Our ESL program faced a mystery. For a couple of terms, students going from Conversation Level 3 (intermediate) to Level 4 (high-intermediate) were struggling with demonstrating basic conversation skills and some needed to repeat the course.
To analyze the problem, the Level 4 teacher recorded students in pairs and triads during an activity in which they were supposed to discuss a topic like “weekend plans,” “having kids in the future,” “social media,” and “emotions.” Then she showed the recordings to a small group of teachers, and we all noticed the same thing: the students weren’t actually interacting by asking a question, answering with some details, giving understanding responses or asking for clarifications and asking follow-up questions. Those are the skills that were supposed to have been introduced in Level 2 and reinforced in Level 3. Instead, those students tended to read from their paper a question which the partner(s) responded to briefly before reading the next question.
We asked the Level 3 teacher if he was surprised by his former students’ performance on these recordings. He said that he wasn’t too surprised because he had only spent half the term working on those skills, and during the other half of the term, he had them prepare and give presentations. His reasons, he told us, were based on his assumptions about the importance of doing presentations and also from some internet and YouTube sites promoting them.
This situation gave us an opportunity to re-evaluate our course goals and the basis for those. During our discussion, we examined the common assumptions for why teachers assign student-presentations.
Assumption 1: Presentations are an essential part of preparing ESL students to succeed in college course. They are useful since students will surely have to make presentations in other classes, in college, and/or in their future jobs. In other words, ESL students should experience giving presentations because in 5 or 6 months from now when they are in mainstream classes, it is assumed that they’ll be giving presentations.
Response: To find out how true this assumption is, it’s helpful to learn what college actually instructors say.
To challenge the many assumptions that EAP (English for Academic Purposes) instructors have about what skills ESL students need to have when they enroll in mainstream college courses, I interviewed 35 university and college instructors who were teaching 14 different freshman-level (first year) courses.
According to results concerning students giving oral presentation, ONLY TWO instructors (out of the 35) included oral presentations in their course. Not surprisingly, the course was Communication. Both of them said that EAP teachers could best prepare students for their courses by giving them some exposure to talking before a small group. (See such an activity in my next posting in Part 2.)
To see my complete article about this, see: Research Forum: Professors’ Expectations of Foreign Students in Freshman-Level Courses
For more about applying this research to EAP curriculum, see • Most Important Process that You can do for Yourself, Your Students, Your Program (Part 1)
Assumption 2: Presentation projects are a way to add variety to the ESL classroom.
Response: An analogy could be with a drivers-training class. Imagine a student still learning how to navigate driving on quiet neighborhood streets. The instructor then decides to have the student drive on a rush-hour expressway to add variety to the lesson because some day, the student will probably need to drive on an expressway.
It’s understandable that Conversation-class teachers would want to add variety to their classes instead of having students sitting in pairs or triads every day. And there are many ways to do this, and at the same time, have students develop conversation skills that they will be able to apply immediately and will need at the next level.
To get students up and moving about, doing whole-class mixers and surveys are enjoyable yet productive options. (See • Whole Class Conversation Mixer Activity: Good for Students’ Skills, Brains and More
Some other activities that are good for variety and getting students moving involve having students work in pairs on the first step and then, after a period of time, in a second step, instruct them to rotate to a different partner or partners and even a third or fourth partner. (See • How to IMPROVE Six Popular ESL Activities: Making Them More Than Just Talking PART 1 AND • How to IMPROVE Six Popular ESL Activities: Making Them More Than Just Talking PART 1
Assumption 3: The benefits of up-front presenting aren’t limited to the speaker. The rest of the class gets valuable listening practice. They can take notes and evaluate the speaker, giving written feedback.
Response: If one of the goals of the Conversation class is improve listening comprehension, we have to question whether student-presentations are the most optimal way to do it. More than one teacher has told (confessed to) me that they include presentations because it gives them a break from having to plan conversation lessons for a few days. Students can spend class time preparing and then a few days are spent giving the presentation. They admit that because there is little quality control of the content, the presentations are not really conducive for listening-skill development. Also, since students are not trained in giving proper evaluations, their feedback can actually be discouraging to the presenters.
In sum, there seems to be weak support for having students do whole-class presentations. However, there can be a lot of benefits to giving each student an opportunity, while talking, to have the attention of a small group of engaged classmates. In Part 2, I’ll share with you an effective activity in which to do this.