An investigation of language learning agency in English for academic purposes: the case of the Malawi University of Science and Technology
There is general recognition regarding the importance of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses in assisting students acquire academic discourses appropriate to specific disciplines of study. However, undergraduate students in multilingual contexts, where English is a second or foreign language face challenges in managing the transition from secondary school into the university, where they are expected to appropriate as well as acclimate to new discourses of communication deemed to be essential for their survival in the academic world. Although studies show the importance of agency in language learning success, institutional demands have sometimes led to the adoption of teaching and assessment practices that ignore the learners’ English language learning history, background, experiences and needs, which impact on their sense of agency and voice in the EAP classroom and eventually their learning success. The study investigates whether the EAP course at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) can engender agency and voice among first year undergraduate students transitioning into the University from community day secondary schools (CDSSs). It aspires to generate an understanding of the strong link that exists between institutional orientation to EAP, course design and pedagogical practice on the one hand and learner agency, voice and multiple meaning making in the EAP classroom on the other. Anchored theoretically in critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970), ecological affordances (van Anchored theoretically in critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970), ecological affordances (van Lier, 2000, 2004) and positioning (Davies & Harré, 1999), the study argues for EAP pedagogy that provides affordances, empowers and positions transitioning students for critical learning by deliberately making multiple meaning making, agency and voice the mainstays of course design and instruction. The investigation uses a qualitative case study methodology centred on understanding affordances for agency and voice in EAP learning, manifestations of and the factors influencing voice and agency from the perspectives of first-year undergraduate students transitioning from community day secondary schools (CDSSs) and EAP course lecturers. Collection of data involved semester-long observation of 44 EAP lecture sessions of roughly 2 hours each duration, as well as interviews with participant students and course lecturers, and analysis of documents. The findings indicate that design and pedagogical practice in the current EAP course at MUST fail to adequately engender agency and voice among students and to promote learner empowerment or encourage multiple meaning making in and outside the classroom. The entire study has generated some insights for advancement of critical EAP learning that can engender voice and agency, including the need for EAP to deliberately build in and promote learner empowerment, multiple meaning making and negotiation in order to move towards pedagogy that is appropriate for critical learning, voice and agency, the need for EAP to move away from closure-focused teaching, learning and assessment, the need for enhancement of EAP course lecturers’ critical awareness of the world views and inherent assumptions surrounding various approaches to EAP pedagogy, the need for enrichment of EAP learning environments with semiotic resources for learner engagement for agency, voice and multiple meaning making, the need for learning spaces that are enabling for students to identify and utilize affordances for EAP learning beyond the classroom, and the need for exploration of PowerPoint and related technologies for EAP instruction beyond current use as tools for transmission of content to students.