sociolinguistic competence

How to get international students out of their rooms and into the community

The potential of projects

It is sad but true that it is possible for international students to study at UK (and probably other) universities and never leave campus, never speak to local people in local settings and never enrich their cultural awareness and sociolinguistic competence.  

Universities are generally great at providing courses in, or extra support for, English for Academic Purposes and Study Skills and are increasingly seeking ways to embed these into students’ programmes in order to help them meet the academic demands of their modules. But, they are generally less great at developing students’ everyday communication skills in everyday settings with everyday people.  Maybe because they don’t see this as their job.

If, like me, you think this is equally important, then look no further.  I guarantee that the module I describe below is one of the most rewarding you will ever teach and one of the most useful for international students. 

It is an ethnographic research module designed for international students studying at a British university but equally valuable, I would argue, for any international student on any university campus. My evaluation of this module was based on data collected from students’ feedback on end-of-module evaluation forms and also their written reflections on the research process. As you will see below, the findings indicate a number of perceived benefits. 

This post serves a brief overview; the next few posts will give more detail about the structure and content, in case you want to adopt a similar research/project-based module yourselves. Or, do feel free to get in touch directly, if you think you might like support, advice or materials.

The module

A  20-credit, Level 4 (year one) module taught three hours a week over twelve weeks to Study Abroad students with IELTS 6.0/B2 equivalence.  The aims of the module are to develop via a small-scale ethnographic project in the local community: initial competence in ethnographic enquiry; and English language skills, cultural awareness and intercultural competence.

What is ethnography? 

It is an approach to social research typically involving participant observation in natural settings, formal and informal interviews and the collection of documents and artefacts in order to develop a deeper understanding of people’s behavioural practices and beliefs. According to Fetterman (1998: 2), ‘the ethnographer is interested in understanding and describing a social and cultural scene from the emic, or insider’s, perspective.’


The students’ projects 

Students initiate their own topics and are supported in the classroom in a step-by-step fashion with weekly tasks and plenty of formative feedback from peers and tutors on research questions, research design, interview questions, an oral presentation of their findings, data interpretation and a draft of the final report. The final report (2000 words + appendices) is the only summative piece of assessment.  Examples of past topics include:

  •       The elderly: ageing actively

  •       Volunteering: altruism or cv-enhancing?

  •       Always lost: asking for directions in the UK

  •      Terms of endearment: alright luv?

  •      Arcades: only for the lonely?

  •       Camaraderie within a boys’ basketball team


Findings: students’ voices

The joy of discovery

  •      ‘At week 8, I found that I collected a lot of data (maybe even more than I needed) due to the excitement of discovery and happiness of interacting with people.’

  •      ‘…I realize talking about a country’s culture in the ethnographic way is much more vivid and interesting because you are actually the one experiencing and interpreting what you see in that particular aspect of life in that particular time.’


  •  ‘In a nutshell, this research is meaningful for developing my abilities, regardless of the study skills or the language skill and social skills’.  

Developing English language skills, sociolinguistic and intercultural communicative competence

  • ‘… my fluency of speaking the language improved because I need to speak fluently to avoid wasting my interviewee’s time.’

  •  ‘I successfully talked to British people indeed and learned how to start a conversation better’. 

  •     ‘At the beginning of the research, I had difficulty in understanding different English of the basketball team members, not only because of different accents, but also the slang and vocabulary. But when the time goes by, gradual recognition towards their delivery pace and the expansion of my vocabulary base, help me understand much more.’


Building confidence

  • ‘Ethnography is useful in boosting confidence as it opens up my eyes and my mind. To step out of the comfort zone is uneasy, but I am proud of what I did. It actually builds my confidence and I realize that I am more capable than I thought.’


Contributing to employability skills

  •  ‘I have learned to communicate with others through this module, which is helpful to my employability skills’. 

  •  ‘It is of great value to my life and career in the future’.


Challenging preconceptions and changing perspectives

  •  ‘I have to say this project means a lot to me because …. it changes my perspective a lot and it allowed me to have a great opportunity to know something about other people. Talking to stranger is actually fun to me because they are not in my circle, which means their thoughts are very different from mine. Their feedbacks are very likely to give you new insight or inspiration and may change your perception of something.’


Ideal preparation for degree programmes

The findings indicate that students perceive the module to be positive and meaningful to them academically, socially and linguistically. They also suggest that the module does more than meet its aims; it has the potential to develop students’ confidence and employability skills, as well as facilitate different ways of viewing the world and new ways of learning (by doing).  

If you are responsible for curriculum development, then please do give consideration to a version of this module on Study Abroad, pre-sessional or in-sessional programmes.  It gives students an ideal theoretical and practical grounding in carrying out and reporting on a piece of primary research, which is ideal preparation for their degree programmes.

More to follow in my next post …


Fetterman, D.M. 1998. Ethnography: Step by Step. 2nd Ed. London: Sage Publications.

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.