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Speaking Lessons for ESL and EFL Students: How to Use Graphs and Charts

Updated on July 27, 2012
Cute, yes - but she looks a little nervous. No need to be if you can master these simple tricks!
Cute, yes - but she looks a little nervous. No need to be if you can master these simple tricks! | Source

Using Charts and Graphs as Speaking Prompts for Intermediate and Advanced Learners

Many people learning English are doing so for the international business opportunities it provides, making the ability to speak coherently and articulately about information presented in charts and graphs a particularly useful exercise. However, even students at the undergraduate or high school level will find speaking exercises organized around the interpretation of information useful: it is great practice for class presentations, speaking exams, and even flexes those critical thinking skills that are so crucial to the coherent organization of an argument or academic paper.

This article will outline a few key points in chart or graph interpretation, as well as the best (most thorough) way to approach the information in such a way as to present a compelling story for investors, teachers, peers or parents - even if you've never seen the information before.

What Information is Being Conveyed, and How?

So of course you'll first want to examine any textual clues presented in the graph.

Things to look for:

  • Is the information presented as a percentage or as a raw number/unit? I.e. does the graph say that in a certain year cars produced 25% of the city's pollution, or 25 tonnes of pollution? The answer to this will determine the best method to compare different parts of the graph. If the answer is percentages, then it is easier to talk about how much of the total is accounted for in any specific section, compared (for example) to other sources of pollution. However, unless the graph specifies how many tonnes (or whatever) equals 100%, then you will have a harder time comparing across time. For example, perhaps the graph shows that in 1990, cars produced 25% of the total pollution in the city and in 2010, they produced 15% of the total pollution. There is a 20 year difference here, and you will have to make some hypotheses about whether the total amount of pollution went up or down during that period. It is possible that cars actually produced MORE pollution in 2010, but that factories or airplanes ALSO caused much much more pollution, and the total amount of pollution sky-rocketed!
  • Is there a specified time frame? If so, what do you know about general trends during that period? Were there a lot of new environmental regulations implemented? Did people start to travel more? Was there more consumer education? Did everyone start to install air conditioning in their private homes? There are endless questions that can be asked about almost any kind of graph, and you will want to practice quickly brainstorming the most relevant.
  • If there is no specified time-frame, you can still ask yourself questions about what trends are or were likely to affect the data. Why would new parents be more likely to buy sunblock than baby clothes in 2000? Maybe there were a lot of articles about how damaging the sun is for sensitive baby skin. Or maybe baby clothes were expensive that year and most parents made due with hand-me-down clothes or made their own.

What Stories Can You Tell About A Bunch of Bars or a Pie Chart?

Lots! Tons! Well, several, anyway...

If you have a graph which compares three things at two different points in time (for example, pollution caused by cars, factories, and private homes in 1990 and 2010), then you have at least FIVE stories to tell.

  1. The change (if any) in pollution caused by cars between 1990 and 2010.
  2. The change (if any) in pollution caused by factories between 1990 and 2010.
  3. The change (if any) in pollution caused by private homes between 1990 and 2010.
  4. The "broad picture" for 1990;
  5. The "broad picture" for 2010.
  6. The relationship between 1990s data and 2010s data, and hypothetical reasons for it. Here you can also discuss the presentation or form of the data (percentage or raw numbers/units) and how that affects our interpretation of the information.
  7. And finally, your own opinion about how and why you think the data will change (or not) in the future.

Okay! Here's a tricky graph for practice with lots and lots of stories to tell. It doesn't say, so let's assume that the measurement on the left side is Number of Complaints (so not percentages). What do you think caused those spikes?
Okay! Here's a tricky graph for practice with lots and lots of stories to tell. It doesn't say, so let's assume that the measurement on the left side is Number of Complaints (so not percentages). What do you think caused those spikes? | Source

In the interest of addressing specific concerns, what do you (or your students) have the most difficulty with?

See results

And With That:

You should be well prepared to meet any speaking exam, impromptu presentation, or bizarre family dinner with grace and aplomb. Congratulations, now go rock that!

Just remember that comfortable, fluid speakers vary their sentences , make eye contact with the people they're talking to, and make the information tell a story that anyone can understand. And as with all things, practice makes perfect - or near enough to it that no one will know.

If you liked this, check out my overview of how to master the tenses with tense-specific writing prompts.

Please vote in the poll and let me know what other kinds of lessons or material you folks would be interested in.

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