EAP changes: notes from the front line

“The challenges and disturbances of the last few years are inspiring English Language Learning players to splurge on next-generation materials for a digital native cohort”

Students’ English language skills drive admissions and outcomes in the international education sector. The events of the last two years are triggering a re-set in approaches to English learning, even changing the language skills that candidates acquire, writes Stephen Haggard of Digital Learning Associates, a supplier of materials to the global EAP sector.

English Language Learning may appear a fixed element of the international education landscape – “pass IELTS and everything falls into place”. But actually ELL is pivoting rapidly to emphasise new knowledge and skill sets. We have visibility of this through our work with textbook publishers, ministries and private school chains oriented to international education. 

The challenges and disturbances of the last few years are inspiring ELL players to splurge on next-generation materials for a digital native cohort. The syllabus innovation responds (of course) to Covid-19 but also reacts to BLM, the climate crisis, Social and Emotional Learning and diversity (both gender, physical and neuro). English has form when it comes to periodic re-inventions to make the language more relevant to life and study. Critical Thinking and the other 21st Century Skills fought their way into nearly all ELL syllabus designs last decade. So a full re-set on what English means is business-as-usual for this versatile curriculum area. 

The big shift is the prime place video in the study. Providers have twigged that the Netflix generation won’t engage or learn without video. That means putting authentic, well-told, high-quality stories at the centre of any course. After some wasteful experiments, learning brands also see that quality video production is better got elsewhere and re-packaged inside their products – as Cengage does with NatGeo content in the sciences. India’s tutoring platform Byju’s reportedly shared 10% of its revenues to Disney for rights to insert Frozen and other classics in its K-12 packages. In the ELL sector, around 10m learners are using video licensed from us at Digital Learning Associates. We front the risks on production (£1 million and 18 months with a BBC-led team for our first video range) so that schools can afford to put rich media aligned to the subject’s standards and pedagogy. 

With a central role in the creation of the next generation of EAP programs, we can spot some trends.

Our partners usually ask us to customise each video purchase, adapting its narration and modifying its activity resource bank for their curriculum goals. We see clear evidence of a fast-changing syllabus. Top on the sector’s wish list is to tag ELL with sustainability. One publisher with a near-monopoly on supplying materials to all the HEIs in an OECD country has ordered their new flagship video-led EAP course to be in full alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Another international academic publisher requires video for a secondary school environment-focused English course. For the coming cohort, climate, environment and sustainability will be inextricable from the language in which they access higher education.

Another trend is the merging of the English and the science curricula at international schools. Many private chains in Asia operate dual American/local curricula to enable easy entry to US programs for sons and daughters of ambitious families. Their academic directors tell us that what’s stopping many of these children from getting college entry in the US is not their science ability, but language ability in English. This is not about TOEFL. It’s about the mastery of argument, tone and expression in a second language. That’s a cue for the ordering of video-based ELL products that teach English through science, and resources aligning language progression to the NGSS frameworks on Concepts and Practices.

Concerns about mental health and the stresses facing international students gets schools casting around for how and when to fit Social and Emotional Learning into their syllabus. The finger has often landed on English as the best portmanteau subject. We’ve noted that European systems in particular now specifically require their EAP content to engage emotions and to give visibility to social issues. US-facing requirements may specify alignment of resources to the CASEL framework for teaching SEL in schools. 

For a prediction on the next shift, I’ll go for English language programs at HEIs.

Up to now, the campus English offer has been about graduate employability, with English pitched either as a cross-cutting skill (Debra Hinds describes this at Arden in her recent PIE blog) or as the vehicle for progression to formal employment in the corporate world. Already the orders we receive suggest a shift in the demand from universities: they want to offer English as the tongue of the hustler, the starter-upper, the entrepreneur, the persuader, the multi-career self-seeker. It’s going to be more casual, less accurate, more communicative, and geared to operating socially as much as professionally.

I’m betting on a broadening of what we understand by English for study. That enhanced definition will include how to project oneself online, conduct healthy peer relationships, and organisational skills. Maybe, I hear you say.

The standard certified attainments in English for international students still bear a sign over the gate such as “IELTS” or “TOEFL” with a requirement to demonstrate the four skills in English and not much more. The generation considering international education this decade will be looking to show and be assessed on something else. 

About the author. Stephen Haggard is a co-founder and Director at Digital Learning Associates, and formerly the Executive Producer of the BBC-Open University partnership.