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Raising awareness of academic expectations:
collaborative work in the EAP classroom
by Scott J. Shelton-Strong
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1.4 The materials

The materials included (appendix 1 - 5) represent an initial grounding lesson, leading to a series of further lessons where learners will work towards completing a group project and prepare for a collective oral presentation. This lesson aims to enable learners to become familiar with a number of important skills useful to this end, including critical thinking and reflection, effective use of the Internet to access appropriate data, referencing and citing norms, note taking, avoiding plagiarism, collaboration, intensive on-line reading and oral presentation skills. An evaluation of the materials within this context, the lesson procedures envisioned and an overview of the principles guiding these will be offered in the upcoming sections, as will a brief evaluative discussion of the purpose, value and reasons for selection. A conclusion will be offered in which the main points will be highlighted and where possible extended to encompass a broader applicability to EAP teaching beyond this specific classroom situation.

2.0 Material and lesson design principles

2.1 The theoretical framework

The theoretical framework upon which the material and the lesson design are based draw inspiration from social learning theory and the collaborative involvement inherent in working towards a common goal in which the learner activity – driven by a set task – is supported by participant generated scaffolding and private speech, which is suggested to lead to improved performance and L2 acquisition (Donato, 1994: 37-448; Lantolf and Appel: 10, 1994b). Social-constructivist views (van Lier, 2000: 254), which highlight how language learning and development emerge from exposure to reoccurring features common to language in use, (Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 98) and which may be related in part to active collaboration, attentive listening and focused reading, inform learner engagement with the materials and participation in the various lesson stages.

The lesson and homework aims are two fold. Firstly, they involve learners engaging individually and collaboratively with explicit information in regards to specific topics and skills to be learnt. The lesson also aims to provide opportunities for collaborative learning while learners prepare for delivering a short oral presentation of their findings. These aims reflect the belief that by working within an output rich environment, language acquisition might be then fostered through a number of affordances, such as hypothesis testing, noticing (of both form and possible gaps in their interlanguage) and the negotiation of meaning (Swain, 2000; van Lier, 2000).

The content areas to which learners will be exposed represent specific skills relevant to their academic studies. The collaborative tasks of collective brainstorming, comparing, sharing and selecting information prior to preparing for and delivering an oral presentation, together with summarizing collective findings, may create opportunities for deeper processing of these skills, which will need to be mastered to various degrees to ensure success in the class project to be undertaken, and which will be applicable in their wider academic studies.

2.2 Skill learning theory

Skill learning theory, (Dörnyei, 2009) which emphasises a three-step process of exposure, practice and internalization (or automatization) might act as a frame for the macro-stages of the ensuing post-lesson project, of which this lesson plays a vital role. In this initial lesson, learners first engage with declarative knowledge in a very explicit way, through the online presentation of the skill area, where they focus on content and make notes, focusing on ideas and possibly form. Later, in subsequent classes and in preparing the written element of their group project (and later in their course of study), learners will be fine tuning this explicit knowledge implicitly through practice, moving declarative knowledge to its procedural stage.

The final stage of skill learning is reached when a relatively high level of automaticity is available as a product of the initial first two stages. This automatization, or internalization, (Lantolf, 2000: 14) is thought to improve through continued fine-tuning through further implicit mediation and personal trial and error. As in this example, automatization will become evident only after extensive practice; in this case, as these learners begin to engage in the very activities they have been explicitly focusing on in this lesson.

It might also be argued that while involved in comparing information and preparing to present the main points in a brief oral presentation in this lesson, the learner is already working within the procedural stage although the skill area is not being performed directly, but being processed cognitively and implicitly in a collaborative way.

2.3 Collaborative learning

In EAP study, collaboration in small groups, with the teacher and within the larger class, is desirable from the position of promoting shared knowledge and experience, to scaffold, or support learning within what Vygotsky (1978 in Hyland, 2006) terms the 'zone of proximal development'. Hyland (2006: 91) describes this as "moving learners from their existing level of performance, what they can do now, to a level of 'potential performance', what they are able to do without assistance". This process is described as one which is dependent on both external input and learner (and teacher) collaboration as co-mediators who through mutual support work to uncover and develop expertise, which emerges from engaging in the exchange of ideas and knowledge between members of a group working together (Lantolf, 2000b: 17).

The concepts summarized above, which overlap to some extent within the lesson material provided (appendix 1 - 5) and the procedures of the lesson itself, (appendix 2) reflect a belief in the importance of scaffolding within a collaborative approach to learning, as embodied in the tasks chosen for the learners, (Hyland, 2006: 91) and a conviction that through fostering learner engagement and autonomy in learning new skills, motivation through improved self-efficacy can be nourished (Bandura, 1994). The end goal, for which this lesson represents a first step towards, is for these learners to attain a sufficient level of awareness and autonomous mastery of the academic skills focused on, enabling them to manage independently as fledging members of their academic communities.

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