There is a current blog challenge floating around the ELT twittersphere, prompted by this post. So, needing to take a break from lesson planning and research, I thought I’d give a little behind-the-scenes look at both my blogs – AnthonyTeacher.com and ELT Research Bites. Continue reading
Do you remember the scene in The Dead Poets Society where a student reads a passage on how to measure poetry on an X- and Y- axis, and then John Keating (Robin Williams) has students rip out those pages?
How can the muddled mess and maxims of poetry be codified into a formulaic scale of “greatness”? Well, if you agree with that scene, then you probably agree that the five-paragraph essay must go. Continue reading
I have had a love/hate relationship with coursebooks, moving every term close and closer to the “hate” side. I have written in their defense, and most recently against them, for the most part. I also enjoy indulging in the just cruelty of Geoff Jordan’s ceaseless attacks against coursebooks, with him constantly offering a summary of coursebooks’ more damning qualities: 1) they assume declarative becomes procedural knowledge1, 2) they assume language is learned in a linear fashion2, and 3) learners learn what they are taught. At the 2017 TESOL conference in Seattle, I gravitated towards sessions that dealt with subverting or suspending coursebooks or their content, in particular a session on the myths of the five paragraph essay (common coursebook fodder)
Admittedly, hate is a very strong term. Depending on the book, I find some to be useful supplements, some to be annoying, others to be a nuisance, and still others to be a downright hindrance. This term, I have been lucky enough to teach coursebook free for one of my courses – an advanced listening and speaking course that has a thematic focus on US history. I can’t explain just how liberated I feel in this course! Not having a book means I don’t have to become a contortionist, trying to fit in curricular goals, interesting content, and other important skills, all the while using the damn book because they students have it with them every day.
Instead, I’m using content in the classroom, and what I have fully realized is that textbooks are not content, and the “content” in textbooks is also not content. Because they are presented as exercises, practice, tools, they seem to be mostly disconnected from the entire purpose of language: learning and communication. They are what Leki and Carson (1997) referred to as something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”. Yes, students can learn from the texts in a book, but there is always that sense that they are in a language classroom, moving on from one page to the other, one topic to the other, without building up an substantial knowledge of a topic. Leki, in another article, argued that this topical knowledge building is an important tool for true engagement with a text. In other words, when there is a greater purpose – learning rather than practice, students are truly reading for meaning and reading to go beyond only language development skills.
So, does that mean we don’t have language practice? Nope, not at all. There is still vocabulary, there is still grammar to work with, there is still bottom-up listening practice, structured and open speaking practice, and so on. However, this language work is all done to facilitate our main goal of learning a subject rather than learning English.
So, does this mean I spend hours preparing materials? Nope, not at all. In fact, I’m actually finding that I can spend less time preparing (or contorting, as I mentioned earlier) and can go slower and offer more discussion and activities because I don’t have to rush to move from my material to the book in order to feel like student’s got their money’s worth. In fact, I think that by learning a subject through English, they are getting more bang for their buck than by finishing a few units in a coursebook.
So, does this mean I am scouring the internet for resources every week? Nope, not at all. Instead, I am using a staple of articles from Newsela, VOA History, and a lecture series from The Great Courses as my main sources of material. For example, this week, we are learning about immigration in America throughout its history. We started with several background articles on immigration, are working our way through the lecture (which includes various listening and speaking activities), and next week, we will be reading about Emma Lazarus, who penned the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” in the poem “The New Colossus”, which was written to help fundraise the Statue of Liberty and can be found in the museum at its base. This article references Donald Trump and makes a great transition to understanding the immigration issues of the present. We’ll also be watching a clip from The Search for General Tso to look at Chinese immigration and how to explain why Chinese people make up 1.5% of our population, yet there are three times more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds. Needless to say, the content is useful and numerous.
I was yearning to breathe free, and now, like Lady Liberty, the chain lies broken at my feet. I am wondering if I can simply stop here. When I think of all the ways I could teach a course without a coursebook, Lady Liberty’s torch burns bright in my mind!
Pryjatys hen Belma
- This is one of Jordan’s arguments that I tend to disagree with, as Skill Acquisition theory is a well researched area that does show a connection between practice (with feedback) and the internalization of a skill.
