Different Types of Academic English: EGAP vs ESAP

No matter whether students like, tolerate, or just hate academic English, it is the language they need to know to comprehend textbooks, articles, and academic papers.

It is the language students use in their assignments, reports, dissertations to inform, classify, justify, evaluate, analyze, synthesize sources in a persuasive and effective way.

Students need academic English to succeed on IELTS/TOEFL tests and at university.

It does not surprise that students preparing for university want to improve their academic English as quickly as possible.

The problem is that many students trying to improve academic English focus on the wrong type of academic English.

If it sounds perplexing, let me explain.

There are two kinds of academic English: English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) and English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP).

In short, English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) is the academic language needed for IELTS/TOFEL tests and undergraduate study.

English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) is the academic language needed for postgraduate study (master’s and doctoral courses) and professional work.

Both EGAP and ESAP differ from General English (GL) students learn in primary and secondary schools.

General English (GE)

As I said General English (GE) is the English students learn in school. It is pretty much social language with some elements of academic register introduced sparingly in a secondary school.

GE is characterized by the use of high-frequency vocabulary, conversational language, focus on grammar, listening, and speaking skills.

It is the language used for everyday communication, (conversations, hobbies, family settings, TV, holidays) and reading for pleasure.

GE is developed by an English language teacher in the classroom through interaction and textbooks.

Students need to know about 5000-word families to become fluent users of GE. In optimal conditions (lots of exposure to the language) an English language learner needs approximately two years to develop GE – in other words, a functional level of English.

Students with well-developed GE demonstrate effortless fluency and mastery of colloquial vocabulary. This lulls some students into a sense of complacency. Many students proficient in GE erroneously assume they also know academic English.

English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP)

English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) is a more abstract English needed for undergraduate studies and well-known standardized tests of English language proficiency: IELTS and TOFEL. It encompasses reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Students taking IELTS/TOFEL tests need EGAP to comprehend texts from books, magazines, newspapers written for non-specialist audiences. They also need EGAP to complete writing, listening, and speaking tasks (e.g. describe a graph/table/chart/map, write an essay, answer multiple-choice questions). Paradoxically, students learning English as a second language are able to develop general academic English faster than native speakers of English. Native speakers need 5-8 years to learn it. Learners of English as a second language only 1-3 years. That can be explained by the fact that academic language can be pretty easily transferred from L1 (first language) to L2 (second language). If students know words such as photosynthesis, democracy, tolerance in the first language, learning these words in English takes less time. Students need to learn an English label (translation) for such words but they don’t have to learn the meanings since they know them from their first language. Of course, language transfer works better in language related to English. Educated native speakers of Spanish, French, or Portuguese will master EGAP quicker than speakers of Mandarin or Arabic.

English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP)

ESAP is English needed for specific fields or disciplines (e.g. medicine, IT, physics, engineering psychology, technology, or law). Students who know ESAP are able to comprehend specialized authentic academic papers and reports in their chosen discipline. They are also better prepared to write academic projects related to the subject they are studying e.g. academic assignment (e.g. 5,000-word essay, a 25.000-word dissertation). Knowledge of ESAP predicts academic success. Although ESAP seems more difficult than EGAP, successful postgraduate students who mastered ESAP might struggle with some aspects of EGAP. Simply, students who specialize in a narrow field might not have the broad but shallow knowledge needed for EGAP.

Should students learn both EGAP and ESAP?

It depends. International students preparing for universities in the UK, Australia, Canada, or the US need to take either IELTS or TOEFL tests before they are admitted to the university.

If a student wants to do well on IELTS/TOEFL exams, s/he should focus first on learning EGAP. Students simply have no choice, they have to master EGAP to enter their chosen university.

The problem is that EGAP helps with the tests but has little to do with real academic English at university. If students want to do well at university (and job), they should focus more on developing ESAP.

It is pretty ironic that students investing time, money, and effort preparing for IELTS/TOFEL learn English they might not need. Students who succeed on IELTS/TOEFL exam are often oblivious to the fact that academic English on postgraduate level differs from Academic English on IELTS/TOEFL. When they struggle with their studies, they often don’t know what is going on. At the end of the day, they got a good score on the test, they have been admitted to the university. They think it cannot be a problem with their academic English and they are wrong.

