Eanguage Teaching: The Korea TESOL Journal, Volume 3, Number 3, October 1995, pp. 106-112.

         An Approach to Teaching Presentation Skills

Johanna E. Katchen




This article discusses the background, goals and classroom procedures used in a four-semester program for undergraduate students at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.  Students entering the program are beyond memorizing textbook dialogues, they enjoy preparing improvised situations for homework and performing them, an many are already quite fluent and have pronunciation that is almost completely comprehensible.  The program provides opportunities for students to use language for real communication activities which challenge their creativity, help them gain confidence in their speaking ability in English, develop effective presentation skills, and take responsibility for their own learning.




East Asian students have traditionally been considered to be shy and reluctant to express their ideas in front of a group, particularly when it comes to speaking in English.  They know how the memorize grammar rules for passing the many written examinations and their reading comprehension may be adequate for their chosen professions, but speaking ability has always seemed to lag behind.


At least in Taiwan, however, this situation has been changing during the past few years.  Perhaps one factor contributing to this change is the increasing political freedom.  Since martial law was lifted in 1987, individuals have been expressing their ideas in public much more readily, and students have been more willing to express their opinions in the classroom on all sorts of topics.


Within the education system, small changes have been occurring when younger teachers with higher levels of English language skills who have been exposed to more varied methods, techniques, and teaching philosophies make gradual changes in their teaching by giving students more communicative tasks and more practice in speaking.  Moreover, as Taiwan's society becomes more affluent, more parents can afford to send their children to better quality cram schools or to send them abroad for summer study.  Most likely a combination of these an other factors accounts for the perceived improvement in English speaking skills of Taiwan's university freshmen.


Having good speaking skills in a foreign language is an asset.  For travelers, English is the language of tourism.  For students who study abroad, speaking skills are critical; even in graduate programs in Taiwan students may attend lectures given in English by foreign visiting professors or seek assistance from  these experts concerning their thesis research.  More often than not, these visiting scholars are not native speakers of English themselves.


Many English majors go on to become English teachers; teachers engage in public speaking of a special type for several hours each day.  Bilingual secretaries have to communicate with foreign visitors, including nonnative speakers, in English.  Professors of chemistry and traders in computers go abroad for professional conferences and business meetings where English is the lingua franca.  For all these tasks, confidence in one's ability to communicate using English is of major importance.


National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan ROC, offers an undergraduate degree in foreign languages with a major in English, and it is for students in this program that the ideas discussed here were developed.  In this paper we first give an overview of the courses in the two-year speaking sequence of Oral Training I and Oral Training II, followed by a discussion of the major objectives and features of the sequence.  A special section is devoted to the advantages of using a video camera in speaking classes before concluding remarks are made.


Overview of the Courses


By rule of the Ministry of Education, English majors at Taiwan's universities  have had to enroll in and pass Oral Training I (two semesters) and Oral Training II (two semesters).  The determination of the content of these courses has been at the discretion of each school and even each instructor.  Oral Training I is usually taught as a conversation course, whereas Oral Training II is often taught as a speech course.  Both typically meet as a two-hour class once a week.  In 1994, the Ministry of Education abolished its requirements, permitting each university to determine which classes are required for each course of study; nevertheless, most universities have maintained at least two years of required speaking courses for their English majors.


Oral Training I--First Semester


In the past, the first semester was spent doing role plays and persuading students to use English instead of Chinese in their group discussions no matter how nonfluent they were.   The problem with the first semester s further exacerbated by the fact that freshmen start classes six weeks later than other students because of the required military training for males.  In recent years, however, freshmen have been coming to the university with previous experience in how to perform role plays, although some are still quite reluctant to speak in group discussion activities.  Moreover, most students now have pronunciation that is almost completely comprehensible and many are quite fluent.  Therefore, we have modified the course somewhat to reflect these differences.


Now, from the beginning, role plays are more challenging.  Instead of giving the beginning lines of a dialogue, students are given a situation to create in any way they like, for homework.  Improvisations such as the following, taken from Dobson (1981, pp. 42-45), always inspire student creativity.


