Why teaching oracy is essential even at HE level

It’s easy to assume that adult students come to university with already developed oracy skills for collaborative learning. But, if you’ve ever meticulously set up a discussion task in groups and then watched it completely unravel in front of you, then you’ll know that this is not always the case, even at this level. What makes this educational setting different from many primary and secondary ones is that university students come from diverse educational, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, all of which can contribute in interrelated ways to the failing of group discussions.

Why group discussions fail

University students may have different expectations of tutors and of lessons/lectures and group discussion may not fit in with their idea of learning.  Likewise, they may have had limited exposure to or experience of expressing opinions, negotiating, compromising or evaluating arguments (maybe because they’ve come from a banking model of education or are not used to forms of dialogic teaching). They may have different notions of what makes a good student or a good discussion, e.g. not questioning authority, avoiding any conflict or deferring to mature students or ‘native’ speakers. They may have never worked in multilingual and multicultural groups with different accents and varieties of English and may struggle understanding and making themselves understood.

Oracy in HE

Effective speaking and listening skills (i.e. oracy) should, therefore, not be taken for granted at university level. In this setting, a definition of oracy must encompass at least some of the skills, knowledge and attributes associated with intercultural communication competence, i.e. the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from different cultures.

I’d argue that oracy defined in this way and in this setting is just as important, if not more important, for English students as it is for those who speak English as a second language (ESL). The reason for this is that ESL students usually have more experience communicating and, therefore, negotiating meaning, with other international students in English; in other words, they may well use or have used English as a lingua franca. In contrast, students coming from the English education system may have limited or no experience using English as an international language in order to communicate effectively with speakers of different languages.

Regardless of their levels of experience or expertise, explicitly teaching students the oracy skills required to operate accurately and appropriately within a specific subject area supported by international members, and using the academic discourse practices associated with this subject area, is, in my opinion, just good practice in terms of facilitating students’ academic and professional development.

How to develop oracy skills

My experience of and observation within the HE sector has led me to the conclusion that these two areas of research and practice - intercultural communication and oracy - are essential to good teaching and learning at this level.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that many lecturers could benefit from the excellent work currently happening in the field of oracy, as developed theoretically by the research of Neil Mercer and colleagues at Oracy Cambridge, and as implemented practically by Voice 21 and its associate school and partners. 

What becomes clear from this work is that the key principles of effective group discussions are the same regardless of the level of education. Productive group discussions require: a) knowledge of the ground-rules of a successful discussion (e.g. everyone participates, all contributions are valued, reasons are provided etc.); and b) sociolinguistic competence for contributing to a discussion, including the use of functional language (e.g. expressing opinions, agreeing/disagreeing, giving reasons etc.), and for maintaining a discussion or preventing it from breaking down (e.g. paraphrasing contributions or making requests to members to rephrase, explain or define). As mentioned earlier, in a university setting, where students come from different educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, shared expectations of a successful discussion and equivalent levels of sociolinguistic competence cannot and should not be assumed.

Thus, if we want to set up an effective group discussion at HE level, it would make sense, at the very least, to establish the ground-rules (ideally via co-creation) and to elicit, remind students to use or even provide useful language for expressing functions. Beyond this, I would say there are four more tasks worth tutor consideration: 1) having students prepare the content (i.e. do their critical reading and thinking) in advance; 2) assigning roles to students (e.g. the initiator, the facilitator, the clarifier etc. – see my next blog post for an example); 3) making sure there’s a clear, tangible outcome or product (e.g. students must reach a shared conclusion or produce a summary for other groups); 4) giving students a chance to assess their own contribution and the quality of their group’s discussion. The Oracy Framework could be adapted here for formative or summative assessment purposes.

Displaying vs Developing Oracy

Opportunities for students to display their oracy skills in HE already exist, largely due to assessment via oral presentations (either group or individual) or oral defenses (e.g. the viva).  But I would suggest that opportunities for oracy development are harder to find, as this requires time, planning, scaffolding, practice, and self, peer and tutor feedback based on valid frameworks. Ideally oracy, like academic writing development, will be embedded into the curriculum. Let’s hope that the Oracy Skills in HE Conference will ignite the flame that will see oracy given the attention it deserves.

** In my next blog post, I’ll provide an example of an intervention designed to develop MA students’ oracy and metacognitive awareness using the steps outlined above.