Paper presented at the International Language in Education Conference 1995, Hong Kong.  Listed on database of ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 398 734.

Speaking Skills for the Sciences

Johanna E. Katchen



English is the international language of most professions requiring advanced education.  When scientists present papers at international conferences or submit their those papers to prestigious journals for publication, they will most likely be speaking and writing in English.  If a professor from one country visits a university or research institute in another country in order to conduct lectures or do research, the language used will probably be English, even when none of the participants is a native speaker of that language.

Students from all over the world pursue advanced study in English speaking countries.  Within the United States' university system, one way to help pay the high cost of tuition as well as gain experience is to work as a teaching assistant.  Within the past ten years especially, the needs of these students have received special attention (for example, Dale & Wolf, 1988; Madden & Myers, 1994), mostly because of the need to guarantee that the English of the foreign TA is comprehensible to the native speaker undergraduate students.  The advanced scientific and technological research conducted at US universities attracts many students from East Asia, societies in which advanced degrees are in general also more highly valued than in other areas of the world.

What can the English teacher do to assist people in these situations?  In order to behave competently and generate successful results in either situation described above, the level of language must be sufficiently high.  While an intermediate level might be sufficient for reading a conference paper (though fielding questions might be difficult), an advanced level would be necessary for the long term English use required of visiting professors and TAs.  Additionally, each field has its own specific jargon, its own specific vocabulary and ways of using some general terms with special meanings.  Most learn these as students when they use, for example, an English textbook to study a particular aspect of physics; later they may pick up certain ways of writing and speaking about their field by reading journal articles and listening to the lectures of visiting professors or the presentations of conference participants.  Thus, as with most aspects of life, novices learn by imitating the more experienced.

In order to use English successfully for professional purposes, often more than language is involved.  For example, there are certain ways of presenting conference papers; the format (time, structure of the paper, formality, etc.) is determined by the professional organization sponsoring the conference.  For example, while organizations of ESL/EFL teachers generally discourage presenters from reading a paper, among organizations in the hard sciences reading a paper is the norm.  Among those who read papers, there can be great differences in effect.  There are those few who do not even seem to be reading and yet who exhibit a most effective use of language, intonation, and nonverbal behavior; the result is usually memorable.  Many others who read tend toward a monotone and tend to put all but the most dedicated to sleep.   Conference beginners, who may feel more secure by reading word for word, may especially fall victim to these problems.  Time, as experienced presenters know, gallops when you have a lot to say.  Native speakers find it difficult to read one double-spaced page per minute; this speed is usually too fast for native speaker listeners to comprehend.  Nonnative speakers, who may use English stress and intonation patterns somewhat unnaturally, may become totally incomprehensible if they try to read too fast.  The result will probably be that time is called when they are only halfway through reading their paper.

So how can nonnative speakers prepare for these situations?  Most people learn how to give conference presentations through previous experience and trial and error.  While each person's needs may be different, there may be ways to introduce graduate students to some techniques to aid them in using English for professional purposes.  For example, a solution to the problem mentioned above of reading a whole written paper would be to re-write the paper for oral presentation to fit the time allotted.  Presenters can practice reading it with acceptable intonation and looking up occasionally.

These were the kinds of questions we were asking ourselves when we decided to offer a course called Oral Presentation Skills in English for Graduate Students in the Sciences.  This first time through functioned as a pilot study, and here we present some of what we learned from this experience.  After a short  summary of English language training in Taiwan's secondary schools, we give a brief profile of the schools from which the subjects in this study originated.  Next, we give the salient points in the collection of our data.  We then present the structure and content of the course, after which we discuss some of the problems and questions which arose during this pilot study and which deserve further consideration.  Finally, based on our discoveries, we make recommenda­tions for changes or modifications in the course for when it is taught in future.

