Nathan and Mike

Image courtesy of TESL Canada Conference 2012

As I have mentioned before, my first ‘real’ job was working in a camera store. This was in the days  when we had to use film and get it developed at the photo lab. I worked for a long time in that field before I went away to Lithuania for five months to teach English. Upon my return to Canada and my old job, something new had arrived, the digital camera. It was spectacular and horrendously expensive. We had two models: one with zoom and one without. Both took 0.3 megapixel photos and both went through batteries like water. But that didn’t persuade me away from showing them to customers. I KNEW this was the way of the future.

Fast forward a few years where I am now the manager of the smallest shop in the chain. A money losing store with hardly any customers. Being the youngest manager in the company, this was to be my training ground. I knew that there wasn’t a lot I could do to change the business in regards to location, advertising,  and so forth, so I needed to do what I could within the shop. And then it hit me; sell digital cameras. Make it a destination shop for all things digital imaging. I had already become fascinated with them, so with the long hours of no customers, I read and learned all I could about how they worked, the models, and so on. One day, the general manager called and said the head of the digital department was supposed to give a presentation on digital cameras at our annual open house and he came down sick. He asked if I would I be able to do it on short notice. I jumped at the chance and the rest is history. From that moment on, I travelled around giving training sessions on digital imaging and my job changed to training specialist.

I enjoy giving presentation. After giving so many of them, it isn’t so scary anymore. That initial twinge of anxiety I have just before starting quickly disappears once I get going. I know that I am not the norm here. I wasn’t always that comfortable in front of people. I have tried to take some of what I have learned over the years and used it help my business English students with their presentations. Recently, I have started to wonder about how valuable presentations are in the language classroom. We have all used them, but do we really know how helpful they are to the students? I took some time think about the features of oral presentations in the language classroom and this is what I came up with.

  • Speaking is in one direction.
  • Language is mostly formal or neutral.
  • Format is structured.
  • Language is mostly persuasive or instructional.
  • Preparation take more time than the actual presentation.
  • Students work individually or in groups to devise a plan and structure.
  • Assessment is often based on how the presentation is given (eg. slide arrangement, body language, etc.), content, and language.
  • Teacher normally provides the guidelines for the presentation and then takes on the role of support or guide.
  • Students have to think critically about what they are presenting.
  • While presenting, other students listen and sometimes ask questions.
  • On average, it takes a day or two to get through all of the presentations.
  • Students sometimes participate in the assessment.
  • Students are sometimes asked to follow up with a writing assignment based on one or more of the presentations.
  • Students often comment that they hate doing presentations.
  • Anxiety is a common problem.
  • Presentations often require the students know how to use presentation software.
  • Preparing for the presentation is done both in and out of the classroom.
  • Students need access to computers for research and using the presentation software.

There are some real positive things here, but there are also some glaring problems as well. Now to look at both sides of this coin:


  • Knowing how to give a presentation is a valuable tool in certain circumstances. Certain roles in business require people to give presentations to colleagues or customers. University students often need to give presentation, depending on their major. Some careers require people to present at conferences as part of their professional development.
  • Since our students come from different cultural backgrounds and they don’t all do presentations the same way, this helps them connect the language and the presentation skills to the culture.
  • Persuasive language is something we don’t use everyday, but is invaluable when you need it. This helps students practice that skill.
  • Working together on a presentation with another student helps them use a variety of language skills.
  • Students get to practice peer- and self-assessment.
  • Students get to practice using, or even learn how to use, presentation software properly.
  • Students are the primary language user in this type of project. Teachers take a more passive role.
  • It is very time consuming. Even with all of the language use happening in the classroom, there isn’t a lot of instruction going on. This makes presentations more of an assessment style of activity instead of a learning activity.
  • What is the role of the language teacher? Are we there to teach them presentation and computer skills, language, or both? Certain courses will be clear on this, others not so much.
  • The language used is one way, even though conversational language will probably be the most common use for most students. Yet this is what is often use for measuring speaking ability. Placing such a heavy importance of presentation language I believe isn’t that helpful for the students.
  • Students often hate doing presentations, mostly due to a lack of understanding of why they are doing it. I have heard from students that they feel like teachers only give presentations so that the instructor can sit back and not have to teach as much. This shows how important it is to communicate why you are doing things in the classroom and showing how important an activity is to their growth in the language. If you have a hard time communicating it, it might not be worth doing it.
  • The amount of time students sit and wait through presentations is my biggest concern. Sure, we can have them do something during and after, but they are doing an awful lot of one skill (listening) over an extended period of time. Students get bored and lose focus.
  • There is an assumption that students have access to presentation tools outside of the classroom. Many students have told me that they rarely use presentation software, if at all. That means we need to teach them how to use the software. This can be a language learning time, but could this time be best used elsewhere.

For me, using presentations sparingly is the best option with a focus on collaboration and creation instead of the presentation itself. I now ask students to prepare their presentation on paper before going to the computer. This avoids having students spending WAY too much time on making the presentation look ‘pretty’ (ie. flashy and distracting) and not enough time on the content. Having students record their presentations instead of doing it during class time may be a way to spread out the listening portion over a longer period of time. Have students watch one of their classmate’s presentations each day over a longer period of time helps to break things up. Also, it can then be stored away in their e-portfolio for future comparison as a formative assessment tool.

I know there are a number of teachers who love using presentations and tell me that they are a great language learning tool. I am open to hearing from that experience and I will try to listen with an open mind.

2 thoughts on “Presenting

  1. Hi Nathan

    I have to admit that the main reason I teach presentation skills is because it’s part of the curriculum and student assessment. I agree that they might not be a ‘great language learning tool’. I find that I am often ‘teaching’ the skill of planning and giving presentations, rather than focused on language skills. However, since students in most disciplines of further study in Australia will have to give a presentation at some time, I think it’s not a bad idea to teach the skill in a supportive environment like an ESL class.

    Picking up your suggestion that “Having students record their presentations …”, this is something I have experimented with in the past and plan to do again this semester. Not so much to save time, but as part of their preparation and practice. I haven’t had them record a live presentation, but instead I’ve had them use PhotoStory and then we’ve had a viewing. Much less confronting than standing in front of the class. This semester I’m hoping VoiceThread will serve the same purpose, and also allow other students to ask questions and leave comments on the ‘presentations’. I am a little worried about how much time might be taken up on learning to use the programs, but this has to be done in English, even between students, so it’s more authentic communication than in a lot of other classroom activities.

    I think it’s still important for them to have the experience of presenting to the whole class, so I won’t do away with the live presentations. I know some will get bored and lose focus, so interested to see if you get any useful ideas for keeping the audience engaged!

    Cheers, Lesley

    PS: We had a discussion about presentations on #ELTchat last year – here the summary:

    1. Thank you for the comment, Lesley. I think we are one the same wavelength here. I also agree that it is probably good to have students learn within the ELT classroom as this is the ‘safe’ place for them to make mistakes.

      I like your idea of VoiceThread. I have had my students record their presentations using a screencast and then share it on our Edmodo page, but I think I may experiment with VT as well. Let me know how it works out for you.

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