The Problems with World Language Presentations and How to Fix Them–Part 1

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You’ve probably had to walk the plank before. Uh oh. Presentation time. You know, where it’s your turn to trudge up to the front of the class and start speaking in front of everyone. Maybe you’ve been assigned to talk about a national dish, or a traditional dance, or a famous artist. It’s bad enough that all eyes are on you, but you’re also almost certainly going to stumble your way through the presentation, because you’re not even using your first language!

Shy Student Hiding Behind Note Cards During Class Presentation --- Image by © Randy Faris/Corbis

There’s no doubt that a teacher needs to hear his or her students speak the target language from time to time in isolation and in a more formal context. In-class peer-to-peer conversations and activities can provide an excellent window into student abilities, but teachers need to visit all students and it can be extremely hard to keep track of who’s saying what and for how long. So individual or small-group presentations seem like the logical choice: choose a topic, research it, present it, all in the target language. Here are some problems with that:

  • The anxiety that this approach causes can be counterproductive. Many students enjoy learning and speaking a new language, but not when they’re standing in the spotlight!
  • The social component of speaking is removed to a large degree. Early levels of language learning should emphasize conversation and information exchange, which underscore the inherent value of learning a new language.
  • Students are often working from a script when speaking during the presentation, and this style of speaking can ultimately become a memorization and/or writing exercise, rather than a true demonstration of speaking abilities.

So how can we keep the good qualities of presentations and chuck the rest? First off, let’s change the format. Rather than walking the plank to the front of the room, I almost always use some form of “speed dating” (or “marketplace”) format, in which students are grouped in pairs facing each other. The two students present to each other–and only each other–for a predetermined length of time. I move around the classroom, listening to each group briefly to make sure they’re on task and to hear what each has to say. Once the time is up, I call out “Switch!” and then one of the members of the group moves to a different partner and the process repeats itself for another round or two, or three, etc. The benefits of this format are pretty significant:

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  • Students are not standing in the spotlight, so to speak, and they’re much more comfortable about making mistakes or forgetting a word. They inherently resort to circumlocution (a very important skill!) rather than panicking. Or, oftentimes, their partner helps them out through peer teaching.
  • The non-speaking partner is forced to listen to the presentation, rather than zone out as he or she might during a series of classroom presentations. The audience member is engaged in authentic language learning and is more likely to be invested in hearing what their presentation partner is teaching him or her.
  • Similarly, the students themselves become the true audience. In a traditional front-of-the-room presentation, the teacher often becomes the sole audience member and the presentation is geared only towards pleasing the teacher.
  • Students repeat their presentations multiple times, thus giving them more speaking practice. They actually hone their presentation and become more fluent as they go.
  • This format doesn’t seem as artificial as a traditional presentation. Instead, students are presenting as if they were having a conversation–which they are, of course! Presentations, then, feel like a natural extension of other classroom activities that they do on a more regular basis.
  • You can even structure the presentation so that students stand up while presenting which may provide a more dynamic, free-flowing atmosphere in the classroom.
  • Lastly–and this is huge–students have reported to me that they feel immensely more confident in their performance when they give presentations in a speed-dating format. Rather than reliving every fumbled or forgotten word as they might otherwise, students are much more likely to recognize that they communicated effectively in the target language for a significant chunk of time and will feel much better generally about speaking the language.

I actually have a bit more to say on this topic, so be sure to come back soon for a follow-up post. Next time, I’ll write about restructuring classroom presentations, but I’ll focus a bit more on specific ways to make them fun and engaging.