You are trying on shoes in a shoe store.  You have tried on many different pairs and the salesperson is losing his/her patience.  (Dobson, 1981, p. 43)
You go to a pet shop to buy a canary.  The pet shop owner does not have any canaries, but he tries to sell you a parrot that is very expensive.  (Dobson, 1981, p. 45)


We do such role plays twice the first semester, once near the beginning, once on the last day of class as a kind  of final exam.  Both times these are assigned for homework, with each pair or occasionally trio (students choose their own partners) getting a different situation.  We have found that when students prepare their role plays for homework, they do a better job and even bring in some simple props.  We do occasionally have students prepare during class, but this does take up valuable class time.  For our Thanksgiving unit, groups of three of four students prepare (in class) and act out a version of "The Courtship of Miles Standish" from a short summary of the Longfellow poem.  In variably, when a group consists of three females and one male, the group assigns the male the one female role--that of Priscilla Mullins!


We have three group discussion activities spread over the first semester.  The usual problem is that some people do not talk  or talk very little, while others do all the talking. Sometimes talkers have a day when they do not contribute very much, perhaps because the topic or activity does not appeal to them or they are not feeling well.  In group conversations in everyday life, not everyone always makes an equal contribution, so because of these variables, we do not use group discussion as often as we used to at this level.


After the group has discussed how to solve the problem or how the story ends, the group has to report to the class.  More and more often, instead of one person doing all the talking, the group makes a presentation, sometimes in dialogue form.  Thus it seems that recent students use English more in discussion when they have to plan how to show off their ability in front of the group.  Perhaps they see the process of discussion as more relevant when it leads to a particular end product.  Generally, this reporting to the class is fun for everyone and the sharing of conclusions or results is a good way to pull the topic together at the end of the class.


We do have one public speaking activity during the first semester; for their first assignment, given as homework to be presented during the second class, students have to get up in front of the room and, in approximately two minutes time, introduce themselves to the class in English.  These self-introductions are videotaped.  Although speaking in front of a group in a foreign language and being videotaped at the same time can be a traumatic experience, this new experience may actually be less difficult for new freshmen, who are in a mild state of shock anyhow during their first few weeks as university students.  The assignment is not particularly difficult--it does not require any library research to talk about oneself, and students have to introduce themselves  in English in some of their other classes.  They are not graded as seasoned speakers; their experience of speaking in front of the group is considered more important than their actual performance.


There are some other activities scattered throughout this rather short semester.  We take advantage of the American holidays Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the solar New Year with units for each that include discussion, role plays, watching and reacting to a short video, or reciting a related poem to practice pronunciation and to gain some familiarity with American poetry.


Oral Training I--Second Semester


During the second semester, we still prepare ad perform role plays, but they are even more open-ended.  One popular assignment is for groups of students to make up their own TV commercials in English.  Although these are short, as commercials are, students seem to enjoy imitating their style and bringing in props.  We also have groups of students make up and act out their own mini-plays.  In one of their other classes, during the first semester, they act out mini-plays published for EFL students, so the new challenge in the second semester is for them to create their own.  When one of our colleagues gives this assignment, he gives each group a strange sentence (e.g., Wait, don't kiss that dog!) which they have to incorporate somewhere in their mini-play.  Last year our class did this with lines from famous poems we had used in class for pronunciation practice (e.g., But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep). 


Group discussion activities are scattered throughout the semester; students play Dear Abby and answer some letters, they decide which 12 items to take to a desert island (Rooks, 1981, pp. 26-29), whether two people from different cultures should marry and what their problems might  be (Reinhart & Fisher, 19985, pp. 59-61), and they solve a mystery (Byrd & Clemente-Cabetas, 1991, pp. 16-19).


These are typical group discussion activities taken from a variety of sources; these topics have worked well with our students before, so we continue to use them.  For one of the group discussion activities early in the semester, all groups of students are given copies of the same colored blown-up photo and they have to write a brief story to go with it.  when they all share their stories, they are, of course, all different.  The assignment serves as a lead-in to the homework assignment:  each student is given a copy of a different picture (most from Ramsey, 1987; also from Maley, Duff, & Grellet, 1980) and has to make up a story to go with the picture.  During the following class, each student has to get up in front of the class and tell his/her story, making it a public speaking assignment.  Most recently, our class met on one of our language laboratories, so students were asked to use the overhead projector, show their picture on the movie screen  in front of the room so everyone could see it, and point out certain details as they told their story.


