Giving presentations is a useful skill for ESL students to master, especially if they’re going to be attending an English-speaking university or giving presentations in English professionally.
However, teaching presentations can get messy. There’s the issue of choosing topics and structure for the presentation, and then dealing with how to grade them. Also, depending on your class, keeping the non-presenting students busy (or at least respectful) while a presentation is going on is a challenge. For these annoying reasons, some ESL teachers relegate presentations to a minor role, or do away with them altogether.
But you shouldn’t – giving presentations is such a good thing for students to practice and perform. Here are some tips so you can teach them how to do it successfully.
First of all, why should you even go through all the trouble of making students give presentations?
The obvious answer is that it’s authentic practice for what they might be doing in the real world. Many college classes, especially at the graduate level, require students to give some kind of presentation. If students are learning English for a professional goal, they might need to give a presentation in English at their job. Teaching presentations in the (slightly) more comfortable atmosphere of your ESL class, where everyone is a learner, will be good preparation for them.
But even if your students aren’t going to be giving a presentation in English after your class, there are still some useful things they can learn from giving presentations in your class.
Giving a presentation in your class is a “good stress,” which means that it’s something outside of the student’s comfort zone that will help them improve. Many students will be nervous about standing up and speaking in front of a group of people even in their native language, so making them do it in imperfect English might be terrifying for them. But they’ll get through it! And afterwards, speaking English in less intimidating situations will be a piece of cake.
Grading presentations is sometimes a headache (which I’ll address later in this article), but it also has its benefits. Compared to conversations, interviews, read-alouds, discussions and other speaking assessments, presentations can potentially have many more controllable variables. It’s easy to hear a student’s pronunciation and oral grammar when they’re the only one speaking. It’s also easier to tell a student why they’ve received a certain grade when you’ve spelled out exactly what you expected to see in their presentation.
Preparation: What to do before presentation day
You always want to set your students up for success in whatever you ask them to do. With presentations, it’s no different. Here are some things to consider in the days leading up to presentation day. These tips are in no particular order – you could go through them in the way they’re presented or rearrange them based on your class schedule or personal preference.
Usually, the presentations that students give are about some topic or theme that the class has been studying. If they have been studying imperatives and sequence language, a how-to presentation would be a good assessment of what they’ve already learned. If they have been studying animals, they’ll be presenting about animals. The topic shouldn’t come out of nowhere.
By having students give a presentation on a subject they’ve been studying for awhile, you reduce some of the nervousness. Students will think, “OK, I can tell a story in the past tense. We’ve been working on the past tense all week!”
Selecting individual themes/topics
Students need to have a more specific topic than “the past tense” or “animals.” To help them narrow it down, it’s often more effective to give them a list of topics that they can choose from. From there, you can either go on a “first come, first serve” basis in which students claim their topics and then other students should choose something else, or you could allow repeats of topics (just make sure you’re not seeing the same presentation 10-15 times: it could make it easier for the students presenting later, not to mention very boring for you!)
Another option is to let students choose a topic from their major, field of study, or interests. If you are going to have students give “how-to” presentations, letting them choose something that they know how to do well is a good option because you’re unlikely to get repeats and the students already have a great deal of background knowledge to draw from.
Be careful when selecting topics. In one of my classes, we were working on giving opinions. I had my students give presentations on something they agreed or disagreed with and gave them a list of topics to choose from. This list had several very controversial and sensitive topics – bad idea.One very controversial presentation led another student to call out in the middle of class that the presenter was stupid.
Not quite the situation you want to be in as a teacher. From now on, I choose the potential topics much more carefully.
Still, letting students choose a topic, even from a relatively narrow list, is beneficial for them. I suggest not assigning topics to students at random: they won’t be motivated to give a presentation about a topic that they have no interest in. On the other hand, telling classmates about something they find fascinating might be the highlight of their semester.
Whatever method of selecting topics you choose, make sure that students know their topic well enough in advance of their presentation.
Brainstorming and Outlining
It’s usually helpful to devote a little class time to brainstorming ideas for a presentation and then outlining it. Students should brainstorm the content of their speech, and then whittle it down. This can be done individually, or as a group – students read their topic to the group, and the group helps them come up with ideas.
Once students have an abundance of ideas on whatever the topic is – reasons to support their opinion, steps in their how-to presentation, things to do in their hometown – they should start to choose the best ideas (usually about three) and build an outline out of those.
It’s up to the teacher whether or not students can use that outline during their presentation. You can encourage students to write down points from their outline on note cards, or you can tell them that they shouldn’t read anything at all while speaking.
There are so many outlines online, but here is a typical one.
Teaching presentation skills
In addition to teaching a specific topic, grammar point, set of vocabulary, etc. before presentation day, it’s also often useful for students to learn, or at least be reminded of, skills specific to giving a presentation. Watching an effective presenter and asking students why they’re effective is a great way for them to know what is expected of them.
