The Power of Speech: How Oral Presentations Impact ELLs

As a teacher, I am always trying to figure out to improve my own skills and my classroom. One of my initiatives this year is to focus on developing better metacognition within my students and developing their speaking skills.

First of all, they’re pretty shy. I can’t speak for native students everywhere in Canada, but my students are known to be pretty taciturn. And although they know me quite well and trust me, most of them are still hesitant to solicit an answer or voice their opinion in a large crowd, even if they are amongst their peers that they’ve grown up with for most of their life.

One of the methods I’ve used to encourage more verbal participation is to make a game of it. Each term, students are awarded “Oopsies points” if they see that I’ve made a mistake. At the end of the term, the two people with the highest number of points are given a prize*. Specifically, spelling mistakes are low-level mistakes and only get a single point. Conceptual errors, whether on a test, assignment or chalkboard, are worth three points.

A game setting encourages participation in a light-hearted way and gives some friendly competition. It keeps me on my toes and it also encourages students to challenge authority. I do not want them to think I have all the power in the room. They need to be encouraged to think on their own and to question elders, very much the opposite of Cree cultural norms, but by no means am I encouraging disrespect. I myself grew up in with Confucian values as a Chinese person, but I think it’s important to help young people speak up when they see something is wrong. Without this capacity, horrible things can happen – sexism, racism, violence, exploitation, abuse – the list goes on. Therefore, this skill is important not only in the classroom, but outside the school and in their community.

The second initiative I’ve set out is to have students do one oral presentation each term. For science, both the Grade 10s and 11s were given the last month to research one element of their choice and to make a short Powerpoint presentation. Most students had 3-4 50 minute periods to work on it. Each presentation averaged four or five slides; the most important information that was:

  • basic information about each element – mass, colour, boiling point, melting point, atomic structure
  • interesting facts about the element
  • where the element is found and how it is important to people
  • references and websites used for research

Overall, most of the students did pretty well! There were lots of interesting facts that I learned myself and didn’t even know about. And in fact, several students put up some great puns and ChemCat memes. This was probably one of my favourite ones, and I had never seen it before!

What I really didn’t expect was to see that presentations affected their overall understanding on a much deeper level. While this might seem obvious, remember that my students are ELLs (English Language Learners); Cree is their first language and a large portion of my students struggle with literacy. I’ve been working in the north for 3 years and I have never seen such a strong impact in such a short amount of time!

The unit test scores were the highest they had ever been**, students were using the vocabulary regularly and there was a lot less misunderstanding about scientific terms. I even heard more students helping each other and defining terms. Therefore, ELL students spending time to research an idea deeply and working to develop an oral presentation helps their literacy skills in multiple ways. This makes sense when you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.***

In the past, I had students repeatedly ask me what ‘atomic mass’ and ‘valence’ mean, despite having explained it many times quite thoroughly. When students worked on their presentation, during their research and reading through websites, they would come across these terms pretty regularly. They would quickly realize that they would need to figure out these terms in order to understand what they were reading. They would also be analyzing the information to see if it was pertinent and evaluate whether they would include it or not (i.e. using higher levels of thinking). The process of creating criteria forced them to think more deeply about their topic and helped them understand concepts that translated to better test scores and improved performance on assignments. 

It is great to see how my students are doing so well. Working in the north is challenging and it’s easy to fall into the pitfall of making excuses. I know in the back of my mind I had doubts of whether they’d be capable or not. I sheepishly admit I was afraid of being disappointed. I imagined the worse scenario; that the computer lab periods would become a big waste of time. What actually happened is that most of them stayed focus and worked far harder than if I had just given a simpler assignment!

It is amazing what is possible when you trust your students and give them the opportunity to set the bar high!

*The term 1 prizes is a medium-sized poutine and drink at the local diner.

**The highest score was 61 out of 63 on the unit test. A large portion of them had done extremely well. However, there is the condition that my Grade 11s are repeating the science course, so this is not to be compared with a new cohort of students.

***I know there are revised copies, but for the sake of simplicity, I will only refer to the most commonly used version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.