English Language Training in Taiwan's Secondary Schools

In Taiwan, the study of English begins and is obligatory through the three years of junior high school and the three years of senior high school.  Reading, grammar, and vocabulary building are emphasized because these are tested, along with a one-paragraph composition, on the Joint College Entrance Examination.  Although the situation has been improving in the past few years, there are still many students who come to the university after six years of English study unable to carry on a simple conversation in English. 

Up until 1995, all university students, no matter what their course of study, had to complete yet another year (two semesters) of English study.  After 1995, while another year of foreign language study is still required, universities are allowed to determine the types of English courses (e.g., Modern American Films) could fulfill the requirement or even whether certain students could other foreign languages to fulfill the requirement. 

For students not majoring in foreign languages, there are few, if any, other English courses offered at most university.  Unlike the European system, where each college hires all the necessary faculty to meet its needs, Taiwan's system runs much like the American system.  As a result, required English courses as well as Chinese language courses are taught, for the most part reluctantly, by faculty in the English or Chinese language/literature programs, respectively, or part-time teachers who are paid by the hour. 

A Profile of the University

National Tsing Hua University is one of the major government universities in Taiwan.  It has approximately 3500 undergraduate students, 1600 masters students, 900 doctoral students, and 470 full-time faculty.  The university is made up of five colleges:  the College of Science, the College of Engineering, the College of Nuclear Science, the College of Life Science, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.  Most of the activities of the school center around science and engineering.

National Chiao Tung University, which borders on National Tsing Hua University, is devoted primarily to engineering, information sciences, and business and management; the name itself--Chiao Tung--means both communication and transportation.  Bordering on these two major national universities is the Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park, also known informally as Taiwan's Silicon Valley.  Many of the graduates of these two universities subsequently find employment in one of the many technology companies of the Science Park, and there are various areas of cooperation among these three areas.

Data Collection

After several informal conversations with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Languages and in the sciences, it was decided to offer a course in oral presentation skills for science and engineering graduate students.  Because teaching loads are usually quite low in summer it was decided to pilot this course in summer when the teacher would have more time for preparation and for individualized instruction.  Furthermore, while most undergraduates go back to their parents' homes or participate in other outside activities in summer, graduate students remain all year round to conduct their research, yet their class load is lower in summer, so we felt they might be more willing to enroll in such a course during that time.

The course was listed in the university's summer offerings and a one-page advertisement was also broadcast over the campus internet system.  It was officially scheduled to meet Mondays and Thursdays from 10 to 12 during the eight-week session that met during the months of July and August; the cost was 1440 New Taiwan Dollars (about 55 USD) for two credit hours.  After welcoming a few potential students during the first two classes, we ended up with six paying students and two more who missed the registration deadline but whom we admitted anyhow in order to have more subjects.

The background of these students was quite varied.  From National Tsing Hua University we had a total of four students:  one boy­friend girlfriend pair (Max and Mary, not their real names), both doctoral students in the Institute of Radiation Biology, College of Nuclear Science; one doctoral student (George, male) in the Institute of Power Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering; one student (Eddie, male) in the Department of Chemistry who had just finished his second year of undergraduate study (thus the content of his presenta­tions was rather different from those of the graduate students).

Students at Tsing Hua University and Chiao Tung University are permitted to enroll in and get credit for courses offered by both universities.  For this course, two of the officially enrolled students came from Chiao Tung University, one (Ernest, male) a doctoral student in Electronic Engineering, one (Harry, male) a student of the Industrial Technology Research Institute.  David (male), a doctoral students of the Electronics Institute, was not officially enrolled but did all the work.  Margaret (female), who was also not officially enrolled, had graduated the previous year from the M.A. program in History at National Tsing Hua University and was at the time of the study a secretarial assistant at Chiao Tung University and saving money to eventually go for advanced study abroad, for which she would use English.

