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Spoken Communication Skills

It is sometimes believed that in universities, writing is more important than speaking. This view arises from the perception that most assessments of students (both coursework and examinations) still seem to involve mainly writing (rather than speaking).

Whilst there is some truth in this, it is becoming less easy nowadays to gain an undergraduate or postgraduate degree qualification without investing at least some effort in developing your speaking skills. This is also true for native speakers.

Why are spoken communication skills so important at university?

Many courses now include assessed presentations, and even negotiation and discussion tasks may be assessed on some courses (for instance, some business programmes).

Amongst other things, you will probably need good speaking skills at university to:

  • engage actively in seminar discussions.
  • give a paper/presentation at a seminar – sometimes the paper may be assessed by the tutor, your peers or yourself (or perhaps a combination of all three of these).
  • answer questions from your tutor or fellow students.
  • discuss your course with other students informally, outside the classroom.
  • get help from fellow students or the tutor about essay titles.
  • socialise with other students by participating in clubs and societies, or even just by talking to others within your accommodation.
  • discuss issues with your landlord/landlady if you have private rented accommodation.
  • ask for help if and when you need it, and understand the advice you are given.
  • attend a job interview in English.

In addition, if you are a research student, you will need to have competent spoken communication skills in order to:

  • communicate effectively with your peers, both socially and professionally.
  • ‘network’ effectively at conferences and other research events.
  • be successful in your Ph.D. viva (oral examination).
  • engage effectively in teaching activities, to the satisfaction of your students, as may be required by your department.
  • conduct any research required and communicate with your supervisor.

You can see that time and effort need to be invested to meet all of these requirements.

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What is needed in order to be able to communicate effectively in spoken English?

Communicating effectively in spoken English at university level usually requires a combination of good speaking and good listening skills. Amongst other things, you will need to have:

  • Competent pronuncation (‘competent’ does not necessarily mean native-speaker-like, but it does mean easily understandable, and without due strain on the listener);
  • A competent structural/ grammatical knowledge of the language;
  • Appropriate use of the language – for example, due attention to politeness, levels of formality (register), etc.
  • A good sense of ‘strategic competence’ – that is, an ability to communicate in unfamiliar circumstances, even when the exact vocabulary is not known. Strategic competence also involves the ability to deal effectively with any breakdowns in communication and to put the discussion or conversation back on the right track.

Many of these skills develop over a long time, and come with confidence.

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What sort of language needs to be used when speaking at university level?

When you are engaged in spoken communication at university level, whether in a seminar situation or outside the classroom, you will probably need to be able to:

  • give opinions
  • agree and disagree
  • interrupt
  • deal with breakdowns in communication
  • make suggestions
  • refer to sources in discussion
  • check that others have understood you
  • refer back to a previous point (e.g. As I was saying before’, etc)
  • say that you don’t know something
  • make the right noises when listening to others (e.g. ‘a-ha’, ‘right’, etc)

Many books provide lists of ‘set phrases’ that correspond to the above functions of the language. For example, when interrupting someone, a book might suggest a phrase such as ‘I don’t quite agree with you there’.

In reality these kind of ‘neat’ seminar formulae are not often used. This is because the ways that people agree, disagree, interrupt, etc, are much less structured than we may think. Having said this, it is often useful to have some lists of set phrases to take into a seminar with you to boost your confidence. Even if you do not use the phrases exactly as they are written, having them close to hand can be of considerable help to you.

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General advice for improving speaking skills in English 

As we have said for writing skills, speaking skills cannot generally be learned just by studying books. The most important aspect to remember is that ‘practice makes perfect’. It takes a lot of practice to improve one’s professional and academic use of English at a spoken level, and a lot of feedback from others.

However, the good news is that there are some very useful strategies that can be used to develop your speaking skills. Some of them are as follows:

  • When you are in an English-speaking country, make use of every opportunity you have to speak English. Outside the classroom, try to speak as much English as you can (even to fellow students of the same nationality).
  • Keep a note of, and learn, some useful phrases that can be used in discussions.
  • Listen to idioms, expressions and turns of phrase used by native speakers and try to incorporate them into your own speaking.
  • Try to use the telephone to build up your confidence in dealing with basic speech events (e.g. phoning the bank, phoning Directory Enquiries, etc).
  • Get used to being ‘in control’ of the conversations you have. Remember that you can always ask the speaker to slow down, to spell unfamiliar words, to repeat parts of what they have said that you don’t understand, or to ask for clarifications, etc.
  • Join a club or society organised by your students’ union which meets together each week. This offers an excellent opportunity to speak English. International societies are often useful to join.
  • Attend social events organised by your department, even if these can seem rather daunting at first.
  • The international office of your university may organise weekend trips and excursions from time to time. Try to attend some of these and meet people from different nationalities and cultures.
  • If you are a research student, try not to neglect your speaking early on in your course. You will soon need good speaking skills for giving presentations/ research seminar papers, and eventually, for your viva too.
  • Participate as actively as you can in seminars. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! it is also a good opportunity to get feedback on your work. Aim to say at least one or two things in each seminar you attend.
  • Attend in-sessional ‘Taking part in seminar skills’ sessions held at the University of Warwick (or at other universities if they are offered by your university’s English teaching unit).

    Recommended books for developing speaking skills

    In order to develop a useful bank of discussion phrases, we recommend:

    • Malcolm Goodale's The Language of Meetings (LTP: Thomson ELT).

    This book provides a large number of phrases and idioms to help with discussions and meetings. The language can easily be applied and adapted to seminar discussions.

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