A second pubic speaking activity is given five to six weeks later.  Earlier in the second semester students are sensitized to listening to sounds by making up explanations for sound sequences on tape (Maley & Duff, 1975, 1979) in class.  Then in the preparation class for this speaking activity students are asked to listen to excerpts of music and to verbalize what they see in their mind's eye (Katchen, 1993).  For homework, each student is given an audiotape with a different piece of music (about three minutes long) recorded on it.  Students make up a story to fit the music and tell it the following week in front of the class.  They use a tape player while they speak to share their music with us.


Sometime during the last three classes of the semester, students have their first experience with extemporaneous/impromptu speaking in our course.  Speech contests are popular in Taiwan for Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, and even foreigners speaking Mandarin.  However, the purpose of this activity  is not to prepare students for speech contests but to force students, in as short a time as possible, to find something sensible to say about a topic in English.  In the future, when these students are professionals, they will most likely find themselves attending meetings, receptions, or dinners with English speakers and they will be expected to contribute to conversations in which topics come up and change at the discretion of the participants.  If they cannot make even a small verbal contribution at these events, they may suffer some social or occupational consequences.


For this extemporaneous speaking activity, first the teacher gives the students some advice about strategy (e.g., narrow down your topic fast, talk about two or three main points with examples).  Then each student in turn chooses a card with a topic on the back of it and has about fifteen minutes to plan what to say.  Topics are not controversial; for the most part they involve description or narration (e.g., My first day at Tsing Hua University, My ideal boyfriend/girlfriend, Something I hate to do, My favorite teacher in primary school).  Finally, the student goes to the front of the class and speaks.  As this may be the first opportunity some students have had to give impromptu speeches in English, a decent effort is considered more important than a perfect performance.


Oral Training II--First Semester


Oral Training II is a public speaking course (Katchen, 1994).  In the first semester assignments center around topics that students can talk about from their own experience; they are required to give three prepared speeches which are informative in nature.  In addition, they have another chance to practice impromptu speaking with more controversial or complex topics (e.g., Should street peddlers be licensed?  Is MTV bad for young people?  What is the value of tradition in modern society?  What I value  most about being a Chinese).


The first prepared speech is a general informative speech that involves description, narration, or both.  Students can tell about a specific experience they had during summer vacation or at some other time (a trip they took, a job they had) or describe a special person or place and tell why it is special.   Most students choose to tell us something about their summer vacation and talk for about five minutes (minimum requirement three minutes, no maximum limit).


The second speech is the process/demonstration speech.  It is  for most students the most enjoyable to perform as well as to watch.  Students either show us how to do something or show us how someone else does something (e.g., how grandmother makes brooms from reeds).  Keeping the limitations of the classroom in mind, students can plan a five to ten minute performance.  Some have prepared tea or various snacks (these we sampled), other have made toys or crafts, still others have demonstrated how to perform CPR (with a roommate as the victim) or do massage (with most of the class participating.  This assignment provides students with a good opportunity to work with visuals and to plan how to use them  most effectively.


The third speech is the comparison and contrast speech.  It is included to give students more practice with organization (whole to whole or part to part); in essay tests in all sorts of courses students are often asked to compare, for example, one writer's characterization with another's, the phonological system of one dialect with that of another.  This assignment is flexible enough to allow students to compare two places (different places or the same place over time), two people, two similar ideas to point out their differences, and so on.  In a particularly memorable speech, one student both told us and showed us, accompanied by tape-recorded music, the major differences in the characteristics of folk dances from Central Europe and Southeast Asia.


Oral Training II--Second Semester


In the second semester the focus shifts to persuasive speaking.  In addition to further practice with impromptu speaking, students give two or three prepared speeches and participate in one or two debates (a class size of 22-24 students meeting in a two-hour block once a week limits the number of activities we can do).   The first speech is a general persuasive speech and students can attempt to persuade us to change our behavior (e.g., learn Japanese, be more polite to old people, stop cutting classes) or to support a change on campus or in society (e.g., the women's dormitories should be open 24 hours a day, teachers should be allowed to go o strike, all public entertainment should close by 2 a.m.).  Students are expected to use appropriate but not excessive argumentation and to support their arguments with data from research when necessary.


