## Can Numbers Be Biased?

We love statistics. Specifically, we love raw number statistics: number of students proficient or advanced, number of babies named Emma, number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes, and more. We also love percentage statistics: grades; batting averages in baseball, women’s pay as a percentage of men’s pay, and so on. There is a certainty to these. Statistics are made of numbers, and numbers don’t lie.

But while numbers don’t lie, it is easy to use the statistics compiled from them in a biased way. The media literate person needs to understand how statistics can be manipulated—and that’s where statistics literacy comes in. Let me offer a hypothetical example—followed by tips for educators and parents to teach students about statistics literacy in either the classroom or at home.

Hypothetical Example: I want my students to turn off all devices for one day—24 hours with no cellphone, no computer, no e-reader, no Xbox, no anything. I want them to see how addicted they are and how life can still continue without screen time. Let’s say I try this experiment with 100 students in three of my middle school classes. I toss out the idea on Monday and ask students on Tuesday how many succeeded. The answer? Only one. I spend some time Tuesday sharing some numbers with students about the average amount of screen time spent daily and the possible negative effects that may have. I repeat the challenge. On Wednesday, five students report that they turned off all devices for a day.

## Bias in Selection

Let’s look at two reports using statistics from Tuesday and Wednesday:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge. At this rate, in just two more days no students will have devices on.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

Both reports are true. Both accurately report the numbers, and the statistics are correct. Yet they lead to opposite conclusions about how the project is going. The reporters selected different numbers to analyze. If you are biased in favor of this project, you will likely use the first report. If you are biased against this project, you will likely use the second.

## Sneaking in Biased Words

Beware of descriptive adjectives added to statistical reports. Numbers are embedded in sentences and paragraphs, and the words used to introduce the numbers suggest bias:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, an impressive five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, a disappointing 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

It is extremely common to see opinions such as these slipped into statistical reporting. Just one or two words can totally influence the way you read the numbers. Did the number of students surge up to five, or did the number of students barely budge from Day 1?

## Bias in Graphs

Graphs are used in biased ways, too. Here’s a graph that makes the No Device project look great:

But if you change the graph to include all of the students, the project is going nowhere:

Again, both charts are accurate. They use the same numbers, but somehow, they leave different impressions. Changing the scale is a very common way to make the mundane seem dramatic.

Selecting only a piece of a graph can change the impression, too. I made up these numbers, but let’s say this is a graph of students who need free lunches. This looks scary, right? Our community is falling apart!

How about looking at the entire graph?

The numbers didn’t change, but somehow the community doesn’t look as bad, does it? It looks like lots of progress has been made.

## Bias in Percentages

There was a 200% increase in snow days last year in my district. If I had said, “Last year we had one snow day and this year we had two,” you wouldn’t have been impressed, but it is another way of describing what happened. What if I said that last year, about 1% of the days during the school year were snow days? Again, it comes down to which numbers you select to compare. Do you want to be dramatic and shock readers? Make a percentage with one snow day and two snow days. 200%! Do you want to keep things calm? Make a percentage with two snow days and 185 days in the school calendar. 1%. Both are true. Both are biased.

The Bottom Line: Statistics don’t lie. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be manipulated. The perceived certainty of numbers can make us less critical than we need to be when reading the barrage of figures that come our way daily.

## Tips for Teachers

• Make sure students know that it is possible to be biased and true. Reporters don’t have to lie about the numbers; they just choose the ones they want to use.
• Have students look for adjectives that describe the numbers. We read “a shocking 15% increase” differently than “a modest 15% increase.” Bias shows up in those adjectives.
• Encourage students to look for the bigger picture. In an era where the dramatic is used to attract eyeballs, perspective is lost. “One million people may be in trouble!” Is one million a big number? There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, so one million is way less than 1% of the population: about one one-hundredth of 1% (0.01%).
• Have students look for different ways to put numbers together. For example, in my No Device activity, there was a 500% increase (from 1 to 5), there was five-fold increase (from 1 to 5), there was an increase of four percentage points (from 1% of the students to 5% of the students), there was a 95% failure rate, there were 19 times as many students failing as succeeding (95 divided by 5), and so on. Have them discuss how the different versions suggest different meanings.
• Tell students to analyze all graphs. Is this the right scale to use? Is this a representative selection? What other graphs could be made with the same numbers?

