December 2008
Volume 12, Number 3

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ESP for Theology: Teachers Must Go the Extra Mile

Iris Devadason
United Theological College, Bangalore, India
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This article describes teacher research in an EAP context, teaching English for theology at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India, an international, liberal, and ecumenical institution. Conceptually grounded in the theory and practice of genre teaching, and discourse analysis of large pieces of texts such as the thesis, inspired by Swales (1990) and Hoey (1983), this article analyses NNS-students' struggle to conform to the academy and seeks ways to enculturate unskilled L2 learners in the art of thesis writing.


The research presented here raises two questions:
  1. How do students who are weak in English manage to overcome their limitations in the language in the period of 18 months prior to thesis writing?
  2. How can the ESP teacher meet them halfway in their attempts to succeed?

I attempt to deepen my understanding of my own practices in collaboration with subject teachers and employ tools of empirical research such as questionnaires, interviews, portfolio analysis and observation and participation. The two questionnaires administered (Appendix A and B) have yielded sources of information not usually available to the teacher. A PowerPoint presentation I created (Appendix C) provides a practical solution to the problem being researched. These methods of teaching academic reading and writing are easily replicable by others. Recognizing the need for such teaching at post-graduate level, based on the data analysed of both expert and unskilled users of the language, and having analysed the intricacies of academic writing this article makes a plea to teachers to be willing to identify with student apprehensions at this advanced level of research writing.

The Context

I have taught English to students of theology at both undergraduate and masters levels [1] for 26 years at the United Theological College (UTC), Bangalore, South India. The English taught is for Academic Purposes (EAP), not for mission or evangelism [2]. Recognising the "high seriousness" of the subject and the equally serious manner in which the students in the age group (25-45 years) wished to master English to excel in theology, I experimented during my first five years in creating relevant teaching materials. There were no books that I knew of to teach this particular group or subject, and I had to rely on both intuition and experience.

For example, to teach writing, I used Lawrence (1972), in which methods of logical organisation are taught based on cognitive psychology; I adapted them to students' needs. I wrote my own exercises based on church-related and current Christian issues such as 'Women's Ordination', and offered them as samples to explain these methods.

Students claimed that this method of teaching writing was a revelation to them and had helped them to overcome their fears of writing in English within the first two weeks of class. Such feedback could not be overlooked, as it was from adult students with high motivation to succeed.

Knowing the students' prior educational background and training in secular colleges, I could not ignore the value of the notional-functional method and the product approach to teaching writing despite new theories that had set in, in the West, regarding teaching writing. I persisted in the product approach at the remedial level of teaching and noted with satisfaction that, over the years, the debate regarding the process versus product and genre-teaching approach has continued and some teachers have now begun to combine the two approaches (Flowerdew, 2000; Badger & White, 2000; Weber, 2001).

However, as demands were constantly made on me by subject teachers and students to help with the M.Th. thesis drafts, I realised that even though I am a language teacher with no formal degree in theology, I was able to refine, reshape, and make more coherent what students had written both at the macro-level of organisation and at the micro-level with obvious lexico-grammatical errors. Subject teachers had no time to help in this area of re-drafting. This experience has given me the status of "informed-insider-outsider".

Further, I had observed that M.Th. students who were required to do a pre-sessional Remedial English (RE) course with me had always done well in the thesis, obtaining distinctions for the same, even if their performance in written exams was less impressive. This led me to question how such unskilled L2 learners could undergo this "academic osmosis" within a two-year period. Surely, a six-week RE course in which I had taught essay writing along with other skills could not account for their mastery of the thesis as a genre. I consulted the faculty again, more specifically than I had before, regarding students' performance in thesis writing.