For the second assignment, cause-effect analysis, student take an event, condition, trend, or social problem of interest to them (e.g., why more and more people choose to remain single, why so many of Taiwan's people want to emigrate, why more primary school children are nearsighted than before) and try to determine the causes.  An alternative is to try to persuade us to do or not do something by showing the positive effects (e.g., students should take more literature courses) or the negative effects (e.g., going to KTV parlors can be dangerous), or to try to persuade us to take some action by showing the bad effects of doing nothing (e.g., we must recycle our garbage).


The third speech involves defining a problem and proposing a solution to that problem.  Students may choose a situation on campus (e.g., the school should install phones in each dormitory room) or in Taiwan society (e.g., a non-nuclear solution to the shortage of electricity).


As a final activity for the course and as a way of incorporating both prepared speaking and extemporaneous speaking, students participate in debates.  The teams to debate choose their topic (subject to teacher's approval) and work out their own way of presenting it.  What is most important is that each student has a chance to give both a prepared portion and to ask and answer questions.  The actual debate takes about one hour; in the second hour the topic is opened to the audience and all the students have an opportunity to ask questions of the participants or express their opinions.  It is in the give and take of questions and arguments between the two teams that we see how well students use English in real conversational interaction to express their ideas. 




Throughout our four-semester sequence of courses a few themes can be traced, the most important of which is using languages for real communication.  After at least six years of English instruction in junior and senior high school, students should be ready to apply what they have learned in challenging situations.  In Oral Training I, group discussions require spontaneous speaking, so those who can and/or are brave enough do speak, while others speak little or remain silent.  On the other hand, the teacher is not always listening to the same group, so the pressure to speak is somewhat low.  If each group reports the results of the discussion to the class, there is time to prepare what to say and not everyone is forced to say something.


Role plays require performance in front of the class, but there is ample time to prepare and practice.  The same is true for the prepared speeches of both courses.  Nevertheless, no matter how preparation students do, there will still be some errors.  We should not be too concerned with performance errors (e.g., the student said he instead of she): native speakers make a few, too.  Students know they make these mistakes and know the correct forms; such errors will take care of themselves as students become less nervous and more used to speaking in front of a group.  Competence errors (e.g., grammar, idioms, vocabulary) are best dealt with either before (if the student submits a draft of the speech) or after performance (from the videotape).


Our students are beyond memorizing textbook dialogues; they enjoy preparing improvised situations for homework and performing them.  They can be almost as crazy as they like; they have the freedom to create their own dialogues and add their own props.  It is language play and lots of fun.  We may have to remind students and ourselves sometimes that English (or any other living language) is used not only for listening to lectures, reading texts, and taking tests.  People also use it to make jokes, tell lies, scold their children, and make love.  Language is a tool to do other things.  Students have to shift from thinking of English as a subject to be memorized to something more like learning how to use a computer or drive a car, as a skill that provides access to other information.  Challenging students' creativity is another one of our goals.  From group discussions, role plays and mini plays we move to picture stories and music stories.  We all have some degree of imagination, and with picture stories (visual) and music stories (aural) we can make our own explanations.  The student is free to make any (reasonable) interpretation she likes; she can also choose to say only that which she feels confident in saying.  Thus while getting up in front of the class presents students with a situation for potential loss of face, the assignments give students some control over what they say.


In Oral Training II (public speaking) students also have some control; the organization pattern is given (e.g., process, comparison and contrast, causal analysis), but students are free within these broad units to choose their own topics.  When the unit is introduced in the textbook and in class discussion, many example of appropriate topics, including those other students have used before, are presented to give students ideas for their own topics.  Surely more teachers have found that when a student has a topic she really wants to talk about, she will work hard both on content and on the presentation.