***

Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH’s Learning Moments podcast, Shaping the Future: Future Skills for Fact-Checking Online Fakes.

## Giving Little Kids Voice

Speaking Activities for Early Elementary School Students

In a previous post, we looked at speaking activities for middle and high school students (https://www.hmhco.com/blog/public-speaking-activities-middle-high-school-students). I noted that there are many speaking activity suggestions available online for teachers who want to encourage oral communication for students. Many activities, though, seemed designed for older students. It is not likely that kindergartners will participate in a Socratic Seminar or that first graders will compete in debate. Because of this, when I suggest that all teachers need to teach all students the specific skills needed to become confident, competent speakers, there can be a tendency to think, “Yes, but that applies to older students only.” That is a mistake. Very young students need guidance and can vastly improve as speakers if we don’t sell them short, so to speak.

Treat speaking as you do writing

When do we begin teaching writing? When students walk in the door. Here’s how to make letters; these are fragments and run-ons; here’s where commas go; this is when to capitalize; paragraphs have topic sentences; and so many more. Specific lessons about all the pieces of good writing. So, when should we begin to teach speaking? When students walk in the door. Here’s how to make sure your voice is heard; this is what eye contact is; here’s how to make descriptive hand gestures; this is where to add excitement in your voice; and so on. The resource below gives an idea of the specific skills needed to speak well and points in the direction of lessons we need to teach. From the previous post:

Assign speaking activities differently: Choose an activity that emphasizes a particular skill that good speakers demonstrate; teach lessons about that skill in advance of the activity; have students speak.

Let me share three ideas for developing key skills that will fit any early elementary class and can be scaled for upper elementary grades, too.

Birthday interview: Voice

Often, teachers tell students to speak loudly. That’s bad advice. Good speakers do not yell at the audience. They simply have voices that allow all listeners to hear every word. Their voices are just right for the space. Sometimes we speak more softly than other times, but we make sure that even when whispering, everyone can hear what we are saying. Tell students that they need to make sure that everyone listening can hear each word without struggling. They don’t need to be loud, but of course some students may need to be louder than might feel comfortable with at first. (And some need to tone it down!) On the student’s birthday, invite him to come up to the “stage” for the interview. One kindergarten teacher in my school used a pencil as a microphone. You may have something more fun to represent the microphone.

Teacher: [holding the ‘mic’] Today we are talking to Kim. Hello, Kim. How old are you today? [holding the mic in front of Kim]

Kim: Six

Teacher: Class, would you please raise your hand if you didn’t hear Kim? [a few hands go up] Kim, could you repeat that so everyone can hear?

Kim: Six.

Teacher: Excellent. Six years old. Wow. What is your favorite food to eat?

Kim: My favorite food [a couple of hands go up—Kim notices] My favorite food is pizza.

Teacher: Do you like pepperoni, mushrooms?

Kim: I hate mushrooms. I like cheese pizza but sometimes ham. My mom likes mushrooms but I pick them off.

Teacher: I hear you like soccer. Tell us about that.

Kim: I’m really good at soccer. My team won…

After a few interviews, students get the idea, and it becomes rare to have to comment about voice.

Favorite toy: Gestures

We all know that gestures are part of engaging an audience, and we give students points on speaking rubrics for gestures. Sadly, we don’t teach lessons about how to gesture well. Tell students that hand and body gestures contribute to understanding and keep audiences interested in the talk. Very few teachers keep their hands still while talking to students so ask students to notice the gestures you are using as you talk to them. Tell them that they will be giving a talk about their favorite toy and the focus will be on gestures. Ask five students to bring in their toy Monday, five others on Tuesday, and so on. At showtime, guide them in gestures as they speak.

Teacher: Sofia, what did you bring in today?

Sofia: I have my mermaid doll.

Teacher: How pretty! Hold her up so everyone can see. Nice. I’m not sure this side of the room can see so let’s show them, too. Fine. Now what’s her name and what is a mermaid?

Sofia: She’s Pixie. Mermaids are girls who live in the water.

