Overcoming Barriers to Develop Presentation Skills

Craven College

Often undervalued, overlooked and seen as the ‘easy bit’ of a Functional Skills or GCSE English qualification, spoken language took centre stage in this project which focused around the development of presentation and communication skills of both adult and 16-18 year old learners.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Vocational and English GCSE tutors collaborated to establish a holistic approach to overcoming learners’ barriers to spoken language assessments. Part time adult learners benefited from carefully structured scaffolding activities to prepare them for assessed Functional Skills presentations.


Rather than requesting spoken language assessments from feeder schools, all GCSE students at Craven College complete their GCSE spoken language presentations in vocational sessions with the intention of supporting links between vocational and English teachers and to encourage a holistic approach to developing learners’ English language, vocational and personal and employability skills. However, staff and students’ lack of confidence has meant that previous GCSE spoken language assessments have often represented missed opportunities; side-lined, rushed and scripted.

Similarly, patterns of dipping attendance and increasing disengagement from adult GCSE and Functional Skills English courses during the spring terms when tutors have previously introduced assessed presentations has indicated significant barriers for adult learners, which then required addressing. In 2018/19, three out of a group of ten GCSE adult learners left the course during the period of spoken language assessment because of their lack of confidence and perceived lack of ability in this skill.

This project sought to identify some of the barriers to presentations, to experiment with different approaches and identify good practice in tackling this issue.

Two other factors behind the rationale for this project are the introduction of short ‘talks’ at Level 1 in the new Functional Skills standards and the Education Inspection Framework’s (EIF) increased emphasis on developing learners’ wider skills, confidence and behaviours, both of which also indicate a welcome recognition by policy-makers of the importance of spoken language development for young people and adults.


Three tutors were directly involved in this project to explore different approaches across two groups of learners. A GCSE English and vocational business tutor worked with a group of 10 students aged between 16 and 18 studying business management at Level 2, five of whom were studying GCSE English having achieved a grade 3 in their exams in school.

The English and Business tutors jointly planned a programme of intent for the first term which embedded opportunities to develop presentation skills, covering both the spoken language assessment and relevant Level 2 NCFE Business Unit criteria. Over an 8-week period, learners then carried out 4 mini presentations about themselves to their peers. Starting with 30 second presentations, the tutors gave specific feedback for improvement such as having less reliance on notes and improving eye contact.

Every other week, the learners repeated the presentation with the aim of demonstrating progress, having acted on their feedback. Learners were also required to speak for longer each time, building up to 3 minutes and to increase their use of visual resources and prompts from one picture to two and then a series of slides or prompt cards or images. A simple tracker, shared with students, captured learners’ progress (Figure 12b-1).

Following this cycle of targeted feedback and improvement, tutors and learners jointly planned their next steps in which learners began to prepare for their GCSE presentations, spending time doing so during their vocational sessions with support from both tutors. The learners acted on previous feedback to prepare 5-minute presentations in which they reviewed a book.

The Business tutor allowed time during vocational sessions for learners to read their novels and prepare presentations and then jointly filmed and assessed their final presentations during GCSE English lessons, celebrating this achievement collectively with learners. Both tutors used the presentation structures to support learners’ writing skills, with the GCSE tutor linking book review presentations to the non-fiction writing task, using the presentation skills as a springboard for further skills development.

The project leader and Head of English and maths worked with a group of 9 Functional Skills English Level 2 adult learners in an evening class, the majority of whom intended to progress onto Access to HE to pursue new careers such as in midwifery and nursing. All these learners had a Grade D or below at GCSE and required Level 2 Functional Skills in order to progress.

The approach taken with adult learners was to introduce presentation skills in the first week in September and to scaffold support to develop their skills incrementally ahead of the final level 2 presentations before Christmas. Learners discussed their previous experiences of presentations and completed a self-assessment (Figure 12b-2) after each presentation as an attempt to support them to identify areas to develop.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Assessment of presentation skills was ongoing and included the un-learning of bad habits such as over-reliance on notes and PowerPoints. This has also been adopted by other SSAs where spoken language assessments had previously often been conducted without meaningful practice, feedback and improvement. The tutor for Business Studies described feeling supported in developing the presentation skills of Business students and had developed an increased awareness of language techniques for presentations which, in turn, could help her to support students with GCSE English language more generally.

Introducing presentations early as an intrinsic part of diagnostic assessment and completing them by Christmas, students agreed, helped them to ‘gel’ as a group and to feel that they had invested in the course as well as completing the hardest part first.