- Sometimes I wonder if Jordan is only referring to grammar books, or books that rely heavily on a grammar-based syllabus. Does this particular argument hold true for a book based on a functional syllabus or a topical syllabus? What about books with little to no grammar? His point, I think, is that there needs to be a greater focus on emergent grammar, and that can never be found in a book.
Here, you can find both my PowerPoint (in PDF format) and my handout from my presentation today (March 23) at TESOL 2017 In Seattle. My presentation looked at my research comparing university writing tasks and EAP coursebook writing tasks.
Thanks for attending or checking out my material. Comments and feedback are appreciated!
Last year at the 2016 SETESOL conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I attended a presentation on using student samples in summary writing instruction. The presentation was given by Dr. Cui Zhang, and it consisted of a literature review and her own action research. I was intrigued by the idea because, unlike peer review where effectiveness is hit or miss and the focus could be on anything from grammar to structure, analyzing student examples allows for the precise identification and evaluation of specific aspects of a writing. This type of analysis allows students to see various ways students were able to successfully or unsuccessfully achieve a specific goal, one which they also have attempted. I recently incorporated Zhang’s ideas with not only summary writing but also response writing and short-answer writing, and I saw immediate positive results in student revisions and subsequent writing. Therefore, I wanted to share these ideas with you.
What Does the Research Say?
- Baba, 2009: Reading comprehension plays a large role in successful summary writing, while the role of lexical proficiency varies. However, “well-structured semantic network of words and the ability to productively use this network as well as the L2 writer’s metalinguistic knowledge” also has an influence.
- Keck, 2006: L2 writers paraphrase less and copy more of a source text than L1 writers.
- Demaree et al., 2008: Students feel that summary writing is useful, and it is better done when there is an authentic purpose (such as preparing for an exam). Students feel the only summary writing audience is themselves and it is not very helpful for others.
- McDonough et al., 2014: Summary writing improves over time, but requires explicit instruction and may be a lengthy process. The authors looked at reference to the source (increase), verbatim copying (increase in frequency, decrease in length), a “phrase-level modifications” (no change). According to the authors: “the path toward eliminating textual misappropriation may be both indirect and lengthy.”
- Becker, 2016: Students who develop or practice applying a rubric show greater increases in summary writing performance.
Zhang’s Action Research
The goal of Zhang’s research was to see if students could reliably judge summaries written by their peers and then use these judgments to improve their own summary writing. Zhang worked with 9 students in a university-level ESL course. After a text was read and summaries were written, Zhang collected the summaries and chose several for analysis. They analyzed the summaries without a rubric and discussed their judgments. They read a second article and then produced another summary.
Overall, Zhang found that students could all find the weaknesses or strengths in the summaries and their own summary writing did improve, though not to the point of perfection. She recommends that summary improvement will take time. She also recommends that using previous students’ writing rather than writings from the current students may reduce some reluctance to judge their peers.
Summaries – In my classes, I followed a similar procedure for this article. However, I used a modified checklist rubric to help students evaluate the summaries. I gave students a handout with 4 summaries collected from students. They were modified for clarity (grammar, spelling) and were chosen because they represented very poor, fair, and great summaries. Here is an example (note: the bullets on the right were actually check boxes):
|Although sleepiness is a part of life, it seems difficult for schools to start school late. The students can change their schedule to get enough sleep. Whether someone likes it or not, adequate sleep is important for our lives, and it’s especially necessary for children. The more sleep, the healthier and happier life people will have.||This summary…
From the four different examples, most students were able to identify the best summary and understand what it had that the others were lacking. After the group discussions, a class discussion of each summary entailed, each time highlighting the elements that were missing or included. This was an attempt to be explicit and reinforce what a good summary contained.
After this activity, students revised their summaries. About a week later, they also wrote new summaries, and for many I saw great improvement. In particular, there were more references to the original source text (According to [author], in [title],…) and less verbatim copying. However, there were still issues with including main ideas and excluding irrelevant details. This showed me that being able to identify what is important was something that needed to be focused on more in class.
Responses – A summary is a pretty straight forward genre that requires students to simply retell important details using new words. Responses, on the other hand, are more varied in terms of content. With only minor directions (“Give your evaluation of the article”) and no instruction, student responses to this article went from clear evaluation of the original text to complete departures and explorations of students’ own, often unrelated, opinions. I saw another chance for students to analyze student samples and improve their writing.
