English-as-a-foreign-language teachers’ expertise in teaching EAP writing at the tertiary level in China

Xiaoting XIANG

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


English for academic purposes (EAP) has developed rapidly since it emerged as an indispensable branch of English for specific purposes (ESP) in the early 1980s, attracting world-wide research attention (Hyland, 2006). In the Chinese context, EAP courses or programs have been promoted at the national level with the newly issued Guidelines for College English and English Major Teaching Guideline in 2020. Most teachers of EAP writing courses are English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) teachers who have transferred from teaching general English at the tertiary level. They have encountered great challenges during this transition (Campion, 2016) because of a lack of systematic preparation and teacher training (Li & Ma, 2020). Despite this problematic situation, there have been only a few studies investigating teacher professional development and teaching expertise in the EAP context (Ding, 2019; Fitzpatrick et al., 2022). The existing literature on teacher expertise has advocated a shift from a purely cognitive to a sociocultural perspective given the complex and varying teaching contexts and conditions (Sorensen, 2017). More recent studies have regarded expertise as a complex system that highlights the interactions between individuals and their environment (Larsen-Freeman, 2019; Yuan & Yang, 2022). However, the complexity of the teaching expertise system in the EAP context and the dynamic developmental process are still under-researched.

To address the complexity and dynamism of EFL teachers’ expertise in teaching EAP writing, the present study innovatively synthesizes Complex Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST) (de Bot, 2017) and Ecological System Theory (EST) (Bronfenbrenner, 2005). Accordingly, I collected data from two stages: understanding the overall perceptions of 12 EAP writing teachers via semi-structured interviews, and exploring the specific manifestation and dynamic developmental processes in four cases, which were traced longitudinally (for more than one academic year). The findings reveal the basic structure of EAPWT expertise system encompassing multilevel and interacting components under five categories: 1) experience (i.e., academic learning, practice, and associated teaching experience); 2) an integrated knowledge base concerning EAP and L2 writing teaching; 3) progressive problem-solving; 4) motivation for changes; 5) adaptive agency. The self-organizing interactions among the components, which enabled teachers to maintain and develop their EAPWT expertise, were specified as follows: 1) motivation for changes and adaptive agency activating other components; 2) conceptualizing experience to knowledge and contextualizing knowledge into experience; 3) progressive problem-solving with other components working in synergy. The study also unveils the dynamic and nonlinear processes of EAPWT expertise development, along with depicting the changes the teachers made or experienced in terms of course design and delivery, assessment and feedback, and their emotional adjustment. Furthermore, the factors and constraints are identified, systematically explaining the influences of teacher-environment interactions on expertise development.

Afterwards, the ecological model of EAPWT expertise development is tentatively proposed. Theoretically, this study not only adds to our understanding of the complex nature and dynamic developmental process of teacher expertise, but also sheds light on the plausibility of utilizing theoretical frameworks related to complex and dynamical systems and ecological psychology to explain teaching expertise development. Practically, it provides implications for teachers, teacher educators, researchers, and institutional leaders regarding how to support EFL teacher expertise development in EAP and tertiary-level contexts. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • The Education University of Hong Kong
  • GU, Ming Yue, Michelle 谷明月, Supervisor
  • YU, Baohua, Supervisor
  • YUAN, Rui Eric, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • EFL teachers
  • Teaching expertise
  • EAP writing
  • Tertiary-level education
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Thesis (Ph.D.)--The Education University of Hong Kong, 2023.


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