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How to avoid death by PowerPoint™ in your classroom

presentationsIt’s slow and painful. It can strike during professional development, on-site training, team meetings, or in the classroom. No audience is safe from a boring presentation, but no presenter is, either – the trainer or expert with 30 years of experience is susceptible to a text-heavy presentation that doesn’t invite audience participation, just as a high schooler is susceptible to a presentation with too much clipart and text that gets read verbatim.

As a student, I remember sitting through peer presentations that were too long and positively awful, but the teacher would still follow up with kind, supportive words, complimenting the content of the presentation, even if the delivery was sorely lacking. My jaw dropped at the inherent compassion and enthusiasm such teachers seemed to genuinely feel, but I couldn’t help wondering, wasn’t that painful for you, too?

Why are teachers afraid to give constructive criticism on student presentations? Perhaps because students are so visibly nervous. It’s scary to stand in front of others. It’s also hard to be articulate when you’re nervous, and that’s compounded if you’re presenting in a nonnative language, as is the case for English Learner students. You have to know the content of your presentation inside out, display it clearly via presentation design, express it clearly orally, and manage your anxiety. All of those things are challenging and not usually taught, so teachers default to assessing content knowledge because it wouldn’t be fair to assess aspects of a presentation that aren’t built into instructional time. They compassionately overlook the other stuff, because the students aren’t expert presenters, after all.

But knowing how to give a good presentation is important and utilizes new skills. In fact, scaffolding oral language is a recommendation from Eva Sullivan, in Tips for focusing ELL student presentations. Look at some of the sentence stems she uses as examples:

  • Our project is…
  • You are going to see…
  • Try to find X on the slide…
  • Let me draw your attention to…
  • As you can see…
  • You’ll also notice that…
  • This image represents…
  • First/next/finally…

That is a lot of context-specific language! Unless ELs are exposed to many presentations and are metalinguistically aware enough to pick up language structures implicitly, they are not likely to use such language in their own presentations. Eva Sullivan gives other concrete tips for improving EL presentations, such as stating main ideas clearly and paraphrasing instead of reading the text on the slides. As you implement her tips, you’ll likely identify other gaps in your students’ knowledge, and come up with goals of your own and other language structures for their presentations.

By giving students tools to be good presenters, their presentations will improve outright, but you’ll also give yourself a rubric for providing feedback, without having to worry about harming student confidence. You’ll be able to couch constructive comments in statements like, “I love how you used the image to support your idea of X. That idea was so important! Next time, be sure to look at your audience to make sure they understand how important that idea really is.” Receiving feedback and trying again are important in many tasks, but when courses only use presentations to culminate a few large projects, students don’t get much practice. Making presentations a more functional part of instruction especially benefits ELs because they can practice oral delivery of academic language.

How often do your students give presentations, and how do you prepare them? What’s your approach to providing feedback?

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