Working with oracy in higher education: what’s going on?

by Marion Heron & Doris Dippold, University of Surrey

Oracy practices have generally been discussed in the context of compulsory education, but rarely on the agenda in the higher education sector. In this blog, we share some of the work we have been carrying out in the higher education context with the aim of putting oracy skills at the centre of learning and teaching practice. But first, a little bit about our own academic backgrounds and how we came to be champions of oracy!

Who are we and how did we come to oracy?


I have spent much of my career working with English language teachers in non-Anglophone contexts in a professional development role. Although I didn’t know the term at the time, oracy skills were central to my work in both the training and the teaching of students. As language teachers and teacher trainers we talked about speaking skills all the time. Students wanted to develop their speaking skills and they took every opportunity to practise their speaking. All of this was taking place in the higher education context. For English as a second language teachers and trainers, speaking skills are at the very heart of our teaching. I then spent some years teaching Emirati students in the Gulf. They wanted to talk about everything, all the time! They asked lots of questions, they loved to tell stories. In short, I was privileged to work in very oral cultures in terms of countries and teaching and learning contexts. In 1997 I read Neil Mercer’s book The Guided Construction of Knowledge which completely transformed my thinking about the role of talk and language in making meaning. I drew on much of Neil’s work during my doctoral studies exploring the role of talk in post-teaching observation feedback sessions.

I then returned to the UK to work at a higher education institution teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students. My students were both home and international students. My biggest shock, and the turning point for me was teaching the undergraduate, home students. Whilst teaching outside the UK I assumed that the home students, for whom English was a first language, would be proficient, confident and articulate. I realised very quickly the following. Firstly, many students were not confident about their speaking skills and were very reluctant, if not terrified, to speak in public, in both seminars and presentations. Secondly, I realised that their academic speaking skills were not always proficient. Around this time I attended a conference at Oracy@Cambridge in April 2016 where I was one of the few participants from an HE context, yet everything that was discussed was entirely relevant to my experiences with my undergraduate students. From that day I was on a mission – to bring oracy as a key set of academic skills to the HE agenda. In the section below, we share some of the work we have carried out over the last couple of years with both staff and students at the University of Surrey and beyond.


I started my career in HE as a language teacher, teaching German as a foreign language in the USA, China and the UK. Oracy is, or course, part and parcel of teaching a language, and is normally assessed against all of the dimensions of the oracy framework. It is not at all surprising that the oracy framework is based on models of communicative competence, which in turn derive from research in language learning and teaching. Generally, my foreign language teaching practice was always focused more on speaking than on writing. When I started at Surrey in 2008, I taught a module entitled ‘Spoken German for Academic and Professional Purposes’, which featured genres such as presentations, negotiations, phone calls etc.

Whilst I was unaware of the oracy framework and Mercer’s research at the time, all the dimensions of the oracy framework featured heavily in teaching as well as assessment, and I often found myself secretly assessing Vice Chancellors’ and Deans’ presentations against these dimensions, with results that were not always very favourable! My interest in classroom discourse, in particular the way teachers and students negotiate their relationships, also fed into this interest.

When I met Marion at Surrey two years ago, she introduced me to the oracy framework.  I really enjoyed meeting like-minded researchers at the Oracy conference hosted by Marion at Surrey in January 2018 and was really glad to finally be able to put a ‘label’ and a framework to something that had guided my thinking for such a long time. I have since joined Marion on her mission to promote oracy as a key skill in higher education.


As a result of the Oracy@Cambridge conference  (April 2016) and discussions with Neil Mercer, Paul Warwick and Ayesha Ahmed we held the first conference on Oracy in Higher Education at the University of Surrey in January 2018. It was a great opportunity to bring together academics and practitioners from a variety of disciplines in HE as well as school contexts. Talks ranged from topics such as oracy skills in the performing arts, oracy skills in employability, as well as practical sessions on using the voice effectively. We will take an unashamed opportunity for plugging the next conference here! This will be on educational talk and oracy skills and will be held at the University of York on 27th March 2020 organised by Jan Hardman. For further details see the poster below and / or email Jan Hardman on

