Teach students to communicate

September 18, 1998

WHAT. In the first of a four-part series on Key Skills, Cordelia Bryan, director of the Speak-Write project at Anglia Polytechnic University, offers advice on oral and writing skills for undergraduates


* Educating graduates for the workplace could become a university funding factor

* Dearing said key skills should be built into undergraduate courses

* The Quality Assurance Agency is considering requiring institutions to include key skills in courses


Those of us who work in the humanities know all too well that students who leave our universities after three years of intensive study of English literature or history or philosophy will be more critical thinkers and better problem-solvers, team-workers, writers and speakers than when they joined.

But we are now required to make such skills more visible and perhaps even to measure them in a way that we have not been asked to do before. How do we go about this in a way that is useful and meaningful while retaining our real values and principles?

In thinking intelligently about the skills and employability of graduates - not only as a reaction to external demands, but in order to refresh and underpin our own educational objectives - the questions at stake are quite simple: 1. Are such skills better taught as generic modules with names such as graduate profiling or are they better acquired as they always have been, as part of a degree programme dedicated to the study of a particular discipline?

2. How are they to be measured?

3. What value should be given to such measurement? Should we be assessing the computer literacy skills of a student at the same time as their ability to analyse the historical and cultural conditions that produced Beowulf?

The Speak-Write project, based in the English department of Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, has been established to respond to the new skills agenda. It is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England through the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning and its aim is to develop new ideas for foundation-year teaching in English literature that will specifically raise the written and oral language skills of first-year students, not as a separate, generic skills course, but as an organic part of a first-year literature degree programme.

Feedback from students and staff who have piloted some of our materials indicate a high success rate. Our practical, task-orientated approach to developing writing and speaking skills is highly transferable to other humanities subjects and possibly to the sciences too.

Teaching writing skills

The course designers have developed a pair of pilot first-year modules called "Varieties of speaking and writing". Students are taught about language as part of a practical, task-orientated writing course. The emphasis is on writing as craft and the students acquire writing skills through the study and imitation of writing for children, journalism, advertising, comedy writing, essay writing, academic writing and fiction.

This pedagogical model is at the heart of these innovations - the student-as-writer learning a craft from other practised writers. We teach academic essay writing through a study of both rhetoric and the history of the essay as a form. A study of rhetoric enables students to see the component parts of academic argument, the importance of structure, audience, register, assembly of evidence, sequencing and precis work and so on.

Assessing writing skills

Each unit of the module tests students in what they have learnt by giving them a series of writing exercises to complete alone or in groups that are collected into individual portfolios and assessed at the end of the module.

Teaching oral presentation skills

Similarly we teach oral presentation skills not in isolation but as part of a study of the history of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Skills and techniques of argument and oratory are ancient arts and our work with students who need to acquire such skills should not neglect to show the historical and political contexts of such arts.

In "Varieties of Speaking and Writing" students test and develop their own ability to "make a case" through seeing or reading examples of effective persuasion from J. F. Kennedy to Aristotle to Hillary Clinton. The course teaches rhetoric both as analysis and practice through the study of audience, context, register and it emphasises the importance of structure of argument and quality of evidence.

A role-playing exercise in "Bad Practice" helps students identify some of the cardinal errors of public speaking (this also helps those suffering from nerves to experience the humour when things go wrong in a controlled environment) before providing them with opportunities and examples of good practice.

At the same time it teaches students to be critical readers of their own culture by drawing their attention to the methods behind persuasion in contemporary advertising and politics.

Assessing oral presentation skills

We use peer oral assessment to encourage the students to develop critical skills as assessors of each others' presentations and they work together in groups to coach each other on delivery and structuring skills. During the module they are required to take on a number of key roles in group discussion work which develops their skills in other areas - they rotate the role of chairperson, timekeeper and scribe each week.

Some practical examples

Learning one's craft as writer and speaker is particularly useful for institutions where there are a lot of mature students because such students have often already developed high levels of communication skills in the workplace and are keen to both broaden and hone them.

One week a class of "Varieties of Speaking and Writing" students was practising oral presentations ready for the following week's assessments. In one corner John, an ex-psychiatric nurse, was explaining what he had learnt about being a chairperson through having to chair particularly difficult case conferences for some of his clients. These were attended by representatives of the health authority, social services and sometimes the police - all with different agendas and ways of arguing.

In another corner Karen, an ex- midwife, was coaching one of the members of her group on presentation skills: "Imagine you're explaining psychoanalytic criticism to a group of biologists," she was advising, "see if you can put it across through pictures, use metaphors and similes more". Across the corridor a colleague was working with a writing seminar group. One study group was trying to find a way of translating an extract from Carlyle's The French Revolution into modern English for an A-level history text-book. Others were trying to turn a children's story written for ten-year- olds into a story suitable for five-year-olds.

Another group was trying to rewrite a piece of jaded, jargon-ridden prose into plain and well-written English for a business manual. Others had gone off into Cambridge to find a college. Their task was to describe the facade in the style of Ruskin's later prose writing. For us at Anglia Polytechnic University, making transferable skills visible and explicit has both challenged and refreshed our educational objectives and practices. It has not deflected us from our original values and principles.

Cordelia Bryan is director of the Speak-Write project at Anglia Polytechnic University.

For details of the Speak-Write Symposium on October 24, please contact the project office on 01223 363 1 Ext 2034 or e.mail: c.bryan@anglia.ac.uk Rebecca Stott is a reader in English literature and co-designer of "Varieties of Speaking and Writing".

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