Pursuing the question as to how the unskilled learner faced and overcame the challenges posed by writing a thesis in theology, I wrote a structured questionnaire with which I interviewed faculty who guide research in this institution. All of them, NNS Faculty, have been trained abroad in the U.S.A., Canada, U.K., Germany, and Australia. The questionnaire contains twenty-six questions (Appendix A) on their expectations of students at this level of study and on aspects of writing. I also distributed a questionnaire (Appendix B) to students after they had written the thesis, from which I have gained specific insights into student apprehensions regarding writing the thesis in theology. This has proved very informative of both the faculty views and students' high motivation.

Yet, I have been told that this ESP research has implications for other subjects in the other universities of India, where academic writing is not taught specifically to post-graduate students. There have been public declarations from a local university of resolutions to help students with the "art and science of thesis writing" (Bangalore University Panel, 2003).

My investigation into the theses written by NNS students has for its theoretical basis Swales' description of introductions (1981) and genre analysis (1990) and Hoey's (1983) Problem-Solution pattern for analysing the underlying patterns of discourse. These models of discourse analysis have been applied to the Introductions first as Swales' "moves-analysis" has proved to be of invaluable help to M.Th. students and Hoey's method applied then to the entire thesis. The latter, which has proved useful for decoding texts and for précis-writing, has also great significance for the 'social action' (Miller, 1984) aspect of theses written in Post-Colonial India. Moreover, as the college is an old one with its own well-established traditions, I have also analysed to what extent student theses are governed by the Senate's regulations for thesis writing. As each thesis I have examined runs to about 30,000 words, the corpus surveyed was about 300,000 words.

Brief Literature Review

Three areas of recent research--genre analysis, teaching writing, and teaching genres to NNS students are areas that I am concerned with in my research. My thinking has been influenced by the following:

As mentioned above, Swales' (1981) has been the springboard of this research. Since theology is considered part of the humanities, I found this way of analysing discourse meaningful. Along with his subsequent work on genre analysis (1990), his underlying empathy with NNS students' struggles to write academically (Swales, 1985; Swales & Feak, 1994), and his theory-cum-pedagogical research supports my own interests to improve and make relevant my teaching and to help students in the completion of the task ahead of them.

Swales' descriptive approach has been followed by many others in the West, as shown by the following:

Table 1. Swales' Influence in ESP
Author Year Area
Bhatia1981Legal English
Dudley-Evans1986M.Sc. dissertations in the sciences
Brett1994Results sections in sociology articles
Dos Santos1996Abstracts in applied linguistics
Samraj2002Wildlife behaviour and conservation biology
Bunton2002Generic moves in Ph.D. thesis introductions

This type of study had become so common that Candlin (1999) refers to the study of workplace writing as "something of a cottage industry." These studies also include discussions of the "process and product" approaches to teaching writing and "genre-theory."

Hoey's (1983) analysis of discourse patterns in text has proved equally enriching. Students have responded with enthusiasm to these patterns and have tried to write accordingly. Both these semantic inputs are little known in India among Indian ELT teachers, as few of us get the opportunity to study abroad and access to British/U.S. libraries is only in the metropolitan cities. Thus, such research by applied linguists in the West and especially, the U.K., undergirds my own research.

Casanave and Hubbard's (1992) useful survey of the writing tasks of doctoral students includes a questionnaire to the faculty on a large scale, and concludes with the observation that more 'in-house' research needs to be done.

Allison, Cooley, Lewkowicz, and Nunan (1998) and Dong (1998) have all identified the writing needs of NNS students at advanced levels and endorsed the view that this is an area that needs to be researched. Others who have worked in these areas of helping post-graduate students write their theses are Paltridge (1997, 2001), who explicitly guides writing thesis proposals and also analyses the published materials that exist in such areas. Hyland (2001 & 2002) talks of identity and voice in writing, Cadman (1997) discusses the loss of identity, along with Myers (2001),who describes the place of personal views in undergraduate writing. Thomson (2001) discusses the important skill of interaction while arguing in academic writing. These writers discuss valuable and "yet-unrecognised-by-subject-teacher-issues" inherent in thesis-writing. My own questionnaire (1999-2002) thus highlights them.