Structuring lessons so that presentations were done in the first 20-25 minutes improved punctuality as students felt a sense of responsibility to be each other’s audience members.
Conducting 1-1 conversations with all students before they start to prepare their presentations to help them to clarify their topic ensured that students do not prepare in their free time, only then to have their confidence affected if it is suggested that they alter their focus.

These 1-1s and planning of weekly assessments meant that presentations could then be incorporated into the programme of study and the topics used to develop reading and writing skills. This allows one student to be the resident ‘expert’ and to have roles such as chairing the discussion in preparation for writing.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

This project encouraged increased team working between Business and GCSE English tutors. The English tutor described improved attitudes towards English being a result of her being present in the learners’ vocational sessions, showing them that their tutors work together and allowing them to feel invested in. The English tutor also felt that seeing the GCSE English students more regularly, and in their chosen vocational setting, allowed her to develop better relationships with them and an improved understanding of their strengths, abilities and personalities. In light of the benefits for staff and students of this collaborative approach, timetabling for the next academic year will aim to provide opportunities for staff to work together on a course-by-course basis, ideally with vocational tutors paired with an English tutor to support further collaboration and a holistic approach to developing presentation skills relevant to learners’ starting points and aspirations.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

  • Improved attendance and punctuality for part time adults because of structuring lessons so that presentations were done in the first 20-25 minutes. Students felt a sense of duty to be each other’s audience members and were genuinely interested in their peers’ presentations.
  • Improved retention for part time adults in Functional Skills to 100% after week 3 because learners felt they had invested in the course and come together as a group through their preparation and delivery of presentations.
  • Improved attendance, behaviour and engagement with English for Business students. Behavioural issues linked with low levels of engagement with the equivalent cohort in English GSCE in 2018/19 led to the withdrawal of one student from the GSCE class and four further stage 1 disciplinaries. Attendance of Business students in GCSE English rose from 82% in 2018/19 to 88% in 2019/20.
  • Improvement in overall length and standard of presentations for GCSE and Level 2 Functional Skills.
  • For Business students, who completed book review presentations, there were improved attitudes to reading and evidence of reading outside of classes. The English tutor stated that these students were unique amongst her groups in that after a few weeks of reading in class and preparing reviews as presentations, they were fighting over the opportunity to read aloud in class and were more expressive than their peers in other groups, using pauses, emphasis and voicing dialogue effectively and confidently to engage the listener.
  • Business students taking part in the project all achieved a grade 4 in their mock GCSE assessments.
  • All Level 2 Functional Skills (new specification) adult learners achieved Level 2 writing on their first attempt.

Learning from this project

What went well:

  • Starting talking about and preparing for presentations early on was beneficial, particularly for adult students, many of whom admitted to having left English courses early in the past when they found out about the presentation requirement.
  • Giving students a clear topic on which to present. Business students responded well and this avoided their choosing topics which did not lend themselves to correct standard, length and structure.
  • Encouraging Business students to repeat the same task, using an accessible topic, over the course of four sessions and responding to feedback each time to make specific improvements. Tracking improvements for students to reflect on and ensuring continued engagement by providing instant feedback and linking to vocational aspirations.
  • Seeing the impact on reading skills and motivation to read as students were keen to present a book review to a high standard.
  • Scaffolded activities, in particular short presentations in the first weeks and using templates for presentations and writing frames. Starting the Functional Skills adult evening classes with presentations and, where possible, following the theme through the rest of the lesson.
  • Teaching some basic PowerPoint skills to adult learners for whom technology was a barrier to giving presentations.
  • Vocational and English tutors having time to plan together and support their shared students in each other’s sessions which, aside from meeting the aims of this project, supported improved working relationships through informal peer support and observation.
  • For adult learners, RARPA is already used for the first six weeks to assess their commitment to the course before they are enrolled for a qualification. Including presentation tasks in their first six weeks has been an excellent way of finding out whether students are serious about gaining the Level 2 qualification. Two students left the course in second week having struggled to present to the group for 1 minute on a familiar topic, indicating that this serves to also self-select students to some extent.

Even better if:

  • Timetabling allowed for English and vocational staff to work together in this way throughout the year, planning jointly and supporting students to see links between subjects.
  • Improving links between presentations and career / vocational development such as part time adult learners studying Functional Skills level 2 in order to progress onto the Access to HE course through using presentations as a means of applying to the HE course (e.g. presenting a personal statement or mock interview explaining career aspirations).
  • Presentation skills formed part of the diagnostic assessment process for all vocational learners and all teaching staff supporting the student were aware of their key areas to develop, tracking this through a shared and student-centred ILP.