An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Academic Speaking Skills: An Experiment with Engineering Students


As the current study concerns teaching of academic speaking skills, I find it necessary to define what they are and how they are different from speaking skills in general. Academic speaking skills have the following features:

·         They are used in academic contexts.

·         They can be general as well as specific in nature.

·         They can vary from one specialized area like engineering or business management or literature to another.

Though it is necessary to teach academic language skills to students specializing in disciplines like the ones mentioned above, many researchers have reported that academic language skills are often neglected in technical institutions in India. Furthermore, speaking has been found to be one of the most ignored areas (Indira, 2003; Neelaveni, 2005; Venkatraman & Prema, 2007; Pradhan, 2010). This is precisely why I have chosen to experiment with speaking. Then, there is very little research on the lack of transfer of language skills from the language to the subject classroom. More than other areas, ELT in engineering colleges has been a matter of great worry. It has been reported that engineering students and engineers lack basic EL skills required to function effectively in their respective fields (24 September, 2012, Aspiring Minds; 27 Aug., 2012, The Times of India; 2011, NASSCOM). Questions have been asked about teachers’ ability to teach language for specific purposes (LSP) and make use of students’ academic contexts, i.e. contexts of science, for teaching English language skills. Somehow, teachers find it difficult to break the disciplinary boundaries and venture into using scientific contexts for classroom instructional purposes.


In the light of the above background, this study tries to examine the impact of a content-based approach to teaching of academic presentation skills to engineering students on their ability to make academic presentations. 

Brief Review of Relevant Theories

The integration of content and language across curriculum is not new to ELT. Mohan’s (1986) ‘knowledge framework’ was one of the earliest attempts to systematically integrate subject knowledge with language skills. This interdisciplinary approach gained in popularity in the field of ESP. This kind of approach balances the power relation between the teacher and the learner really well. It lets the student lead in content areas whereas the language teacher is required to play a second fiddle. It is good for learning and supported by constructivists like Vygotsky and Bruner. According to them, learning should be an act of knowledge construction to be jointly done by the student and the teacher. However, the teacher can always decide the level at which the mixing of content and language should happen (Dalton-Puffer, 2007, 2011).  

Research Questions

The study addresses the following questions:

  • How effective is a content-based approach to teaching academic presentation skills to B. Tech. students?
  • How do students respond to such an approach?

Research Design

The study follows a quasi-experimental pre- and post-test design. It has two groups of students: one experimental and the other, control group. The following diagram presents the design:

Control Group® Intra–group comparison  ® Control Group

Pre-Test  ô – – Inter–group comparison – –   ô Post Test

Experimental Group   ®  Intra–group comparison   ® Experimental Group


A group of sixty B. Tech. (first year) students studying in a women’s college in Hyderabad participated in the study. The age group of students was between 18 to 22 years and almost all of them belonged to lower middle class social backgrounds. They were randomly divided into two groups with students with even roll numbers forming the experimental group and those with odd roll numbers comprising the control group.

Data Collection Methods

·         Pre- and post-tests

·         Interview schedule

Procedure of Data Collection

The process of data collection started with the pre-test. The kind of questions asked in the pre- and post-tests were very similar in nature. Also, one set of assessment criteria was used during both the stages of data collection. It is presented below:







Very good











Less than average



Needs a lot of improvement


Content (C) (30%)







Organization (O) (20%)







Fluency (F) (20%)







Vocabulary (V) (20%)








[(C X 3/5) + (O X 2/5) + (F X 2/5) + (V X 2/5) + (G X 1/5)] X 10 = Score in percentage

A content-teacher (engineering) was trained to evaluate ‘content’ and the rest was evaluated by the researcher. The topics which were used for assessment and teaching purposes were related to students’ core course areas and included AEROPLANE, DYNAMO, TELEVISION, RADIO, NEWTON’S LAWS, COMPUTER, MOBILE PHONE, GRAVITY, SUN, DESERT, BLACK HOLE, SOAPS, MOTOR, etc.


The students had been familiar with the teacher before the pre-test as he had been their English teacher for a while. Though they did not know that they were being tested, they were promised some prizes in the form of songs, movies and free study materials for developing spoken English. Thus, almost all of them took interest in making presentations. Each student was allowed 1 hour to prepare on one of the above-mentioned topics and 5 minutes to make the presentation. They prepared for the pre-test together in the library.


During the intervention, which lasted for twelve hours spread over 45 days, the researcher used science related topics known to and often suggested by students to teach different linguistic aspects of academic presentation skills to the experimental group students. Video-clips containing good academic presentations were also used for providing sample to students. The researcher invited some of the engineering faculty to the class and took their help in preparing students. Apart from providing individual feedback to students, he encouraged peer-feedback during all the sessions.

In the control group, the prescribed textbook was used for teaching presentation skills. The suggested topics were mostly very general in nature. Though video-clips and peer-feedback were part of the teaching, science-related topics were never part of the discussion during the sessions.


The post-test was very similar to the pre-test and followed a similar course. The content-related difficulty-level was kept similar for questions used during both the tests.


A semi-structured interview schedule comprising open-ended questions was used to elicit information from students about their response to the content-based approach to teaching academic presentation skills. Five randomly chosen students from the experimental group were interviewed in a group. Most of them reported that they had fun making presentations on their ‘own topics’. They found it easy and interesting. However, they were not sure whether their spoken language could actually improve if such an approach was continued.

Data Analysis

The pre-test data were analyzed statistically and intergroup comparison was made. The mean score for the control group was 31% and for the experimental was 31.133%. As shown below, the difference was not significant.


df = 58

Mean (%)

Standard deviation

t = 0.0401

P = 0.968








In the post-test, however, the difference was statistically significant.


df = 58

Mean (%)

Standard deviation

t = 3.0854

P = 0.0031








For the control group, the development was around 5%. In contrast, the experimental group recorded an average increase of around 16%.

Findings and Discussions

Although the content-based approach to teaching was found to be more effective than a general approach in the ESP setting, it was also found that the students who had better language skills at the entry level liked this approach more than others. The students with low proficiency level had some difficulty in handling the dual challenges of content and language in a single class. However, had the researcher followed the students’ (experimental) presentations in their content classrooms, the effectiveness of this approach could have been found out even more clearly and stronger generalizations could have been made. It was also realized that the language teacher has to be ready to accept the challenges involved in taking up this approach. Some amount of basic understanding of scientific concepts and interest in the field of science can certainly help the teacher use this approach successfully in ESP classrooms.


Dalton-Puffer, C. (2007). Discourse in content and language integrated learning (clil) classrooms. Amsterdam : Bejamins.

Dalton-Puffer, C. (2011). Content and language integrated learning: From practice to principles? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 31, 1-23.

Indira, M. (2003). The suitability of coursebooks in engineering colleges for developing communication skills: A study.M. Phil. Dissertation, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.

Mohan, B. A. (1986). Language and content. Addison: Wesley.

Neelaveni, K. (2005). Redefining issues in syllabus and materials design: An analytical study of the first year JNTU English course.M. Phil. Dissertation, Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.

Pradhan, A. (2010). A study of the course book in the engineering colleges in Odisha.
M. Phil. Dissertation, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

Venkatraman, G. and Prema, D. (2007). Developing a set of competencies for teachers of English in engineering colleges, English for Specific Purposes World. Issue 3 (16), Vol. 6, 2007. Retrieved from | Santosh Kumar Mahapatra is a Ph.D (Language Testing) Student in the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. His research interests include Language Testing, Research Methodology and Teacher Education.

* Article first published in FORTELL JOURNAL, JANUARY 2014.



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