Since no students completed the assignment correctly, I collected 3 student samples and wrote a fourth. I then created another check list rubric that students could use to evaluate the articles. Students discussed the responses together and then we discussed them as a class. Here is an example from the handout:
|I agree with the PRO statement that people should eat less meat. First, eating less meat is healthy for us. People will be less obese and avoid disease. Second, we should eat more fruit, vegetables and cereals. These plants need to use machines and they need to use the power. People should use more solar energy, wind energy and water energy to generate electricity. Finally, we should plant more trees because the trees can help reserve the water and prevent soil erosion.||
For this rubric, I was trying to direct students to the fact that a response to an article is not simply an opinion of the topic but an analysis of the ideas contained in the article. In other words, the focus should still be on the article, not only the student’s opinion. And even when the opinion is given, it must be clearly related to the ideas in the article. This seemed like the first time students encountered such an assignment and the evaluation clearly – hence me writing a fourth example. As with the summaries, student revisions and subsequent writings showed some improvement.
Short Answer – Seeing a pattern in students writing and their familiarity with writing assignments, I preempted difficulty with short answer writing assignments and gave students explicit and step-by-step instructions in both understanding the question and writing the answer. Working with this text on driverless cars, we first looked at the default writing prompt from Newsela:
Summarize the central idea of either the PRO or the CON article in a few lines. What claims made by the author of the chosen article are not supported by evidence? Give two-three examples from the text to better illustrate your point.
We analyzed this assignment by breaking it down into parts:
- In your own words, write the main idea of the PRO or CON article in a sentence or two
- Answer this question: What claims are weak because they lack evidence?
- Answer this question: What are two or three examples that show there is a lack of evidence.
Students seemed genuinely surprised that the question was very complex. Therefore, this question analysis proved to be very valuable. We then discussed how to answer this question in a paragraph and wrote a model answer together. For homework, I had students consider the driverless car article as well as this article about a horseless carriage. I then gave them the choice of answering ONE of these questions:
- What similarities exist between horseless carriages and driverless cars? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point.
- How do technological advances like new types of automobiles affect everyday life? Use one or two examples from each article to explain past or future changes.
- Do you think the author of this article would share similar opinions (or tones) as the PRO or CON author? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point. (no students answered this question).
I collected the student examples in the next class and redistributed them to students individually. I then gave each student the following rubric:
|Did they try to answer all parts of the question?
Only one part: 1 point | Both parts: 2 points
|Did they provide evidence from both articles?
Only one article: 1 point | Both articles: 2 points
|Did they do a good job answering the question?
Yes (3 pts) No (1 pt) Maybe (2 pts)
(please explain on the back of this paper)
|Did they use phrases such as “according to” or “the author states”?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
|Did they give extra details that were unnecessary?
Yes (-1 pt) No (1 pt)
|Did they write a summary?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
|Did they give an opinion that was unrelated to the questions?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
|Was the answer easy to understand?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
|TOTAL||__ / 12|
Students had about 20 minutes to read and analyze the answer they were given. I assisted students with answering questions, and I prompted students to leave clear feedback on the back of the paper. As students worked, I made sure their analyses were accurate, and if I disagreed with a student, I asked them to provide justification for me. Sometimes I had to gently nudge students to fix their analysis because they had clearly misunderstood something. However, more times than not, students noticed something that I had overlooked.
After the 20 minutes, I collected the answers and the rubrics and redistributed them to the appropriate students. I then gave students the rest of class to revise their answers, if necessary, and ask me any questions to clarify or improve their writing. For most students, there was immediate improvement. On a subsequent reading test that involved a short-answer question, I saw more answers that fully answered all parts of the questions, something they had been previously lacking.
I found that getting students to analyze student samples was very effective at not only understanding what good writing should contain, but also at helping to clarify writing expectations, something that is often hard to communicate, especially with unfamiliar genres or complex assignments. For most of these assignments, I provided rubrics beforehand, but students often do not pay attention to them. However, even if students had focused on them, I believe that providing rubrics afterward, focusing greater applied attention on them, and then allowing students to revise their writing could have a great positive impact on their writing.
Baba, K. (2009). Aspects of lexical proficiency in writing summaries in a foreign language. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(3), 191-208.
Becker, A. (2016). Student-generated scoring rubrics: Examining their formative value for improving ESL students’ writing performance. Assessing Writing, 29, 15-24.