Presentation skills in itself is a huge topic and you could spend a lot of time on it. Generally, ESL speaking classes, especially at IEPs, do not only focus on giving presentations, so it might not be practical to spend several days working on it. However, practicing or raising student awareness about the following presentation skills can benefit them a great deal:
- body language, eye contact, and gestures
- presentation structure (introduction, body, conclusion)
- volume and projection
Students should never go into their presentation “cold,” without having ever practiced what they’re going to say (unless your objective is to get them to improve on their impromptu speaking, which is a slightly separate skill). I’ve found that giving students just five minutes at the beginning of class to go through their speech or their notes leads to much better presentations.
Teaching presentations with visual aids
Not every presentation needs visual aids. But if you look at most presentations in the “real-world”, you’ll see that many of them do include visual aids, mostly in the form of PowerPoint or some other slide show. Here we’ll discuss how to incorporate different types of visual aids in the ESL classroom.
Whether you love it or you hate it, PowerPoint is a staple in American academic settings. Many students are familiar with it and know how to use the program, but don’t expect everyone to know how to navigate it flawlessly. It might be a good idea to take your class to a computer lab (if it’s possible) to show them the ropes and give them time to prepare their slide shows.
When I did this recently, a few students created beautiful, intricate PowerPoints in a few minutes, and others needed the whole hour to create three or four simple slides. Never assume that everyone in class is equally adept with the program, especially in an ESL setting where you have many different backgrounds.
If you don’t have a computer lab at your disposal, you can still teach students what you’re expecting. I’ve done this by showing example slides and having students discuss in groups which slides are best. Hopefully they come up with these guidelines, which I stress to them:
- good, relevant pictures
- no more than 2 fonts
- no more than 3 colors
- no complete sentences
- simple phrases
The first three points help the viewers – if students go crazy with fonts and colors, it’s difficult to read. If the pictures are hard to see or irrelevant to their presentations, the viewer won’t be able to understand what’s going on.
The last three points help the presenter. Too many complete sentences lead to reading, which leads to less eye contact and speaking that is less than engaging (native speakers are very guilty of this too). Having simple phrases on the slides help remind the speaker about their main points, and also help the viewer follow what’s being said. I encourage students to use more slides as opposed to cramming a lot of info into each one for this very reason.
A low-tech version of PowerPoint is the poster presentation. This is another type of presentation that is common on U.S. campuses, so it’s also relevant for English learners hoping to join American universities.
Similar to the guidelines for PowerPoints, poster boards should be made to be easy to read and follow.
But there are other opportunities with poster boards that you don’t have with PowerPoint. You can set up a poster session, with several students presenting their posters at the same time, which is exactly what happens at conferences. This gives students a more intimate audience, which is a different atmosphere from a presentation to a bigger group: they might have to deal with people asking questions, entering and leaving, etc.
If you decide to have a poster session style class, try to set up some structure. A good way to organize it is to have half the class present on one day, and the other half observe; then the next day the roles switch (it’s really nice if you can get other teachers, other students, etc. to come into the class to be additional audience members).
Since time is always an issue in class, you can set a timer and organize when audience members should move to the next poster.
A problem with this style of presentation is assessment. The teacher might have to go around with a rubric on a clipboard to grade students. Video recording is also possible, but you have to be mobile to get to each poster. It’s a more frantic atmosphere, which can be good for students, but difficult to structure.
Other visual aids
At the beginning of the semester, I have my students give a presentation about themselves by showing three physical things that define them. It’s fun for them to show some items that are meaningful to them, and the audience often becomes curious and interested. Through gestures and using the item, the student can more fully explain what they’re talking about.
For process speeches, it really helps to have the item being discussed as well. If a student is giving a presentation on the steps for weaving a basket, it helps to have the materials for weaving a basket to show what they’re talking about.
You’ve got your speaking rubrics all printed off, the video camera (or microphone) is set up, PowerPoint is running on the class computer, and you’re ready to go. Here are a few things to think about while students are presenting.
As a teacher, I usually don’t take notes or grade during presentations. I record and grade them later.
However, I know a lot of teachers who prefer to grade on the spot. I don’t blame them – it saves a lot of time later.
I don’t trust my ears and my brain – which is trying to keep everything in order – to catch everything a student says. It’s up to you though.
It’s good to give something for your audience to do other than just sitting quietly and listening. Even the oldest and best-behaved students get bored after the tenth presentation.
A simple worksheet (for points or homework credit) usually helps students stay on task and listen. With this, you can also incorporate voting. If students are giving a business proposal presentation, you can say that the audience are wealthy investors, and they can only choose one. If the presentations are about vacation destinations, the audience are tourists looking to choose a place to spend their spring break. You can give tiny prizes for the winner, but often just being chosen as the best presentation is fun for them.
I hope these ideas help. I really think presentations are a very useful thing to do in ESL speaking classes and I hope you consider including them in your curriculum.
Thanks for reading.