Generally, students gave their presentations on Mondays; all of these, except for impromptu speeches, were videotaped.  The decision to videotape was made not only to provide data for this study; previous experience (Katchen, 1992, 1994) has shown videotaping to be an effective teaching technique.  On Tuesdays and Wednesdays students came to the instructor's office and, during their 30 minute appointments, teacher and student together watched and critiqued their performance along with the instructor.  Some students came individually; others came together (Max and Mary, Harry and George).  On Thursdays the teacher lectured or prepared other activities and also gave the next presentation assignment.

The Course Content

The course content was based upon the background and predicted needs of the students who would enroll; some minor changes were made after the instructor had a chance to meet the students and find out something about their background, but the basic structure and the assignments remained the same as the initial syllabus.

The students had to give five prepared speeches:  a self-introduction, a lesson about some aspect of their field, an explanation of a process, a review of developments in a field, and a final project.  Members of the classroom audience were encouraged to ask questions of the presenter after each presenta­tion.  On the first day, when the instructor introduced the course, students in pairs were asked to find out about each other and then to briefly introduce the partner to the class.  During the next class, the prepared self-introduction assignment (about 5 minutes) was given for the usual reasons: to give students from these different institutes a chance to get to know each other better and to break the ice with regard to speaking English in front of a group and on videotape.  The assignment had a further twist: students were to imagine themselves at an international gathering at which they were introducing themselves informally to their counterparts from other countries.  For this assignment and subsequent ones, students were encouraged to prepare material they might have the opportunity to use again in teaching, seminar reports, etc.

For the second assignment, students were asked to present a lesson from their field (about 10 minutes).  Students were asked to pay attention to their introductions and conclusions (reviewed in the previous class with one introduc­tion of a plenary lecture (McCarthy, 1995) shown) and to ask questions of the speakers (excerpts of a conference panel discussion (RELC, 1995) were shown to illustrate how questions are handled at conferences).  The showing of this panel discussion was also meant to help build students' confidence because, as the conference took place in Singapore, the panel was made up of not only Caucasian native speakers of English, but also of Indians, Malays, and Singapore Chinese, all using English effectively.  As this was the first lesson they were presenting in this class, no specific limitation on type of lesson was given.

For the third assignment, students were asked to explain a process.  This assignment was included because it was believed that in the sciences, whether in teaching or in explaining research, there is often need to describe a process.  In-class preparation included suggestions for talking about process taken from an undergraduate speech textbook (Katchen,1994) for which students could either perform the process in front of the class (most undergraduates choose this option) or explain how someone else performs a process.  Examples shown were of an undergraduate explaining a simple materials science experiment, an undergraduate demonstrating the basic procedures of CPR with a classmate playing the victim (these two from videotapes of student speeches in undergraduate public speaking classes at National Tsing Hua University for English majors), and an excerpt from a cooking show (The Frugal Gourmet, 1987).  As expected, our science graduate students showed us, with the aid of transparencies, how various processes are performed in a laboratory; topics included electropho­resis and turbine blade regeneration.

The fourth assignment required students to talk about previous develop­ments in some area of their study.  Again, whether in teaching or in presenting research results, we often have to talk about what other researchers have done and found previously.  Preparation for this assign­ment included showing three segments of the short information program Invention.  The first segment, four and one half minutes on the invention of the bra, was also used for listening practice.  We watched several times, first to answer six comprehension questions, then to complete a cloze on the text.  Students were amused at the choice of topic--an article of women's underwear--being discussed from the point of view of engineering.  Two other short segments--one on the invention of turkey calls and the other on the use of lasers to clean old monuments and buildings--were shown once each toward the end of the class.  For more practice in listening to more academic, information oriented English language, students were encouraged to watch The Discovery Channel to find topics of interest to them and, if possible, to videotape a program and watch again, using the help of the Chinese subtitles when necessary.  The student speeches for this assignment included the invention of CD-ROM, the development of genetics, and the monitoring of spark-in in surface grinding.