Closely related is the larger question of how best to teach L2 academic writing; this has had a long history in the West. However, now very practical ideas regarding academic literacy, not recognised earlier, have been introduced and show a concern for the underprivileged or NNS students working in an additional language and in an alien environment.

Most relevant to my research, however, is Horowitz's (1986) call for more realistic ways of teaching EAP than advocated by the process-approach supporters, and Zamel's (1995) article which discusses the frustrations involved in teaching/learning English. The notion that to lack English proficiency is to be deficient in intelligence is here dispelled. Zamel's empathy with NNS students' struggles is similar to that of Swales' and is echoed in Spack's (1988) essay. Here, she cites Bizzell (1982), who introduces factors that are non-academic when assessing students, for example, socio-cultural factors that disturb academic performance even among native-speaker students. This notion finds support in some of Elbow's essays (1991, 1995), which challenge conventional notions of academic writing and also a parallel in the current Indian scenario where academic concessions are made for students from the backward or underprivileged sections of society to whom English is EFL.

Spack (1988) raises the further question as to who is best suited to teach academic writing, and asserts that English teachers should only teach general academic writing and not venture into ESP areas. This is a view that is debatable, though I see the difficulties in English teachers teaching in all subject areas. In addition, voices from the classrooms found in Kroll (1990) and Johns (2002) present multiple perspectives on L2 writing and genre teaching.

My Response

My first response was to talk to the faculty and ascertain what they felt about their students' written work and learning processes while writing the thesis.. Another questionnaire on the processes of composition (pre-writing, writing and post-writing) was given to students while writing up their research. The return rate from students has not been good, especially from students who did not study remedial English (RE) with me. On submitting their theses, they resent having to think about it analytically, as fatigue has set in. An RE student said, in his speech made at a valedictory function, that while writing the thesis: "We felt like Daniel in the Lion's Den."

I also participated in the three workshops organised for post-graduate students led by subject teachers and observed how they are enculturated into the genre, into academic study and discussion, and defending their thesis titles. I do not attend departmental workshops as the subject-methodologies are specialised and students are confident in these areas.

I have studied the manual compiled by the faculty after years of conducting workshops for them to correlate their requirements with the Senate's mandates. The manual resembles an ESP document and is edited by a missionary-professor citing many Indian books on social and theological topics (Mabry, 1999, 2003).


As a result of my close and critical observation of this entire process of how M.Th. students are indoctrinated into thesis writing, I have created a PowerPoint Presentation (PPT), appended here (Appendix C), for the unskilled L2 learners, based on Swales' 4-moves analysis of the introductory sections of theses, and his later 3-moves model. I related it to the Senate's requirements, which the students already follow. I have also linked it to Hoey's (1983) pattern of text analysis.

The Power Point Presentation

In an effort to make the six-week remedial English class more supportive for the students, I created a PPT in 2002 to introduce them to the principles underlying the creation of academic discourse of which they, just as many expert writers, are often unaware. It is an attempt to study whether analysing the structures of student-authored-discourse and then offering a template based both on theory and on one's analysis is a stranglehold on creativity or an aid to writing. It is recognised that often the subject with which the author grapples in itself shapes or determines content and form and yet the need to conscientise the weaker student of this aspect seemed imperative.

The PPT contains forty-eight slides explaining Swales' moves analysis and Hoey's text- components, and the Senate's official requirements as endorsed by UTC. The last document is by the gatekeepers and teachers, who as Swales puts it, "act as counsel in the process and judge of the finished product" (1990, p.188). It is accompanied by my commentary, in which the seriousness of the task before them is emphasised. The slides have been made easy to recall with some clip-art, which helps to lessen the tension for the weaker students who might otherwise be awed by the task ahead.

