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English for general academic purposes: Catering to discipline-specific needs

Indika Liyanage and Gary Birch
The number of international students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds to countries where English is the first language is on the rise, necessitating the provision of English for Academic Purpose (EAP) courses to prepare such students to study in English-speaking institutions. Because of the variety of academic backgrounds of students entering these courses, classes take the form of English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP), which mostly comprise study-skills based approaches. It is often difficult to relate such EGAP content to students' academic disciplines or to address their academic needs in classes which contain students from a range of academic backgrounds. In order to address this problem, discipline-specific tasks were integrated into an EGAP context and the effects evaluated. The following indicators were used to check how successfully the approach addressed the academic and linguistic needs of students: student needs analysis; feedback from questionnaires and student interviews; participant observation; and end-of-course evaluation. The findings indicated that the students had a strong preference for discipline-specific tasks and the discipline-specific approach was successful in relating the EGAP content to students' academic disciplines and in addressing their language difficulties.

Towards the close of the 20th century there were more than a million students in higher education worldwide who were studying outside their own countries (Huxur, Mansfield, Nnazor, Schuetze, & Segawa, 1996). The majority of these students were from non English speaking backgrounds (NESB) and they studied in English speaking countries such as the UK, USA, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. These numbers increase every year. Consequently, in recent years, there has been a worldwide increase in demand for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses varying in length and the mode of instruction (Jordan, 1997). EAP is needed not only for educational studies in countries where English is the mother tongue, but also in other countries where English is the medium of instruction in the higher education sector (Jordan, 1997). There is a clear difference between the needs of EAP students in these two contexts.

In countries where English is not the first language of the students, EAP classes are often attended and needed by almost all the students studying in any tertiary institution. These students are from a range of different academic disciplines. In such countries, EAP courses are usually conducted as English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) courses catering for the needs of individual academic departments and their students. However, in countries where English is the official first language, NESB students represent a small minority of students enrolled in each academic discipline. EAP courses established to cater for their needs are made up of students from a range of disciplines since rarely are the numbers sufficient from particular disciplines to allow for the formation of specific purpose classes. Instead, students are taught in classes properly designated English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP).

The problems and complexities of EGAP instruction in English-speaking contexts have been given little attention in EAP research. The issue needs to be addressed since most EGAP courses are little more than study-skills ESL courses which do not address the particular English language needs of students from specific disciplines. The following study was undertaken to examine ways in which NESB students' specific needs might be addressed in EGAP contexts, since because of the need to work with viable class sizes, most EAP courses are likely to continue to be of the EGAP rather than the ESAP variety.


English as a Second Language (ESL) and EAP are two different modes of curricula in terms of student clientele, course content, objectives, and instruction (Larklau, 1994). In preparing students to cope with the demands of university study, English courses need to focus on what Cummins (1982) refers to as 'context-reduced' language which tends to be rather abstract and to rely less heavily for its coherence on an immediate context than does the 'context-embedded' language of everyday interaction, which is the focus of general ESL courses. Short & Spanos (1989) see this as the fundamental difference between EAP and ESL curricula. Furthermore, since EAP courses are usually for students who have embarked on a course of advanced study at university level (Grosse, 1988; McDonough, 1984; Schleppegrell & Bowman, 1986; Steinhausen, 1993), their academic curricula presuppose solid literacy abilities as well as a strong academic orientation (Blanton, 1990; Chamot & O'Malley, 1987; Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998; Jordan, 1997).

The EAP curriculum usually builds on student awareness that there is a particular language of the academy, and certain ways of talking, reading and writing about ideas and texts. It aims at developing what Cummins (1979) calls Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). CALP builds on the students' acquisition of basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) - the verbal fluency needed in a target language for everyday informal situations. As such, it can be seen that general English proficiency (BICS) is merely the basis for CALP and is not a promising indicator of success in academic study (Lewelling, 1991).


The centrality of the EAP focus is viewed differently by EAP experts; some view study skills as central to EAP (Beard & Hartley, 1984; Robinson, 1980), while some others maintain EAP does not entirely rest on study skills; it rests on such things as 'general academic English register, incorporating a formal, academic style, with proficiency in the language use' (Jordan, 1997) in addition to study skills. However, in contexts where it is necessary to address the linguistic needs of specific disciplines, the focus on non-specialised language may not be adequate for students to handle functions and notions of discipline-specific language.

