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.