For students used to memorizing what the text or teacher tells them, it is not always easy to find ways to express their own ideas.  With role plays and mini-plays, students get used to writing dialogue for characters whose parts they will act out.  This is not too threatening; they are expressing the characters' ideas, not their own.  Similarly, creating a story for a photo or a piece of music is not threatening personally; as long as the interpretation falls within reasonable bounds, no one can argue with it and say it is wrong.  These assignments require imaginative interpretations rather than factual ones.


In the first semester of Oral Training II assignments tend to be student-centered--they talk about their experiences (informative) or show us something they know how to do (process).  The topics are factual but not argumentative.  These are not the kinds of topics that might antagonize an audience.  It is only in the second semester, when students have become used to speaking in front of a group in English, when they have become more confident in their abilities, that we ask them to choose topics for which they will say things that not al members of the audience will agree with and we require them to argue with each other in debates.


Students are urged to limit their topics to those they are personally involved with or interested in, and these should be for the most part local topics.  Students should be generating and expressing their own ideas on topics they already know something about and thereby avoiding plagiarism that might occur when they attempt to address vague or distant topics.  In Chinese society copying the maters is the way to learn.  Students' ideas about writing research papers involve copying sections from various books.  There are always some students who put off doing their assignment an then rush to the library to copy something the night before that assignment is due; others fear that if they write in English they will be failed for a few grammar errors, so they copy.  This is why we encourage students to choose topics that are close to them.  First of all, they cannot copy, although some important social issues are discussed in the English newspapers in Taiwan.  Second, their interest might encourage them to do a better job.


Third, citizens in a democracy have the right and their duty to speak out at times about issues which affect them, their family, and their community.  In is highly likely that sometime in the future these students will speaking to a group of people in their native language about the poor quality of the lunches provided to their children at primary school X and urging some change, or discussing ways to improve the parking situation in the neighborhood.  Thinking about local problems, finding causes, suggesting reasonable solutions, finding arguments and evidence to support their ideas--all can have a direct application in their daily lives.


Finishing the sequence with debates is a way to bring all these goals together.  If, after the formal debates, we broaden participation to all  members of the class, with the two teams still sitting in front and the teacher sitting in the audience, we may reach a situation that closely approximates the kind of group discussion we had in mind during Oral Training I, but with which the students were still  uncomfortable, a cross-questioning of each other in English with real communication of ideas taking place.


The Use of the Video Camera


When students write a composition, even on the computer, they can print out a hard copy, the teacher can grade it and indicate corrections, then give it back.  In the past, it was not possible to produce a hard copy of a speech event, except on audiotape, but this was not too interesting.  Now with video, in clear and bright colors, students can see as well as hear what they have done; they can even make a copy and take it home to show their parents how nicely they can make a presentation in English.


Most of our incoming freshmen have never before seen themselves on video, so naturally they face this new technology with a little fear.  They are first videotaped during the second class of Oral Training I for two reasons: 1) to give them their first experience early, mixed in with the other semi-traumatic experiences of being a new freshman; and 2) to provide their teacher with more detailed information about their speaking and presentation abilities and with a reference point with which to compare their future performances.


Also during the first semester, one set of role plays is videotaped and then shown in class.  Performing role plays is less threatening than making a speech; videotaping even more closely approximates the situation of actors in a recording studio.  When we show these performances in class, preferably right after the role plays have been acted out, the teacher stops at one or two places during each role play to point something out--a better way to say a phrase, the correct idiomatic expression, a speech act used appropriately to bring to the attention to the whole class.  We do not want overkill--a few comments are enough.  Students will not remember more anyhow.  This activity begins to show students how, in addition  to being entertaining, video can also be used to learning.


This activity has advantages for teachers, too.  When students make mistakes during role plays, what can we do?  If we interrupt them, the role play loses momentum and students lose confidence.  If we wait until the students finish their role play, most of the class and probably the actors, too, forgot what was said.  The performers are only glad it is over, so our comments for the most part fall on deaf ears.  But when we can watch the incorrect version and substitute a better version, there is a higher possibility that some students may learn something.  If we were really looking for the perfect role play, we could make the corrections and have the students perform in again during the next class.