If a student wants to specialize in a certain field e.g. microbiology, sh/e does not need to learn EGAP, sh/e can focus on ESAP only. Of course, students knowing both EGAP and ESAP are in advantageous positions, but many students don’t need EGAP to be successful at university or job.

Is EGAP needed to learn ESAP?

Some teachers argue that EGAP needs to come first, and only then students will be prepared for ESAP. The counter-argument to that is that there is no reason why ESAP cannot be developed without EGAP. In my opinion, it is better to progress from EGAP to EASP but sequential learning is not always necessary. EGAP makes learning ESAP easier since EGAP constitutes a ‘common core’ of academic language.

A student who is interested in ornithology knows the subject, research methods, statistics, and lots of topical vocabulary. He/she is often highly motivated with well-defined goals and stronger self-efficacy beliefs and knowledge. All these factors fuel academic success. Such a student does not need to know vocabulary from other fields to succeed in his/her narrow field. Some students don’t need to learn EGAP, they are forced to learn EGAP because they need to get good scores on ILETS/TOFEL.

How to learn EGAP?

All these types of English are used in different academic circumstances. They are also learned/taught differently.

EGAP can be learned through wide reading and listening. Reading general sources such as National Geographic, the Guardian, The Economists, New Scientist develops EGAP. Also, listening to TED talks or podcasts helps with EGAP. Furthermore, learning general academic vocabulary, learning to write a short essay (250 words) help students get their required band/score on IELTS/TOEFL. There are many teachers and courses out there teaching EGAP. McDonald’s of Academic English. EGAP can be learned in a classroom or independently. Generally, lots of time on task is required.

How to learn ESAP?

Students need to focus on narrow reading and listening. It means they should listen/read authentic materials from their field (e.g. books and academic journals). They should focus on authentic tasks they will have to perform at university. For instance, learn to write a 5,000-word research project. Students need to employ deliberate learning rather than only time-on-task learning. It will require the help of an academic tutor familiar with the requirements of the field. Learning ESAP requires lots of independent work. It is not possible to learn ESAP from textbooks. Students should focus first on developing genuine reading comprehension, find a tutor to discuss materials you read or listened to, have clear goals. In most cases students have interest and motivation, so it facilitates learning, Specific knowledge plays important role in reading and writing. Knowledge of the topic matters a lot. Study skills: research methods, understanding the process of writing, critical writing, methodology, statistics, specific terms of language.


I often compare learning General English (GE) to jogging in a park, learning English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) to preparing for a marathon, and learning English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) to preparing for a triathlon.

Students learning GE are like joggers in a park. They don’t need to run fast, time does not matter, improvement is often slow, and rarely measured. They don’t have good goals and they don’t need good strategies to enjoy their run.

Students preparing for EGAP are like runners preparing for a marathon. Students have to prepare mentally, need to have a good action plan, the right attitude, start with a build-up training, have the appropriate gear, set up realistic goals, avoid mistakes (e.g. not understanding the route), and sometimes have a good coach or source of information on marathon preparation. Students preparing for IELTS/TOFEL need to understand the requirements of the tests, do some serious preparation, find good strategies, and sometimes get help from someone who knows more about the tests.

Students preparing for ESAP are like runners preparing for the Ironman triathlon. Running is not enough, they also need to swim and bike (3.8km swim, 180km ride, 42.2km run). The preparation requires an appropriate approach, good equipment, and importantly help of someone who ran the triathlon before and has lots of hands-on experience. The preparation for a triathlon is less boring than preparation for a marathon (not so monotonous) but it is also lots harder. Lots of self-preparation is needed. That is the situation students preparing for ESAP find themselves in. They need to understand that effective learning might require a shift in thinking, methods, and materials. ESAP requires an excellent knowledge of research methods, specific vocabulary, writing process, and study skills. The help of an experienced academic tutor is needed.

Nobody can learn academic English by watching soap operas e.g EastEnders (TV program that follows the lives of local residents and their families in the UK), reading adventure books, or speaking with a native speaker. They are all great sources of language if students want to go to an English pub. Not if they want to study engineering or medical science. In the same way, students cannot learn ESAP by preparing for IELTS/TOEFL tests. All effort and time are invested to get a good score. Students should focus on their long-term goals. They need to decide what they want to do: jogging, marathon, or triathlon.