Various study skills require different levels of language proficiency. Study skills that require a comparatively large number of productive skills need relatively more language competence as opposed to those that require fewer productive skills. For example, a writing task may demand a more integrated language proficiency in listening, reading and writing on the part of the student than a task for library referencing. EGAP isolates the skills associated with study activities such as listening to lectures and participating in seminars and tutorials, and teaches the skills that are common to all disciplines. ESAP integrates the skills work of EGAP with help for students in their actual subject tasks. The difference is that ESAP courses focus on the actual tasks that students have to carry out while EGAP courses select more general contexts (Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998).

Most of the short EAP courses can hardly accommodate anything other than the basic study skills. NESB students who face the dual responsibility of learning English and using English to learn need a great deal of spoken and written practice in the target language associated with study skills. Robinson (1980) states, 'A skill has to be mastered: it cannot simply be explained, but must also be extensively practised' (p. 32). Less or no practice at all invariably affects both native and NESB students and the effect may be even more serious for the non-native students, since the non-native students, in addition to the burden of the academic subject content, need guidance for language skills that underpin the task. The course convenors, especially in the case of short EGAP courses, confront a huge responsibility in improving the students' general study skills, relating them to the students' academic disciplines and teaching the students discipline-specific genres.

Relatively homogeneous needs and objectives of students in ESAP contexts make it easier to teach discipline-specific language and to design curricula based on language difficulties as opposed to EGAP contexts, in which an array of different disciplines are represented (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989). Development of 'sheltered' or content-area curricula (Chamot & O'Malley, 1987; Mohan, 1986), which require collaboration between academic departments and EAP teaching, is explicitly recommended in current EAP research. (Allison, Corcos, & Lam, 1994; Benesch, 1988; Brooks, 1988; Dudley Evans, 1998; Snow & Brinton, 1988). Administrative practicalities (Hui & Leung, 1993), academic intricacies like co-ordinating two curricula (Brinton et al., 1989), together with the deficiency of the academic subject-specific knowledge of EAP teachers (Spack, 1988) can cause problems in the collaboration between academic departments and EGAP teachers.


Assessment of literacy needs from the individual learner's perspective is an important part of any instructional programme design and it can benefit both teachers and students alike (Lytle, 1988) by avoiding fixed, linear curricula, especially when the students involved have specific and individualised learning goals and needs (Santopietro & Peyton, 1991). Students' needs assessment remains elemental to EAP (Allison et al., 1994; Brinton et al., 1989; Dudley-Evans, 1998; Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998; Jordan, 1997) and the unifying feature of any EAP course is the definition of objectives and content of each course according to learners' functional needs in the target language and how the students are expected to perform in conforming to the norms and conventions of their academic disciplines. Fixed, linear curricula in EAP contexts may also have the disadvantage of trying to meet curricular objectives rather than the needs of students, which may change as the course progresses.

The needs assessment can be done at various stages in EAP class contexts. It can be done at the curriculum planning stage to determine appropriate program types and course content. It can be done as a continuous process throughout the instructional program to determine whether the program's objectives and the learners' requirements are being achieved and can also allow for necessary program changes. It also can be done at the end of the course for planning the learners' and the program's future directions (Santopietro & Peyton, 1991).

The needs of ESAP students vary from those of EGAP students. ESAP classes comprise students whose academic disciplines are homogenous. In such contexts, the students require and the teachers can provide the specific skills and the awareness of the genre demanded by their particular academic discipline. The lack of academic discipline homogeneity in EGAP classes makes catering for the students' needs a complicated task as opposed to ESAP classes where students share the same academic background.

NESB students are expected to compete on an equal footing with their native English-speaking peers in academic discipline contexts. Mostly, academic competency is measured through the medium of writing. The process of English language writing development is similar for first and second language learners alike (Hudelson, 1988) although NESB students may take up to seven years to develop the level of language proficiency necessary to compete on an equal footing with the native speakers of English (Collier, 1987; Lewelling, 1991). NESB students often undertake academic studies long before they develop the degree of language proficiency required to compete with their native English speaking peers. In the case of such NESB students the EAP curriculum has to have a dual focus - that of providing them with the basic language proficiency and the context-specific language needed to perform academic tasks.