Demaree, D., Allie, S., Low, M., & Taylor, J. (2008, October). Quantitative and qualitative analysis of student textbook summary writing. In C. Henderson, M. Sabella, & L. Hsu (Eds.), AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 1064, No. 1, pp. 107-110). AIP.
Keck, C. (2006). The use of paraphrase in summary writing: A comparison of L1 and L2 writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 15(4), 261-278.
McDonough, K., Crawford, W. J., & De Vleeschauwer, J. (2014). Summary writing in a Thai EFL university context. Journal of second language writing, 24, 20-32.
I was lucky enough to get a PRO subscription to Newsela and the chance to pilot using it as a main text source in an intermediate reading course this term. This blog post will detail my (and my students) experiences using Newsela for 8 weeks, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it could be used in your own classes.
What is Newsela?
Newsela is a visually appealing, daily news website that offers readings on current events, current issues, primary sources, historical articles, and a plethora of other categories (e.g. science, art, government, etc.). You can find historical texts in the Time Machine, speeches, biographies, important historical documents (in Primary Sources), and even Greek myths. There is enough content to fit almost any course.
Each article is offered at 5 levels, from the original level (Max) to levels as low and 4th or 5th grade. Articles are adapted in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure while keeping the essential ideas from the original. Each article also has a 4-question quiz and a writing prompt. Readers can also use highlighter/annotation tools. Newsela is useful for both extensive or intensive reading.
What is Newsela PRO?
With PRO, you have the ability to make classes, assign articles, collect students’ quiz scores, grade writing prompts, and access analytics about students’ reading behaviors. While you cannot customize the quiz, you can customize the writing prompt. You can provide annotations to students (with the ability for students to reply) and see student highlights. You also have access to PRO teacher resources, which give ideas on how to use articles in class, including activities, companion texts, etc. This includes access to suggested annotations for many articles. Finally, you can also create “Text Sets” – groups of Newsela articles. You cannot assign a set, but you can use the set to organize related readings or give students independent reading choices (note: you do have access to students’ independent reading through the PRO dashboard).
How Did I Use Newsela?
Our class had a main coursebook (21st Century Reading, level 3) and Newsela was used as an equal companion (as opposed to a subordinate supplement) to this text. Based on the articles in the coursebook, I found related articles on Newsela and assigned them as required reading and typically included discussion and activities using the articles in class. I required students to complete a quiz for each article, though this was not for a course grade but rather to test the analytics ability of Newsela PRO. I sometimes added writing prompts, but more often I gave separate writing assignments via Google Classroom. These typically required more work, space, formatting or steps than the simple Newsela writing prompt box would allow students.
What Activities Did I Do?
- Martin Luther King, jr.
- MLK’s birthday occurred during the beginning of our term, so I used that opportunity to introduce both Newsela and MLK via his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Students read the article in class (in the lab) and then answered discussion questions. Then, we had a whole-class discussion about race and MLK’s influence. I originally planned to extend the lesson by having students read this set and come to class prepared to discuss whether MLK’s “dream” has been realized or not. Unfortunately, time constraints forced me to skip this extension.
- Donald Trump’s travel ban made news during this term. Students had expressed interest in discussing this topic. Instead of just giving students articles on the travel ban, I first had students gather some background on the history of immigration to the United States. Students read this article to prepare them for the discussion. In addition, students practiced their ability to understand numbers by highlighting (and writing down on a worksheet) interesting statistics and the years in which they occurred. In class the next day, we discussed the numbers and the history of immigration. Students then completed a jigsaw reading activity based on an article related to the travel ban and an article related to the wall. After discussing the articles in groups, students worked together to answer one question: Do trumps activities support the value of the United States? They had to use the immigration background article to ascertain America’s values and then compare those against Trump’s actions, making a great discussion and a great comparison activity.
- The second unit that we used in the book was about economics. The article in the book begun with an interesting quote by Robert Kennedy:
- “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
- The focus of this unit was to understand how a nation is measured and to introduce happiness as one metric of measurement. Before reading this article, I wanted students to have a good understanding of GDP, so students read a background article, which we used to introduce the topic in class. The coursebook article was based on a TED Talk by Nic Marks and the Happiness Planet Index. Most of the week’s focus was on visual literacy and reading different charts related to this topic. However, we also worked on inferencing and applying an author’s ideas to a different text. In the coursebook article, the author identified certain things as positive or negative. So, to extend this skill, I had students read this article about global warming and then apply Marks’ perspective to it, deciding whether he would consider the article to be positive and negative, as well as offering evidence as to why. This activity was tough for students, as it required finding evidence, identifying perspective, and comparing two articles. However, it was also good practice and informed a lively discussion.
