we do is successful. Do the EAP courses that we teach help our learners to succeed in their academic lives?

There is very little research in this area and one reason for this is that it is very difficult to define what we mean by success and even more difficult to be clear about what causes it.

For that reason I organised a BALEAP PIM (Professional Issues Meeting) in June 2006. The papers were published in Gillett & Wray (2006).

The first four contributors to the PIM used a qualitative design in order to gather data for their research. For all of them, the Pre-Sessional English course was central to their assessment of the effectiveness of EAP.

In the first phase of a project commenced in 2005, Barbara Atherton addressed the theme of academic success of the Pre-Sessional course at Kingston University. In order to establish how successful the course was, she examined students’ entry and exit test scores and post-course questionnaires. She reviewed comments both from students who did and did not undertake Pre-Sessional English as they pursued follow-on degree programmes and also considered feedback from course directors. The data gathered suggests that the Pre-Sessional course at Kingston could be deemed successful.

Diana Ridley reported on research designed to track students’ progress and achievement following the Pre-Sessional course at the Sheffield Hallam University. She considered the relationship between students’ exit scores and the length of time taken to complete academic programmes and also looked at ways of strengthening support for international students. She gathered data for her research from questionnaires, interviews, discussion and observation from both a student and lecturer perspective. Her findings suggest that the Pre-Sessional exit test does have predictive validity.

Mary Martala’s case study questioned the effectiveness of the writing component of the Pre-Sessional course at the University of Hertfordshire in preparing Chinese students for postgraduate study. Using data gathered from students’ writing and responses to feedback questionnaires she concluded that the writing strand of the course does seem to equip students well for their further studies. A connection was made between assessment grades and learner attitude with the suggestion that a positive attitude to study played a major part in educational success.

Chinese postgraduate students at Heriot-Watt University are the subject of the first stage of Nick Pilcher’s research. Comments regarding the perceived effectiveness of EAP were gathered by interviewing a group of 21 students whilst undertaking dissertations in 2005. Although participants were generally positive about EAP provision, there was recognition that the complexity of the situation required further data collection. It was acknowledged that tutors and departments needed to work more closely together not only to gather additional data but also to develop the effectiveness of EAP.

The next two contributors took a quantitative approach in assessing the effectiveness of EAP. The unreliability of band descriptors and the variability of a speaker’s production prompted John Morley of the University of Manchester to examine alternative means for measuring oral proficiency gains over short Pre-Sessional courses. He considered the variables of fluency, accuracy and complexity and suggested that it may be possible to use certain of the measures he described in order to gauge changes in oral proficiency over short periods.

Simon Kinzley of the University of Lancaster suggested that innovation theory may be combined with the appropriate collection and interpretation of data in assessing whether students were able to adopt the academic writing practices learned on Pre-Sessional courses as they proceed onto their degree programmes and whether adoption of these practices was linked to academic success. He claimed that the methods he describes may be useful not only for other researchers, but also in establishing evidence surrounding the teaching of EAP.

Finally, Sonya Saunders presented a personal view of whether EAP works. She looked at many of the problems touched on in earlier papers and suggested ways forward for the future.

There is some evidence her, then, that EAP does work, especially if, as several of the presenters pointed out, there was a close link between what was taught on the EAP courses and the students’ future academic lives. This was especially the case when  EAP lecturers and academic departments worked closely together. The nearer you can get to the student’s ultimate reason for learning English, the more likely it will be that the student will be able to make use of what you are teaching in the new context (see, for example, Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré, 1999; Willingham, 2007; James, 2014).

There is evidence from other fields that this is the case.  From the point of view of teaching critical thinking, Willingham (2012, p. 161) notes:

The problem is not just that you can’t train basic cognitive processes like working memory. The problem is that when you practice a cognitive skill – critical thinking, say, or problem solving – the newly acquired skill tends to cling to the domain in which you practiced it. That is, learning how to think critically about science doesn’t give you much of an edge in thinking critically about mathematics.

There are two reasons that critical thinking sticks to subject matter: sometimes you need subject knowledge to recognize what the problem is in the first place and sometimes you need subject knowledge to know how to use a critical thinking skill.

