By Doris Dippold and Marion Heron

09 November 2020 - 12:15

'Classes have become more interactive.' ©

Marcos Luiz Photograph used under licence and adapted from the original.

Dr Doris Dippold and Dr Marion Heron's new research shows a mismatch between the speaking skills we need in the real world and taught skills.

In higher education, we are moving from a didactic way of teaching to a more active approach which encourages dialogue

Classes have become more interactive, as we found in Marion Heron's 2019 research. For example, students are expected to: 

  • make presentations
  • answer questions in lectures
  • discuss ideas in seminars. 

Speaking assessments, including individual and group presentations, have also become more common, according to research by Huxham, Campbell and Westwood in 2012. 

This trend reflects the demand for communication skills in the workplace. The researcher Jackson identified it as 'one of the most desired graduate employability skills' in 2014.

There is a disconnect between speaking skills at pre-sessional and disciplinary level 

Nevertheless, our research shows there is a mismatch between the English for Academic Purposes (EAP) taught in preparatory or pre-sessional courses, and the speaking skills expected in disciplinary study. 

Interviews with pre-sessional students revealed they viewed presentations as a means of demonstrating academic understanding. They emphasised accuracy of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation when assessing their own speaking skills. They took confidence from the supportive environment of the pre-sessional programme to prepare for their disciplinary studies. 

Disciplinary tutors, on the other hand, expected high cognitive skills including:

  • presenting an argument
  • justifying an argument
  • asking questions.

Our research suggests tutors in disciplines outside of language have only a vague idea of the skills associated with academic speaking. These include:

  • physical skills, like accurate pronunciation
  • language skills, like accurate grammar and vocabulary
  • cognitive skills, like engaging with others’ arguments
  • social skills, like confidence and working together.

This makes it difficult for tutors to assess progress and challenging for students to access learning opportunities. 

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What can be done to rectify this?

EAP and disciplinary tutors need to work together to ensure language support is embedded in students’ disciplinary studies. 

For example, EAP professionals could advise on the design and criteria of speaking assessments at disciplinary level. Researchers Sophie Arkoudis and Lachlan Doughney call this a ‘distributed responsibility’ approach. 

Teacher training in higher education should also include a focus on language and its role in learning, teaching and assessment. 

Finally, educational institutions should introduce language policies which state how teachers will support students’ language development during their studies.  

Read the full report and good practice guide

Sign up for a webinar with the authors. 

Dr Doris Dippold is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Surrey. Follow @roadtobabel on Twitter. 

Dr Marion Heron is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey. Follow @MarionHeron65 on Twitter. 

Follow the Languages, Literacies and Learning research group @LLL_Research on Twitter. 

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