Developing university students’ oracy: facilitating group discussion

In my last post I wrote about the necessity of developing students’ oracy skills even at HE level. I argued that oracy is not something that can be assumed in a multicultural context, especially one in which English is used as an academic lingua franca and, thus, where intercultural communication skills are crucial for learning with and from peers.

Developing Oracy

Developing students’ oracy is not just about providing them with employability skills; it's also about ensuring that we’re preparing students properly for the assessment we design. Assessment via oral presentation, for example, is common across many university module guides. Why on earth would we want to assess students’ oral presentation skills without teaching them oral presentation skills first?

This post continues the theme of oracy development in HE by describing an intervention to help facilitate a group discussion on a taught MA course with multicultural participants.

An Oracy Intervention

The problem is likely to be a familiar one to many tutors and stemmed from my naïve assumption that post-graduate students would be able and willing to initiate and sustain a discussion with no tutor involvement. The discussion was to be based on students’ answers to a set of guided questions helping them to evaluate a research paper.  They were given two weeks’ preparation time to read and prepare their responses, knowing that a group discussion would follow. I had imagined that one person would volunteer to lead the discussion and every member of the foursome would contribute, explain, justify, challenge, and question appropriately (i.e. with regard to register and tone). 

The reality is this didn’t happen for all the reasons outlined in my previous post! The discussion didn’t get off the ground at all without my nominating a chair.  Even then, it was dominated by the most outspoken member of the group, whilst other members tried desperately not to make eye contact. Some contributions were inaudible and unintelligible. Others had value but grammar and choice of vocabulary interfered with meaning. In general, contributions tended to be limited, superficial in depth and unchallenged by other members.  In a nutshell, the students’ success criteria, which seemed to be based on how fast they could get through the list of questions (!), did not match mine at all.  We had completely different expectations as to what constituted a group discussion, let alone a successful one.

The intervention involved giving students roles, providing them with functional language and making time to evaluate the discussion afterwards with specific reference to indicators of successful intercultural communication.

a)    Giving students roles establishes expectations about what makes a good discussion, including the need for everyone to contribute for the success of the whole.  I chose to take a more inductive approach, getting students to surmise each person’s role and analyse its importance after the discussion. However, ground rules and roles can also be elicited and/or co-created before a group discussion.  In fact, giving students their roles a week before the discussion might result in better preparation and, in turn, a better discussion.  Roles can also vary according to the discussion task and/or students’ needs.  I chose here to include an intercultural communicator role to raise awareness of this important aspect of oracy in this multicultural setting.

b)   Providing functional language - it’s easy to see why this might be helpful to those students who speak English as a second language (L2). But, when it comes to being a competent intercultural communicator, students with English as a first language often also need some help, especially with regard to seeking clarification or rephrasing contributions or asking peers in an appropriate way to slow down or expand etc. Modelling the useful language and working on aspects of pronunciation, like intonation, might also be helpful, especially for L2 speakers.

c)    Making time for students to reflect on/evaluate the discussion afterwards is crucial to help them develop their metacognitive awareness, to reinforce the success criteria of group discussions in an HE context and to provide valuable feed forward for the next discussion.

Roles and useful language for group discussions

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 11.35.39.png

Reflecting on and Evaluating Group Discussion

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 11.34.46.png

Keep following this blog for more ideas on developing and assessing oracy in HE.  And, if you have any comments to make or ideas to share, please do!