An activity I do fairly regularly with language students is (live) presentations, in which each student, or pair of students, presents to the class on a specific topic. The topics are varied, and there are three main approaches to choosing topics that I tend to use:
- The topic is chosen by the individual student who is doing the presentation, in which case I encourage something unusual and interesting that they feel passionate about.
- The topic is chosen by another student in the class. This tends to work quite well as there is then automatically an interest in the subject matter amongst the other students, who will be the audience.
- What I term ‘peer presentations’ in which each student is delivering a presentation about another student in the class. This is particularly useful for new groups who are then able to learn about each other’s lives, cultures and interests.
With options 2 and 3 in particular, I allow time for students to research their topic, either on the internet (as in 2) of by interviewing their ‘subject matter’. With option 3 I allow time for, and encourage students to think of, more interesting questions than age, nationality, number of family members etc, and begin with a class brainstorm on types of questions: ‘What would you do if you won the lottery?’, ‘What have you dreamt about recently?’, ‘If you ruled the world, what would you change?’, and so on. If I want to focus on a particular language point (present perfect, past simple) I elicit questions in this form to enable and encourage practice.
With each approach we also discuss ideas to make a presentation more interesting, beginning with basic skills such as eye contact, volume, etc and broaching into more imaginative methods, from using illustrations/mind maps on the white board to involving the audience by asking them to predict answers/information, asking for a show of hands, etc. I’ve generally found that just a few examples like this can get students thinking outside the box, and once they realise that they’re free to be as creative as they like they often come up with some fantastic and very original ways of presenting information.
The benefits of presentations are pretty self evident. Students obviously practice speaking and public speaking skills and have the opportunity for delayed self and peer error correction, but I also encourage students to ask questions after each presentation so as to focus their listening, and the research and preparation stages often involve reading and writing practice.
I recently progressed from doing live to filmed presentations, in which rather than presenting to the class, students film themselves presenting to camera, without an audience. I started this with a C1 class, partly as I wanted to explore how beneficial it would be for students, and found it to be so successful that I moved on to running a week long afternoon project solely to make filmed presentations.
The project began with some analysis of presentation and speaking skills, focussing on body language, gesture, intonation, sentence stress and chunking. I gave students time to practice and play around with these skills, working together and giving each other feedback before moving on to preparing and filming the presentations. (Actually getting the students to work together in this way instigated a wonderfully supportive atmosphere amongst the group). My main incentive for running the project was to give more students the opportunity to experience the benefits that the C1 group had discovered, and this is where I come to my main point…
After students have filmed the presentations, we look at them together as a class. Usually the group needs a little pep talk about how to watch themselves on camera – something which all of us to varying degrees find uncomfortable. I liken the experience to reading a theatre review of one’s work. If approached in the wrong way, it can be a heartbreaking and mortifying task, but with practice one can read a review – or watch themselves on camera – with the simple and over-riding question in their minds: ‘how is this useful for me?’
In many ways the most difficult errors for language students to overcome – and those that often become fossilised – are spoken errors. When writing students have the opportunity to self correct and the time to think as they produce the language, whereas with speaking the focus is so often on fluency rather than accuracy and as one thought moves to the next, mistakes are often forgotten as soon as they’re made. Given the chance to review what’s been said, more often than not students are able to correct themselves and can identify their own errors with little direction from the teacher. Video provides the perfect means by which students can do this. As a class (or indeed individually) we can pause, rewind and replay sections of a video, listening for grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation mistakes. In the class I like to do this a few times, for the students to really experience the benefits of replaying and analysing their speaking in detail. But here’s the great bit, the bit where we make ourselves redundant as teachers – by the end of the class, or project, students realise how easy and valuable it is to do this by themselves, at home. I have several ex-students who are still making regular video diaries which they can then play back and analyse for themselves.
With just a little bit of modern technology, students are able to take ownership of their own learning and reflect on and correct their own work – and for the shyer students, the experience has proved itself to be quite liberating.