Last summer, I taught English for Academic Purposes or EAP at a UK university for the first time.
It was on a 10-week pre-sessional course at Birmingham University from 11th July to 20th September 2019. I had a class of fourteen Chinese undergraduate students aiming to get onto the Money, Banking and Finance degree course.
What is a pre-sessional course?
Pre-sessional courses are held by many universities across the UK during the summer months. They are for foreign students who are about to start a degree course in various faculties but whose English is not yet quite up to scratch. They have a conditional offer based on their level of English. As a teacher, your aim is to help students improve their English. And give them an insight into the core academic skills they’ll need to cope with studying in Britain at university level.
Who gets to teach on these courses?
All sorts. All kinds of backgrounds, nationalities, ages and personalities. If you have a DELTA or equivalent teaching qualification, all the better. But don’t despair if you don’t. On paper, my TEFL certificate wasn’t enough but my teaching experience counted.
Why Birmingham University?
In March, I was visiting a friend, and ex-colleague of mine at Cagliari University, Nicky Baptist – who teaches English and co-ordinates at Birmingham University. In April, I was filling in the application form for the university’s pre-sessional course. Thereafter, completing two written tasks on teaching practice. And in May I was being interviewed on Skype and being told I would have a job, either as an ‘EAP Fellow’ or as an LST (Language Support Tutor).
EAP fellows are responsible for their own class, whether UG (undergraduate), PG (postgraduate), or BME (Business Management English). LSTs don’t have a class but provide workshops and seminars on various aspects of academic English as well as give extra lessons to pre-sessional students having difficulty in any aspect (speaking, writing, reading, listening). In any case, whether an EAP fellow or an LST, the pay is the same – about £640 a week. By the way, if you need it, there is accommodation available on campus.
Induction training days
If I remember rightly I found out I would be an EAP UG fellow on July 11th, the first day of induction training. On arrival, there are four days of induction for all pre-sessional staff before lessons start. These four days give you an overview of the ten weeks ahead with teaching objectives and give you a chance to meet coordinators and staff. These days are also there to get the administrative stuff done and get staff used to the all-important university platform called Canvas. You also get your Birmingham University I.D. card.
Pre-sessional courses and the Russel group
Birmingham University is part of the Russell group, and so the vast majority of undergraduate students on these courses are going to be Chinese. Big money flows in from this corner of the market for UK universities.
My UG class and English level
All pre-sessional classes are made up of fifteen students in each group. I had fourteen students – all Chinese – one student never turned up! My class were from different areas of China, didn’t know each other beforehand, and came from fairly well-to-do families. Motivation to do well was high on their agenda, as falling short of the requirements of the pre-sessional would mean going back to China, or at least a big rethink of what to do next. At the start of the course, my students were averaging 6.0 on the Cambridge international IELTS exam scale and needed to get up to 6.5 by the end of the pre-sessional. Birmingham University uses IELTS as a starting point to assess students’ English level (because students will have taken this exam) but the pre-sessional course assessment is based on the university’s own scales. Therefore, my students started in the 50-59% band range and needed to get to 60-69%.
Every teacher will be told the starting point for their students and the English level they should reach; this will vary depending on the faculty/course students are going on to after the pre-sessional in October and the start of the academic year.
EAP course content
Teaching English for Academic Purposes means focussing on the skills students are going to need to stand them in good stead for their upcoming degree course. In brief; research and reading academic articles, writing essays, citing sources, and acquiring the all-important buzzword skill of critical thinking. Critical thinking, put simply, is being able to independently analyse, select sources and support the academic work you produce during your degree course.
As a teacher, you will have been given a plan set out with suggestions for what to cover each week. For example, week one will introduce critical thinking, week four referencing, week five using abstracts and so on. You have course books, and materials on Canvas to choose from. I found the materials on Canvas most useful as they had been prepared by experienced teachers from Birmingham University (e.g. Alison Tinker) who know what students really need on the pre-sessional. It is up to you what you choose to do in your lessons, and you have plenty of guidance and backup whenever you need it from your course co-ordinators.
