Learn about 3 common problems when teaching English Language Learners presentation skills and how to solve them.
Teaching English to speakers of other languages is often seen as focused primarily on developing grammar and vocabulary usage skills. However, teachers who have been exposed to teacher training and experience will know that students need more than that to succeed as language users. Students need to be strategically able to utilize the language that they know in a variety of situations such as shopping, introducing oneself, or giving directions to give just a few examples. This is important because firstly, it is an additional opportunity for the student to reinforce their language skills, and secondly it helps the student imagine themselves use the language and actually put it into action where it will be consolidated. Presentations is one such function. Below are three problems that teachers face when they teach presentations.
Problem 1: Not knowing the benefits
I don’t see the benefit of forcing students to speak when they’re nervous. They learn more when they speak naturally in a relaxed setting such as group work.
Solution: Presenting is a speaking skill. Explain that to your students.
Public speaking is an important communication skill that requires pre-planning and focus to execute effectively. Public speaking is strategic speaking and is sometimes required in order to communicate a message to larger groups of people. One common example of the usage of such skill is in work settings where an employee of a company needs to do a report, present a proposal, or explain a working technique.
Everyone is nervous when speaking in public, whether native speaker or second language learner. The reason for this nervousness is that we are expected to be much more precise logical and organized than when speaking in one-on-one setting. There is also reduced interactivity where the listener is not permitted to ask questions (or in informal setting, is permitted to ask fewer questions) so the listener is not guiding the speaker and an effective speaker must strategize to guess what the listener expects to hear.
Public speaking is essentially pre-planned speaking when the speaker strategically develops what he or she will say before they say it. That is the key differentiator between doing a presentation and simply explaining an idea to a friend.
Having considered the language function factors, here is some advice to make presentations work.
- Make the presentations reflect realistic situations.
- Show the students videos of speakers doing presentations on such topics (TED is an easy example, or a speech at a family dinner in a series).
- Assign students topics that they are interested in so that they have to do research of relevant vocabulary, giving them a chance to expand their learning.
- Give students time to plan and develop their idea.
In my own experience when teaching presentations, the first thing I started doing with my students was practicing giving my own presentations. I researched advice for giving presentations and saw examples of expert speakers doing them. When I copied those speakers in class, I could see the magic work on my students’ engaged faces as I explained a grammar point or any other topic, including presentation skills. My own public speaking skills improved too as a I carefully planned little dinner speeches and heard my family members clap or friends tell me they liked my explanation about climate change or political issues I was interested in at the moment.
The feedback I received from students was also rewarding. Students would occasionally find me after their courses and tell me that they utilized something they learned in my class and how effective it was in their presentation. That satisfaction encouraged me to keep teaching presentation skills and developing further techniques for teaching them effectively.
Problem 2: Boring Presentations.
My students get bored of listening to each other and it feels like the presenter is speaking directly to me.
Solution: Teach Audience Engagement Strategies.
The goal of teaching presentations is to help students develop strategic speaking. In other words, students plan the message and supporting points of their presentation much like they would do with a written piece. However, as in writing, we utilize certain strategies or literary devices that engage the reader, this has to be done in speaking as well.
First of all, like in essays, the students need to be shown how to focus and organize their ideas in a presentation. Just like a written paper, the presentation needs to have a purpose and that purpose needs to be clear.
Once impetus of presentation and the supporting details are made clear, it is time to try to work on attracting the audience. The audience is effectively pulled in when they feel for the presentation. Think of a good movie or a good speech and those strong and exciting points that work effectively.
Here are some examples that come to mind for presentation strategies:
- Telling a personal story (especially with relation to an impersonal topic)
- Giving examples
- Asking questions and waiting for the audience’s response
- Asking questions to ask the audience to think and then answering them
- Presenting a problem and then a solution
- Showing images, graphs or charts that illustrate the point
- Using shocking statistics
There are plenty more strategies that speakers can use. A good presentation will utilize various strategies throughout and keep the audience engaged with every key point that it makes.
Boring presentations was a real issue for me as I dedicated more and more time to teaching presentations. I would teach students to speak with a good voice, I would teach them effective language for presentations and they would do all of that. However, when some students would produce interesting presentations and others would make me cry as I tried not to fall asleep while I marked them. So, I started analyzing the good presentations and I realized that what they did best was work to engage their audience. When I finally got around to instructing students to use presentation strategies and marking them on their usage the difference was night and day.
A word of caution: I have seen instructors suggesting peer-grading in the classroom as a solution. I have tried it as a way to get my students to pay attention to each other, but it is futile. If you play a bad movie, students will stop paying attention. Why should they pay attention to bad presentations? Teach the students to give interesting presentations and the audience members will naturally be drawn and you will be able to do interesting follow up activities.
Problem 3: Awkward Language
My students make a lot of common and awkward mistakes. I keep correcting them but they do not improve and keep making those mistakes.
Solution: Sign Posting Language
Students’ first instinct in terms of how to introduce, conclude and connect presentations is often to rely on their first language. That is where these awkward sentences come from. What students need is clear and specific instruction on exactly what they should say at different points in their presentations to make the different parts come together. This type of language is often referred to presentation language or sign posting language. These are the phrases such as “Now, moving on to the next topic” or “I’ll begin my presentation by giving you some background information.” When students memorize these phrases, they are learning to put their language skills to use. The more language students know (the higher their level is), the more complex the phrases can be and the more satisfied they will feel for having learned them as they correspond to their language ability.
The issue with error correction is that it is difficult to correct mistakes when the student has never been instructed in how to fix it. The student may notice the mistake clearly, but may not absorb the solution to that mistake. If the student is not taught an appropriate solution, and keeps making the mistake the student will feel frustrated as he/she is corrected for the same mistake repeatedly. The solution is that a full lesson is needed for teaching sign posting. Sign posting language is readily available on various online sources. It is also commonly presented in textbooks, especially business English textbooks. A full lesson is required to teach sign posting, which can be based either on textbook material or even the teacher doing their own presentation to the students. Furthermore, sign posting should be treated like learning vocabulary items and requires assessment in order to focus the students’ attention.
One of the problems that I had during my teaching is that sometimes students would not utilize the presentation language as much I would hope. They might throw in a phrase or two here and there but not use it throughout the presentation making their presentations sound like one long block of speech that was difficult to follow. I started expanding the lesson material that I had and one of the most successful things I did was to introduce a quiz. Although the quiz was not for real marks, it caused my students to pay attention to what they were saying. The frequency of sign posting language increased dramatically. Of course, the quiz came after a complete lesson I utilized from the business English textbook, Market Leader.