English for Academic Purposes for Earth Science Pre-Service Teachers: A Venezuelan case

Reina Ruiz & Jesus Medina

Abstract

This research intends to highlight the importance of creating an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses for Earth Science preservice teachers in a teacher training college in Venezuela.  For this study, a survey questionnaire was used in order to determine Earth Science students’ perceived language needs and teachers’ and students’ perception about the relevance of EAP in Earth Science. One of the findings is that both students and teachers in Earth Science teaching program perceive that EAP course is necessary for it can help them have wider access to information as many related works are published in English.

Keywords: EAP, pre-service teachers’ language needs, needs analysis.

Introduction

In Venezuela, English is part of high school curriculum. In higher education, universities offer English as a complement in career and professional development. That is to say, the English language is considered to be extremely important for future professionals. In Universidad Pedagogica Experimental Libertador-Instituto Pedagogico de Maturin “Antonio Lira Alcala” (UPEL-IPMALA), a teacher training college, English is not offered for all future teachers, but only to those whose major is ELT. This scenario affects students who are doing other programs or majors because they need to research about the different areas of their fields and most of the scientific information they find is written in English. It is a fact that most of the readings they have in Spanish are merely translations of articles originally written in the English language. This is the case for Earth Science students at UPEL-IPMALA. The Earth Science students are trained to work in the following fields: Geomorphology, Geology, Astronomy, Cartography, and Astrophysics. Therefore, it is necessary that the Earth Science pre-service teachers know the English language because having a good grasp of the language could benefit them greatly. This knowledge of English language could be a huge advantage for them particularly when they conduct research and have an exchange of knowledge within the scientific community.

This article has 4 sections. Section 1 includes the presentation of the problem and the description of Earth Science program. Section 2 shows the theoretical framework of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) and contains information about course design in ESP. Furthermore, section 3 describes the methodology and findings of the research. This section also includes the discussion of Earth Science students’ and teachers’ perception about English and learners’ language needs based on the survey results. Lastly, section 4 presents our reflection on the research process and the results obtained.

1. Contextualization of the problem

The Earth Science program consists of three dimensions that students need to fulfill and follow in order to finish the program. First, the profile demands that students know all the necessary vocabulary related to the Earth Science field. Second, students must conduct research about the different disciplines within Earth Science. Third, students have to be academically updated, due to the changing nature of the disciplines of Earth Science, and the scientific and technological advances. Therefore, students and teachers have to constantly read different texts in the English language in order for them to be updated and learn about the changes in Earth Science because most of recent studies and findings in the scientific world are in the English language. Further, most of the students from the Earth Science program actively participate in research and in many occasions, they are not able to share their research internationally because of the language barrier. Actually, Earth Science students at UPEL-IPMALA have a research group about asteroids, and they would regularly conduct research work. Recently, they found an asteroid and had a lot of issues to communicate this with other foreign researchers because they had a low level of English language proficiency. They would be constantly invited to events to talk and share their research, but they could not attend because of the limited command of English langauge. It is in this regard that this research aims to highlight the relevance of the study of the English language courses for Earth Science pre-service teachers. This research aims to answer the following questions:

  1. How important is an EAP course for Earth Science pre-service teachers?
  2. How does knowledge in English improve and enhance their knowledge about Earth Science?

2. Literature Review

English for Specific Purposes emerged as a phenomenon in the field of English Language Teaching in the late 50’s as no methodologies at the time could address specific needs for language learning in specific knowledge fields, such as Commerce, Science, and Technology. English for Specific Purposes is an approach based on learners’ needs. In many places around the world, English Language Teaching and specifically EAP has been the center of research. There has always been a serious concern about the need for learning the English language for different purposes based on students learning and linguistic needs. Terauchi (1996) conducted a research in the Department of Law at Keiko University, in Japan, to study students’ special language needs and attitudes towards learning English, and found that the EAP courses offer did not cope with the necessary legal terms and phrases needed by the students. Thus, he proposed the redesign of the EAP subject to meet students’ present and future needs regarding English language use for legal purposes. The author explained that students needed to learn English through a specific approach that enhances their awareness about legal terminology and the different meanings words have according to the context and lexical use. Thus, the EAP course should be centered on reading and writing skills in order for students to improve their knowledge about the legal affairs, as well as the language.

Similarly, Ypsilandis and Kantaridou (2007) analyzed the linguistic and learning needs of a group of students in Greece with the purpose of proposing an EAP class for administration students. They used as reference the way EAP is taught throughout the European Union countries and concluded that the EAP course for Greek students should last for at least four months and that it should be based on the needs analysis, the academic interest of students, the learning styles, and task-based language teaching (which is a tool to provide similar activities as the ones students need to develop in their content-based subjects).

In another study, Mukoroli (2011) explored the strategies to teach vocabulary for EAP students in English as a Second Language settings. The author observed three higher education institutions in the United States: Riverside Language Program in New York, Ohio University and Loyola University in Chicago with the purpose of studying how vocabulary is taught in EAP classes. The author suggested that the ESL teachers had to design English classes as EAP and not English for General Purposes (EGP) because students needed to learn specific vocabulary to cope with academic content within the curriculum, such as Chemistry, Math, Biology, and so on, since they are learning the language and the content at the same time. Thus, Mukoroli suggests that ESL teachers should focus on content-related topics to help students learn new vocabulary, knowledge, and skills.

