The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Semi-academic sources in EAP: An interview with a New Scientist journalist (1)

Part one: Structure and content

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?  

Structure & content

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 about.  

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 reader's attention.”

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.

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