The PPT takes about one to one and a half- hours to explain as the students take down notes. There is a little deliberate repetition as students are slow but handouts have been avoided to ensure that comprehension takes place at once. This is a synthesis of the descriptive findings from applied linguistics and the prescriptive nature of 'rules' given by the administration and explicit advice from the college's own handbook for researchers. The PPT is the first conscious step on my part to ascertain the validity of genre-teaching, by the ESP teacher, which is my main argument here.

Number of Presentations

The PPT presentation has been given nine times to three groups of students over a period of three years. Initially made to the Remedial English Group as an important genre-teaching input, it was later made to the second year M.Th. students who were beginning to write the thesis. This was done to ascertain its effectiveness and to observe their response after two years of rigorous study at UTC. In addition, it has been shown three times to some non-UTC candidates studying a similar course in theology, and who must also write a thesis. The numbers attending in each group have been between eight to sixteen and so, on an average of twelve, there have been about 108 students who have seen this presentation. Three more presentations were made to the current M.Th. second year group, the YMCA class, and the next M.Th. RE group in the period 2005-6, bringing the total to eleven presentations and about 130 students.

As the students are mature, have high motivation, and some are teachers themselves, their feedback and comments are valuable evidence of the effectiveness of this presentation and the exercises which follow it.

The Accompanying Commentary

The introduction to the PPT begins by ascertaining the students' attitude to writing the thesis. A question based on the issue raised by Olsen and Drew (1998) is asked at the outset, as it is pertinent: "Do you see the thesis as the last big assignment that you must do for your teachers, or do you see it as your first scholarly writing in which you address your peers?" Student responses are varied ranging from timidity and reluctance to appropriate scholarly roles for themselves, to seeing the thesis in a novel light and affirming that they are scholars in the field. Rarely, there is the one who is indifferent to the task.

Swales' Moves analysis of introductions (1981) and semantic steps are then explained with the rationale for this made clear. I offer both versions of Swales models (1990) to observe their reactions and notice that some prefer the latter. This is followed by The Senate's requirements, which is new information for students doing pre-sessional Remedial English but known to older students, the M.Th. second year. The latter group finds it easier to make the connection. However, Hoey's (1983) method, familiar to students of RE as a decoding device to enable swifter reading speeds, but not to the older group (whom I did not teach RE), is now explained and applied to the entire text of the thesis.

All this is accompanied by illustrations, both of serious errors that have been avoided by former students, after guidance from subject teachers and ESP teacher, and of excellent writing by former students of the college. As the faculty questionnaire also corroborates, some of the major problems with academic student discourse are: copious citations with no intervening interaction with them, descriptive writing with no critical comments, a good table of contents page which is not actually followed, that is, failure to keep to an organizational plan. This too amounts to teaching by demonstration based on 'inner knowledge'.

With the non-UTC classes samples of their writing, long essays, were read earlier to understand their particular needs as their training is different: the YMCA course caters to different goals and the other two theological organisations are more mission-oriented than UTC in their ideology which affects their style of writing.

Table 2. Work Assigned on PPT

Exercises based on the PPT have only been given to UTC's R.E. class as it is they who need such help and guidance and are the focus of my research. Two exercises requiring two critical essays based on analytic reading were given to them in the final weeks of the RE course.

Ex. I

a) Read the introductions of four theses in your subject area from the college archives.

b) Apply Swales' moves to the introductions or Ch. I along with the Senate's requirements and identify and mark clearly the moves as they appear in the theses. You may mark either four moves (Swales) or six moves incorporating UTC's/Senate's requirements.

c) You must make mention of moves that are missing in the introduction or Ch. I.

d) Write a 1000-word essay of a few paragraphs regarding the moves analysis that you have just done and add a final paragraph of critical evaluation of the four introductions.

--> Ex:II.

a) Re-read the same four theses entirely, from introduction to the conclusion applying Hoey's text-patterning to each thesis.

b) Write one 1000-word essay to describe the patterning that you have observed in the four theses, pointing out the sequence of the moves or the absence or the merger of some moves.

c) Write one final critical paragraph of evaluation of the four theses that you have read critically.