- Continuing our work with the article in the book, we looked at how the article compared two different ideas. We then used this article to write a summary in which two ideas are compared (as opposed to a just-the-facts linear summary). To give students independent practice, we read and analyzed this PRO/CON article about meat and global warming and then students summarized it on their own following the comparison model we had done previously.
- Finally, we extended our use of this PRO/CON article by looking at response writing as part of the summary-response genre. Typically, students take the response section to be a chance for them to give their own opinion, often disconnected from the article. So, we focused on how to choose ideas for evaluation and then how our evaluations serve as opinions. After students wrote their responses, I collected 4 exemplars and we analyzed them together in class following a rubric. Students then had a chance to rewrite their responses following this analysis.
- The second unit that we used in the book was about economics. The article in the book begun with an interesting quote by Robert Kennedy:
- Our next unit was about cyborgs and technology. Newsela has a great number of articles about cyborgs and people with prostheses. However, I chose to include a PRO/CON article about driverless cars because I wanted students to continue working with various perspectives and evidence and the opportunities to evaluate these against each other. We used this article to prepare for a class debate. Students read the article and then worked in groups to analyze the evidence on both sides of the debate. They then took sides and focused on developing arguments and counter-arguments. Finally, we had a tennis-style whole-class debate that was engaging for everyone.
- We used this text and the coursebook text to learn how to correctly answer short-answer writing questions. Students had been having trouble fully answering such questions, often times providing one part or a half-answer. This was because they were not carefully reading the questions and realizing they were actually multi-part questions asking students to do several things. So, we used this article to practice that. The questions I had students answer required them to apply authors’ ideas by looking at the definition of what a cyborg is and using that to answer, in writing, whether someone using a driverless car is a cyborg. Most said yes, but some said no. They had to cite evidence from the coursebook text to support their idea.
- As a follow-up, students read this article from 1896 about the introduction of horseless carriages (part of Newsela’s “Time Machine” series). Students worked together to compare and contrast the horseless carriage to the driverless car. Surprisingly, there were more similarities than differences.
- The last unit in the coursebook we read dealt Aziz Abu Sarah’s experiences with at the world cup and how that event can be seen as a bridge building event. We looked at identifying an article’s purpose and then identifying an author’s tone. We then looked at an article about mixed-race children and teens in Seattle in order to analyze each student’s tone based on the words they said.
- Throughout the term, I used Newsela readings as part of formal assessments in class. I took readings and made them into quizzes to assess reading comprehension, summary writing, response, short-answer writing, etc. For the final writing assessment, I asked students to choose an article from a text set I put together that was related to cultural conflict and had students submit a summary, response, and comparison.
How Can Newsela Be Used
As my examples show, Newsela can be used in a number of ways: as a source for background reading, as a main text from which to practice various intensive reading skills, as a set of texts to build topical knowledge and expertise, as a means to integrate reading and writing at lower levels, and even as a source for articles to use with Academic Reading Circles.
Really, there are any number of ways to use Newsela. The main point being that there is always new content, and you can almost always find something interesting to read. It just takes a bit of creativity on how to best employ it in the classroom.
Newsela & Newsela PRO: Disadvantages
While I am a huge fan of Newsela and have found it to be immensely helpful in this course and others, it is not without its issues.
For Newsela PRO, I found it to be extremely convenient to be able to assign and track students’ reading assignment fromNewsela PRO’s binder feature. I liked seeing analytics such as how long they read for, their quiz scores at various levels, and their independent reading. However, I found the Write prompt to be less useful than giving assignments on Classroom – it is far too limited and suitable only for the most basic prompts, ones that require little to no feedback or revision.
In addition, while the analytics were interesting, I am not so sure about their accuracy. One of my students was ranked in the highest percentile on Newsela based on quiz scores yet he was average or below average in terms of reading quizzes and writing assessments given in class. I’m not sure how to make sense of this discrepancy. Is Newsela too easy? Am I too difficult? In addition, some of my higher level students (in class) scored lower than expected on Newsela, often times owing to understanding the quiz questions, which can sometimes be difficult for students.