ESP established a new vision for this English language teaching and learning. Hutchinson and Waters (1987) described the development of this vision of ESP in five stages: (1) Register Analysis, focused mainly on the translation of sentences, (2) Discourse Analysis, which paid attention to the semantic aspects of the sentence and not merely its syntax, (3) Required Situation Analysis, in which the design was centered on the reasons the student had to study English, and then use the information as a starting point for the design, (4) Skills and Strategies, in this stage, learning was conceived as a mental process and not just memorization of certain vocabulary, and (5) the Learning Centered Approach, which focused on the active participation of the students and teacher for the development of the content of the subject. As we can see, ESP centers on the students’ learning needs prior to design, and not the opposite as in English for General Purposes, in which the design is one that must suit all students.

Moreover, the ESP approach is subdivided into English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and English for Occupational Purposes (EOP). It is important to know that each one of them takes into consideration the specific characteristics of the learners. On the one hand, EAP focuses on the learning needs students have for learning English, this is meant to be developed in an educational setting. On the other hand, EOP focuses on the enhancement of workforce operations, that is to say, within an EOP approach the setting and content will be determined by the occupations of the participants. Harding (2007) suggests that teachers need to get involved with the environment of the students and talk to the people involved in the process before the designing stage. He highlights that the teacher must stick to what the needs analysis provided because teachers tend to forget the real needs of the students and take the familiar path which tends to lead them into using any teaching method with ready-made activities instead of tailoring activities based on the students’ needs. He further suggests that ESP teachers must plunge into the specific purpose or area of knowledge of the students, value every single piece of information students and stakeholders can provide, and bring students’ context and reality to the classroom. This way, ESP classes may empower students to use language meaningfully.

Chamber (1980 as cited in Westerfield, 2010) emphasized that the needs analysis stage is of paramount importance. Therefore, Westerfield (2010), following Chamber, suggests that in the needs analysis process, the teacher has to organize the information into three dimensions: Target Situation Analysis (TSA), Present Situation Analysis (PSA), and the Context Analysis. In the TSA, it is pointed out what the students will need to be able to do with the language (future), the PSA is about what they are able to do with the language now (present), the Context Analysis is about the place, the time and the people or stakeholders. All this helps the teacher to organize the information about the needs of the students which is necessary to clarify the route the teacher is going to take in the course design.

3. Methodology and Results

Participants

In this study, participants were selected through a purposive sampling method. All the 7 professors handling the Earth Science Teaching Program at UPEL-IPMALA were included in the study. Meanwhile, 41 students (who were in their seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth semesters in the university) participated in the study. They were selected since they had already completed more than 50% of their academic experience at UPEL-IPMALA.

Data Collection Instruments

Two data collection tools were used in this study: a survey questionnaire for the students and an interview schedule for the teachers. Both were designed taking into consideration the PSA and TSA suggested by Westerfield (2010). The six (6) interview questions  focused on 6 aspects: (1) the teachers’ perspective about the importance of learning English for them and their students, (2) the sources of information that students and teachers used for their academic activities, (3) their reasons to learn the English language, (4) the skills that should be addressed in the EAP course design, (5) the use of academic texts in English for their classes and research, and (6) the pertinence of the creation of an EAP subject for Earth Science students and the semester in which the subject should be placed. Likewise, the survey questionnaire for the students contained questions that focused on the same 6 aspects, with the purpose of having students’ perspectives.

4. Findings

This section includes the presentation and analysis of Earth Science students’ and teachers’ responses regarding their perception about the importance of improving English language skills to them.

(1) Relevance of English learning for Earth Science Students and Teachers

All the students (100%) surveyed agreed that they need an EAP subject for their program.  Students explained that knowing English would increase their possibilities to find better jobs in the future, and also that they could make better use of technology when researching for academic papers about Earth Science. Further, all the student respondents stated that the English language is an important tool for them in their work and research because the scientific world is very competitive and constantly changing. Thus, if they want to be updated they need to have, at least, the necessary and basic means to use the language.
In that sense, teachers also manifested the importance of learning English. They explained that English is everywhere and that they are constantly challenged to read article and books in English. Therefore, they believe that students should receive the necessary training to use the language for research purposes and also to access and better use the information technology and communication tools which are usually in English.

(2) The English Language as a Resource to access information

Furthermore, 100% of the students manifested that teachers usually provide class material in Spanish, and sources in English, so they can have access to the original text to find more information. Students stated that this was a very difficult task because their English proficiency was too low, and they usually remained with the Spanish version missing out the expansion of their knowledge about the Earth Science phenomena.
Moreover, teachers highlighted that they have compared their class material in Spanish with the original source in English, and they have found information gaps. Therefore, they think that it is of great importance to know the original language of the text. They expressed that they feel left behind for not knowing the language; for that reason, they tend to encourage students to use the English version of the class material.

(3) Why learn English?