N.B. Hoey's method had already been introduced to the students as an aid to decode difficult texts with practical library work in the second and third weeks of RE.

Students' Response to the PPT

These exercises were done enthusiastically each time, except for one rare case when the student did not understand the rubrics. Based on the student responses, both verbal and in a "mini-questionnaire" that I had given out, it was seen as:

My Response to Their Responses

Subsequently, I ask for a photocopy of their work as a validation of their capacity to write academically. The effect of this on their morale is positive, and is mentioned as having pedagogical merit. I have about forty such documents.

I have created a subject-specific model for future students, based on a modification of Hoey's pattern, incorporating my own findings in theological prose (See Appendix C). Some faculty had shown interest in this model as they saw the need for 'neatening' or improving the introductions just as the need for 'tightening' the entire thesis. If, however, faculty members object to this as stifling creativity in the better student, I shall still offer it as a template for the RE students alone, as I do now, as they clearly need to be taught semantic skills in the organisation of written work. Thus, my own teaching has improved ever since I took up this research to trace the metamorphoses of weak students into scholars.


Since my research is interdisciplinary, it usually meets with indifference from both English teachers and subject area teachers. Yet, I see it as important as language specialists and literature professors and theologians did work together in the past, where Biblical scholarship was concerned, though their purposes were different. Hoey (1983, p.193), speaking of the work of Bible translators such as Beekman, Longacre, and Callow declares, "All is for them subordinate to the needs of translation."

I see a striking link between applied linguists' interest in genres of non-literary writing today and Biblical scholars concern regarding both 'literary' and 'non-literary genres' ever since Gunkel, an Old Testament scholar, raised the issue of Form-Criticism in 1901. Even today, when New Testament scholars consider the genre slot into which the Gospels maybe cast, they debate whether they are biographies or narratives or have liturgical elements, and so forth. Genre theory is as much their concern as it is applied linguists' such as Swales (1990, pp. 33-45) and Paltridge (1997, pp. 5-23).

Discussing the 'slipperiness' of genres (Johns, 2002, p. 11), English teachers are asking whether genres should be taught at all. But since students of theology are familiar with genre theory as it applies to Biblical scholarship, it seems appropriate to make them aware of research genres, too. For teachers in this ESP field, as well as for those in other fields in non-Anglophone areas, the primary need, I believe, is training in applied linguistics and ESP to teach language successfully. The reluctance among teachers to read theological or specific subjects to teach English calls for great persuasion.

This answers the troubling question of who best should teach ESP, and there are two views here. Spack (1998) argues that only teachers with the specific subject backgrounds--be it science or engineering--can handle ESP teaching and that others with a humanities background will be at a disadvantage and vice versa. However, I am convinced that ESP teaching necessitates working with authentic materials, and requires teachers who are willing to meet the students halfway on their path to academic literacy, teachers who are willing to go the extra mile.


[1] B.D. = Bachelor of Divinity and M.Th. = Master of theology. Theology spelt with a small 't' is generic whereas a capital "T" would refer to the specific department of Systematic Theology.

[2] There has been debate in the TESOL Quarterly regarding teaching English via mission, which was derogatory to the Christian Educators in TESOL caucus. I wish to make it clear that in a theological college in India these arguments do not apply at all. Nor have the Christian schools in India come under such criticism.

About the Author

Iris Devadason teaches ESP theology at the United Theological College, Bangalore, South India. She taught literature at several universities in India. She has an M.A. from Delhi University, an M.Sc. in TESP from Aston University, Birmingham, UK, and is now doing research for a Ph.D. from Mysore University, South India. She is the author of Why Calcutta? a collection of short stories published by Writers' Workshop, Calcutta, 1994.


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Appendix A (PDF Format)

Appendix B (PDF Format)

Appendix C (Web Only)

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