Some Advanced students at Language ETC have studied English for years in their home countries. Often, though, this previous study has emphasized grammar and written exercises rather than oral communication. Students may know quite a bit of English, but they haven’t had much opportunity to actually speak English, and some are quite hesitant to do so. In some cases they’re almost paralyzed by the prospect of speaking out loud, and making the inevitable mistakes, in front of other people.
But communicating — mistakes, stumbles, and all — is what Language ETC is all about. The more students speak in front of others and with others, the more confident, comfortable, and fluent they become.
That’s why we’ve been experimenting with student oral presentations over the last two terms. Last summer, students in our Advanced Plus class were invited to prepare and give five-minute presentations on any topic of their choosing. The last part is key. Who wants to stand up and expound on some topic that the teacher, or worse yet the textbook, has assigned — a topic the student may know and care little about? Hardly anyone. But when given freedom to choose, our students came up with topics that excited them and that revealed the depth and variety of their individual experiences and expertise. We learned so much from them!
Two Chinese students gave a joint presentation on the cost of living in China. A Spanish student instructed us on open-source software, and a student from Argentina outlined Google search strategies; both students work in the IT field. A student from Eritrea talked about Eritrean history and politics, drawing a map of East Africa by hand on the board. A student from Spain told us about her scientific research in terms that the layperson could mostly understand. A Cuban student spoke about the housing situation in Cuba and the unique Cuban practice of home exchange. An Argentine student shared her passion for the culture and music of her hometown.
After each presentation, the class chimed in with questions and comments. A student from Austria told us about the world’s “first cloned village” — a full-scale replica of the Austrian mountain town of Hallstatt, painstakingly built by Chinese engineers in southern China as a tourist attraction. Afterward, a Chinese student explained how the knock-off village has been received and why Chinese people find it so fascinating.
We scheduled two presentations per week, allowing 30 to 40 minutes each to provide time for discussion. Students signed up for dates a week in advance. As part of a written evaluation at the end of the term, we asked the students whether the presentations had been helpful. Some of the responses:
- “For me, it’s helpful because it allow us to speak English in public.”
- “Yes, students learn from other students.”
- “Yes, the student presentations were helpful, because that is a good way to lose the afraid to speak in front of auditorium.”
- “I can learn something new, can practice with questions to the presenter and have fun.”
- “Yes, I like, because everyone will prepare well to let every student understand the topic and know new knowledge and new words.”
- “Yes, I think that student presentations were been the most helpful part because let us talk more than 1 or 2 sentences (more close to a real life).”
With this fall’s Advanced class, we did the same thing again, but with a twist. This time the students were invited to do not just presentations but eight-week projects, again of their own choosing. They could read a book in English, watch movies in English, keep a daily journal, read an English-language newspaper, or create a display or PowerPoint on their country’s culture, to name just a few examples.
At several points during the term, students checked in with brief progress reports. Finally, this past Thursday, near the end of the term, we dedicated a two-hour class to oral presentations on the projects that students had done. We set up a laptop, projector, and screen so that students could show PowerPoints, videos, and websites.
Ten students described their projects:
- A student from Guatemala kept a diary of new vocabulary words that he needs for his job in building maintenance. The class was impressed to hear that he speaks English with his boss over a walkie-talkie.
- A student from China read most of the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. She told us the story and shared her reading strategies (don’t look up every word in the dictionary, only the essential ones).
- A student from Eritrea followed the US election campaign news on a daily basis throughout the fall and shared his views on US politics.
- A student from Spain researched the neighborhoods of Washington, DC, and walked several of the cultural heritage trails.
- A student from Colombia read part of the novel Sarah’s Key and watched the movie in English. She told us the plot of the story and showed a trailer for the movie.
- Another student from Colombia wrote several practice essays each week for the TOEFL test, which he plans to take in January. He read us one of his essays.
- Yet another Colombian did an elaborate PowerPoint and wall display on the geography, history, and culture of Colombia — a project obviously representing many hours of work.
- A student from the Philippines described landmarks in her country, including strange geologic formations called the Chocolate Hills.
- A student from Spain wrote a scientific paper to fulfill a requirement of her job in medical research. She showed a PowerPoint and explained the research, complete with blackboard diagrams.
- Another student from Spain, an avid baker, created a blog called Baking as a Second Language, featuring mouthwatering recipes for traditional American desserts.
While some students were initially hesitant to get up in front of the class, they quickly warmed to their subjects and began to enjoy themselves. Then the problem became how to tactfully get them to wind up! We managed to fit everyone into the two hours, but just barely. If I were to do it again, I would space out the final project presentations over several class sessions.
While these were Advanced students, the same activity could be adapted for lower-level classes. Here are some tips based on what we learned:
- Make the project optional. Given job and family responsibilities, not everyone will have time.
- Allow students freedom to choose their project, but provide a list of suggestions and feedback if requested.
- Ask students to give brief updates on their progress at regular intervals during the term to ensure that projects don’t slip through the cracks.
- Give plenty of advance notice and reminders of the date for final presentations.
- Stress that presentations should be short — five minutes is ideal, to leave time for questions.
- Have fun! Our students are the best!