The aim of this post is to examine some of the common problems students have when making oral presentations in English and to suggest ways to overcome them. In particular, I will look at presentations for beginners in the A1/A2 (CEFR) ability range. In many cases, these presentations will form the culmination of group or individual research and project work.
During their school careers, students will have to produce presentations in many subject areas, therefore the ability to present confidently in their first language and in English is an important transferable skill.
In my job teaching specialist English courses across Europe and Asia, I have sat through and assessed hundreds of student presentations. It is always refreshing to hear students speaking confidently and saying something that is genuinely new or interesting. However, as most other teachers who listen to a lot of presentations will probably agree, it isn’t always like that!
Below I have written an example of a more typical student presentation. Try to imagine one of your less able students as you read through the following. I have written some of the presentations phonetically (as you would hear it) to give a more realistic impression. It may help to read very slowly. Enjoy!
Manchester United Presentation
My name is Hannes. Today I am presen-tating to you Manchester United.
Manchester United is the most suss-sexual football soccer club in England.
Manchester United won 11 Fa-Cups and three times Europa Cup.
Manchester United was invented in One Thousand, Eight Hundreds and Eighty Seven, I mean… Seventy Eight.
Manchester United was called Newton He-ath Lan-cas-eye-re, und Yorkshery De-pot FC.
Manchester United played in a train station.
The Nickname is Red Devils.
The Ground name is Old-traff-ard.
The capa-city is Seventy Four Commer Eight Seven Nine.
The Lee-g-you is Premier Lee-g-you.
The Best Player is…
Poor Hannes! Poor us!
In fairness, we should give ‘Hannes’ some credit. He has stood up in front of his teacher and classmates and spoken English for several minutes in front of them. He was probably nervous and more aware than anybody of his limitations in English. He has shown courage. Moreover, he has clearly done some research and the facts he has imparted to us are mostly correct (insofar as he has been able to explain, and we have been able to understand). If we wanted to be pedantic, we could try and check those facts, but this might be difficult, as Hannes has not told us where he got his facts from. If we asked, I suspect Hannes might just say that he got his information from the internet.
There were a lot of dates and numbers in his presentation which he struggled to say clearly, and he will go on to tell us the birthdates of all his favourite players… We have all heard this kind of presentation so many times, it hurts! Students become obsessed with reeling off basic facts such as names and dates which they struggle to say or pronounce correctly. Perhaps they do that because they expect ‘teachers’ to be fact-checkers. Quite often I feel that even within the setting of the English class, students are unclear what the purpose of their task is. Hannes might think that getting his facts correct is more important than how well he pronounces them.
Did Manchester United play in a train station? Perhaps we should ask Hannes at the end of his presentation what he meant by that. He probably wouldn’t know the answer because it was something he read on an anonymous website, and he was too busy noting down the basic facts to wonder about what they actually meant. That is a shame because there is a hint here of something interesting and original that we haven’t heard a hundred times before.
(For those who are interested, there is no record of Manchester United playing in a train station, but according to kids.kiddle.co, the original team were all workers at the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot).
So how could ‘Hannes’ have made his presentation better? How can we ensure that Hannes and other learners are better prepared for the presentations they have to make?
Why present orally at all?
In subjects other than English and the student’s first language, the main reason for giving oral presentations is to give the student the opportunity to demonstrate what they know orally rather than in writing. For those who struggle with their writing skills, this is a useful way to show their understanding of a particular topic. Often, such presentations are marked and might be an alternative way to push up their end of year grades. Perhaps this is why students get into the habit of imparting ‘facts’. They might assume that every correct fact could increase their mark. This is not however the main reason we are likely to ask students to make presentations in an English class. In our classes presentations are mainly about practising speaking, and fluency skills. We need to be clear about that, and we need to make sure our students understand why we want them to present something. The truth is most of us are not really interested in when Manchester United was founded and we are not going to give any extra points for the correct date. We are, however, interested in how well our students can speak about their favourite football club. We need to be sure our students understand the purpose of their presentation within the English class and the real criteria for any marking or assessment of their work.
Within the English class, presentations are primarily a speaking activity. Our students will use some other skills to gather and prepare the things they want to talk about, but it is the oral presentation at the end of their project or task that we are most interested in. If this were not the case, we would ask them to write an essay or answer a set of comprehension questions. The students need to be clear about what we are looking for: good use of English, clearly spoken and easy to understand, delivered as fluently and confidently as possible.
