ESL Students See the Point of PowerPoint

Michael Morgan helps students find their "presentation voice" and discovers that PowerPoint is an effective learning tool for students and teachers alike. See Ke Xu's Communities of Practice column, "Let’s Blog!", Essential Teacher, March 2008.

The beam of light from the digital projector flickered on a shy ESL student making her way to the multimedia podium. She was clutching a flash drive. I could see her confidence growing as she passed in front of the screen. I pointed out the USB port on my laptop and then got out of the way. She downloaded her file and launched into her Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. She taught her audience of intermediate-level ESL students how to solve problems inherent in a descriptive geometry class. And she taught me. She accomplished this with a list of five problems that engineers face when using pencil and paper to draw designs:

1.      takes too long

2.      hard to read

3.      not very accurate

4.      not efficient

5.      can’t test results

PowerPoint helped her find her own "presentation voice," and she relied on the above list and subsequent slides to clarify problems and solutions instead of resorting to engineering jargon that the students and I would never have understood.

I was delighted but perplexed. Our class was absorbing principles of engineering. We were deep in thought, but as Tufte (2003) cautions, I knew that "bullet outlines dilute thought" (p. 5) by oversimplifying and corrupting smart ideas. Yet the transfer of complex content from ESL presenter to ESL students and teacher was succeeding—again.

What’s the Point of PowerPoint?

In 1990, presentations were moved into the 21st century when PowerPoint became available through Microsoft Office. The bulleted lists organized, outlined, and—most significant—streamlined users' thoughts, which helped them present these thoughts to people faster. Users embraced bulleted lists; they were cutting edge and convenient. Thank goodness Tufte (2006) came along to remind people that "sentences are smarter than the grunts of bullet lists" (p. 170). Tufte outlines the shortcomings of PowerPoint's bulleted lists and how "their lack of syntactic and intellectual discipline . . . simply consists of scattered words in fragmented, pre-sentence grunts" (p. 170). Eloquent rhetoric becomes disjointed after PowerPoint processes it. Good speakers proficient at segueing from one idea to another are vulnerable to the disjointed approach of this software. Their presentations devolve into blurbs because instead of connecting their speech to the audience, they point at bulleted lists.

In addition, presenters who are enamored of design, color, and animation need to be careful not to bury their ideas. Have you ever attended a presentation that had beautiful slides clicking by and, later, you couldn't recall the point of the presentation? Tufte (2003) calls it "phluff, a preoccupation with format not content" (p. 4).

A Unique Match: PowerPoint and ESL

Despite the drawbacks, PowerPoint is a medium that many foreign students in the Digital Age are familiar with in their native languages. This familiarization anchors the software in Krashen and Terrell’s (1983) notion of "owering the affective filter of the students" (p. 21). It makes reticent students more amenable to giving oral presentations. There are no notes to fumble with, only a laptop with a mouse to click. Helpful slides appear on a screen. The audience has something to look at besides a nervous presenter.

On presentation day, volunteers are often easy to come by. Students jump at the opportunity to use their technical savvy to shape presentations. The current iPhone-using, iPod-listening, Wii-playing generation eagerly embraces PowerPoint in ESL. Tufte (2003) is speaking of native-language presenters when he warns about trusting presenters who use PowerPoint "to mask their lousy content" (p. 25). He does not address the issue of ESL students working strenuously on the dual problems of learning to present in an academic setting and doing so in a foreign language that they are still studying. Although PowerPoint interferes with a native speaker's English presentation to an audience, it is a bridge for the ESL presenter. Its slides have boundaries that help students focus their ideas. Students select their words as carefully as they select their layouts.

Many of the students I teach are in technical fields and are not talkative in class. So I had them invent and market an imaginary product. Normally quiet students transformed themselves into speakers using PowerPoint as a means to sell their product like television advertisers. They wrapped up the pitch with an imaginary hyperlink and a toll-free number for customers. Their new-found confidence remained after their presentation ended. They became class participants.

Occasionally, I get students with no experience using PowerPoint. A student from Libya approached me after volunteering to do an ethnic food presentation. A middle-aged man, he was not a student of the Digital Age and was wary of PowerPoint. Every day he sought help with his evolving presentation, so I continued to build instructional scaffolding. At last, he was confident enough to present. He taught our class how to cook couscous with lamb, explained the history of the dish, and identified the nutritional benefits. To my delight, he had mastered the software's technicalities better than I had.