Continuing professional development sessions

One way of interacting teachers from across the disciplines is through CPD sessions. These sessions are a great way to introduce the empirical evidence on the importance of oracy skills for academic achievement. Whilst we haven’t always used the term ‘oracy’, we have raised awareness of the role of classroom talk through CPD sessions entitled ‘Data-led reflection’ in which we focus on the use of classroom transcripts to reflect on teaching. Participants at these workshops always comment on how it is the first time they had even considered their classroom talk and how the language they use impacts on the learning opportunities – either by supporting it or closing it down. The biggest lesson everyone comes away with is how to ask questions. We feel this is a great achievement in our drive to raise awareness of oracy practices.  We have also been invited by the Learning Advisory team to talk about oracy skills and present the oracy skills framework (Mercer, Warwick & Ahmed, 2017). The framework has been incredibly well-received, probably due to its intuitive appeal. At this particular workshop participants were excited about having a tangible, student and teacher-friendly way to talk about oracy skills with the students who come to them for support. They are often asked for help in preparing for oral presentations, and so the framework was seen as key to providing this support.

Employability workshops

As a result of a meeting with the Director of the Employability and Careers centre, where we suggested that the oracy skills framework could be a useful tool for the interview training sessions, the framework was introduced in an interview training session for international students. There were around 25 students at the session, and the four dimensions of oracy were presented. The framework then formed the rubric by which students gave each other feedback on the practice session. It was fantastic to hear students using the language from the framework and reminded us of the importance of having a common language to talk about oracy. The session leader was also thrilled with the way students took up the rubric and plans to use it in her training session with home students this year.

Grade descriptors and criteria

A recent initiative in which we have forged a path is the development and discussions around the university’s new grade descriptors. On first sight, we felt that they reflected mostly literacy work, and so presented the case for including oracy skills. Based on the university rubrics and categories (90-100 – Exceptional, 80-89 – Outstanding) we developed a similar set of rubrics using the four dimensions and language of the oracy skills framework. The group which developed the grade descriptors acknowledged the heavy literacy perspective of the rubric, and so were open to suggestions for how to incorporate oracy skills. This was a great opportunity to be able to raise awareness of oracy across all programmes in the university, and so we have been able to present our oracy rubric to a series of meetings with teachers from across the campus. Whilst generally the response has been positive, particularly for those disciplines which have  a considerable oral component in the teaching and assessment, such as Law, there is understandably confusion as to how to marry the university grade descriptors with the oracy rubric. As a result we have consolidated the rubric to a set of criteria which teachers can use as an extension of the grade descriptors, giving more appropriate language to talk about oral skills. We are delighted that a colleague in the Business School has already used the criteria to develop her own group work oral assessment rubric for her module this year. Colleagues in the School of Literature and Languages are also planning to make oracy more visible in their assessment criteria for presentations in the MA TESOL and the MA in Communication and International Marketing. We look forward to teachers’ and students’ feedback.

British Council  English Language Teaching Research Award (ELTRA) project

In July 2018 were were awarded a grant from the British Council to explore the topic of Oral skills development in pre-sessional EAP classes and student transition to academic disciplines: an investigation in Anglophone and non-Anglophone EMI settings. This is an international project working with one other UK HE, one HE institution in Turkey, and one in Dubai. One part of the project has been collecting data through a questionnaire in which we focus on students’, disciplinary tutors’ and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) tutors’ perspectives on the oracy needs of students in their disciplines. We used the oracy skills framework as the tool to explore these differing perspectives. We also asked students to rate their confidence in these areas. We are in the early stages of data analysis, but what has been particularly enlightening is the importance students give to accurate pronunciation and grammar and the lack of importance that disciplinary tutors give to these dimensions of oracy. Alternatively, disciplinary tutors rate cognitive skills, such as argumentation and summary as key, whilst students did not think these skills were important. So already we see opportunities for working with students and staff to explicitly talk about these skills and how they support academic achievement.