Teacher: Does she have legs?

Sofia: She has a tail.

Teacher: Like a dog’s tail?

Sofia: No, like a fish.

Teacher: Can you show the class her tail? [Sofia points] Oh, nice gesture! We can see exactly where to look. What else would you like to point out? Tell us all about her.

Sofia: One of her eyes fell out but my mom put a new one in here. [showing the face to the class, pointing to the new eye] I got her for my birthday when I was one. I like to play with her hair and put ribbons in and this crown. [holding the crown up] If you push this button [points], her tail lights up.

With this safe, fun activity, students get used to using their hands and bodies as they speak. Starting with these simple moves, it will be easy in later grades to transition to gestures for emphasis or descriptiveness.

Many students animated when talking in the lunchroom but become monotonous when put in front of the class. Rather than teach students about inflection, an unfriendly word for little kids, teach them about adding “life.” Indeed, this is a critical lesson in order for students to advance as readers. Students move from sounding out to fluency to prosody—understanding how the text is supposed to sound. Show them a bit of text where the author has given readers clues about how the text should be “heard.” For example, use a page from Children Make Terrible Pets. On one page, this line appears: “OH. MY. GOSH. You are the cutest critter in the WHOLE forest!”

Teacher: The author uses big letters for the first three words. That means he wants us to say those words a certain way. Let’s all read those first three words aloud together.

Class: Oh my gosh.

Teacher: Hmm, that sounded pretty regular. I think he used big letters because he wants big life in our voices. Let’s try again.

Class: [some shouting] OH MY GOSH!!

Teacher: Wonderful! Did you notice he put periods between the words? Periods tell us to stop, right? Now how should we read this?

Class: OH [pause] MY [pause] GOSH!!

Teacher: Wow, that was great! Now who wants to volunteer to read the next sentence? Think about that word in big letters and how we might add life to that sentence. Gigi?

Gigi: Youarethecutestcritterinthe [shouting] WHOLE forest.

Teacher: We’re getting the idea! Every time we read, let’s read like a speaker with lots of life in the voice. We’ll use the clues the author gives us.

There are many places in all the books we read where adding life makes the story come alive and makes listeners love reading. Read aloud becomes much more interesting.

Video proof

If you want to see what kindergarten students are capable of, watch the video posted by a teacher who used a green screen for weather “reports” after her unit about weather. https://youtu.be/-qy3JMkhOQM

The students aren’t all masters of speaking and not all are comfortable yet. It is clear, however, that the teacher taught about gestures, poise, voice, and more. The students are on the right track and would get high marks using the checklist below.

## Shortchanging Speaking

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?

Options:

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  2/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

Two more examples: A 6th grader makes a book report podcast. An 11th grade student in your virtual class turns in this podcast: Composting

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of these recordings, the teachers posted them to YouTube for the world to hear even though they are clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the end of either podcast.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills. Here, teachers showed students how to hit record, how to add music, BUT NOT HOW TO SPEAK WELL.

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: Zoom, Webex, podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking poorly and do nothing to help them. We watch kids suffer through the “About Me” talks they are forced to do at the start of the new school year and ignore the fact that most are unprepared as speakers. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the fact that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Here is an example of the problem: https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking.

In the “composting” case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

Here are 4th graders giving book talks after receiving instruction: https://youtu.be/WXn6-hs0fIc  Big difference between this and the green screen kids, isn’t there?

Sadly, speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication, but there are some:

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An enhanced ebook FREE FOR THE ASKING with many audio and video examples of student talks and teachers working with students:

A CD FREE FOR THE ASKING about how to approach speaking skills at the elementary level, the middle school level, and the high school level.

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

Posted in Speaking | 3 Comments

## Don’t hit record! Don’t make that podcast! Don’t turn on the Zoom mic! Don’t Flipgrid! First…

Fourth graders are learning about the Reconstruction. The teacher wants to test out his new green screen tools. He has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: he is so focused on the tech tool that he fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what he posted for the world to see (I removed his identifying information because posting a rough draft is not kind to students): 4th graders Do you really believe that that is the best these kids can do?