Is the PRO account worth it? In general, if your program is willing to pay for the PRO account, then I would definitely go for it. However, don’t let money stand in your way of using this great resource – what they offer for free is completely adequate and can be exploited to almost the same level as I have outlined above.
Are there any other issues with Newsela? Sure. Their app on iPhone and Android is terrible. Students had a lot of issues with it, including the app not refreshing to show new assignments. They often had to log out and log back in to see assignments. On both the app and the website, the Binder was not always easy for students to use. They often didn’t know they had assignments waiting for them. Newsela should definitely add some way for students to be notified of assignments, or at least make it more noticeable.
In addition, Newsela’s cookies are terrible. By this, I mean that I am constantly having to log-in to the website. It never remembers me and keeps me logged in. This is very minor, but it is quite annoying to always have to log in.
Finally, in terms of content, sometimes the adapted levels are too simple and consist only of simple sentences. While this is easy to read, the overuse of simple sentences seems limiting. Using complex sentences with adverbials or subordinating conjunctions would not necessarily increase difficulty. Doing so would allow students to see how ideas relate more clearly. Using these kinds of structures combined with simple lexis could serve as a way to introduce students more slowly to features of academic and higher level discourse.
Again, issues aside, I have an overall positive assessment of Newslea, but, what about my students? I had 14 students in my class and I surveyed them on using Newsela. Here are the questions and responses.
What are some reasons you liked Newsela?
|New information, new vocabulary|
|A lot of interesting tipics|
|I read some article to improve my reading and know news in English.|
|I like simple web site system|
|have different level|
|I can choose the level in each aticle.|
|Fresh and advanced topic.|
|easy to know what level you are|
|Because newsela has many subjects in diffrente fileds|
|I can search meaning easly|
|You can change the levels, which is very nice to those low level readers such like me. I felt Newsela is very friendly to me.|
What are some reasons you disliked Newsela?
|Newsela has some negative topics|
|Too much difficult issue|
|Article is long|
Think about Newsela and the textbook. Which did you like more and why?
|Textbook, it’s more easy to understand than Newsela|
|Newsela because it is more clearly than the book|
|Newsela more simple with the quiz|
|I am prefer to Newsela because it is clearly for understanding.|
|I like Newsela more then text book because it can be change the reading level.|
|textbook have video|
|Newsela is more interesting.
Anytime, anywhere I can read or study English, especially I can choose appropriate level for me.
|Newsela APP. is the best tool I like.|
|Newsela. Because that makes you clearly to know which level is more suit to yourself.|
|I like newsela for tha same reason I wrote it in the previous question|
|I will choose Newsela because there are a lot of interesting articles and you can make activities|
|Newsela, because I have more choices.|
I hope I have made it clear that Newsela is a very useful tool for any reading or writing course, at almost any level. I will continue to promote Newsela as both a supplement and replacement for the coursebook. I will continue to work on different ways to use Newsela in the EAP classroom, including integrating reading and writing at lower levels.
While preparing to use Newsela PRO, I became a Newsela Certified Educator, so you may even see me presenting about some of these ideas at ELT-related conferences! It is my hope that students can engage with content that is recent, relevant, and interesting. I hope that students engage with this content through reading, informed writing, and informed discussion. I see Newsela as an important tool to help make this happen.
PechaKucha has become quite a popular presentation format, perhaps coming in just under TED’s level of infamy. Like TED, there are a number of “PechaKucha Nights” popping up in cities and at universities around the world. It has enjoyed this rise in status for good reason: people like the brevity, the visual appeal, and the informality.
PechaKuchas are typically 6 minute 40 second presentations consisting of 20 slides (or images) displayed for 20 seconds each. Each slide automatically advances until the end, ensuring a presentation that is fast-paced, information dense, and has an end in sight. This model means that a number of speakers can present in a relatively short period of time.
PechaKucha makes a great presentation tool for the English language classroom. The goal of this blog post is to detail some of these reasons and show how PechaKucha can be adapted for almost any context. My own project examples will also be given at the end.
1. They Are Short
30-minute group presentations are great in theory: students can share a lot of information and display in-depth research on important topics. But, how many can you fit in one class? In one week? In one term? PechaKuchas will never be as thorough as the long-form presentation, but for typical class sizes (10 or more) they can be fit easily into 1 or 2 50-minute periods, especially if they are modified.
