I have been struggling to find a text that has inspired me since my last post, so the idea struck me that I might search the Journal of English for Academic Purposes and see what was being published at the time I entered the field of EAP teaching in the spring of 2009. “When there is no perfect text: Approaches to the EAP practitioner’s dilemma” by John Swales immediately jumped out at me for two reasons. Firstly, because I have an idea rattling in my head that EAP needs an (online) EAP Archive of ‘suitable’ texts that might go some way to approaching the dilemma articulated by Swales yet felt by me and countless other EAP practitioners on a daily basis and secondly as there has been a very interesting debate going on on the Teaching EAP blog following a post by Andy Gillet – “EAP and publishers: The dangers of Teaching EAP for No Obvious Reason” , a comment on which also mentions Swales’s article.


Swale’s article is a very direct response to the bane of an EAP practitioner’s existence – sourcing appropriate materials. Swales proffers two options, both necessitating the EAP teacher disguising themselves as a materials writer. The first of these solutions is in the EAP instructor writing source texts. Swales notes the lack of mention the difficulty in finding the ‘perfect’ text gets in ESP/EAP resource books like Jordan’s (1997)  ‘A Guide and resource book for teachers’ and Hyland’s (2006) ‘Advanced resource book’ despite the observation made by Dudley-Evans and St John (1998) that the time spent on the hunt for the perfect material to resource an hour’s teaching takes around 15 hours (quoted on p. 6). Swales concedes that finding the perfect text in terms of ‘pedagogically attractive features’ is often at the expense of students actually being able to penetrate the ‘obscure content’ (p.6) of it. Hence the insistance that a text be dropped from subsequent editions of ‘Academic Writing for Graduate Students’. Another text favoured by Swales suffers a related problem. The ‘Metering Pumps’ example is, in Swales’s words, “about as perfect as a paragraph can get” (p.6). The issue being that the content lacks interest for many; “even though this text may be uninteresting to many, it is sufficiently brief for this shortcoming not to matter very much. If compensation is need, ‘Metering Pumps’ is an extremely elegant descriptive garment hung from its definitional peg” (ibid). One solution then is to write your own, or at the very least ‘adapt and abridge’ found texts (p. 7).

This is what Swales did for a literature review exercise that required more than one source text. The multiplication of the number of texts required obviously exacerbating the issues surrounding finding the perfect text(s). Swales argues that the length of time necessary (not to mention the amount of luck needed) to find texts to suit a teacher’s requirements is akin to the amount of time involved in producing ‘original’ texts. Compensation for Swales is offered in the light relief enjoyed by “playing around with the names of the fictitious authors” (p.7).

The second of Swales’s approaches to this problem is effectively to create student writing. The context that required him to do this was that he needed multiple drafts of a literature review to show how they evolve into being over several attempts. Starting with a tediuous listing of sources, then going too far in the opposite direction with a journalistic enthusing over the reading material to an expertly produced review that a professor would be proud to have authored. In contrast to Swales’s first solution whereby the ‘materials writer’ produces the source materials, here the source material was authentic, the student’s story, dissertation topic and literature review drafts, however, had been invented (p.8). This material developed for workshop use has proved so popular and effective in producing those ‘aha!’ moments that Swales goes into great detail in order to make this material available in the article as ‘freeware’.

In conclusion Swales hopes to have provided a “(belated) response to the advocacy in Dudley-Evans and Johns (1988) for creativity on the part of EAP materials providers” and to have partly addressed the “lack of attention in the ESP literature to instructor roles and concerns” raised by Watson Todd in 2003 (p.12). Swales admits though that what is missing is a greater discussion on Cheng’s learner/participant uptake (2006). Noting that “short-term enthusiasm” expressed in extremely positive feedback on workshops such as the literature review one “may not translate into longer-term improvements” (p.12) in student writing.

I like what Swales offers here as it provides real practical solutions to a problem. However I think most of us come around to this solution in the end out of desperation if nothing else. Which makes me think that perhaps this issue is being approached from the wrong perspective. If we have the need to produce something we feel does not exist, should we not think about why it does not exist? Why then would we expect students to produce ‘it’? I cannot help thinking we are not better employed helping students with the ‘real’ language they encounter in their reading, whether or not this language agrees with our pedagogical temperaments. By disguising ourselves as materials writers and disguising the texts we then produce as ‘real life’ examples there is a risk of making the language used therein meaningless. In the case of ‘Joyce’ (the invented student, with the perfectly staged drafts of a literature review) is it realistic to expect students to have their own (arguably massive) shifts in writing structure, style and understanding of form? Let alone what they would have to do with their thinking!  I think I would rather guide students through this and watch their progress (which is, as Swales points out, a greater consumption of time still) but, I would argue, a greater use of it. Why not let the students write the perfect text, with all it’s imperfections?

I may be an idealist, but I also know that in reality we need texts which is why I think Swales is (mostly) right. While Swales may be happy to forgo student interest for the perfect exemplar of language, I am not. I believe that interest is a key factor in motivation and acquisition so would much rather write my own text and make it relevant in content (doesn’t the very act of writing it down make it then an authentic text?). I also think that Swales’s desire to share his material is the greater solution to the dilemma of EAP practitioners the world over. Wouldn’t a collection of such texts in an online ‘archive’ make all our lives a bit easier? They may not be authentic ‘academic texts’, but they would be authentic English language teaching tools (the downsides of this are discussed in the comments on the current Teaching EAP blog post).

