Keynote Speakers

Is everything rosy in the EAP garden? Points to ponder from a study of proofreaders of student writing

Nigel Harwood

In this plenary I discuss a recent study of student proofreading (Harwood 2018) and how it speaks to several wider themes of concern to the EAP community at large.

In my study, 14 UK university proofreaders all proofread the same authentic, low-quality master’s essay written by an L2 speaker of English to enable a comparison of interventions. Proofreaders explained their interventions by means of a talk aloud while proofreading and at a post-proofreading interview. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data revealed evidence of widely differing practices and beliefs, with the number of interventions ranging from 113 to 472. Some proofreaders intervened at the level of content, making lengthy suggestions to improve the writer’s essay structure and argumentation, while others were reluctant to do more than focus on the language. Disturbingly, some proofreaders introduced errors into the text while leaving the writer’s errors uncorrected.

The salient themes I extrapolate for discussion with reference to the EAP community at large are as follows:

the role of the EAP practitioner

Just as there is a lack of consensus around the meaning of ‘proofreading’ and who, if anyone, should be permitted to proofread, there is also a lack of consensus amongst EAP practitioners, lecturers, and students as to the role the EAP practitioner should play. To what degree should we seek to research, learn, and teach discipline-specific approaches? To what extent should we seek to induct our students into the idiosyncrasies of our institution’s departments and favoured research paradigms? This may be a very old topic of conversation (see Spack 1988), but it continues to stir debate (see Huckin 2003; Hyland 2002).

local vs. national/international approaches to EAP research

My proofreading research uncovered highly varying practices and beliefs at one university research site. But to what extent are my findings true in other contexts, where different beliefs about proofreading may prevail? A larger national or international study could move beyond potentially idiosyncratic results so as to arrive at generalizable findings, albeit necessarily sacrificing the level of depth and detail afforded by a smaller qualitative project. Similarly, we can debate the merits and demerits of researching EAP locally and on a grander scale. Large corpus-based studies have taught us much about discipline-specific patterns of writing across the academy (e.g., Hyland 2000). However, we have been aware for some time that lecturers’ writing requirements may differ even within the same department (Lea & Street 2000). Such contextual peculiarities make the case for locally appropriate EAP research and pedagogy (Harwood 2017; Kirk 2018).

the ethics of EAP

A flawless proofread text can give the misleading impression that a student writer has acquired academic literacy and the theme of ethics looms large in any discussion of proofreading. Similarly, scholars like Benesch (2001), Ding & Bruce (2017), and Hadley (2015) have challenged us to consider the ethics of EAP: Are we truly educating students and helping them legitimately acquire academic literacy? Or are we merely masking or patching up their deficiencies in a manner which gets the job done, but which lacks a formative underpinning?

the differing levels of competence of EAP practitioners

My proofreaders exhibited markedly varying levels of competence in correcting and manipulating academic prose. Some proofreaders assuredly rewrote error-ridden, abstruse text; others made a poorly written essay even worse. We have seen dramatic advances in EAP research over the past 40 years since Swales’ (1981) seminal Aspects of Article Introductions, and there may be a presumption that in all parts of the world EAP practitioners have soaked up this subject-specific and pedagogic knowledge. In two recent research projects conducted with my international students (e.g., Menkabu & Harwood 2014), however, I have been struck by some teachers’ lack of EAP knowledge, as well as the lack of appropriate in-service EAP-focused training to address these deficiencies.

My talk will end with the opportunity for debate and discussion.


Benesch, S. (2001). Critical English for Academic Purposes: Theory, Politics, and Practice. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ding, A. & Bruce, I. (2017). The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner: Operating on the Edge of Academia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hadley, G. (2015). English for Academic Purposes in Neoliberal Universities: A Critical Grounded Theory. Cham: Springer.

Harwood, N. (2017). The EAP practitioner as researcher and disseminator of knowledge. BALEAP ResTes Symposium, Leeds.

Harwood, N. (2018). What do proofreaders of student writing do to a poorly written master’s essay? Differing interventions, worrying findings. Written Communication 35(4).

Huckin, T.N. (2003). Specificity in LSP. Ibérica 5: 3-17.