Research and publications

In order to give empirical support for the importance of oracy skills in HE, we have both carried our research projects. One was on the way in which two tutors in a Business school perceived oracy and how these beliefs were transferred to their teaching practice (Heron, 2019). In particular, the focus was on whether the oracy demands of the module were implicit or explicit (Doherty et al, 2011). In other words, is oracy seen as process or as product? Oracy as process occurs when students are expected to use spoken skills to achieve the final outcome, such as an assessment, or to manage their group-work activities, but there is no explicit focus on the development of these spoken skills. Oracy as process views spoken skills as a medium or tool for learning, and they remain part of the hidden curriculum. Oracy as product happens when there is an explicit recognition of spoken skills, which may involve the teaching and development of these skills and an identification of what spoken skills involve (Doherty et al. 2011). The modules explored as part of the research reflected both these perspectives, one being very much a process view, the other focusing entirely on oracy as product. Rather than being evaluative, the research provided useful evidence of the ways in which teachers view oracy, if at all, and how their practice reflects this. An interesting consequence of the study was how the two teacher participants commented that they had never thought about oracy skills before, and were now more aware of the demands placed on students through oral assessments, and the different dimensions of oracy skills.

A second project looked at oracy in the context of university group work. Group work is a genre in which oracy tends to be indirectly assessed – good oracy skills are important for efficient group work, but what is assessed in the end is a different product – which may well be a group presentation, but more often than not is a written assignment or report of some kind. For this project, we mapped students’ statements about group work in Higher Education against the dimensions of the oracy framework. We found that students have to draw on all dimensions of oracy for successful group work, in particular on the social & emotional dimension. We also found strong links between skills from the social & emotional dimensions and those from the linguistic and cognitive dimension, with any issues in the latter two dimensions having an impact on the former and repercussions for relationships within the group. In addition, we also found that many of the skills students reported having to draw on for successful group align with principles of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). English as a lingua franca focuses on skills for negotiating meaning and facilitating comprehension (e.g. strategies for accommodating to others’ level of understanding, asking for clarification etc.). Most importantly however, we found that both native and non-native speakers require the exact same skills, and struggle with similar oracy demands. This piece of research therefore provides useful evidence to underpin efforts for developing student support structures for oracy. In particular, it questions whether the native and non-native speakers should continue to be catered separately, the former through academic skills support units, and the latter through EAP (English for Academic Purposes) provision.

Based on our views of the role of oracy for democratic engagement, a book chapter has also been published (Heron & Palfreyman, 2019). In the current climate of student-staff partnerships and the importance given to student voice in HE, the chapter argues that students need strong oracy skills to be able to participate in these activities. We found that researchers and practitioners in the area of student voice discuss the importance of dialogue, yet do not mention the high oracy demands on students to participate in such dialogue. We therefore highlight the importance of all four dimensions of oracy in a bid to bring such ideas to the debate.

What’s next?

Oracy is slowly but surely getting the attention it deserves in the higher education sector. It is now not uncommon to hear colleagues use the word ‘oracy’ in our institution and we hope that this continues. We will continue to offer our CPD sessions and find any opportunity to bring oracy to the agenda, particularly in institution-wide initiatives. We will also continue to support our arguments with the research and empirical evidence to back them up. But also on the ground, in every-day dealings with staff and students we bring in our ideas and continue to champion the importance of strong oracy skills for students to be able to engage with the spoken academic requirements of undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and to be able to participate in all areas of university life.


Dippold, D., Mullen, E., Eccles, S., & Bridges, S. (2019). Taking ELF off the shelf: developing HE students’ speaking skills through a    focus on English as a lingua franca. To be published in Linguistics and Education.

Doherty, C., Kettle, M., May, L., & Caukill, E. (2011). Talking the talk: oracy demands in first year university assessment tasks. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice18(1), 27-39.

Heron, M. & Palfreyman, D. (2019) Developing Oracy Skills for Student Voice Work. In: Lygo-Baker S., Kinchin I., Winstone N. (eds) Engaging Student Voices in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 89-105.

Heron, M. (2019). Making the case for oracy skills in higher education: practices and opportunities. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice.  16(2).
Available at:

Mercer, N., Warwick, P., & Ahmed, A. (2017). An oracy assessment toolkit: Linking research and development in the assessment of students’ spoken language skills at age 11-12. Learning and Instruction48, 51-60.



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