Guest Speakers in Adult English Classes: The How

Last time we covered the why and the who of guest speakers in adult ed classes. We touched on some of the benefits of inviting guest speakers to your adult ESOL classes, which include authentic listening practice, valuable information about community resources, and the potential to build collaborations that will benefit your students down the line. We also talked about some individuals in your community who can make effective guest speakers, such as former students and reps from other adult ed programs, community orgs, and local businesses. Finally, we covered the who not of guest speakers in class, which was, it seems, limited, perhaps unfairly, to Mr. T (my sincerest apologies, Mr. T).

In this post, we’ll cover the how of guest speakers in adult ed classes, including some ideas for prepping your class for the speaker and vice versa.

Preparing Your Class

Find Where It Fits

When I first found that there were people interested in speaking to our classes, I thought it was such a rare opportunity that I fell all over myself to accommodate their schedule and their needs, even going so far as to ask the teacher to rearrange her syllabus to fit the speaker’s convenience. In retrospect, this was a mistake. While we certainly want to offer guests some flexibility and to respect their busy lives, most will understand that the visit needs to coincide with a relevant point in the syllabus.

Incorporating the speaker into your syllabus isn’t just about scheduling. You’ll want to tell your class at the start of the unit that a speaker will be visiting. The first point to convey is how the speaker is related to the unit, and don’t assume this will be self-evident. In a unit on owning a home, you may want someone from the bank to talk about the mortgage process. To an American, the connection between banks and home ownership is clear, but this won’t be the case for many new immigrants from countries where homes are paid for in cash.

In the few weeks before the speaker comes, start incorporating activities related to the presentation. Preteach some of the vocabulary the speaker will use (gleaned from your meetings with them, described below). Work with students to generate a list of questions to have ready for the speaker.

Discuss Motivation

I also think it’s important to be perfectly transparent with students about guests’ motivations. In many cases, there are factors beyond altruism that motivate a speaker to come and talk to your class. These visits often double as marketing for their organization. This doesn’t need to be a problem at all, but I do encourage students to critically consider and discuss these motivations ahead of time. A speaker’s purpose is always a major piece of the context in which we interpret what they say.

Hype and Hoopla

I’ve found that these visits can be a lot more fun if you make a bit of a fuss about them. Make it feel like an event. A few welcome signs or flyers on the door, some food and drinks, reminders not to be late on “the big day.” It can also be a lot of fun to have the students prepare some activities or skits for the speaker, to show off what they know. This kind of thing not only makes your speaker feel honored and valued, but it also creates a festive, communal atmosphere in class. Who doesn’t love a party!?

Preparing Your Guest

It’s also a good idea to have a couple of preparatory meetings or calls with your guest. The recommendations here assume a guest who is inexperienced as a speaker and with nonnative speakers; for more seasoned speakers, trim out the unnecessary as necessary.

Describe the Class  

Provide as much demographic information as possible: age, gender, native language, educational and professional background, and what they already might know about the topic. Mention class dynamics, too: Is this a rowdy, energetic group, or are they slow to wake up? Any troublemakers to watch out for? Do you use any tricks to get them focused or motivated? Share!

Be clear when it comes to language ability. High intermediate might be a meaningful descriptor among ESL teachers, but to the layman it generally isn’t. Try to describe class level in terms of what they can and can’t do, with examples relevant to the topic of the presentation: These students are going to know words like loan and mortgage and interest (still not a bad idea to review), but any acronyms and jargon are going to be new to them. Keep it to four or five new terms, define each on the board, and remind them of what they mean at key points.

If you’re able to provide a short video of the class in action, all the better.

Explain Why He or She Is Here

Be sure to convey to the speaker why you welcome guests to your class, talking generally about the value of other voices in the classroom (see part one) and specifically why you are inviting this particular guest. Set two or three SWBAT objectives, around which the speaker can organize his or her presentation.

Get a Preview

I’ll never forget the first guests we had come into the program: two speakers on the topic of fair hiring practice who said they’d spoken to groups of English learners before. Awesome! Less work for me. Need anything? Good to go? Great. They begin: “So whatcha really gotta know about Title VII is that any queries as to the abilities or disabilities of a prospective employee prior to a job offer constitute…” An interrogative chatter arose from the audience— Seven?…Em-plo-yee?…Job?—unnoticed by the presenters.

The point: Describing your students’ abilities only goes so far. In person or over the phone, ask the speaker for a preview of how they’re going to explain certain key points, and make sure that their language is level appropriate.

Set Limits

As I suggested above, there’s often more than one factor that motivates a guest to want to speak to your class. It’s best to have a frank discussion with the speaker. Find out what his or her objective is—usually distributing literature or business cards—and find an arrangement that everyone finds agreeable (e.g., self-promotion happens only in the last 5 minutes and is limited to…).  

Finally, tactfully explain that you are likely to “jump in” at several points throughout the presentation. That way, if things start to go off course, you can feel okay about grabbing the wheel and setting things aright.

Do you have any tips you’d like to share about hosting guest speakers in your English language class? Please share in the comments section below!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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