This has already been discussed in the case of writing by, for example, Barton, Hamilton & Ivanic (2000), who argue that all uses of written language are located in particular times and places, and in the case of thinking by Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1989).

Many teaching practices implicitly assume that conceptual knowledge can be abstracted from the situations in which it is learned and used. This article argues that this assumption inevitably limits the effectiveness of such practices. Drawing on recent research into cognition as it is manifest in everyday activity, the authors argue that knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989, p. 32).
In an extensive study of writing in different university course and matched workplaces, Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré (1999, p. 235) conclude that:
It seems reasonable that the embeddedness of writing in workplace practices ought to be replicated in school settings as well, if it isn’t for the fact that the process of education does often operate on a model of detaching skills and practices from their workaday settings in order to teach them effectively.
Most recently, in the latest issue of JEAP, Mark James (2014) has analysed 41 studies that investigate leaning in EAP contexts, and to what extent learning transfers from the EAP instruction to the students’ other courses. Here are a few quotations from his conclusion:

The findings of this investigation also have practical implications for EAP educators. First, because it seems clear that instruction can result in transfer in EAP contexts, these findings can be seen as helping to justify in a general way the provision of EAP instruction.

 … although EAP instruction is already often designed to be similar to target situations (e.g., students’ other courses), near transfer might be emphasized by ensuring these similarities reflect as many dimensions of the transfer taxonomy as possible.

 EAP educators should, however, be cautious about expecting transfer when target situations differ from EAP instruction in numerous ways (James, 2014, p. 11).

So there does seem to be evidence that EAP works, but particularly in contexts where there is a close link between what is taught on the EAP courses and the students’ future academic lives. I’ve always argued that learning any subject cannot be separated from learning the language and practices of that subject (see, for example, Beaumont & Gillett, 2013). Therefore it does not make any sense to teach language and skills separately. This means ESAP not EGAP, and integration of language and content as CBI or CLIL propose.


Barton, D., Hamilton, M. & Ivanic, R. (Eds.). (2000). Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context. London: Routledge.

Beaumont, S. & Gillett, A. J. (2013). An investigation into the role of spoken English competence in an assessed business discussion in an ELF context. In J. Wrigglesworth (Ed.),EAP within the higher education garden: Cross-pollination between disciplines, departments and research (pp. 171-179). Reading: Garnet Education.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning? Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.

Dias, P., Freedman, A., Medway, P. & Paré, A. (1999). Worlds apart: Acting and writing in academic and workplace contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gillett, A. J. & Wray, L. (Eds.). (2006). Assessing the effectiveness of EAP programmes. London: BALEAP.

James, M. A. (2014). Learning transfer in English-for-academic-purposes contexts: A systematic review of research. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 14, 1-13.

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why Is it so hard to teach? American Educator, 31(2), 8-19.

Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts? How to tell good science from bad in education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2 thoughts on “Does EAP work?

  1. This is extremely interesting – and I can definitely agree with the conclusions regarding the need for close transfer. ‘Hugging and bridging’ it is then.

    I wonder how you feel regarding recent studies like those by Pearson (2020) and Thorpe et al. (2017) that suggest that ultimately, students entering via presessional courses cannot perform equally as well as direct entry students?

    And as such, such courses do not do what they purport to – and that in this case, EAP does not work. And – how much do you think this failure can be overcome? Can we improve presessional courses until this inequality disappears?

    • Thank you for this and the useful references.

      Something that it is easy to forget is the purpose of pre-sessional English courses. What are their objectives? I was criticised a few years ago by a marketing lecturer in our business school. He taught an MA marketing course that had received some students from our pre-sessional English course. He was disappointed with them. I assumed that was because they were failing, but no, they were not failing. It was just that he was expecting them to be super-students and they weren’t. Is it the purpose of pre-sessional English courses to produce super-students? I think not.

      Another thing that is often forgotten is that there is more to academic success than English ability. Various kinds of academic ability, subject knowledge, motivation, hard work etc are also necessary. If there was a very strong correlation between English ability and academic success, we would conclude that academic assessment was mainly measuring language ability and, again, that is not the case.

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