Preparing Students for Higher Education: Oracy, Confidence and Social Mobility

As educators, one of our biggest motivations is to ensure that our students have bright futures ahead of them, filled with exciting opportunities and choices. At Voice 21 we feel this keenly, striving, as our mission states to empower young people’ to ‘use their voice for success in school and in life.’   

The futures we envision for our students may include the pursuit of further study, perhaps at top-ranking universities. However, we believe that it is not enough to get our students through the doors and into the ‘hallowed halls’ of these institutions – we also need to think about how we can best prepare them for success once they get there.  

Case Study: Oxford University  

As highlighted by the recent Speaking Up report published in 2022, many students from working-class backgrounds experience anxiety or selfconsciousness about the way they speak when they go to university.  

Perhaps nowhere is this felt more keenly than by those of our students who go on to study at Russell Group universities, and even more so at Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge). These students find themselves surrounded by a disproportionately high percentage of privately educated peers, and in an educational environment (the tutorial system) which relies heavily on students’ ability to speak with confidence in front of small groups of peers and academics.  

Personally, I can attest to this. Having grown up in a largely working-class area of London where I attended local state schools, I felt a huge amount of anxiety about the way I spoke when I took up a place at Oxford in 2011. I remember not knowing how to engage in academic conversations, worrying after tutorials that I had said or done things in the ‘wrong way’- being self-conscious of my use of colloquialisms for example.  

As the Speaking Up report highlights, accent bias is widespread in UK universities and can negatively affect social mobility (see our reaction to the report here).  

A friend who also studied History 2011-14 told me ‘Having an estuary accent in a sea of RP public school kids was definitely a marker of difference at Oxford. In my first term I found myself being corrected on my grammar and pronunciation (it’s a silent G in Magdalene College, – who knew?). A tutor once gave me the negative feedback “You write the way you speak”’.  

Despite these experiences, this friend said she did not regret going to  Oxford, but emphasised that accentism made the experience harder than it needed to be, especially at first ‘I was able to find my group at Oxford and I loved my time there overall, but the culture shock of that first term was compounded by the accentism I experienced.’ 

Indeed, of the students who drop out within their first term or year, an often-cited reason is a lack of confidence and/or the sense that they did not ‘fit in’.  

The Speaking Up report highlights the importance of speaking confidently and knowledgeably regardless of accent. So how can we challenge accent discrimination and empower students to be confident, authentic communicators? 

3 Top Tips to prepare students to be confident, skilled communicators at university. 
  1. Hone specific skills within the Oracy Framework which will particularly support students to hold their own in potentially high-pressure academic discussions.  

Physical – Pace of speaking and voice projection  

Linguistic – Appropriate register and use of rhetorical techniques  

Cognitive – Structure, clarifying and reasoning  

Social and Emotional – listening/responding and confidence in speaking  

2. Use specific Talk Tactics to build students’ confidence and ability to engage successfully in exploratory talk without inhibition.  

Challenge – ensure students do not feel intimidated by the idea of challenging someone else’s point and know how to do so in a non-combative, natural way.  

Clarify – allow students to see that asking for clarification is not a sign of weakness but an essential part of any discussion.  

3. Set up regular Harkness Discussions to illustrate to students what an even distribution of talk looks like and get them used to the idea that they are expected to participate and to practise doing so in an academic context.  

Integrating these approaches into your teaching can help students develop the vital communication skills they need to thrive in the world of higher education, providing them with the confidence and ability to achieve their potential in whatever future path they choose to pursue.   

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