Learning the Ropes: A Project-Based Speaking Activity

Group oral presentations are a staple of many ESL classes. While students get a lot of speaking and listening practice during these projects because they are working in and outside of class with partners to prepare their presentations, it dawned on me last semester that these assignments, paradoxically, do not necessarily require them to speak in order to gather the information they present.  Most of the information my students have presented in the past was something they could find by browsing the Web—data about their country’s economy, current news stories, interesting facts about famous historical figures, etc.  While this may be helpful for their reading skills, I wanted the students in my high-intermediate IEP speaking & listening class to actually use their speaking skills to gather the information they would need for their presentation.

Hence, our “Learning the Ropes” project.  I challenged my students to get out into the surrounding community to find out information that could only be unearthed by having a conversation in English with a local “expert.”

Choosing Topics

I let my students choose from a list of possible topics designed to give them an opportunity to find out more about some aspect of life in America that intrigued or puzzled them. For example, they could choose:

  • to find out how to adopt a pet from a local animal shelter,
  • how to download free audiobooks to their smartphones from the local public library,
  • how to shop for bargain designer clothes,
  • how to transition into credit college courses from non-credit ESL classes at our community college,
  • how to hook-up with a local group to play soccer, or
  • how to find fun free things to do in Manhattan.

I also let students choose a different topic if none on the list appealed to them, provided they used their speaking skills in order to conduct their “research.”

Working Together

The students worked in pairs, choosing their own partners.  I gave them time in class to develop a work plan and an outline of their presentation, and let them bring their laptops to class to spend time creating their PowerPoint or Prezi presentations with their partners.  But the lion’s share of the work took place outside of class.  Students exchanged contact information and arranged to meet after class and on weekends to jointly make field trips and site visits, to conduct interviews, to work out the details of their presentation and to rehearse it.

The Presentations

The presentations were imaginative beyond my wildest expectations.  The two groups that chose to make presentations about free things to do in Manhattan had their classmates’ rapt attention as they showcased the video interviews they did with Batman in Times Square, the free shoulder bag they had silk-screened at the Samsung Galaxy pop-up studio in SoHo, the matrix they had created showing when entry fees are waived at some of the great but pricey NYC museums and tourist sites (Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, Bronx Zoo), and the free bar food they had consumed as they wandered around the city.  The pair who chose to visit the local animal shelter featured heart-rending photos of dogs and cats waiting for families to adopt them, and put together a comprehensive list of the different ways their classmates could volunteer at a pet shelter, reminding them that volunteering to write pet “bios” for the shelter’s website was a great way to practice their grammar.

Students really stretched themselves for this activity.  One student, a poet who barely ever spoke in class, reported on the experience of attending several poetry-writing “meet-ups” that he had found on Meetup.com, where he worked on his haikus and then read them to the other writers who had shown up for the “meet-up.”  Another shy student forced herself to take the campus tour of our community college that is offered by the admissions office in order to learn what she and her partner needed to do to enroll in the school’s nursing program.

Student Reflections

Asked to reflect on what they had learned from this activity, several mentioned being both surprised by and proud of the fact that they were able to converse with total strangers in English.  Many felt that the activity had bolstered their confidence in their ability to speak English not only in class but outside of class.

Please share with us if you’ve used similar activities with your students, or if you can think of ways to improve on this one!

 

 

 

 

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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