Fifth, as students were spending time out of class preparing their final project, we gave them no other homework and instead we spent a portion of each of three classes practicing with impromptu (extemporaneous) speaking.  In Taiwan speech contests are popular, for Chinese and foreign languages, and in addition to prepared speeches, impromptu speeches (usually each participant is given ten minutes to prepare a topic and is asked to speak for three minutes) are also part of speech contests.  Students are familiar with these and usually fear them.  As we seldom have speech contest conditions in real life, we change the focus a bit and have students imagine they are attending a dinner or cocktail reception in which they enter into conversations.  In ordinary conversations, other people often ask our opinions on various topics.  At the very least, they expect us to have something intelligent to say about some topics.  So we tell students this is practice; now they have ten or more minutes, but in real life they have to think of something immediately, although it will not be timed for three minutes.  They are instructed to narrow down their topic to some aspect they can talk about as quickly as possible and then think of two or three main arguments or examples to support or illustrate their point of view.  Before speaking, students pick one or more cards; on each card is a different topic.  Topics vary, from personal ones (something I hate to do, an interesting dream I had) to more serious current issues (will I be an organ donor?  what is the value of tradition in modern society?)  We can either have all students prepare at the same time and then have them speak one by one (this works in a small class such as ours) or give out topics at three to four minute intervals, starting the speaking when the fifth card is given out, then, as each student finishes speaking, a new card is given to another student.  This means that, after it starts, at any given time, four students will be preparing, preferably on chairs outside the classroom.  It's a little bit hectic at first but then runs smoothly as students see how it works.

For the final project, because we had only eight students and two classes allotted for this activity, students could take up to thirty minutes for their presentations.  They were encouraged to talk about their research, in particular an aspect they would most likely be talking about again in English in the future.  As most of these students were thinking toward eventual international conference presentations, they were quite interested in seeing how speakers really behave and had asked whether it would be appropriate to read a paper.  With the caveat that each field, each professional organization, has different preferred ways that papers are given, we showed some excerpts from plenary lectures given at IATEFL Conferences with the purpose of observing different ways of "reading" a paper.

The final project presentations were quite interesting.  George was preparing for a conference presentation in Singapore in November and he gave most of his presentation. Margaret was preparing to study abroad and talked in English about a history research paper she had completed in Chinese.  In July Max had just passed his doctoral candidacy exam, so he did his original Chinese presentation in English.  We tried to make each presentation as personally relevant to the individual as possible. 


The eight students in the course made their own choice to attend this class; one can say that they were already highly motivated.  Six already had a reasonably high level of English language ability; for these six, the language problems were typical of Chinese students at that level.  With regard to pronunciation, the most serious problems were unclearly articulated or missing final consonants and the substituting of [r] for [l] or vice versa after syllable initial consonants.  Some aspects of vowel length and vowel quality were also unacceptable for any Standard English variety (e.g., river, maiden).  The stress timing of English is also difficult for Chinese students; even at high levels, speakers may still use the syllable timing of Mandarin.  While the more advanced students tended to pause at the ends of phrases or generally where native speakers might pause, the hesitations of the poorer students had serious effects on intonation and therefore comprehen­sibility.  In addition, all students had at least some difficulty with pronunciation and particularly stress of new words; with long scientific compounds, we sometimes had to consult a dictionary (another lesson) in order to find out where the stress should fall.

With regard to grammar, even the most proficient students commit some errors on the fine points, such as in the use of prepositions or word derivation; the choice of word may also be not quite what a native speaker would use.  As with pronunciation and intonation, the better students made the same kinds of errors but fewer of them.  That is, students like Max, Mary, Margaret, Ernest, and David seem to have passed a threshold, they are "generally comprehensi­ble with some errors in pronunciation, grammar, choice of vocabulary items, or with pauses or occasional rephrasing" (ETS, 1985).

These graduate students seemed to be quite familiar with the use of visuals to illustrate their work.  Indeed, transparencies and slides are necessary materials for scientific lectures, and students were quite experienced in making and using their own materials.  Thus, although students did not need extra training in their use, videotaping let them see whether they used these tools to full advantage (e.g., was the writing or drawing large enough?  did they leave it on the screen long enough?)


