Today’s ESL speaking activity can be done in one-on-one tutorials or in larger classes, but ideally with a group. My Timeline provides a creative way to engage learners, but it doesn’t end there. This speaking activity can help ESL students develop their ability to use basic verb tenses in a natural way by talking about themselves.
Class members also have opportunities to talk about significant events in their past, their lives at present, and their plans, goals, or hopes for the future. That makes it meaningful. In addition, My Timeline helps facilitate greater confidence, enhanced vocabulary, presentation skills, and fluency. Plus, it can give you more variety beyond the typical subjects present in ESL conversation classes.
How Do Learners Prepare?
Students should be afforded opportunity to prepare at least 24 hours ahead of time. They can do it on a single PowerPoint slide or print out, or on a piece of poster paper. I’ve seen some elaborate and creative ways of doing this activity. So, don’t stifle creativity or belittle a lack of it. Give learners the freedom to express themselves within the boundaries of the activity. And encourage them to be creative but not lose sight of the fundamentals.
Here’s what a timeline should display:
Students should share significant events in their past starting with their birth. After that, anything they consider important in their lives (e.g. a broken arm, a trip to Disneyland, getting lost in the park, etc.). They would use the past tense accurately to reflect the past. So, for example, they can say, “In July 2009 [pointing], I won the national table tennis championship.” Here, they will be focusing on the past. So, this part reinforces their mastery of past tense forms.
Next, learners plot significant events from their lives in the present. These could be events such as a recent trip to the Maldives, preparing for a test, working at XYZ company, getting a raise, having a baby, etc. They can express it for example as, “These days, I’m preparing for my son’s first day of school in September.” The trick is that they must use the present tense to talk about their lives in the present. It’s a great opportunity for you, the teacher, to incorporate progressive tense when referring to ‘these days.’
Finally, class members will talk about their future: plans, goals, dreams—anything significant they’d like to share. It could be graduating university, going to a new location, or getting married. As long as it’s significant for them and something they want to share, the sky’s the limit! They could share for example, “In 2025 I plan to …,” or “In the next few years, I’m going to …” The idea is that they use the appropriate future tense combinations to express what they want to share about their future.
The image above shows a basic idea of what students need to create for this activity. You can limit the plot points to a certain number. Typically, between 8-10 is a fair number. Again, allow them to be creative. Some students install video clips, others simple text. It just depends on the person and what they want to share.
When it’s time to present their timelines, each student will come forward and display their timeline so all can see. They describe one point then move on to the next. If you have a smaller class, they can add more detail. If it’s a larger class, you can permit more detail but break the activity into two or more meetings. There’s a lot of flexibility built into this activity. It’s up to you as the teacher to let questions be asked at each point or have the class wait till the end of the presentation to ask questions. It really depends on the dynamics of your classroom environment.
Q & A
During or after a class member shares his/her timeline, questions can be solicited. If it’s a one-on-one tutorial, the teacher can simply ask follow-up questions about each point. In a group class, listening class members should be challenged to ask at least one question each person or about each point. This facilitates listening and question formation for them. And, by answering unexpected questions, the presenter is challenged to greater fluency.
Ideally, at the end of the session at least one, some, or all members have presented their timelines and questions have been asked. You shouldn’t interfere too much in the exchanges. Let them happen naturally and spontaneously. You should be more of a facilitator than a lecturer. However, during the activity, you can be taking notes of gross or recurring language issues (e.g. structure, pronunciation, word choices, etc.) that you can address before the end of class. Be sure not to inject feedback while the activity is ongoing so as not to embarrass individual class members. This will cause some to lose face and may do more damage than good.
How Does This Help ESL Learners?
1. My Timeline gets students talking about one of their favourite subjects—themselves. Many people enjoy sharing a little about themselves with others. It’s a familiar topic; at least it should be! And as a familiar topic, your students will have more confidence to talk about it.
More confidence facilitates greater effort and results. Plus, it connects your students with each other by showing the human side of English learning. They also get to know each other better which enhances the learning environment.
2. By permitting them time to prepare the day before, they’re able to think about what they want to say and how to say it. This is a much better approach than a pop-activity without preparation, which tends to stifle the very thing we are trying to promote—more confidence. In knowing what to say, they can develop greater fluency as well. It also gives them an opportunity to prepare for potential questions that may arise.
3. Learners have an opportunity to use English in a meaningful way. They are not talking about distant characters or ideas. They’re talking about events that have meaning for them and expressing it to others. This challenges them to use English in a more communicative way as opposed to the more detached topics that come up in ESL conversation classes.
When it comes to speaking activities, My Timeline fits the bill. It isn’t just a lesson on talking. It provides opportunities for meaningful communication between class members. Not only that, but it facilitates reinforcement of accurate verb tense usage. Combine that with enhancing vocabulary, fostering more confidence, and encouraging fluency, and you have a win-win activity to use in your ESL conversation classes.
Try it out and tell us about your experience in the comments.