Our seniors use a video camera when they rehearse for their senior class play in English.  For the teacher, there are some other advantages to videotaping.  When students are in from of the room speaking or performing role plays, we are looking at our papers and madly writing comments.   As a result, we miss a lot and cannot enjoy the performance.  But if our video camera is running, we can sit back and get the full flavor of the performance.  Later we can watch our videotape more carefully, repeating parts we want to hear again, yet keeping in mind that first impression and audience reaction to the live performance.


All of us have had the experience of giving an assignment and then finding, on the due date, that some of the students did not complete the assignment properly because they did not know what exactly we wanted.  For speaking activities, we can show our current students how one or two previous students completed the same assignment (different topics with a common approach, such as picture stories with different pictures, are a must with speeches).  Students not only get a better idea of what is expected of them, but by seeing older students they recognize doing a good job, they may feel a sense of competition, that they can do at least as well, so they try harder.


Once students start giving individual speeches, ti is important that the teacher meet with each student (or pair of students if two friends with to come together) to review the videotaped performance.  Sometimes students are more critical of themselves than they need to be; they think everything, including their appearance, is terrible.  This is when the teacher needs to allay their fears.  Every speech has something good about it.  We teachers are quite good at pointing out mistakes, but we often forget to praise students for what they have already learned to do well.  Speaking in public, particularly in a foreign language, is a scary activity.  We are asking students to risk losing face, so we must also be concerned with building student confidence.  After pointing the good features of the presentation, we can then address the most obvious areas that need improvement and have the students focus on one particular area for improvement in the next speech, such as reducing nervous gestures of having more eye contact with the audience.


One area students may not be aware of is their non fluency.  When they become their own audience on video, when they see themselves as others them, they see how boring all their long hesitations can be.  Fortunately, this is an area that can be improved with more practice  Previously, students may have written the speech and then rehearsed it only mentally.  Now they see they have to rehearse it by saying it aloud.  Since many of our students are also roommates, they can help each other practice and give each other suggestions.  When students see even a little improvement on the next videotaped speech, their confidence grows.


Students learn to critique other aspects of their performance.  They can see what messages their gestures and posture are giving, whether they look scared or confident.  They notice whether their writing on the board was too small, whether they stood in front of it so no one could read it, whether their drawings looked like they were growing out of the top of their heads.  They are developing effective presentation skills by becoming more aware of the nonverbal and paralinguistic aspects of giving a presentation and learning how to use various techniques to enhance their spoken words.


We need not meet with students individually after each speech; it takes up a lot of time and may start to seem boring even for students.  After the first individual meeting, once per semester is enough.  One possibility is to view the last set of speeches of the semester with the students; at this time we can also talk about their progress throughout the semester.  For other videotaped speeches, we can give students a simple self-evaluation form to complete if we want to check on their having watched their speech.  A variation is to have students watch and critique each other's speeches; friends often do this anyhow.  The form can be quite simple and just include two questions, such as the following, for evaluating a classmate's speech.

After videotaping, students often eagerly ask when they can see their tape (we record on Video 8 and have to make two copies on to VHS--one for teacher files, one for the student self-access language laboratory).  When students critique their own performances themselves or with their friends and decide what they want to improve or try the next time, they are competing with themselves and trying to improve their own abilities.  They are becoming responsible for heir own learning.  They themselves are deciding what their goals are.  They are learning a real life skill for when they will no longer have a teacher around to guide them.  When they have to speak in front of a group of people in the future for whatever reason, they will have some idea of how to go about  preparing a good presentation.


Concluding Remarks


In today's world, there is hardly a profession in which good speaking skills are not an asset.  Nonnative speakers in particular can enhance their English speaking ability with effective presentation skills.  We have outlined here a four-semester sequence of speaking courses for English majors at a Taiwan university in which we ask students to use language for real communication activities which challenge their creativity, and to generate and express their own ideas and thereby avoid plagiarizing.  We use a video camera to  help students gain confidence in themselves and their speaking ability in English, develop effective presentation skills, and become responsible for their own learning.  All these activities occur within a much greater drama the teacher is privileged to witness and occasionally assist in--the students' metamorphosis from child to adult.




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Rooks, G.  (1981).  The non-stop discussion workbook.  Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.


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