From ielts to he – Bridging the gap



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  1. From IELTS to HE – Bridging the gap

All international students that enter Higher Education (HE) in the UK must have a determined IELTS score. This score is determined by the discipline that the students are studying. Nevertheless, when studying at UK HE institutions, international students, whether studying at undergraduate or postgraduate level, often struggle during their first year with their academic writing.

Discuss with a partner.

  • Can you think of any reasons why?



IELTS vs HE written tasks
We’re going to start by looking at the types of assessments that are given and which students are expected to carry out in each case. Look at each task and make a note of the tasks most salient features.
IELTS Part 1



IELTS Part 2


(Questions taken from IELTS EXAM.NET)

First year HE assessment


You have been given 4 texts to use as sources for the following essay question:


Higher education is an effective means of both obtaining employment and learning the basic prerequisites for the global workplace. Discuss.

Please use at least two of the texts provided, together with two additional academic sources.



1000 word essay

You need to include:

  • Detailed essay plan

  • Essay

  • List of references

Procedure and Instructions:

  • Write a detailed essay plan for the essay

  • Write and Word-process your essay and use double-spacing.

  • Re-read and edit your essay at least twice

  • Write your bibliography for the essay

  • Add a title page with the number of words.

(Assessment taken from EAP04 module at the University of Westminster 2012)


Discuss with a partner.

  • What are the main differences between these tasks? Are there any similarities?



IELTS vocabulary vs. vocabulary needed at HE
Discuss with a partner.

  • Having looked at the examples above, what type of vocabulary is needed in each case?



Typical EAP material
As experienced teachers, I’m sure you recognise the importance of developing students’ academic vocabulary. There are many ways that this is dealt with in EAP coursebooks. The most typical focus on the following areas:


  • Differences between formal academic language and everyday language

  • Phrases to refer to sources and to paraphrase or quote

  • Vocabulary to organise texts

  • Word building with Latin affixes

  • Words with Greek and Latin roots



Discuss with a partner.

  • Can you think of other vocabulary areas that you commonly teach?

While the above language areas do go some way to developing the students’ general academic skills, the role of discipline-specific specialist language in the students’ chosen academic field is often ignored. This is largely because the general EAP material is aimed at students before they enter their specialist field. From an economic perspective, it also makes more sense for publishers to produce material that has a larger audience. English for Special/specific Purposes (ESP) is a rather niche market. On top of this, EAP teachers usually have a background in language studies and applied linguistics, so are often themselves unfamiliar with specialist language.






Discuss with a partner.

  • What problems do you have in teaching academic vocabulary?

  • Do you find it difficult to identify which words will be useful for your students?

Academic vocabulary can be described as either ‘technical’ or ‘abstract’ in nature.



Technical academic vocabulary normally has a field specific meaning. It often needs to be defined and can be put in a taxonomic relationship with other terms in the same field

e.g. secondary school – needs defining to distinguish it from other meanings of secondary (not as important), and is in a taxonomic relationship with primary, higher etc.


Abstract academic vocabulary can be described as referring to terms to do with meaning and thinking such as idea, concept, theory; or to non-specific concepts e.g. problem,
Parts of British higher education are pedagogically constrained by the marketisation that has accompanied its expansion
Most academic disciplines will have a mixture of both these kinds of vocabulary. While the technical vocabulary is intrinsic to the students’ specific knowledge of their field, they will have to frame the technical vocab using the abstract vocab. Research has shown that acquisition of abstract academic vocabulary is a strong indicator of how well students learn subject specific content (Stahl & Nagy 2006; Marzano & Pickering 2005).
Discuss with a partner.

Think about the course of study your students will undertake at university.



  • Do you think they will have more difficult with technical or abstract vocabulary?

  • Do the resources you use focus more on one kind of academic vocabulary?

  • How can you, as their teacher, make the students consciously aware of the technical vocabulary used in their discipline?

Here is an extract from one of the texts that was used with the EAP04 essay title. The text discusses the value of a university education.


Read the text and:

a) circle technical vocabulary (in the field of education)



b) underline abstract (but academic vocabulary)
With a partner highlight the words/phrases which you think would be useful for the students in the debate.
The role of universities in turning undergraduates into critical thinkers is being undermined by marketisation, academics have warned. Intellectual development is still a priority of the elite universities, says the paper in the journal Teaching in Higher Education. However, new universities' links to business via vocational courses and industry placements make them more likely to frame pedagogy purely in business terms, it adds. Rather than transforming their students into critical scholars, these institutions are simply producing "a more confident and content mass who remain a willing workforce". "Parts of British higher education are pedagogically constrained by the marketisation that has accompanied its expansion," say Mike Molesworth, Elizabeth Nixon and Richard Scullion, the authors of the report and members of Bournemouth University's Media School.
Although the sector should critically reflect on the market economy beyond campus, the paper suggests that "the emerging role" of some institutions is to "fix in students an unquestioning acceptance of the primacy of consumer desires". The authors criticise the emphasis some universities place on industry placements, which they say confirms the view of a degree as a means to a job. They also point out that institutions offering vocational courses as a route into some industries are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. The authors argue that institutions that treat specialist knowledge as a commodity risk undermining themselves in a world in which knowledge is shared more openly. Critiquing facts is more important than acquiring them, the academics say. "If the value of facts is reduced and complex learning is unattractive, what is left to be sold is the passport of the degree certificate," the paper adds. "Marketised education is not even an effective preparation for the workplace because it may not provide the imaginative and critical graduates who are able to deal with technological and societal change, let alone instigate changes themselves." Higher education's commodification is being driven from the top, the authors say, pointing to Bournemouth's "Get a better job, get a masters" campaign as an example. Students themselves are playing ball, arriving at university with the desire for a 2:1 "framed primarily by its subsequent bargaining power in the job market", they add. The paper, says: "Tutors must critically reflect on their role in maintaining education as personal transformation."
Newman, M., Market Value Dominates Sector. Times Higher Education. [online] available from:

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