As with most things in life, the first time we do an activity, we may not be too happy with the results or, at the very best, we find there are many things we would want to improve on for the second time.  Here, in addition to may own observations, I include the even more important student comments taken basically from two sources.  First, when students came to my office to view and critique their videotaped performances, they often talked about their feelings toward the course.  Second, one week before the last class, students were given an evaluation sheet containing ten questions and including a place for their further suggestions and comments; they had a whole week to consider and write their comments (in English), and many of these comments do seem to be well thought out.  Some of these questions are included below.

            1. Do you think this course would be useful to other students?  Should it be offered again?  When?  Is summer a good time?  Students thought such a course was a good idea and that they benefited from it.  Most liked the idea of summer because although most graduate students remain on campus conducting their research, they take few or no other courses, so they have more time to devote to this course.

            2. What aspects of the course were most useful to you?  Most students mentioned the practice they got in giving presentations and the individual appointments.  One student told me privately that she never received individual attention in an English class before.  Another student liked being "forced" to speak under pressure and answering audience questions.  From yet another student "The most useful aspect was that all my presentations were videotaped and my incorrectness, disadvantages were told in the appoint­ments.  The pronunciation practice was also interesting and helpful."

            3. What aspects of the course were least useful?  Only one student answered this question: "Listening to others who are from different fields is useless to me, especially when they have some troubles in expressing their idea."  The same student added under the space for other comments: "In order to let students from different levels get most profit, I mean, to make a lot of progress, this course could be divided into two grades, one basic and one advanced.  If this is not practicable, students who want to choose this course have to talk to teacher in advance, and some suggestions whether they may choose the course or not (for students who need more basic training) could be given by the teacher.  This will do good to both students and teacher."  This was, I felt, the biggest problem with the course.

            4. What other activities do you think should be part of the course?  There were a number of useful suggestions, such as more practice with audience questions:  "If speaker cannot understand the asker's questions, what words the speaker should say in such situation?"  Another suggested group discussions with familiar topics as we used in impromptu speeches, another wanted common errors pointed out.  A useful suggestion that could possibly be implemented:  "Every student should be a commentator, e.g., after a student present his paper, the other should take the responsibility to comment it."  In this case, however, the language of the speaker must be clear enough for the others to understand it; furthermore, it may be difficult for a person in one field to understand and comment on a topic from another field, unless comments were limited to delivery.

            5. Do you think the number of speeches was to few?  Too many?  Just right?  One student wrote "More is better" while the others wrote "Just right."

            6. If the course were offered again, which kinds of presentations should we get rid of?  Which ones should we keep?  Or change?  One suggested getting rid of self-introductions, another process because "this section could be a part of explaining research".  The others suggested keeping the same assignments.  Interestingly, one student made the following comment:  "My adviser tells me about the presentation course in U. C. Berkeley.  He says the course has a standard teaching for foreign students.  I think you had paid attention on that on arranging the course.  The kinds of presentations should not be changed."  Indeed, when I was preparing this course, I did think back to what I learned during my internship with ITAs when I was a graduate student.

            7. What other kinds of speeches/presentations do you think we should have done?  One student suggested watching a TV program and describing it to other students.  Also included here was the suggestion: "Students should have a[n] individual time to watch individually one's tape before individual appointment, and then tell the others what he thinks."  This is a problem with teaching in summer; none of the student self-access language labs are open, so we cannot place a tape there for students to go and watch.  Perhaps with a video camera using a VHS tape size we could incorporate the suggestion made under Question 9 (below) by one student:  "It will be the best that every student has his own videotape.  Every student submit an empty videotape to the teacher when the course start.  And when the course finished, the student could do some comments and modifications after the course."  If each student's speech were recorded directly on to his own videotape, it could be shared between student and teacher and, with tape in hand, students could more easily find a VCR to view it on.