The present study was carried out during the second semester of the year 2000 on an experimental group and a comparison group. The experimental group comprised thirteen NESB students and the comparison group comprised twelve NESB students. The students in both groups represented different nationalities and represented a rich variety of academic disciplines such as Modern Asian Studies, International studies, Commerce and Management, Information Systems, Commerce and Accounting, International Business and Environmental Planning. Both groups met for two hours every week for eight weeks and received EAP instruction parallel to the students' academic disciplines. That is, the EGAP courses were run as a separate course throughout the semester while the students were following their academic subjects. The contents of the two courses and the approaches adopted in teaching them were markedly different from each other. The two methods are described in detail below.


The program for the comparison group was a typical EGAP approach. The classes were mostly based on study-skills like listening to lectures, participating in seminars, reading strategy training, referencing and note taking. Students' language difficulties were addressed in relation to the study-skills activities done in the class. Attention was not paid to students' multidisciplinary backgrounds and the classroom tasks were chosen in general. Table 1 illustrates the topics covered in each week for the comparison group.

Table 1: Program for the EGAP comparison group

1Reading Skills (strategy training)
2Reading Skills (academic reading)
3Listening Skills (listening to lectures)
4Note-taking (from lectures/print)
5Essay Writing Skills (essay structure)
6Oral Presentation Skills
7Remedial Grammar (common errors)
8Reference Skills (library/databases)

For the experimental group, the integration of discipline-specific tasks into the EGAP course was done to achieve two objectives. The first objective was to relate the EGAP course content to the students' different academic disciplines. The second objective was to address the English language difficulties of the students in their academic disciplines.

The eight classes for the experimental group were divided into four units, each unit comprising two classes (weekly sessions) and dealing with four different task types: descriptive, argumentative, analytical and narrative tasks. The first class of each unit dealt with a general introduction to what was expected from the students by the task for that unit. It also provided the students with the declarative knowledge that underpinned the tasks.

The last class in each unit dealt with students' task implementation. For example, in the first class of the first unit, it was explained to the students what descriptive tasks were in general and what and how they were expected to perform such tasks in academic contexts. Then, in the last class of that unit, the students were asked to make descriptive tasks discipline-specific by implementing them within their actual academic disciplines. The students were asked to find an actual assignment/presentation task that needed to be descriptively dealt with in their academic disciplines.

The students were expected to implement their chosen tasks by integrating the four-macro skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) into the task. They were asked to present their chosen tasks in the form of an oral presentation and in addition to write a short summary of their oral presentation in about 150-200 words. The short summary was marked and returned to them in the first class of the next unit. During each student's presentation, the other students were asked to listen, paying attention to the structure of the presentation and if possible taking down notes of important features. After each presentation there was a short interaction followed by peer students' and teachers' evaluation of the tasks. The same approach was used in all three units.

Table 2 outlines the EGAP program for the experimental group. It can be seen that the focus and the structure are quite different from the comparison program (see table 1).

Table 2: Program for the EGAP experimental group

11Descriptive Tasks
2Student Presentations (oral/written)
23Argumentative Essays
4Student Presentations (oral/written)
35Analytical Essays
6Students Presentations (oral/written)
47Narrative Essays
8Students Presentations (oral/written)


Four instruments were used to collect data for the study: a Student Needs Analysis Questionnaire, a Student Feedback Questionnaire, Classroom Observation and an End-of-Course-Evaluation Report. The same instruments were used with both groups. The Student Needs Analysis Questionnaire (adapted from Dudley-Evans, 1998) had two parts. The first part gathered personal background information. The second part had three sections: the first section dealt with the students' academic discipline backgrounds and their previous studies in English language; the second section asked the students to rate the importance to them of the four macro-skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) on a four-point (1-4) Likert scale ('not important' to 'extremely important'); the third section asked about course expectations and any special needs.

The Student Feedback Questionnaire had two parts. The first part used a five-point (1-5) Likert scale ('not useful' to 'extremely useful') under four headings: oral activities; writing activities; group activities; and relevance of each day's class to their academic discipline. In the second part, students were invited to indicate 'any ideas about today's class'. In the light of these comments, selected students were briefly interviewed the following week. Changes were made to the experimental group program according to the information/feedback received.