The greatest downside to Swales’s ideas are that we cannot really know the usefulness of our creative writing endevaours until we analyse whether students internalise what they have been exposed to and can then (re)produce something similar. Are we trying to fit a round peg into a square hole? Swales is right here to point out the need for greater attention to be paid to Cheng’s learner/participant uptake. And here Swales has inspired me for next week…

Swales, J. (2009). When there is no perfect text: Approaches to the EAP practitioner’s dilemma. Journal of English for Academic Purposes,  8 (1), 5-13.


8 thoughts on “Masters of disguise

  1. Rightly or wrongly, Susie, we have sometimes gone down the Swalesian route ourselves here. With our own experience of certain disciplines (either directly as PG students, or indirectly as in-sessional tutors) we have produced here ‘models’ of achievably competent essays for students. Part of our justification for doing so has been that native-speaker student models are often too linguistically ornate or complex at sentence level to serve as realistic models for international student production. What we feel is most ‘learnable’ in relatively short spaces of time (such as on a pre-sessional course) are some of the thinking, planning and macro-organisational aspects of text construction – and thus we engineer texts to make this most available.

    Naturally, we expose students to more fully authentic texts, both student generated and expert-author generated, as we realise the need to separate models for reading and models for writing. We also increasingly draw on competent non-native speaker essays as models (often undoctored, such that shortcomings can be discussed and so that students can be empowered from the insight that ‘imperfections’ don’t matter and can still result in work that passes). However, we recognise that our international students will almost certainly never write the way some of their native speaker counterparts do, and so we seek a pragmatic middle ground that will help to ensure they develop the core skills to pass. Once on their courses (and beyond) they can then seek out and begin to emulate greater complexity, should they want to.

    We have had such texts ‘approved’ externally sometimes (e.g. on a plagiarism avoidance project for UGs run with our Geography Department) and we would also like to think that, as a result of such models, there is more uptake of certain core features of writing (argument structure, etc) than might have been the case with the overly complex sentential gymnastics of native speaker essays we have come across (!)

    I think your idealism is probably justified, however. In a purer view of what ESAP should probably be we are perhaps not doing ‘the right thing’. For our view of curriculum and ‘learnables’, however, I think we feel it works fairly well.

    My closest pre-sessional colleague, like Swales, is also a big fan of using the reference list for some personal fun :-). We’ve all made an appearance…!

    • Thanks Steve for your thoughts. I think that producing our own texts is fine, and as I said, no less ‘authentic’ (although I have to say the ‘fun’ some tutors have had inventing names has made me groan a bit ;)). I like the fact that you have had your texts ‘approved’ by departments – that is very much how I would like to see an archive populated, with texts perhaps even co-written with departments to ensure that concepts and theories are existent in the materials too. Content is of equal importance to the language. I’m thinking now too about the ‘need to separate models for reading and models for writing’, of course I take your point and that is what we do in EAP, isn’t it? I wonder though …

  2. This is indeed the practitioners’ dilemma. The search for the perfect text and the accessibility question. I agree that motivation and curiosity are key as well. Without this learners might not engage with the material at all. Apart from an EAP related to Social Sciences, I have been teaching English for Maths and science as well at university. I have reached the conclusion, that authentic texts can work if you make the tasks manageable for the level of the learners. Some of the harder texts can be managed in smaller chuncks, or addressed in a variety of ways and supported with video or simpler texts to access the content and ideas along side the language work. Thank you for another great post.)

    • Hi Sharon. I think you’re right in making authentic texts more ‘approachable’ in the ways that you do, I also do this with the Media in-sessional I teach on. We have to help students manage the actual texts they need to digest and engage with, no? I guess the real condundrum then is what to do on generic EAP courses? Can we do the same? I have found that when we do many of the class disengage because the text is too challenging and not in their field of interest. I am also uncomforable with the alternative ‘nothingy’ Globalisation text. I think the answer may lie in the students finding texts, which would mean us letting go of the reins a bit on pre-sessional courses. Would love to be able to give this a try.

      • I think this is the biggest challenge when it is generic and they are not all following the same faculty route. They do lose interest. I agree that the ‘nothingy’ globalization text is also not an answer as this comes no where near preparing them for the rigors of academic life. I have had the chance to let learn ers pick academic texts that they were interested in, with some guidance and then run the class as a series of hands on workshops. They needed to use the reading in written production. I really felt that I was able to address each learner individually and help them with their needs rather than doing a generic one size. It was refreshing, their motivation was high and they went the distance. I really recommend it. You just need to set aside time to help them find suitable readings. They need alot of guidance in this. But once that has been done it flows quite smoothly from there in.

  3. While being sympathetic to many of the ideas here, I think we need to understand that the only perfect is that written by the writer (student) in a particular context. Every other text has been written in a different context for a different purpose. Therefor a repository of perfect texts can never exist!

    • No, you’re absolutely right Andy, there is no such thing as a perfect text other than what the students produce for a given purpose. But there is such a thing as a suitable teaching resource. I think the point I was trying to make was that an archive or repository would be made up of useful teaching materials rather than anything else. I still think that such a beast would be a great resource for teachers – I would love a searchable database of texts where I could search for a particular language point or feature of academic writing within a certain discipline area that I could download in minutes. Could it not even be possible to work with academics within disciplines to produce such texts? Like it, or loathe it, there are times when we don’t have 15 hours to plan a lesson 🙂

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