5 Public Speaking ESL Activities That’ll Turn Your Students into Toastmasters

Public speaking can be a scary thing.

Also known as glossophobia, the fear of public speaking is a major source of anxiety for roughly 75% of people worldwide.

And as much as we like to say imagining the audience in their underwear helps make public speaking easier, it doesn’t—it just makes you lose your train of thought.

Public speaking is an essential skill everyone needs to have, including your language learners.

The good news is that it gets easier with practice, which is why you should think about teaching public speaking in your classroom.

Below are some ways to shift the spotlight and let your students take center stage.

5 Public Speaking ESL Exercises That Put Your Students in the Spotlight

Why Students Need to Learn Public Speaking

Whether it’s at a wedding, a conference or in a department presentation at work, there’s going to come a time when most students have to speak in front of a crowd.

For high school and university students, this may come in the form of presentations and oral assessments, which could make up a significant portion of their final grade.

Adult students may need to use public speaking skills in the professional world, especially if they’re working in a business setting. In fact, many adult ESL students enroll in classes because they’re required to conduct business meetings in English—and being able to speak confidently and fluently could lead to greater career opportunities.

Practical Benefits of Public Speaking Classes

Even if your students don’t necessarily need to do any public speaking in their daily lives, teaching them the basics of public speaking still provides them with valuable benefits.

First of all, it helps your students build confidence in their English skills. Many people tend to be nervous when speaking in front of a group, and the only way to get them comfortable speaking in front of others is to have them practice. Give students the opportunity to speak in a safe and comfortable environment, and you’ll see them flourish. As a teacher, that’s one of the most rewarding and satisfying things to witness.

Public speaking also gives students a chance to improve their intonation. After all, no one wants to listen to a speech coming from a deadpan, monotone speaker. Not only will intonation practice make your students’ speeches more interesting, they’ll also help them learn how to talk like a native English speaker.

Having students practice giving speeches also does wonders for improving their fluency. Without a partner to carry a conversation for them, your students will have to rely on their own skills, memory and improvisation to deliver a compelling speech. This can be a challenge, but it’s great fun as well.

Finally, these classes are ideal for helping your students to prepare for real-life scenarios—especially adults. Job interviews, meetings with foreign customers and citizenship tests can all be discussed in your public speaking classes. For younger students, these classes can prepare them for passing the TOEIC test, receiving a scholarship or going to an admissions interview at an international university.

Warm-up Exercises to Prepare Students for Public Speaking

Public speaking is a daunting subject for many people, including native English speakers! It’s not something you want to put on your students at the last minute—they need to be primed for it, so that they’re ready mentally and emotionally.

Here are a couple of ways to get your students ready for public speaking.

Show them TED Talks for inspiration

The best way to kick off a public speaking lesson is to show students some examples of how it’s done right.

Playing videos from TED Talks is a fantastic way for your students to see people giving professional-quality presentations in English. The TED Talks website is filled with hundreds of different speakers, with topics ranging from the fascinating world of technology to the meaning of life. You don’t have to trawl through the internet to find the best ones. Here’s a list of excellent TED talks presentations for ESL students, along with guidelines on how to use them in the classroom.

Before playing the video, separate your class into groups of three or four and ask them to think about things they like and don’t like about a presentation as they watch the video. Once the presentation has ended, have your groups write down the positive and negative aspects they observed in the presentation. This will get your students thinking about what kind of techniques they can implement in their own speeches, as well as which mistakes to avoid.

To give your students a well-rounded learning experience, add FluentU to your teaching toolbox.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Teach the importance of body language

Good public speaking skills aren’t just about using clever words and speaking clearly—body language is equally as important. It changes the way we people respond to us, as well as how they interpret our messages. Incidentally, there’s a TED Talk you can show your students covering the power of body language. It’s a good idea to teach your students how to use body language to their advantage, so that they can also master the art of public speaking.

Start by brainstorming different types of body language, like gestures, postures and facial expressions. You can even demonstrate different types of body language for the class by performing actions like smiling, frowning, crossing your arms and more. After introducing body language to the class, ask students to match your examples to various emotions and messages.

The results of this can be surprising because some meanings of expressions and gestures vary depending on the culture. Gestures that may seem polite to your students could be offensive in other countries. For example, the “thumbs up” sign may seem universal for good job, but in Australia, Greece and the Middle East, it could be construed as an offensive insult. If you have time, you might even want to teach an entire lesson on body language and gestures to avoid in cross-cultural situations.

Once you’ve elicited examples of positive and negative body language, coach your students on how to use good body language in their presentations.

5 Stress-free Activities to Practice Public Speaking

The next step is to put all your students’ knowledge to use.

Here are some classroom exercises to help your students practice their public speaking skills and learn how to talk confidently around others.

1. Recite famous speeches

Making a speech is difficult enough, but writing a good one can feel like an impossible challenge to a beginner ESL learner.

Take some of the pressure off your students by letting them practice reciting famous speeches. That way, you can focus on speaking skills without diving into writing or grammar.

Speeches can be taken from historical figures, social media and even movies. If you’re teaching a class of beginners, you could give them a selection of famous short poems to read. For advanced students, try a longer speech, such as John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech.”

2. Give presentations in small groups

Standing alone in front of the class can be a nerve-wracking experience, even for the most gifted of learners.

If your students aren’t ready for solo presentations, have them work in small groups so all of the attention isn’t focused on one individual learner.

This can be done in just about any context, from proposing a business idea to describing how to cook their favorite food. Monitoring their activity can be difficult with several groups working at the same time, so have your students assess each other. Give every student a scoring sheet with criteria covering things like voice projection, timing, entertainment and ease of understanding. As your students listen, each group can score their partners based on this criteria. Then, you can use their scoring sheets to give feedback at the end of the class.

3. Assign solo presentations using PowerPoint

When your students feel ready to come up with their own material, have them prepare their own presentations with the help of PowerPoint.

PowerPoint slides are a great visual aid, as well as a way to make the presentation easier for nervous students.

Depending on your goals and the proficiency level of your class, you can either assign them individual topics or let your students present on a topic they’re passionate about. Just make sure to give them enough time to write a presentation script and create the PowerPoint slides to go along with it. I recommend telling them about the project in advance so they have time to work on their presentations at home. Students who don’t have PowerPoint on their computer can use Google Slides as an alternative. It’s free and just as effective.

4. Do improvised presentations on random topics

Once your students have built up some confidence in their speaking skills, you can start throwing some real challenges at them, like on-the-spot presentations.

Do this by writing out a list of different topics and put them in a hat, bag or any other object the students have to stick their hand into. These topics could be anything from my dream job to the importance of a healthy diet.

Have your students randomly select one topic, and without any preparation time, talk to the class for as long as they can about their chosen topic.

5. Get dramatic with your class

Public speaking doesn’t have to be about presentations. You can change things up a bit by using some drama activities as well. These could include role plays and reenactments of famous movie scenes. While acting, students still use skills like good body language, voice projection, intonation and even improvisation to make their dialogue sound natural and convincing.

Pass the Microphone

A public speaking class is a chance for your students to shine.

While lectures and note taking can be beneficial, nothing compares to the hands-on experience your students get from learning public speaking. That’s why you should keep your teacher talk time to a minimum, speaking just enough to elicit the activities and give feedback. For the rest of the class, let your students do the talking.

Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.

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