Few activities in the ESL speaking class are as challenging for students as presentations. Giving one can be overwhelming because it involves so many different skills—from fluency, pronunciation, and grammar to clear organization and smooth delivery.
Giving a presentation online brings additional difficulties for students. Gestures must be smaller and eye contact is with the impersonal camera. In addition, some students have trouble with bandwidth or privacy at home, making a live presentation difficult.
And these online presentations are problematic in other ways. When students use slides, for example, they can spend as much time on graphic design as the actual presentation; additionally, with slides filling the screen, the student’s own image is so small that delivery skills are hard for the teacher to judge. With a large class, a long series of presentations can make it hard for other students to stay focused as they watch their peers. This is exacerbated because when presenting online, there is a greater temptation for students to read from a script off-camera, making presentations monotonous.
Here are six tips for more successful online presentations that address these challenges.
1. Minimize Graphics
Though well-designed slides may be needed for some content classes, if you want to focus on speaking and delivery skills, try making at least some of your presentation assignments slide-free. Storytelling, demonstrations, and introducing a speaker are all good choices that require no digital images. Demonstrations in particular make it easier for students to gesture naturally, especially if they are manipulating objects.
2. Focus on a Few Skills
Students can be overwhelmed trying to excel in every area, so limit the skills they will be responsible for. For instance, you might ask students to pay particular attention to using past tense correctly rather than producing accurate grammar overall. Likewise, for pronunciation, you could emphasize one or two segmentals that are tricky for your students (e.g., pronouncing th or r) or a skill from your most recent lesson in suprasegmentals (e.g., thought groups). More simply, you can ask students to speak more slowly so they can focus on accuracy.
3. Present Clear Expectations
Whatever requirements you decide on, let the students know what is going to be assessed. Be specific—for instance, you might ask students to incorporate two meaningful gestures or four new vocabulary words. It’s also useful to require eye contact with the camera to keep them from reading a script. If possible, share your rubric with them when you give the assignment.
4. Keep It Short
Limiting presentations to 2–3 minutes helps students to focus on what’s important and reduces stress; it also helps keep things moving along so that students in the audience don’t feel restless. For some types of presentations, such as introducing a speaker, one minute might be more than enough.
5. Simplify the Structure
Another way to reduce cognitive load is to provide the speech structure. It isn’t necessary for students to be creative—in fact, I encourage students to use a formulaic structure when they are starting out with presentations. Describing a process, for example, works well because the introduction, conclusion, transitions, and overall structure are somewhat predictable. Rhetorical questions (“Have you ever thought about…”) are a good way to introduce the topic, and the conclusion can be a simple summary. The events in the process are listed chronologically and joined with time transitions. This simplification allows students to spend more time on basic delivery skills and accurate pronunciation, and less time on coming up with something clever and original.
6. Give Students Options
Finally, for many students, sharing their video is difficult because of their weak internet connection or shared living area. Sporadically frozen images or background activity and noise during a presentation add more stress for those students. For that reason, consider letting them record their videos outside of class if they wish. That allows them to find a quiet space at a time when there are fewer distractions. If you do choose to let students record their videos ahead of time, that also gives you the options of sharing them in class or asking other students to view them online and give constructive criticism as homework.
These are a few methods I use in my classroom to improve students’ experiences of learning to give presentations online. If you have other favorite strategies, please add them in the comments below.