Explaining to someone how to do something is a fundamental communicative skill in any language. If you are looking for ways to teach this skill to your ESL students, my favorite vehicle is the website Howcast.com, a perennially popular source of authentic “how to” listening materials. Want to learn how to decorate Christmas sugar cookies? Do magic tricks? Write an effective résumé and cover letter? Give yourself a spa facial at home? Save money on gas for your car? Howcast is your ticket.
As they watch these short, punchy videos that offer step-by-step instructions (many with a transcript following the video) on topics in categories ranging from “technology” to “relationships and dating,” “money and education,” “fitness,” “food,” and “health,” your students can learn how to do almost anything imaginable—and improve their listening and speaking skills at the same time.
I usually start my introduction to Howcast by showing a Howcast video on something topical. Back in October, it was “How to Make Halloween Cupcakes,” which showed viewers how to decorate cupcakes to look like bleeding eyeballs, spiders, ghosts, graveyards, and more. I played the 2-minute video in class several times, then asked students to decide which of the featured cupcakes was their favorite and remind their partner how to make it, based on the step-by-step instructions they had just seen and heard.
For homework, I gave my students the link to the Howcast website and told them to explore the website, choose any Howcast video that interested them, watch it at least five times, and come to class prepared to teach us what they learned.
Back in class, I put the students in small groups and asked them to tell their partners about their chosen Howcast video. Many of my students got deeply involved in the assignment, bringing into class the recipes they learned how to prepare, the cardboard frame they used to weave a friendship bracelet, and the table-top Christmas tree they had made from folded magazine pages—all based on the Howcast videos they had watched at home on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. I had them give their classmates step-by-step instructions that showcased their newfound skills. After they had shared their new knowledge with one set of classmates, I had them switch partners and teach a new partner what they had learned.
Finally, to add some public speaking practice, I asked my students to play their chosen Howcast video on the classroom’s video screen with the sound turned off so they could narrate the video themselves in front of the entire class. Another option is for students to use their smart phones with the sound turned off to showcase and narrate their chosen Howcast video for their classmates in small groups.
Weeks later, the lessons the students had learned from Howcast about how to provide a step-by-step explanation came to mind in an unforgettable way. Following a class discussion of the movie Food, Inc. about factory farming, a Saudi student mentioned that his favorite meat was camel. Immediately, all the other students wanted to know, “How do you cook a camel?” Without missing a beat, he began to explain, “First, you buy a baby camel . . . . ” Howcast, take note!