Student responses, motivation and participation in group work activities were observed each week in the class. These notes include not only what the researchers actually saw and heard but also their feelings, reactions and reflections.

An End-of-Course Evaluation Report (adapted from Jordan, 1997) was used to measure students' evaluation of the two courses. A five-point (1-5) Likert scale ('not useful' to 'extremely useful') was used under seven headings: listening activities; speaking activities; reading activities; writing activities; group activities; teaching; and relevance of course content to academic disciplines. The report form ended with an open-ended question inviting comment on their improvement and the course content and teaching.


With only one exception (in the experimental group), the students had not lived in Australia for more than a year. Of the twenty-five participants, seventeen had used English only during the English language teaching (ELT) period in school and five participants had used English both in school and at work.

On the Student Needs Analysis Questionnaire, speaking, reading and writing were selected as the first priority by six, one and three student(s) respectively in the comparison group. In the experimental group, nine students selected writing as their first priority and two of them selected reading as their first priority. Five, three and one student(s) in the comparison group marked reading, listening and writing respectively as the last priority. In the experimental group, listening was marked by seven students, speaking by three and reading by one as their last priority. These data are presented in table 3.

Table 3: First and last priorities for the four macroskills for the comparison and experimental groups

SkillsComparison GroupExperimental Group
First priorityLast priorityFirst priorityLast priority


It was learned from the student feedback questionnaire, participant observation and student interviews that the students' priorities changed as the courses progressed. This was especially noticed in the case of the comparison group; those who marked speaking as their first priority had changed from speaking to writing after three weeks. In interviews, students expressed a strong preference to acquire the language ability to cope with the demands made by their academic subjects. In the case of both groups, the only need/interest that remained unchanged was the students' need to learn English grammar.

Participant numbers in the comparison group varied between five and twelve for each class throughout the course. After the fifth week the class did not exceed six students; also, six students had dropped out. On the other hand, participant numbers in the experimental group varied between ten and thirteen for each class throughout the course and only one student dropped out.

Students in both groups had a very low preference for group-work activities, expressing more interest in 'teacher talk' than in activities that involving peer interaction and assigning low ratings to group-work activities. However, students in the experimental group were more motivated and autonomous in carrying out their classroom tasks than students in the comparison group.

Marking of classroom exercises was found to be difficult in the case of the experimental group. Students' discipline-specific presentations (oral and written) posed a clear challenge to the teachers whose knowledge in these disciplines was limited. The students were constantly reminded of the fact that the feedback was only on the language with which they had produced their work and not the content involved. Students' limited acquaintance with their peers' academic backgrounds, on the other hand, sometimes resulted in few comments on their peers' work.

Lesson feedback and end-of-course evaluations showed higher ratings for relevance, teaching and lesson activities by the experimental group. Figures 1 and 2 show the results for end-of-course evaluations

Figure 1

Figure 1: End-of-course evaluation: comparison group[1]

Figure 2

Figure 2: End-of-course evaluation: experimental group[2]


Students' perceived needs, especially in the case of the comparison group, changed from the need to learn interpersonal communication skills to the need to acquire cognitively demanding, genre-specific language. This change derived from a change of ambition - from wanting to learn English for survival purposes to wanting to perform well in their academic subjects. The pressure caused by this was reflected in the change in their perceived EAP needs.

It was observed that the students had a general awareness of most study skills, since they had been taught these in their home countries. Consequently, they had assigned a relatively low preference for learning study skills. The same finding was reached by Snow and Brinton (1988) in a study carried out by linking the ESL courses with content courses to better integrate the reading, writing and study skills required for academic success. In that study, the authors were extremely surprised at the relatively low ranking of study skills and the reading component of the course, which they had anticipated would have an extremely high priority. Discipline-specific activities chosen by the students themselves were assigned a very high preference compared to the study skills activities. Comparatively, the participants in the experimental group were motivated, perceiving their role to be more autonomous. The fact that the students could see immediate benefits in learning may have resulted in making the students more motivated in the class. This could be seen as one of the positive indicators of the usefulness of discipline-specific curriculum - students can retain the new language items best when the learners are actively engaged in the learning material and have some form of personal investment in the outcome (Lynch, 1996).

