Part one: Structure
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?”
“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
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
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.
Labels: authentic texts, EAP, genres, New Scientist magazine