Before I start the class working on something which will lead to individual or group presentations, I often give students a short example of a bad presentation and then elicit from them what was wrong. It is a chance to practise my acting skills and really ham it up! I might read out something like ‘Hannes’s Presentation’, over-emphasising all the mistakes, speaking unclearly and sounding as boring as possible. For differentiation, as students progress through the year, I introduce new problems such as lack of structure, reading too much from my notes and strange body language, to see how many new mistakes they recognise.
It is also useful to contrast a bad presentation with a good one. After the ‘Hannes’ presentation, you might do a more interesting presentation about Manchester United. Rather than a monotone list of facts, you might talk about why you like Manchester United and describe the best game you have seen or the atmosphere when you visited the stadium. Again, try to elicit what makes your second presentation more interesting and engaging.
Why Brainstorm? Why Mind-map? Why?
‘Why’ is a very useful question to get students thinking. When Hannes first tells you he wants to do a presentation about Manchester United, ask him why? Try to home in on the things that actually make that football team interesting to Hannes and potentially to others.
I often begin any form of work that is going to lead to a presentation by asking students to brainstorm as many questions as they can think of connected with their chosen or given theme. Sometimes they will go on to create a mind-map. This will help them so see which ideas are worth thinking about in more detail and which things are not really important to what they want to say.
Structure and Templates
In speaking as well as essay-writing you need to make learners aware of the importance of a good structure. This is something you can include in your positive and negative demonstrations. For lower-level students, it might be useful at first to give students a template to work from. (There are a couple of examples linked to this post). However, as students become more proficient try to wean them off using pre-made templates and encourage them to come up with their own logical structure.
Pronunciation and Use of English
The manner in which students speak and use the English they know is the real point of an oral presentation. Encourage them to come to you for guidance with pronunciation throughout the preparation phases of their research and project work. Also, check their grammar and try to elicit from them where there might be errors. By the time they come to present their topic in front of the class, both you and they should be confident that any obvious mistakes have already been weeded out.
The degree to which students are allowed to read from their notes needs to be differentiated by level and experience. For beginners and low-level students, I think it is acceptable for them to largely read from a text at first if that helps to boost their confidence. Again, we need to keep in mind that what we are assessing is how well and how fluently they actually speak. Clearly, as students progress, the amount they are allowed to read should be progressively reduced to short key-notes and finally, they should be able to speak freely without obviously referring to their notes at all. This probably won’t happen in the A1/A2 ability range, but the nearer students come to this goal is a good way to differentiate their English-speaking ability.
The way in which students go about preparing their project presentation can form part of the presentation itself. This is particularly helpful for students who run out of ideas. “On Monday we started thinking about what to do for our presentation. I searched on the computer for some information about cats and Lucy started writing questions for a class survey about cats…” It is all good English!
We have all heard presentations in which A1 level students suddenly start spouting vocabulary and grammar well above their level which they cannot pronounce and clearly don’t understand. This usually comes from Wikipedia or similar sites. I always tell students that if I hear anything like that, I will make a point of asking them a lot of questions about it. I also tell them that they have permission to use short quotes from Wikipedia as long as they explain, in their own words, what it means to me and the class during the presentation itself.
Technology and visual aids
PowerPoint presentations, posters, flyers, pictures and diagrams can all help to make a presentation more interesting. However, students often spend too much time and energy on those aspects and end up with impressive visual displays but virtually no spoken English. They need to be frequently reminded that in the English class how they speak in their presentation is far more important than what their presentation ‘looks like’. It might be an idea from time to time to forbid any technology or visual aids in the final presentation to bring students’ focus back to spoken English itself. You can also outline a marking scheme that transparently weights each aspect of the presentation according to the importance you place on it. For example, you might decide on 30% on their use of English, 40% on the confidence and fluency with which they present, 20% on the structure of the presentation, 10% on the supporting visuals. This will help guide them towards where they need to spend most of their preparation time.
Alternative Presenting Styles
Once students are familiar with the basic format and style of conducting a presentation, encourage them to mix things up a bit. Instead of simply standing at the front of the class performing a monologue they could instead incorporate some drama or perform an interview dialogue that conveys the same information they would otherwise have said.
I hope this post has given you some ideas or at least something to think about the next time you are organising presentations in your English class. I wish you (and Hannes) good luck! Below is a template for students to use for their presentations.
Thank you! This is a brilliant help for preparing. I´ll use this for help my students
for preparation,very useful!
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