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.



Dear Olwyn

Nice to see you here after our fruitful talks on IATEFL Cardiff online. Hope, your experience in teaching EAP and writing materials will be of great help to the university teachers who are interested in helping their students to learn EAP. Besides, I see it as a good chance to ask questions to you on the burning issues and challenges we are facing.

Wishing you inspiration in writing EAP coursebook for low level students, but I would like to know: What level do you consider to be low: Elementary, Pre-Intermedite...?

Thanks for your answer in advance.

Best wishes from Ukraine

Irina Z.

Dear Olwyn,

Welcome to the TE community!

I am very glad to see you here as a Guest Teacher after our very first "encounter" at IATEFL Cardiff Online. It was an enriching experience indeed!

I think you have many good reasons to feel "at home" teaching EAP in Edinburgh, given that your family bonds opened the way to it... Moreover, having worked as a reasearch chemist "before switching" to teach EAP must be very useful and enjoyable now, though challenging. You also have the collaborative chance of your Colleague Sue Argent. I would like to wish you both much success for your EAP coursebook.

By the way, talking about Edinburgh, and your like of reading, I immediately recall one of my favourite Authors: Alexander McCall Smith and his acclaimed work. I'm currently reading "Teatime for the Traditionally Built".

Best wishes,

Maria Costa


Dear Irina,

It's nice to see you here too after our enjoyable discussions on IATEFL Online. I learned a lot about how EAP is taught in other parts of the world from the postings there, so I'm pleased to have the chance to do this again.

Regarding EAP level, I believe we should see how low we can go :-)  I hear many teachers say that students need general English before they can tackle EAP but I'm not really sure what they mean by general English. If they mean the English that is found in many coursebooks, then this is English to talk about yourself, your likes, dislikes and hobbies; this is English for conversational purposes. There is also a heavy dose of form-focused grammar, particularly verb grammar.

I believe EAP students want to talk about their subject areas and be able to read about these. This means they have to decipher the particular style of academic texts which tends to be simple sentences with complex noun phrases in subject and object positions. I think this can be made accessible at very low levels, e.g

'After its foundation in 1844 and rapid growth throughout the 19th century, the co-operative movement expanded worldwide, bringing benefits to many poor communities.'

This is an example from a text in our coursebook. It is really about shopping (a general English topic) but it is handled in an academic way (the co-operative movement). In my view, there is nothing inherently more difficult in general nouns such as foundation, growth, movement, communities than there is in, e.g. phrasal verbs such as look forward to, put up with, go out with, which are routinely taught in general English but which are not all that useful for academic English.

Low level students are not low level thinkers. They often have considerable experience of studying at university, if they are postgraduates, and want to be challenged with adult topics, not discussions about film stars, rising crime or traffic problems.

Nevertheless, the question of level is proving difficult for us to handle and we hope to be able to trial it with some students to see if we have got it right.





Dear Maria,
Nice to meet you again here. I'm looking forward to more fruitful discussions during my time as guest teacher.
I also enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's work, although the stories I've read mostly are about the 'No 1 Ladies Detective Agency'. However, I do think he is able to capture the feel of a place and also tell a good story and I like the way his heroines are 'traditionally built'.
Best wishes

Hi Ollwyn, We met at ISAL in Dec 2006 when I presented a paper on EAP:Theology! Now, retired, I am  serving as Director of a CEFL within a group of Colleges and Engg is the largest.So Now its EAP:engg. for me. I have started planning for this.I would love to see /buy your materials if they are for sharing.I would love to see /buy your materials if they are for sharingWhere can I get them?Iris, from Theology to Engg. and Business mngmt too, all equally challenging to us, no?

Dear Iris,I remember you well and it's nice to meet up again here. I see that for you 'retired' is a technical term which simply means working harder than ever :-)My materials are for sharing. I posted some student materials together with my presentation to IATEFL on the conference website earlier this year. You can find them at http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2009/sessions/63/who%E2%80%99s-afraid-d... with my two colleagues I wrote EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, published by Garnet Education, Reading UK. It has a CD ROM in the back with 50 classroom activities to photocopy and try out in classes. I'm afraid you have to buy the book though to get the materials. I thought it was available on Amazon but I checked and it is now listed as 'out of print' which certainly isn't the case. Perhaps you can find it somewhere else.Best wishesOlwyn

Dear Olwyn,I was not able to frequent the IATEFL  site this time as I was busy,... and , yes,  retirement needs redefining.  I feel the 'distance' from actual classroom teaching 'lends enchantment to the view'! I only plan and train trainers now.Thanks for the info. and I'll try to get the other book here in Bangalore.India is a great market for all ELT books. I have Garnet's Book On Vocabulary, again from Reading.My Institute has 16 departments of Engg. and there was no English for them exclusively.I am starting this next semester. Any one care to come and teach with us?I need all the help I can get. I do have Mark Ibboton's book from CUP and RIE, Bangalore's own pubn. too.Best wishesIris

I have taught English in India  to nursing students at college entry level for 25 years. As you have stated  getting suitable materials was the biggest problem.  Finally based on needs analysis  I  wrote   classroom activities to suit their specific needs. This made a tremendous impact  on the students and to put it  in a nutshell both they and I enjoyed the classroom  sessions. The students  offered valuable input and this enabled me to compile  the material into two text books  for them-- for degree and diploma students which were published by Orient  Longman and BI Publications in India and are used by other Colleges of Nursing as well.After retirement I have taken up an assignment to coach engineers( degree and diploma holders)  in spoken English. They have learnt English  as a secong language at school and done the engineering course in English. But oral communication is still a problematic area. Could  you suggest any material/book suitable for them ? I plan to take the classes in small groups of 6 and how many  class hours  will  be the the best option to suggest. It is a very informal flexible setting  and I would like your advice on it. 

HiI'm teaching conversational skills to students of mechanical engineering in Islamabad. I agree with others who say that there arent enough books available. or may be we dont know about them. I would like to design activities in engineering context. Plz share your ideas on this topic or give a useful link.

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