            8. Do you think the final project could be modified in any way?  How?  Students liked the project but had some suggestions:  "The final project is a good way for students.  The backgrounds of the students are different, so students could not ask the role of the presentation.  I suggest that the student should present for the other students and his (her) adviser."  Three students suggested better control of the time (in our class some students spoke for more than half an hour as I had not expected students to want to speak for so long).  With better organization, we could make these final presentations more like real conference presentations, as the following student suggests: "To mimic the real conference, it would be better if students can have chances to introduce the speakers to the audience as the chairman does in conference.  Students can play the role of chairman in turn.  And the chairman has a bell in his hands to control the time.  The proceeding of the conference can be printed out in advance."  I will take these suggestions into consideration the next time I teach this course.

            9. Can the individual appointments to watch your speeches be made more useful or changed in any way?  Most students did not comment here on the evaluations, although most expressed in one way or another during these meetings the usefulness of such as activity.  One student, however, thought he would also benefit from hearing the suggestions the teacher gave for other presentations.  While critiquing in front of a large group can cause students to lose face and also waste class time, in small informal groups I believe this has advantages over individual meetings.  For example, Mary and Max always came for their meetings together and learned from each other.

            10. For the Thursday activities, which were useful, which were not?  What other things could we do?  One student liked a focus on organization: "I think that discussing about how to prepare the contents of the speech, including the writing style and the arrangement of material are also useful."  Another would eliminate the listening practice (and I might agree): "The listening practice was not very useful, because the listening cannot be improved in such time.  The others were useful."

Concluding Remarks

Generally, students were very positive about the course and would recommend it to other students.  Students liked best having the opportunity to speak English regularly and they enjoyed the videotaping because they got their own and teacher feedback.  They wanted the teacher to correct them and make suggestions.  Thus, taking into account the modifications suggested by students, basically I would structure the course in the same way.

The biggest problem came from having students with widely different levels of language ability.  This is a difficult question because, although I had the higher level students in mind, I cannot in good conscience refuse an eager student with poor ability without being able to offer him another option.  The difficulty with presentations from different fields seems to stem more from poor language ability than from the different field; nevertheless, the ideal course would include only students from one general area of study.  While our university structure does not favor such an option, individual graduate institutes could hire an English teacher on a part-time individual basis to teach a specialized course for their students.  At National Tsing Hua University, most science and engineering institutes would willingly find the funds if there were personnel available who could offer such a course.  In places such as Taiwan, where English is so important to the scientific communities and where ties with the United States are strong, the ideal set up would be a presentation course team-taught be a scientific specialist and an EFL specialist; surely even faculty would take advantage of the opportunity to practice their conference presentations with native speakers.

References and Teaching Materials Cited


Dale, P. & Wolf, J.C.  (1988).  Speech communication for international students.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall.

The frugal gourmet.  (1987).  39-part TV series on American food with Jeff Smith, presenter.  Show 425--Philadelphia.  PBS (WTTV, Chicago).

Invention.  Segments on the invention of the bra, turkey calls, the laser to restore art.  Videotaped from STAR-plus, 1993.

Katchen, J. E.  (1992).  Using the video camera to improve speaking and performance skills.  In M. C. Yang (Ed.), Papers from the eighth conference on English language teaching and learning in the Republic of China (pp. 531-540).  Taipei:  The Crane Publishing Co., Ltd.

Katchen, J. E.  (1994).  Public speaking in English for Chinese students.  Taipei:  The Crane Publishing Co., Ltd.

McCarthy, M.  (1995).  When does grammar become discourse?  Videotape of plenary lecture, IATEFL York Conference.

Madden, C. & Myers, C. (Eds.)  (1994).  Discourse and performance of international teaching assistants.  Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.

RELC (Regional English Language Centre).  (1995).  Videotape of final panel discussion of the Regional Seminar "Exploring language, culture, and literature in language learning," April 17 -19, 1995, Singapore.

SPEAK examinee handbook and sample questions.  (1985).  Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

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