The short time of PechaKuchas has a number of benefits. First, it means you can fit many presentations into a single day or two, even building in a period of Q&A that still doesn’t tack on too much in terms of time. Second, because you can do so much in so little time, you can give students multiple chances over a term or semester to give presentations. That is, you can give them multiple chances to hone their presentation skills. The long-form group presentation, or even the 10-minute individual presentation, does not usually allow for this. Third, you are working to the audience’s attention span. Paying attention is hard. Paying attention in a second language is even harder. There is a place and time to have an intense focus, but perhaps presentations are not the best, especially if the presenters are struggling or they did not follow directions completely (i.e. its their first presentation ever). The PechaKucha model allows students in the audience to have sustained but relatively short focus – a kind of practiced or scaffolded exercise in paying attention. And, given that the model is visual, somewhat informal, and is more conducive to speaking rather than “reading” a presentation, the PechaKucha presentation itself is usually more enjoyable to watch.
The typical PechaKucha is a 20×20 6:40 presentation. However, as you will see below, this can easily be modified into a 10×20 3:30 presentation (for larger classes) or even a 5×30. Really, any combination of times and slides could work so long as the presentation stays true to the principle of PechaKucha.
2. They are Visual and Text-Averse
PechaKuchas appeal to audiences because they are extremely visual. A single slide usually consists of one or two images, and, not text walls – no long blocks of text that the speaker then reads to the audience. Each slide’s visual can either serve as background support for the speaker or can be directly referred to by the speaker. Plus this type of minimalist structure is often considered a good design principle for presentations, namely because it puts the focus on the speaker.
4. They Require Practice
Because students cannot rely on the text on the screen, they must put greater emphasis on practicing their presentation, memorizing their presentation, and/or preparing notes. Timing here is also important. Because the slides automatically advance, students need to make sure their information is timed correctly. Therefore, they need to practice. Increased practice means increased speaking (in private or public, to one’s self or their friends), which hopefully means increase in fluency. This format moves students away from “reading a presentation” (from a script or from slides) to speaking more naturally.
5. They Promote “Skills”
PechaKuchas do not sacrifice skills for time. Discourse markers used during formal presentations can also be used during PechaKuchas. Warming up an audience, introducing topic, background, shifting topics, exemplification, definition, explanation – all of these moves and their rhetorical phrases can still be included. While PechaKuchas cannot allow for the long-form exposition or for in-depth explanations of background, research methods, stats, or analysis, they do offer something longer presentation formats do not: conciseness. For a successful PechaKucha, students need to be able to explain complex ideas or details in a compact way. They need to get to the point, and quick. This is a skill that is useful inside and outside the classroom, for almost any context!
6. They Can be Modified
As I mentioned above, PechaKuchas can be modified. Here are a few examples of modified PechaKuchas I have recently used:
10×20 PechaKucha (3:30)
After watching a model PechaKucha and explaining the traditional PechaKucha format, students were given the following instructions:
|| 10×20 PechaKucha (3:30)
Students did a final presentation based on an interesting topic and their own survey research. I gave them an example presentation outline that could help them structure their PechaKucha:
There was a 3-minute period of question and answer afterwards. This presentation took two classes (two days)
I also took the opportunity to go over more “presentation phrases” that we had learned from listening to lectures and TED talks.
|| 5 slide PechaKucha (2:40)
Students used this as part of the extensive reading program. They have read various books all term and ended with a presentation on their favorite book.
This was a highly structured and short PechaKucha due to the limited class time and the limited time during the week to do it. However, students worked hard and employed a number of skills we had worked on for reading, namely summarization and evaluation.
I’m not disparaging the long-form presentation. There is certainly a place for that, especially in EAP. I am, however, trying to stress that PechaKucha – in its original or modified forms – may be more appropriate or more effective in certain contexts.
Of course, maybe you already do something like this in your class.You don’t need to call it a PechaKucha (in fact, for the last example above, I didn’t). The basic principles of being brief and having only visuals is common sense and hopefully common place. For those looking for a new way to do presentation, or some ideas on how to adapt their current projects, its my hope that the principles of PechaKucha inspire greater presentations for the sake of the student….and for the sake of the audience who has to listen to that student (the teacher included).