The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Semi-academic sources in EAP: An interview with a New Scientist journalist (1)

Part one: Structure and content

In the past few years, I’ve come across several EAP teachers who are advocates of using what could be described as ‘semi-academic’ texts in class. By this, I mean articles from magazines such as New Scientist, National Geographic or the Economist. These articles take academic topics and often report on academic research, but they’re arguably more accessible and engaging than rather dry, ‘authentic’ academic texts (from textbooks or academic journals).  I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about their use though because my sense is that these magazines represent a wholly different genre with a different style of language and different conventions which could actually be more misleading than helpful for EAP students.

To find out more about the differences between the genres, I interviewed a good friend of mine, Dr Alison George, an editor for New Scientist magazine. 

Dr Alison George

I asked her quite simply about the process of ‘translating’ an article from a scientific journal into something to be published in New Scientist. She came back with lots of really fascinating insights, so I’ve broken down the interview into two parts. In this post, I’ll look at how the structure and content of articles differs. And in my next post, I’ll look in detail at the actual language used. 

Dr Alison George: “I can only speak for the way that science papers are written. It's possible that academic papers in archaeology or economics are written differently.  However, the main purpose of all these papers is to convey information to other specialists, so the language is often obscure and the way they are written is of secondary importance to the information they contain.  Little effort is made to make them accessible to non-specialists. 

So how do we, at New Scientist magazine, turn scientific papers into magazine articles?  

Structure & content

For a start, only the most thought-provoking, surprising or important papers will make it into the magazine.  A journalist will think about why a particular paper is cool or exciting, and then try and convey that essence early in the story.  A reader of a consumer magazine such as the Economist, New Scientist or National Geographic has a million other things they could be reading - they have to be seduced into reading your article from myriad others on offer.  

The writing style used is different depending on whether the article is a news story or a feature-length article. A news story will generally have an introductory sentence, then will quickly move onto: how, what, who, why, where, when (in other words, giving the reader all the key details of the story as soon as possible).   A feature story will generally have an opening paragraph that grabs the reader's attention and piques their interest.  The second or third paragraph is usually what is called a "nutgraph" (aka "in a nutshell paragraph") which tells the reader what the story is about.  

This is a completely different style of writing to a scientific paper, where the most interesting stuff is often given in the final paragraph of the Discussion section, and the emphasis is placed on conveying correct information rather than grabbing a reader's attention.”

So what implications does this have for EAP students?

If we’re trying to help students improve their reading skills and enable them to deal with the volume of reading they’ll need to cope with through their studies, then reading magazine articles that are structured to give the key information up front, won’t necessarily prepare them for dealing with more formal academic texts, especially postgrads who will have to read original journal articles. 

Academic readers learn to use abstracts rather like the opening paragraph of a magazine article, to find out what the rest of the article is about and whether it’s worth reading on. These abstracts though are incredibly densely packed and require a certain degree of skill to decode. Readers then typically jump to the discussion section to find out the interesting ‘meat’ of the article. Isn’t this a method of reading that EAP students need to get to grips with? Learning where to look and what to skim over or discount will help them maximize their reading time and become much more efficient academic readers. Is spoon-feeding students with texts that present key information in an easy-to-digest form at the start really helping them with the academic reading skills they’ll need to master at some point?

Of course, as ever, what’s appropriate depends a lot on context. What stage your students are at (pre-university, early undergrad or preparing for postgrad study) will inevitably influence what skills you decide to focus on.  Similarly, you also need to think about the aims of a particular lesson. If it’s a discussion class and your aim is to get students engaged in lively discussion, then the exact form of any input will be much less significant than if you’re working specifically on reading or writing.

In my next post, I’ll look at how New Scientist journalists change the language of scientific articles to make it more accessible to their readers and what implications this might have in the EAP classroom.

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Blogger LAP said...

I teach Museum Studies MA students ESAP and one of their assignments is to write a news article such as those published in The Economist and Newsweek. When I asked students to critically evaluate the task, many were positive as it replicated the types of writing they might have to write for press releases etc.

3:29 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for your comment, it's a good point.

As I said, it all depends on your context. There are student writing genres that involve writing for a lay audience, but they're much less common than more traditional written genres and they're rather unevenly spread across disciplines. They tend to be focused around particular departments (or even particular tutors) who favour them. So if your students are likely to have to do this type of writing, then yes, of course, similar written genres (such as magazine articles) will be relevant to them.

