I’m Olwyn Alexander. I live and work in Edinburgh, Scotland, but I was born and grew up in New Zealand.

When I was young, there were close economic and cultural links between the United Kingdom and New Zealand and I also had two grandparents who travelled ‘home’ regularly to Shetland in the north of Scotland and to Surrey in England. So I grew up with a sense that my cultural background was British. I’ve never taught English in New Zealand or any other country except the UK but when colleagues ask me if I’ve worked abroad, I smile and say, ‘I am working abroad now.’

I work teaching English for Academic Purposes at Heriot-Watt University, which specialises in applied sciences, engineering, management and languages. There is a lot of innovative research and teaching at my university in fields such as oil and gas exploration, laser physics, robotics and virtual worlds. It is an enjoyable context for me because my first degree was in chemistry and physics and I worked for 15 years as a research chemist before switching to teach English. This means that I find the subjects that my students are studying interesting and I’m not too daunted by some of the challenging texts that they need to read.

At Heriot-Watt we run a year long foundation programme and a summer pre-sessional for students before they begin their studies but we also have in-sessional programmes to support students while they study and I mainly work in this area. We aim to make our in-sessional modules subject specific, so I might be teaching English communication to robotics engineers one day and research skills to strategic project managers or interpreters the next day. It is very challenging to move from one subject to another like this but also very stimulating. It gives me a good insight into the different kinds of academic communication that are expected of students in a UK university.

I believe materials writing is at the heart of teaching EAP because it is how we can customise our teaching for specific groups. For some years now, I have been involved in writing distance learning materials to support Heriot-Watt’s external programmes which are delivered through partner institutions in many countries. Together with two colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, I wrote Academic English for Business, which subsequently became an interactive web-based course, and we recently completely Academic English for Science and Engineering which will also be offered online.

The experience of writing these courses and discussing EAP teaching with my colleagues gave the three of us a deeper understanding of what is involved in teaching academic English and we thought we could share these insights by establishing a short EAP Teacher Development course for ELT teachers who wished to make the transition to EAP. The course ran for six years and the insights we gained from the 150 teachers who attended over those years led to a book for teachers, published with Garnet Education: EAP Essentials: a teacher’s guide to principles and practice. Currently, Sue Argent and I are writing an EAP coursebook for low level EAP students.

When I’m not working I enjoy reading and going to the cinema and I’ve recently taken up running as a great way to shed stress – and a few pounds as well.


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