According to students and teachers, Earth Science students would benefit a lot if they had a chance to learn the English language during their career for the following reasons:

  1. They already used references written in English for their academic research and class activities, so having an English for Academic Purposes class would contribute to their professional development because they could use the Earth Science textbooks in English for their English class to enhance their knowledge and understanding of the content area.
  2. They are involved in Earth Science research. They are constantly invited to international programs but are disqualified due to lack of necessary English language skills. Further, their research is kept in the library in the university without the possibility for expansion because they do not have the skill to write text in English. They think that their research and knowledge is meant to be shared, and they would like to share their research with people from all over the world, and the key for that is publishing their research outputs in English.
  3. As future Earth Science teacher, they will have to stay updated with all the new information and discoveries regarding the different content areas with the field of Earth Science. Students and teachers agreed that English is a tool that will allow them to cope with the challenges of using new technologies in the future in order to be better professionals.

(4) Skills and Content for the Earth Science EAP course

Students and teachers expressed that the EAP course should focus on reading and writing due to the fact that they are mostly in contact with the language through different papers and research, and they need to be able to understand the Earth Science topics written in English. Further, they explained that most of these textbooks and articles use expressions to talk about the past and ongoing events, locations and the projection of future events. Therefore, they would like to include the following grammatical topics in the EAP subject: simple past, past perfect, present progressive, simple future, and be going to, in order to be able to understand the different articles better and also be able to express what they are already learning properly in their research. Likewise, they expressed that they would like to have content-based classes that could be linked to the aforementioned topics. Among the content selected for the EAP class, there is Cartography, Geodesy, Geology, and Astronomy because these are the content areas they usually research about during the career; thus, being able to understand these topics in English will enhance their knowledge about Earth Science and the possibilities of them getting better jobs, as professionals, in the future.

(5) English Use within the Earth Science Purposes

All the student respondents expressed that in their career, they take subjects such as Geodesy, Cartography, and Geomorphology, in which they have to study maps with signs and terminology in the English language. Thus, they believe that an EAP course would be a great support for their learning process and development as future Earth Science teachers.
On the other hand, teachers highlighted that the knowledge of English would enhance their knowledge about Earth Science because most of the documents written about this field are in English.

(6) Pertinence of the creation of the subject and placement

Students and teachers from the Earth Science program agreed that including an EAP subject for students is very relevant and pertinent because there is a need to learn the English language in order to improve their conduct of research and in order for them to access to more information regarding Earth Science. Further, they believe the best semester to place this subject would be the third semester since it is when they start to take the specialization subjects, and they could start with content-based material related to the Earth Science subjects which are more related to their research studies. It is highly recommended to create and design an EAP subject for Earth Science in order to improve students’ pre-service teacher training which prepares them to becoming future professionals.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that English is a universal language, and that in the academic and professional endeavor, many people around the world have the necessity to use this language in order to access and share information. In this research, there was an evidence that teachers and students were aware of the significance of knowing language, but still, students do not have enough opportunity to learn English during their academic period in the university. This research had the purpose of raising awareness about this reality. Further, it is important to highlight that this research showed that there is need for English Language Teaching in the higher education system in Venezuela because education is supposed to aim for students’ overall development as future professionals, especially in higher education since learning English is key for students to find their place in the world of commerce and science.

The study demonstrated that students and teachers consider that learning English would enhance their knowledge about Earth Science, and would also improve their research scope since the majority of the contents being studied in the program are originally written in the English language. In addition, it is important to note that this study displays – the learning skills of the students are centered on reading and writing because the EAP students consider the English language as a tool for research. It is, therefore, important for the academic authorities to acknowledge the necessity of designing an EAP course for Earth Science students in order to improve the academic learning environment of the students.

 

References

Harding, K (2007). English for specific purposes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutchinson, T. & Waters, A. (1987). English for specific purposes: A learning-centered approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Terauchi, H. (1996). English for academic purposes in Japan: an investigation of language attitudes and language needs in a Department of Law (Doctoral dissertation, University of Warwick).

Mukolori, J. (2011). Effective vocabulary teaching strategies for the English for academic purposes ESL classroom. SIT Graduate Institute/SIT Study Abroad. MA TESOL Collection, 501, 40-60.

Westerfield, K. (2010). An overview of needs assessment in English for specific purposes. Best Practices in ESP E-Teacher Course, 1-6.

Ypsilandis, G. S., & Kantaridou, Z. (2010). English for academic purposes: Case studies in Europe. Revista de lingüística y lenguas aplicadas2(1), 69-83.

 

(Reina Ruiz obtained her Bachelor’s degree in ELT and a Graduate Degree in Higher Education from UPEL-IPMALA. She is enrolled in the Doctorate Program in Education at UPEL-IPMALA. She is an Associate Professor at the Linguistics Department at UPEL-IPMALA.

Jesús Antonio Medina Guilarte is an English Teacher who graduated from UPEL-IPM (Venezuela). He has been teaching English at different levels (high school, elementary school, university, and language institutions) for 8 years. He has a Master’s degree in Linguistics from UPEL. Nowadays he works as an ordinary English teacher in the UPEL-IPM)

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