We must reverse the rapid erosion of student oracy

The inexorable march of technology is leading to fewer direct conversations in universities – here’s how to help your students improve their oral skills

Richard Willis's avatar
University of Sussex,University of South Wales
29 Mar 2023
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Black university student making his voice heard

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The importance of oral skills has been dwindling in UK universities. Advances in digital technology have resulted in a diminished role for the interplay of oral exchanges, particularly (and worryingly) so in higher education. Covid reinforced reliance on online communication, and in the same way that remote working is becoming somewhat of a norm in the economy, an emphasis on automation and computerised formats has led to an erosion of oracy skills. This could have grim repercussions for the future, in which a dearth of face-to-face interaction will make it difficult to engender a competent and fulfilled workforce.

Oracy was regrettably removed from the English GCSE in 2013, but according to Ian Cushing, a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University, schools have significantly improved in promoting oracy compared with universities in recent years. So for those who agree that it is a crucial skill that we need to reinvigorate in higher education, what measures can we take to validate and improve learners’ oracy?

Use sentence stems

A key strategy that helps students express themselves with greater lucidity is introducing sentence “stems” (sometimes known as sentence “frames”). These are partial sentences or sentence starters that serve to build the learner’s confidence and help to combine established and accurate technical vocabulary in a highly organised manner, giving students help and a means to communicate their ideas with precision and clarity. Examples of stems you can use are: To sum up, what I’m trying to explain is that xxx; In support of what X said…; Regression analysis here focuses on xxx.

Such an approach can also embellish and give credence to the student experience.

Stamp out bullying and promote tactful interventions

Tutors should be kept from shouting down or aggressively provoking students during seminars. Back in my undergraduate days, at an English university, I saw a vulnerable individual who became the victim of bullying by one of his tutors while giving a presentation. He was the target of such an insensitive verbal attack by the tutor, who was so critical of what he was saying, that the student broke down in tears.

The obnoxious academic might have been upset that day by a family problem or had just received a car penalty notice, but such abuse degrades oracy. Staff must be called to account when displaying this kind of hostility – behaviour that unquestionably demeans the practice of developing speaking citizenship.

History shows that in Britain no golden age of oracy predominated, so there is no era to point back to and say: “This is how it should be done.” But transferable skills, often embedded in schools, are available to broaden university students’ ways of speaking. You can tactfully request a student to change certain keywords in their speech by, for example, specifying the subtle differences in the meanings of verbs such as “imply”, “infer” and “suggest”. Lessons such as this have other merits, too, such as engendering the importance of redrafts in both speech and written work.

Help with reading

To help with oracy, you can try to ensure that students read effortlessly, using the right phrasing and diction. Of course, regional and international accents are fine, but learners can be gently encouraged to adopt the appropriate phrasing and avoid having a monotonous tone when reading aloud – often causing a lack of interest among their audience.

I have seen one accomplished graduate, who was training to become a radio broadcaster, be transformed from a novice to someone with allure and aplomb after simply being told to “slow down” by his instructor. Such corrective words and simplistic recommendations can lead to instant improvement. The goal is accurate and fluid reading with adequate speed, correct phrasing and appropriate intonation.

To expand further, you could give one student the opportunity of reading a page, to be followed by the next student who also reads a page, and so on. The person reading can be guided on rhythm, fluency and conciseness.

Discussion guidelines and the use of an oval table

Handing out discussion guidelines to students is another constructive way forward. It’s certainly not rocket science, but something as benign as peer evaluation forms, distributed among students, can make a great difference. Voice 21, launched in 2015 to promote high-quality oracy in education, provides further details.

You might also address the use of seating when groups sit together. The ideal, incidentally, is a U-shaped layout. This has been heralded by business gurus and other experts. They rightly argue that shape is instrumental in making way for a better projection of speech and is superior to a rectangular design, which fails to produce a sense of group identity and cohesion.

Whichever of the above methods you choose to apply with your students, I believe there is a real need to get back to basics. Universities can certainly learn from schools when it comes to theory and practice in the craft of teaching and learning. Similarly, you might be well served revisiting your pedagogic textbooks and websites to search out ways to develop oracy. Hopefully, we will see progress in this increasingly technological world of ours, which too often grossly undervalues citizens’ oral propensities and expression.

Richard Willis is a visiting professor at the University of Sussex and at the University of South Wales. He is part of the Speaking Citizens project, led by Tom F. Wright, which aims to promote the use of oracy, particularly in higher education.

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