During week three, every teacher will be observed by a co-ordinator. I was observed by Alison and joked with her, ‘The last time I had a lesson observation was when Tony Blair was leader of the opposition!’ A joke, and a fact! Observations can be nerve-wracking but Birmingham University emphasises they are peer-observations between professionals with the aim of teacher development. You write your one-hour lesson plan, send it to your co-ordinator, and then teach it, of course. Mine was on reading academic texts and a very interesting approach suggested by Nicky. My students were great, I actually felt very relaxed, and Alison gave the lesson the thumbs up in her feedback.
All classes involve nineteen hours of teaching a week. UG classes; Monday and Wednesday mornings 9am-1pm; Tuesday and Thursday afternoons 1pm-5pm; Friday mornings 9am-12pm. You team teach with another teacher on Wednesdays. Staff meetings are held on Wednesdays 2-3pm. As a teacher, you must also fix fifteen-minute individual tutorials with your students every two weeks to keep up with their progress and give them a chance to talk to you about their studies, difficulties etc. Wednesday afternoons also see useful and interesting training sessions on different teaching themes.
Exams and assessment
To reach pre-sessional course requirements, students are graded on exams which they take at the end of the course (Reading, Listening, and Writing). During lessons, you will be giving them practice in all these skills including assessed speaking seminars. Students have to produce an ARP (Academic Research Paper). This is a 1000-1500-word typed essay that they research for, organise and write. There is also a spoken presentation of 8-10 minutes that each student must do on a topic suggested by the university or on the topic of their choice if they should so wish. Mark weightings are 25% Reading exam, 25% speaking (15% presentation, 10% speaking seminar marks), 25% writing (15% ARP, 10% timed essay), 25% listening exam.
Results and final assessment grades
It is unlikely that a student will fail a pre-sessional because; 1) Students have already received an offer (conditional or unconditional) from the university and arrived in the UK 2) They will be motivated to improve their English 3) They have ten intensive weeks of English geared to passing the various elements of the university’s assessment. 4) The university itself will not want to fail/lose a student from the monetary aspect.
That said, students do fail and, importantly, there are external checks to ensure that a university’s standards are maintained.
My students all passed and nearly all managed to get into the 70-79% band overall. So, a band higher than required. They were a great bunch of students. Some shy, some extrovert. They had a great team spirit and I felt honoured to have been there at the start of their university career. I wish them all the best for their degree at Birmingham University.
Though I’ve been teaching since 1992, teaching a pre-sessional course is a lot of hard work. There’s a lot to take in the first time you do it. Preparing lessons takes a long time. There’s a lot to focus on. Every lesson counts. It’s very intense. The ARP in particular was high stress in the final weeks not just for students but for teachers too. I spent a whole weekend reading the first drafts, to be able to give students useful feedback to then write their final submission. There were times when you wondered whether you’d ever get away from ARPs. Definitely true for teachers new to the game like me, but it’s pretty tough going even for those ‘old hands.’ You drill into students the need to cite sources, quote, paraphrase and write in their own words to avoid the big bogey monster; plagiarism. The university uses a programme called Turnitin which can spot plagiarism a mile off! While it’s hard, challenging work, it’s also very rewarding and you spend a lot of time exchanging, comparing and sharing ideas with colleagues in the various computer hubs scattered around the campus as you prepare lessons.
A holiday too!
It’s not all work. It’s a lot of fun too. Birmingham University campus is fantastic. There are plenty of places to eat and cafes to sit in. There’s also the main campus pub, the Bratby. And every week there is a social event organised for teachers and LSTs. At the end of the pre-sessional there is a dinner organised. Though the academic year proper hasn’t started yet, the campus is pretty lively in the summer months. On arrival in July, there were lots of graduation ceremonies going on with the iconic ‘Big Joe’ clocktower in the background, for example.
Take-aways for me
As my first pre-sessional EAP course, it was a very worthwhile, keep-yourself-on-your-toes kind of teaching experience.
I’d recommend it to any teacher. I plan on doing it again myself.
It was great being in Britain again. Birmingham is in a great position to get to London, get North, and get down south. I must say I didn’t get much time to get to know Birmingham that well as during the week I was working and at weekends I was off to other places to visit friends and family. However, the canal area is very picturesque, the city library is fantastic and the exhibition on 50 years of Black Sabbath was well worth seeing!
What I appreciated most was the chance to make friends with some great EAP fellows, LSTs and other Birmingham University staff, learn more about teaching academic English, and be blessed with a motivated class. I learnt some names and a few words in Chinese too!