by Marion Heron & Doris Dippold, University of Surrey
Building on our previous work on oracy in higher education (see our previous blog for Oracy Cambridge here) we were awarded a British Council English Language Teaching Research grant to explore to the perceptions of international students, disciplinary tutors and English language tutors with respect to which oracy skills are most important for disciplinary study. We used the Oracy Skills Framework to underpin our study.
The research took place on four sites: two UK-based universities, one university based on Turkey, and one in the United Arab Emirates. What we found was fascinating! There were conflicting opinions on what oracy skills need to be prioritised for students’ academic development, and these differences were common across all institutions.
We found that students were primarily concerned with skills in the Physical and Linguistic domains, such as pronunciation, fluency and accuracy in vocabulary and grammar. Students reported reluctance to participate due to a fear of making mistakes. Disciplinary tutors on the other hand, highlighted the Cognitive domain and had expectations that students were able to articulate justification and argumentation in class discussion and activities. These differences in expectation are significant as students may not be aware of what skills they need to access their disciplinary content, and tutors equate lack of participation with lack of disciplinary understanding.
The data also revealed a range of disciplinary tutor practices with respect to supporting oracy skills in the classroom. In the survey, when asked ‘How do you support students’ language skills?’ one tutor replied: ‘I teach Law, not English’. At the same time, other tutors reported using a range of pedagogic practices which foregrounded oracy skills development.
Whilst the study was focused on international students, we agree with Bourdieu et al’s argument that ‘Academic language is… no one’s mother tongue’ (1994, p. 8). We therefore believe that all students, regardless of linguistic background, can benefit from good pedagogic practices which support language development in the higher education classroom.
The project also revealed a significant knowledge gap: English language tutors felt they did not have sufficient knowledge about the speaking requirements for disciplinary study, while disciplinary tutors had unrealistic expectations of how prepared their students would be after English language preparation courses.
We concluded the project with a number of key recommendations. What is notable about these ideas is that they promote good practice not just for international students, but good practice for all.
- English language tutors and disciplinary tutors need to take joint responsibility for the development of oracy skills.
- Universities should have explicit language policies which guide tutors in how to support students, and which would address the large disparities between the type and amount of language support provided by different tutors.
- There is a need for more explicit discussion of the issues raised in this study and, in particular, recognition and acknowledgement of the key role oracy skills play in developing disciplinary knowledge.
We are using the results of our study to inform a number of key initiatives across the university, such as a university-wide webinar on language in the curriculum, the development of departmental language champions, and the inclusion of language-focused input on the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching.
Find out more
To read the full report and good practice guide, see below or click here.
You can also follow Dr Doris Dippold, Senior Lecturer, School of Literature and Languages; Dr Marion Heron, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Education; and the Languages, Literacies and Learning research group on Twitter.
Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J-C., & Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Polity.