Presentations don’t have to be a waste of time for ESL students

Presentations don’t have to be a waste of time for ESL students


By Dan Lesho, Executive Vice President of iTEP International

Student presentations are a common way intensive English programs (IEPs) assess oral English skills. Particularly in programs focused on English for academic purposes (EAP), student presentations are viewed as an essential part of preparing individuals to succeed in a university setting.

Yet, most IEP teachers know that student presentations have very common pitfalls. Indeed, public speaking is hard enough for native speakers, and requiring students to make presentations in a new and unfamiliar language adds a whole new layer of complexity. In addition, there are differing cultural norms that affect how we view a successful public speaking effort. After seeing a student struggle through a presentation and losing the attention of the audience, a teacher might rightly ask, “Is there language learning happening here? What principle of language learning is being applied? Is there authentic negotiation of meaning? Are students communicating ideas to each other? Why is the audience losing focus? Why can’t the presenter be more extemporaneous?”

Adopting a poster presentation format can be the solution to many of the vexing issues surrounding student presentations. Here’s why this format is so effective.

  • The process provides more learning opportunities. Instead of one high-stakes event, each stage can be evaluated: the creation of the poster, the building of a vocabulary list, the creation of graphs and charts, the practice with interpretive language etc. These check points ensure that when presentation day arrives, students are very well prepared. This preparation format fosters the extemporaneous style that we value.
  • The presentations are more engaging. Poster presentations work best in a conference-like setting, where students walk around and present to one another. This format forms a smaller audience, lowering the stakes on the presenter. This student-driven environment provides an incentive for the presentations to be interesting. Part of the evaluation can be how well the students hold their audience’s attention. Evaluating on the style—things like eye contact, independence from notes, and seamless use of vocabulary relating to the topic—is a way of evaluating proficiency.
  • Practice comes more naturally. Since poster presentations are self-contained and mobile, students are more likely to practice with friends or family before their in-class presentation.
  • Posters get your class on their feet. It’s amazing what having presenters and audience standing in close proximity will do to encourage conversation. Physical proximity is key to audience engagement.
  • Strategic investment.  Presenters are so involved in operating their poster, they forget to be nervous, and it never crosses their mind to switch to their native language.
  • Simultaneous production. Poster sessions promote simultaneous production and student engagement. Tradition presentations rely on a turn-taking approach which limits student production. In a poster session, everyone is speaking at the same time, but with a specific purpose.

Poster presentation sessions also provide opportunities for institutional development. Inviting faculty and staff from other departments is a great way to expose them to the work you’re doing in the IEP. They’ll be more inclined to come than they would if they had to sit through a series of Power Points. They can wander around and dabble as they please.

In fact, these presentations can be excellent preparation for the speaking and listening sections of English assessment exams such as iTEP. These test sections challenge test-takers to express themselves in a concise, organized way and to engage in active listening. Many IEPs focus on timed writing for test preparation, and poster presentations present an opportunity to practice timed speaking.

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