Exploring the speaking construct in academic settings in a digital age


Fumiyo Nakatsuhara

Lyn May

Nahal Khabbazbashi

Date Published:

13th August 2023

This study explored language functions and skills utilised in technology-mediated academic speaking contexts, which is timely given the increasing prevalence of digitally-mediated communication in higher education settings and the recent introduction of IELTS Indicator featuring a video-call mode in the Speaking Test.

Using an embedded mixed-methods approach, the research involved:

  1. language function analysis of spoken communication and simultaneous written chat contributions in online taught classes and supervision meetings
  2. thematic analysis of students’ and lecturers’ understandings of distinctive features of online academic speaking and what constitutes successful online speaking interaction in those contexts.

We analysed a total of over 40 hours of recordings, consisting of 17 video-recorded classes from four undergraduate and postgraduate units in an Australian University, and 23 video/audio recordings of online PhD supervision meetings from a UK university. This was followed by the administration of a questionnaire and semi-structured interviews with selected participants. In order to examine the construct of online academic communication, we adapted O’Sullivan et al.’s (2002) language function checklist for our purposes.

Following the identification of language functions and skills observed in real-life online academic settings, we explored the synergy between the functions observed in online teaching and learning contexts and those elicited in the video-call IELTS Speaking Test (Nakatsuhara et al., 2021). Analyses of questionnaire and interview data helped us understand the skills perceived to be important for successful online interaction.

The report concludes with a discussion on the multimodal construct of speaking in digitally-mediated academic contexts and the ways in which the findings of this study can be useful in informing the future development of IELTS Speaking Test tasks so that they remain representative of the reality of academic speaking in the digital age.