WRITING ACADEMICALLY: ACCOMPLISHING AN AUTHENTIC TASK BY ECUADORIAN TEACHERS IN AN EFL SETTING
Erzsébet Békés, Catholic University, Cuenca, Ecuador
Teaser: Creating authentic activities that can better prepare English language learners to perform tasks that life throws at them has been the aim of language teachers and methodologists for a long time. Truly authentic activities are not easy to set up and accomplish but they may prove to be both engaging and highly effective. The authentic writing task summarized below, which was created as a gentle introduction into academic writing for Ecuadorian university teachers, brought unexpected results – for both the teachers and their trainer.
Ever since the rise of the communicative approach (Brumfit & Johnson, 1979), and even more so with the introduction of task-based language teaching, instructors and trainers have been looking for ways to present language to prepare learners for genuine communication. Coursebook writers have been including semi-authentic materials, anticipating what students may experience in “real life.” However, full authenticity is not easy to achieve, especially in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) setting where there are only few opportunities to use the target language outside the classroom. The lack of authentic opportunities applies to EFL teachers as well, because they are seldom required to use English away from school.
The Catholic University of Cuenca, Ecuador, started three new Master’s programs in December 2016. In order to obtain their degrees, the postgraduate students must take an exam in English for Academic Purposes (EAP). The course material selected to teach academic reading and writing to prepare students for the Aptis test (“English Tests,” n.d.) is the first three books of the series titled ”Effective Academic Writing” by Oxford University Press.
The present summary’s author, commissioned to run four teacher-training sessions for the instructors delivering the EAP courses, decided to create an authentic academic-level writing task for the participants. The rationale behind the task was that teachers who teach Academic Writing should be able to write at academic level and, at a later stage, could also design authentic activities, e.g., abstract writing for their MA students. Therefore, the trainer asked the nine teachers involved to approach the editors of ELT magazines (both online and printed versions) to offer to write book reviews for them. As a first step, the participants’ unsolicited offers led to genuine e-mail communication between the teachers and the editors. These exchanges constituted the first phase of the authentic writing task because, as expected, the editors replied as they would have to any other unsolicited offer, i.e., meaningfully and informatively, and not “pedagogically.”
Even though the training course only lasted one month, the participants’ publishing efforts achieved a high “success rate.” Out of the nine participants, one wrote a book review for EL Gazette, on Helen Waldren’s “What’s your Teaching Identity” (Arteaga, 2017); three participants (including the individual who wrote for the EL Gazette) wrote a collaborative book review on the first three volumes of “Effective Academic Writing” (with the trainer reviewing Book 4, which is not included in the core material of the postgraduate EAP course). This book review is scheduled to be published in the ESPSIG Newsletter of IATEFL (Issue 49). Two participants (one of them a co-author of the collaborative book review) wrote an article for the Newsletter of IATEFL’s Teacher Training and Education Special Interest Group on the outcomes of the authentic writing activity itself. The article was facilitated by the trainer as co-author and was accepted for the Spring Issue, which has now been published (Békés, Carrasro & Jaramillo (2017). . As a direct result of the publishing effort, one of the participants (also involved in the TTEdSIG article) has now co-authored a book with the trainer on non-native English speaker teachers’ identity issues (Békés & Carrasco, in press). The book will be published for the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow held in the first week of April 2017.
Beyond the tangible results, the feedback provided by participants showed that they found the authentic writing activity enjoyable and stimulating. As a result of the exercise, several participants have remained in contact with editors and have now been included in the list of potential reviewers. The teachers feel that they have become active members of the EFL community with their academic English proficiency validated by the results of their efforts. Five of them (including the trainer) are going to IATEFL Glasgow 2017 to attend the international conference of ELT professionals, and those two who had not been individual members of IATEFL before joined as associate members in December 2016.
Creating authentic tasks for learners (and teachers) requires a considerable amount of time as well as patience and tact on the trainer’s part, but they can lead to unexpected results. The teachers gained valuable experience and publishing credentials. The trainer herself co-authored an article on the writing activity and co-wrote the above-mentioned book on teacher identity. The present summary is another unanticipated product; in the coming months, it will be followed up by a full account of the original project.
Erzsébet Békés is a Hungarian English teacher. She volunteered in Ethiopia setting up English Language Improvement Centers and taught English for Tourism to members of an indigenous Amazonian tribe. As a freelancer, she runs teacher training courses at the Catholic University of Cuenca, Ecuador. Her main interests are English for Specific Purposes and authenticity in EFL.
English Tests. Aptis. British Council. Retrieved Jan. 8, 2017, from https://www.britishcouncil.org/exam/aptis
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