oracy

How can we help learners overcome a fear of public speaking?

As an oracy trainer, I see inside many UK secondary schools and classrooms.  I have the wonderful opportunity of helping young people find their voices, express their opinions, tell their life stories and speak passionately on a wide range of topics, from the perils of social media to the importance of family. 

I come across pupils who enjoy speaking in front of their peers and others who loathe it. Some are so shy and so fearful that their anguish manifests itself in physical form; I’ve witnessed shaking, hair twisting, nail and lip biting and crying.  Some, who you never think will actually stand up and speak, do. Others, who you think are brimming in confidence, fake headaches, go to the nurse’s office and never return. Some reluctant students respond well to positive encouragement and cajoling, others respond better to tough love and motivational mantras.

 

Public speaking is viewed as something out of the norm

What they all have in common, though, is a shared understanding that public speaking is something special, something different, something out of the norm. In fact, my very presence at their school facilitating a whole day confident communication workshop reaffirms this.  It is different.  And this shouldn’t be the case. I often ask myself how we ended up in this situation.  And, then, of course, I remember, the neo-liberal, data collecting, accountability agenda pervading our education system and which may actually be doing harm, emotionally and academically, to a large number of children.

If speaking skills were valued, taught and assessed formatively and summatively from a young age, if they were embedded into every lesson, and if children knew speaking = school and school = speaking (see School 21 for a good example), then this would be the norm, just like evaluating sources in History or using a protractor in Maths or learning vocabulary in French. And this would mean that fear of speaking (or fear of failing or fear of embarrassment, as is often the case), should dissipate with exposure, modelling, structured support, sustained practice and a clear understanding that ‘this is just what we do’.

 

Encouraging a growth mindset

As this isn’t the case in most schools, then we need to find other ways to help children deal with their fear.  Many educators turn to the psychology literature and help to build resilient learners by endorsing a growth mindset.  I myself, when faced with reluctant pupils, use similar strategies: I ensure they have many opportunities to practise and time to prepare; I talk about my own failures and eventual successes, demonstrating that learning comes from struggle and mistakes; I remind them that the anticipation is worse than the actual act; I get other pupils to inspire them with their own talks and positive encouragement; and I make sure to add a ‘yet’ every time they say ‘I can’t do it’.

But sometimes even all this fails.  Sometimes there are still two or three children who refuse to stand and speak, and each time this happens I can’t help to feel that I’ve let them down.

 

Mindfulness techniques

And, so, my quest for knowledge and strategies continues.  It was in this vein that I approached my friend and colleague, a Buddhist nun and mindfulness practitioner and asked her how mindfulness techniques might help young people overcome their fear of public speaking. Here’s her advice:

1.     Create some ‘magical wishes’ for your audience before your talk, e.g. ‘I wish my talk will help them solve a problem in their own life’ or ‘I wish my talk will inspire them’ or ‘I wish my talk will help them understand this issue better’.  Repeating your wishes in your mind will help to strengthen your inner power and your confidence.

2.     Pin your anxiety onto something small and simple in order to calm your mind before your talk. It can be something you notice immediately before you go ‘on stage’, e.g. the knowing of your footstep, the taste of a mint in your mouth, or the feeling of your tight shoulder.  The knowing stays with you and is something neutral and safe to cling on to in a time of uncertainty or stress.

3.     Enjoy your talk while delivering it. Of course, it helps if you’ve prepared content that is interesting and important to you and/or to your audience.  Find the value in your own talk (again for you or your audience) and affirm this value to yourself. Remind yourself that you have something important to say that people want to hear.

4.     Shift your focus onto the audience.  Think about how they’re feeling, how they’re experiencing your talk and what they’re learning from you. This should help you forget about yourself and let go of your nerves a little.

5.     Don’t be too critical of yourself.  When you’ve finished, praise yourself for having the courage to do the talk. Only when your mind is calmer and your tension has eased, should you reflect on strengths and weaknesses.  Even then, remember it’s not black and white. Every audience member may have experienced your talk differently.

 

Don't be too critical

Maybe this last point is the most important one of all.  After all, what trainers and teachers might consider a small step forward might, in fact, be a huge step for a shy or unconfident student. Just like a good speaker needs to cater his/her talk to his/her audience, we need to cater our feedback to individual learners' needs. 

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

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Reflecting on and Evaluating Group Discussion

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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!

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.

How to plan and deliver your first presentation

Oral presentations (given either individually or in groups) are a common form of assessment at British universities. If you're not used to them (and even if you are!), they can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Here is some simple yet effective advice to guide you through the process. Remember - the more you do the easier they become, so practise and repeat!

Preparation

  • Plan the content of your talk carefully keeping in mind your audience (e.g. if your audience is not familiar with key/technical vocabulary you will need to explain it).
  • Think about the structure of your talk.  Make sure it has a clear introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Try to think of a way to grab the audience’s attention when you start and a way to keep them thinking about your content after you’ve finished (e.g. a rhetorical question or image to start and maybe a different question or piece of advice or warning to end).
  • Make your talk easy to understand and use visual aids effectively (i.e. use bullet points of main ideas only, or use simple diagrams, graphs, pictures to illustrate key points).
  • Make your talk interesting, e.g. use humour, anecdotes, metaphors, repetition, tripling, etc., as appropriate.
  • Don’t write down your talk word for word.  Use small cards with key words and phrases to help you remember.  Number the cards so that if you drop them you don’t ruin your talk.
  • Practise giving your talk in advance.  Stand in front of a mirror or video record yourself.  Notice your posture, facial expressions, gestures, pace, pausing, intonation etc.
  • Time your talk.

 

Presentation

  • Don’t panic! If you’ve done your preparation well, you will know more about the topic than anyone else in the room.  This should give you confidence.
  • Stand tall, feet about shoulder width apart (or less), and where you can be seen by everyone. Try not to fidget.  Check you’re not blocking your visual aids.
  • Your talk should be SAID not READ. Talk around the bullet points on your visual aids, giving more details, examples and explanation.
  • Maintain eye contact with your audience. Naturally shift your gaze from one person to another around the room.
  • Try to avoid fillers (e.g. umm, ahhh, like, etc.) and overly long pauses (unless used purposely for dramatic effect).
  • Pitch your voice to the people at the back of the room and don’t talk too quickly. If you hear yourself speeding up, make a conscious effort to slow down.
  • Look as though you are enjoying what you’re doing.  Enjoyment is like measles; it’s infectious!
  • If you get nervous, a couple of deep breaths and a smile will help.  If you’ve brought a bottle of water, take a sip.
  • At the end of your presentation, ask if anyone has any questions.  Allow the audience a couple of minutes to think of some.

 

Fielding Questions

  • When answering questions, look at the questioner as s/he speaks, but address your response to the whole room.  Look at the questioner roughly 25% of the time; the other 75% look at the other audience members.
  • Don’t engage in a battle.  If one person tries to monopolise the questioning, give your view briefly, then thank the person and say: ‘That’s an interesting point. I wonder if anyone else would like to comment?’
  • If you’re not sure how to answer or if you’re running out of time, you can say, ‘I haven’t considered that fully. Maybe we can talk about that later, one-to-one.’

 

ELT Well Open Day and taster sessions

In celebration of the opening of the new ELT well premises in Morecambe, Anne Margaret and colleagues (including myself) are offering a range of mini sessions aimed at supporting teachers support their learners. Please come along and discover what we can offer you, your school and your learners. I look forward to seeing you there!

 

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