Reviewed by Christine Healey
4 December 2017
Is there a way out of the silo?
At the 2017 BALEAP Conference there was much discussion on the need to get out of the ‘EAP silo’. Wingate’s recent book could be a useful escape manual. The book needs to be read in the context of the recruitment and retention problems which can sometimes beset in-sessional as opposed to pre-sessional EAP classes. This aspect of the EAP silo doesn’t seem to be working. Wingate suggests an alternative based, as the title indicates, on three concepts central to the idea of the university in the early 21st century, namely ‘academic literacy’, ‘student diversity’ and ‘inclusive practice’. This is an ambitious undertaking.
In recent years adherents of ‘academic literacy/ies’ have themselves constructed a silo. Wingate refers to Hymes (1972) in order to re-define ‘academic literacy’ as ’academic communicative competence within an academic discourse community.’ She emphasises that “this competence includes knowledge of the discipline’s epistemology and socio-cultural context” (Wingate p.161). She then uses the logic of this definition to argue that such competence is best developed within discipline-specific curricula and in the closest collaboration with subject tutors. She also argues that the development of such competence is as much needed by home as by international students. She quotes Bourdieu and Passeron (1990:115) as arguing that academic language is ’never anyone’s mother tongue, even for the privileged classes’ (Wingate p.11). Along the way she implies that it is EAP tutors – already well-trained in working with international students – who have the necessary language awareness and language development skills to be able to deliver this to all students. Whether this is what would happen in practice is perhaps questionable.
Wingate draws upon a range of authorities such as Lea & Street (1998) Ivanic (2004) and Hyland (2002a) to review existing pedagogic models of academic language development such as skills–centred, process, social practice and genre (op cit. pp.16-24) and suggests that an over-dogmatic adherence to certain models may, in the past, have prevented the EAP profession from promoting the discipline-focused collaboration that she advocates. She herself opts for an eclectic range of approaches but focuses on genres and their social context / communicative purpose.
She also has practical ideas about how such collaboration would work including close analyses of relevant texts and how argument is made, follow-up tutorials, better explication of assessment tasks and improved formative feedback. However, it is not particularly clear how ‘knowledge of the discipline’s epistemology’ can be related to knowledge of the appropriate language. At what point does language not only communicate knowledge but also construct it?
One reservation needs to be made about Wingate’s approach to academic literacy. In Chapter 5 she makes a strong case for including reading or, as she rightly designates it, ‘reading–to–write’, alongside writing in her definition of academic literacy. But this begs a very important question which is ‘why not oracy?‘ Surely academic practices like learning from lectures, participating in seminars and making presentations equally require the development of academic communicative competence? Perhaps this could be addressed in another book.
Student diversity and inclusive practice.
In contrast to ‘academic literacy’ the concept of student diversity is treated fairly cursorily. According to Wingate (p.3) ‘student diversity’ arises from two main causes, widening participation and internationalisation. This is broadly true and yet the two factors don’t work in the same way in every class. For example, post-graduate courses are more likely to be internationally diverse than undergraduate courses and the diversity of ‘non-traditional’ undergraduates may not just be because they are bi-lingual / bi-cultural. They could be ‘different’ because they are older (over 25) or have specific learning differences or be physically (dis)abled. Or a combination of these things. Awareness of learner diversity can lead to an awareness of learning differences which is an essential component of the inclusive curriculum. The concept of ‘inclusion’ has been much debated in the last few years (Thomas and May, 2010) but Wingate does not draw upon these debates.
The arguments against the Wingate model
There are two arguments against the one way move she advocates from generic to specific. The first is pragmatic i.e. what works best pedagogically. Wingate frequently quotes Swales but it is Swales and Feak (2000) who suggest that post–graduate EAP courses are most effective when they are generic:
“ it is often believed that courses designed for homogeneous groups are intrinsically “better” than general EAP ones . . . we actually prefer that heterogeneity . . . most importantly, all participants soon come to realise that what they have most in common is a concern with language, with discourse, and with rhetoric.” (Swales & Feak, p.5 )
The second argument is more conceptual. There are limitations to every discipline-specific epistemology. As John Hendry argued recently:
“not all subjects and discourses that claim the authority of reason do so on equally strong grounds, and some do so on very weak grounds indeed.”
This is a highly contested area. But still reason enough for EAP tutors not to quite abandon our outsider status just yet. We need to teach our students to critique their community–specific discourses as well as to participate in them. Which takes us back to social practice.
So would it work?
Wingate has a vision.
“Subject-integrated literacy instruction requires structural and organisational changes . . . The investment is worthwhile as this provision will most certainly result in lower attrition rates, better progress for many students and greater student satisfaction.” (Wingate p.152)
Although she advocates a complete re-design of the HE curriculum she is still operating from within the EAP silo. And there are other silos on campus: most notably the disability or disabling silo but also the ‘study skills support’ silo and the information literacy silo. All have their strengths and also their limitations. (For a sobering assessment of how contemporary Higher Education is structured around silos see Macfarlane 2011)
“Well-written”, “thoughtful”, “scholarly”, “intelligent”, “lucid” are some of the appellations which this book has received and it should be required reading for any EAP tutor who is interested in the future of their profession. The irony is that it is not EAP tutors who have the power to make Wingate’s vision come true. But perhaps a few EAP senior managers might be inspired to come outside their silos, meet up with a friendly head of Engineering, or Science or Health and Social Care and negotiate a pilot collaboration . . . .
Hendry J. How to teach reason properly. Times Higher Education June15 2017
Hymes, D. (1972) On communicative competence. In J.B.Pride and J.Holmes (eds) Sociolinguistics (pp. 269-293) London: Penguin.
Macfarlane, B. The Morphing of Academic Practice: Unbundling and the Rise of the Para-academic Higher Education Quarterly Vol. 65, No.1 January 2011.
Swales J. and Feak C. (2000) Remarks to Our Fellow Instructors, English in Today’s Research World: a Writing Guide, USA, The University of Michigan Press
Thomas L. and May H. (2010) Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Academy.