Hyland, K. (2000). Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. Harlow: Longman.

Hyland, K. (2002). Specificity revisited: How far should we go now? English for Specific Purposes 21: 385-395.

Kirk, S. (2018). Enacting the curriculum in English for academic purposes: a legitimation code theory analysis. Unpublished EdD thesis, University of Durham.

Lea, M. R., & Street, B. V. (2000). Student writing and staff feedback in higher education: an academic literacies approach. In M. R. Lea & B. Stierer (eds.), Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, pp. 32–46.

Menkabu, A. & Harwood, N. (2014). Teachers’ conceptualization and use of the textbook on a medical English course. In N. Harwood (ed.), English Language Teaching Textbooks: Content, Consumption, Production. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.145-177.

Spack, R. (1988). Initiating ESL students into the academic discourse community: how far should we go? TESOL Quarterly 22: 29–51.

Swales, J.M. (1981). Aspects of Article Introductions. Language Studies Unit, University of Aston.

Nigel Harwood is a reader in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, UK. His research interests include academic writing, citation analysis, and TESOL textbooks and teaching materials. He is co-editor of the journal English for Specific Purposes.

EAP Practitioners Transitioning to Scholarship: how agency matters

Cynthia White

EAP practitioners during the course of their careers are called upon to work within contexts of ongoing change, whether in developing new curricula, engaging with new technologies, responding to new policy settings, or addressing new accountabilities for example. At such moments, individual teachers are required to form and reform who they are as EAP professionals (Ding & Bruce, 2017), in small and at times not so small ways. Early attempts to enquire into the substance of what such changes meant for teachers focused largely on the knowledge, attitudes, skills and beliefs that underpinned their work and their different roles.  Subsequently, the influence of the social turn in applied linguistics meant that questions of identity and agency became centre stage; one strand of this work proposes that it is in considering how to act, and why to act, that individuals maintain the negotiation of who they are (Duff 2012) and the kinds of professional identity they choose to develop. In this talk I want to look in detail at EAP practitioners at points of transition, in this case when they embark on scholarship as part of their everyday work. I want to address such questions as: What does embarking on scholarship mean for individual teachers? In the early stages what decisions do they take and why? How do they interpret and use the experiences they encounter? What stance do they take to those experiences?  What choices do they make?  What forms does agency take among EAP practitioners transitioning to scholarship? To do this I draw on recent work on teacher agency (White 2016, 2018) where agency can be broadly defined as the socioculturally mediated capacity to act in relation to one’s environment (Ahearn 2001), entailing the ability to assign relevance and significance to relationships, objects, events and so on (Lantolf & Thorne 2006, van Lier 2008). Participants in this research are EAP teachers who are making or who have made the transition to scholarship from within diverse institutional contexts.  Data for this study was gathered through narrative accounts given in three settings: initially in individual written narratives, followed by individual interviews, and then in teacher focus group discussions. The study reveals the emergent complexities EAP practitioners encountered as they sought to identify and then pursue the focus of their scholarship, and to make sense of their role in that process; it reveals the significance of particular critical moments when they decided how they would interpret those moments and how they chose to act; it also reveals the ways in which EAP practitioners questioned themselves and their own thinking, and how they engaged with others and with experiences. While this study extends our understanding of EAP teachers transitioning to scholarship, it at the same time reveals the ways in which teachers engage with change, and as such has wider implications for understanding EAP practitioners’ professional lives and career trajectories. It also highlights the significance of language teacher agency as a tool for EAP practitioner development in contexts of ongoing change.

Cynthia White is Professor of Applied Linguistics, Massey University, New Zealand. She has published widely on emotion, autonomy and agency in language learning and teaching. In 2004 she received the International TESOL Virginia French Allen Award for Scholarship and Service to the TESOL profession. She is a member of the Editorial Boards of seven international journals, and has been plenary speaker at conferences in Germany, Thailand, Singapore, China, UK, Hawai’i and Malaysia. Her most recent projects focus on emotion and agency in teacher narrative accounts of conflict in the L2 classroom, and the agency of EAP practitioners in transitioning to scholarship.