For experienced or inexperienced users, scaffolding is the method to use in assigning PowerPoint projects to ESL students (Bill Perry, personal communication, July 1, 2007). First, I define the students' topics with them on paper. Second, I give them a hard-copy checklist of objectives and show a sample presentation. I invite them to e-mail their PowerPoint file to me before they present. Students sometimes cram too many words on slides or use bulleted lists that are too minimal. Monitoring their use of slideware text ensures that the words they choose do not disconnect their speech from the audience. Finally, I instruct them not to read aloud from slides. PowerPoint is not their presentation; it is a tool that guides their presentation.

The Power of PowerPoint in Teacher Presentations

Not Phluff

As teachers, we resort to the media that technology affords. Most of us do not abandon the textbook because we know that technology rings hollow as a replacement for explanatory text. PowerPoint is a dynamic vehicle for preparing students to read, preparation that involves "activating and building background knowledge" (Aebersold & Field, 1997, p. 67). I featured a PowerPoint introduction about Stephen Hawking to prepare students to summarize an article about the scientist and his warnings for our planet. I mixed a few biographical sentences, some quotes by Hawking, and an instantly recognizable photo of him. To introduce an article on global warming, I selected a dozen photos out of thousands on the Web. No students lack background knowledge when their teacher can show them the perils of global warming right in their own country—from erosion in Bangladesh to glaciers melting in Iceland. Photos of Hawking and global warming are not phluff.

PowerPoint Without the Screen

I felt free of PowerPoint's constraints once I aimed the digital projector at the whiteboard. I wrote student responses into blank lines with a dry erase marker. Writing and erasing gave my models and exercises a flexibility that engaged students. Moreover, supplanting a screen with the whiteboard revealed a writing surface unobstructed by the projector. PowerPoint was confined to one side of the whiteboard, and the cognitive power of both media increased.

PowerPoint provided me with a way to work basketball, the top-rated sport in my classes, into a cloze exercise for one-comma appositives and for increasing adjective vocabulary:

I like basketball. Basketball is _________ and _________.

I like basketball, a(n) ________ and _________ sport.

Reducing ideas and complete sentences to bullet point grunts is problematic, but as ESL teachers we can edit those grunts into sounds of literacy. In writing class, I used PowerPoint to build topic sentences and deconstruct grammar. The slides, with their limited space, are ideal for grammar. They helped me decide "how to divide the English language into meaningful chunks and how to sequence the chunks in a way most likely to facilitate their acquisition" (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1983, p. 2). Deciding what cannot fit on a PowerPoint slide is as important as deciding what can. It forces teachers to make the chunks more meaningful.

Tufte (2003) has no use for PowerPoint templates: "Designer format will not salvage weak content" (p. 24). But I don’t use designer formats. I use bare-bones formats with many blanks for students to supply content. I am amazed at the rate and depth of vocabulary that flows from students. I try to keep pace by scribbling their samples on the whiteboard, erasing, and scribbling more and faster.

Control PowerPoint

PowerPoint, though easy to misuse, can be quite effective in ESL. It exists as part of many ESL students' prior knowledge. And it is not just students who benefit from using it. ESL teachers can also take advantage of PowerPoint's building-block approach to language in order to craft presentations.

Beware the software's pitfalls, of course, such as bulleted lists that scrimp on words. Also, don't let the bells and whistles mislead students. Keep student presentations under 11 slides, cut phluff, and prohibit ubiquitous homemade video clips. You must accept standard or electronically transmitted templates in PowerPoint, but you can control how they are used. PowerPoint is an application, not a dictator. By controlling it, you can nurture skills that ESL students need.


Aebersold, J. A., & Field, M. L. (1997). From reader to reading teacher: Issues and strategies for second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1983). The grammar book. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. D. (1983). The natural approach. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Tufte, E. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Tufte, E. (2006). Beautiful evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Michael Morgan ( teaches ESL and is coordinator of the American Language and Culture Program at the University of Detroit Mercy, Michigan, in the United States.