NESB students who have entered Western academia with an Eastern academic orientation find it difficult to become accustomed to the teaching methods involved in the former. The concept of peer interaction and peer mentoring is quite alien to them. They expect the teacher to assume an authoritative role and be teaching all the time. In Asian classrooms volunteering information is considered bold and learners from more traditional educational systems may expect teachers to behave in a more formal and authoritarian fashion during classes. They may be displeased if a teacher uses an informal instructional style such as allowing the learners to move freely around the room (McGroarty, 1993). Lynch (1996) is of the opinion that this reaction could be found among learners from East Asian countries influenced by Confucian education values.

The students' need to learn the grammar of the target language cannot be underestimated in EAP contexts. Generally, EAP curricula may expect their learners to demonstrate a certain familiarity with the syntax of the target language. However, this familiarity may vary according to the time and level of the students' pre-exposure to learning English as a second language. If the majority of them have had less exposure, it may be vital to address their need to learn 'grammar' despite the curriculum's assumed prerequisites.

One way of assessing the success of a course is to look at the attendance figures (Lynch, 1996). There was a marked difference between the attendance records of the two groups. If learners' needs are not met, they are likely to drop out (Brod, 1998). Comparatively, a high level of attendance and a low level of dropouts in the experimental group indicate that the course designed for them met their needs.

Two important limitations of the discipline-specific EGAP curriculum proved to be the teachers' lack of understanding of the students' academic disciplines and the students' lack of knowledge about their peers' academic backgrounds. Content-based EAP training presents a clear challenge to EAP instructors (Bell, 1996). The difficulties faced by the EAP teachers and the students can be placed at the opposing ends of a bipolar scale; the students struggle with the language of the content and the teachers struggle with the content of the language.


A higher number of participants in the experimental group rated oral activities, writing activities, and group activities as extremely useful or useful, and rated the lessons as extremely useful or useful to their academic disciplines. Compared to the comparison group, the attendance figures in the experimental group were higher for each class and the numbers of dropouts were lower. Taking into account all of the indicators used in this study, it can be concluded that the integration of discipline-specific tasks into an EGAP class for NESB students from multidisciplinary backgrounds was successful in relating the content to students' academic backgrounds and addressing the language difficulties of students in their disciplines.

The needs of the participants changed as the course progressed and it was often difficult to negotiate the curriculum content with students who had diverse needs. It is important, therefore, that the course content and the learning experiences be negotiated between the teacher and the students at the beginning of the course. Apart from teaching such students English language skills, it is also important to create understandings of the skills and knowledge expected of students in their academic studies, the problems likely to be encountered in adjusting to teaching/learning styles in Western academia, and how to reconcile their own academic orientation with the academic expectations of the program/institution.

Student participation in the experimental group was higher for two reasons. One reason was that the students were asked to be involved in tasks in which they had a vested interest in the outcome. The other reason was that the students were given autonomy and independence in selecting their tasks. This made them responsible for their learning. Given that EAP learners are adults, it can be assumed that they are in a position to select what they want to learn; hence, learner autonomy is an important factor in EAP contexts.

Correction and feedback on both language and content are important for learners in EGAP contexts. The support and advice of the relevant academic departments may be necessary if the content issues are to be dealt with effectively.

The experimental approach adopted in this study was clearly superior to the conventional EAP approach which currently dominates the language preparation of students entering English language universities. While the number of participants involved here was relatively small, and the findings may not therefore be generalisable, they nevertheless point the way to further research which may improve our understanding of the most effective way to prepare NESB students for study in Australian universities.


  1. The term 'relevance' in figure 1 refers to relevance to students' academic disciplines.
  2. The term 'relevance' in figure 2 refers to relevance to students' academic disciplines.


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Author details: Indika Liyanage is a PhD candidate and Research Assistant in Applied Linguistics in the School of Cognition, Language and Special Education of Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. His thesis is investigating the relationship between personality types and second language learning strategies for EAP students. (Email: i.liyanage@mailbox.gu.edu.au)

Gary Birch is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Cognition, Language and Special Education of Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. He coordinates the masters degree in Applied Linguistics. His research interests include the role of learner strategies in second language learning, the relationship between temperament and second language learner strategies, and the use of the internet in developing collaborative language learning.

Please cite as: Liyanage, I. and Birch, G. (2001). English for general academic purposes: Catering to discipline-specific needs. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(1), 48-67. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/liyanage.html

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