I think what's important though is that students understand the differences between what's required for this type of writing and a more conventional academic essay or report or critique.

3:50 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Good discussion, particularly relevant to me not only as EAP reading/writing instructor, but as you've pointed out, I often begin ARC with these types of texts instead of full journal articles. Maybe it's not needed to mention rationale here again.

What I like here is the discussion about other strategies for skimming to the interesting (useful?) bits of journal articles i.e. abstract and discussion. This definitely is valuable for EAP students to practice, particularly of abstracts (considering it's those you get to before deciding relevance). I think this is separate from ARC's intention (intensive reading rather than quantity reading), though I wonder how much could be gleaned from just these two areas. I think I'll try it out myself in future ARC cycles somehow.

If both styles of text are used in the EAP course, genre differences inevitably come up--also valuable for EAP students to recognise. I don't think either hurts when students are aware of what they're reading and why.

6:06 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Hi Tyson, thanks for joining in!

I think, again, it comes back to context. If you have enough class time with students to thoroughly explore different genres and get across the differences (in structure, language and conventions) and what's appropriate when, then that's great. I guess I'm more concerned about EAP contexts where there's more limited class time (either on short courses or where it's only an hour a week, say) and there's a risk that students won't fully grasp what they should and shouldn't be using as a model.

I think there's also some confusion amongst less experienced or part-time/occasional EAP tutors (who maybe spent more time teaching general English) about the status of these kinds of texts. I think raising awareness of the differences between the genres for these folks is important too.

Look out for part 2 ...

6:25 pm  
Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

Absolutely context-driven. We are always coming at these issues from different course lengths. :) This makes me curious about what lengths everyone's in beyond our normal briefly anecdotal context introductions.

I'm looking forward to Part 2.

6:38 pm  
Blogger Anthony Schmidt said...

Great post! I think this is an important conversation to be having.

I find that sources such as New Scientist, as well as other online news and magazine articles, serve as good bridges to heavier academic texts. They still provide students with a reading challenge, and they show students how ideas from various research and sources can be synthesized to form new ideas or used as evidence for their own ideas.

However, as everyone has said, context is really important. Journal articles are definitely appropriate for graduate students, or would-be graduate students. However, for first year undergrads, text-book like articles are more commonly assigned, as are magazine articles from places like the Atlantic and the Economist (I followed a Berkeley Econ 101 course online recently and the textbook readings were interspersed with journalistic articles).

As an aside, for lower-level EGP/EAP students, I use Newsela to introduce similar content but with the option of having it graded for different levels. It's quite a good site: www.newsela.com.

2:53 am  
OpenID Emma said...

Interesting read and I love the term 'nutgraph' :) I look forward to part two and the language analysis. I wonder whether a comparative task with the original scientific article and the magazine article could be carried out to increase noticing and raise awareness of language choice and subject-specific vocab!?

10:00 am  
Blogger Maxine Gillway said...


This is precisely what we do with students on a few of our courses. They read the public facing report and then look at the original research. We ask them to be genre detectives and come up with the differences and rationalise them. This has worked well with a specialist group of PhD nanoscientists as well as a mixed group of pre-masters students on our summer course. I think it is key that they are exposed to a range of different text types to develop awareness of how audience and purpose affect content, organisation and language. This then equips them with skills they need both for reading and writing tasks of the future - in their courses and beyond.

12:51 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for all the comments ansd sorry if I don't reply to every one!

Emma & Maxine: I completely agree that activities that encourage students to be 'genre detectives' are really useful. For years, I've been doing an activity with students where I bring in a load of books and magazines, some formally academic, some written for a general audience and get students to evaluate them; say how useful they are for research, whether (and how) they'd cite them in essays, etc. It always leads to an interesting discussion and not a few 'light-bulb moments' among students. I tried to replicate something similar in Oxford EAP C1 (Unit 9A), but I think it has even more impact when the students have the physical sources in their hands rather than reprinted versions.

I guess my point in the blog is not that we shouldn't do this type of thing, but that we need to avoid presenting these different texts as if they're all a single genre; that's where the problems start.

1:25 pm  
Blogger Mura Nava said...

hi Julie

your post got me looking for other kinds of texts and found that PLOS articles ask authors to do author summaries which tries to appeal to a wider public so this could be a nice source for students in the biological and medical fields

did a write-up of how to collect such summaries - https://plus.google.com/+MuraNava/posts/FBJxCSXKQ5q


8:38 pm  

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