Sixth graders are told to make podcast book reports. The teacher showed them how to record and how to add music. He didn’t show them how to speak well. The result? This. So much less than this poor boy is capable of, but no one in six years of schooling gave him specific lessons about how to speak well.

A high school teacher has her class interested in school reform. She has students generate ideas about how to improve schools. She creates a video and puts it on YouTube. The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and the students use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak well. Watch the students in the YouTube video she posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information.

Another high school teacher has students record podcasts about historical events. I love the idea. Podcasts showcase oral communication for a real audience. But you need to have something worth showcasing. Do you want to listen to all of this podcast: https://youtu.be/Ouic59Gv0x0? This is the best that students can do after 11 years of speaking in our classes? All of the speaking that happens in all of those years of speaking leads to this?

Yes, because we made kids talk but we never taught them how to talk well.

I feel bad about criticizing these students, but the truth is that not one of them is close to impressive. I apologize for being rough but you know it is true. This is tragic. Here is the part that is hard to hear: it is our fault as teachers that students have such poor speaking skills.

I guarantee you that each of these students has spoken often in the years of schooling they have had. Many talks were informal: answering and asking questions, solving problems at the board, commenting in discussions, and such. Many were formal. How many book reports do you suppose a child has given? How many research reports presented? How many poetry recitations? How many lab results explained? How many times explaining a travel brochure on the Central American country they were assigned? Would you guess that at least ten times, each child had to get up in front of a class at some point and speak for 3 to 5 minutes? Would you believe twenty times? More? In other words, it isn’t that they have never done this. It is that no one ever taught them to do it well.

In remote learning where all talk is online, the problem increases. Zoom. Podcasts. Flipgrids. Videos. Digital presentations with various tools. How many impressive speakers do you see?

Here is the reality: speaking well matters in life. No matter what profession someone enters, the person who speaks well will be more successful than the person who speaks less well. As 21st century communication tools put oral communication on display, verbal skills are critical. Podcasts, Skype (now being used by employers for intake interviews), videos (like the one I am critiquing here), digital stories, and video conferences demand strong oral communication skill. Look at skills employers want.

Verbal communication is at the top of the list of skills most desired for prospective employees. Which of those speakers do you think would impress the HR committee?

Some kids get pretty good on their own. In my experience, about 10% of students speak pretty well. But if only 10% of your students pass your test, I am going to blame you. You didn’t teach that subject matter well. I have to suggest that teachers have failed these students by not teaching speaking well. Actually, they didn’t teach it at all. Just as the RWT teacher didn’t. This will no doubt be a very unpopular blog: criticizing well-meaning kids and blaming teachers? We have a great excuse: we have been focused on big tests and have been forced to ignore the most important language art. But with the communication tools available today, that omission is becoming more serious.

One more video. These fourth graders were given specific instruction about how to speak well in the weeks leading up to the book reports. Watch them here. You notice the difference right away, don’t you?  You, too, can give students help. If you use digital communication tools in your class, this enhanced e-book explains how create effective podcasts and videos. It’s full of tutorials, audio and video examples of students, lessons, and rubrics.

I’ll send it to you for free. Contact me at www.pvlegs.com.

Look here for a book that explains generally how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

I believe in these kids. I know that each one of them is capable of impressing us given proper instruction. I know that we have accepted too little for too long. Don’t hit record until you teach them to be well spoken.

## But what about the introverts?

I get this question a lot when I do workshops. In my presentations, I point out that speaking well will benefit all students for their entire lives; I share a framework that makes the complex art of oral communication simple and understandable; I show specific lessons to teach all students how to be better verbal communicators; and I make it practical and easy to teach every child to speak well. But there are non-believers, and the questions come up:

What about students who hate public speaking?

What about kids who refuse to do it?

What about kids who can’t speak in front of classmates?

Let me answer all of these questions. I’ll look at five different ways.

1. Do not sell students short.

How many times do you normally quit on children? Do you fail to teach math to a child for whom you think math is difficult? Do you tell some child, “Nah, don’t do this writing assignment. I don’t think you can do it.”? Do you fail to expect good outcomes and therefore stop helping some children? If you do, please quit teaching. Let’s not be naïve: some kids are better at some things than others. Some kids have an easier time reading or doing math or drawing or singing or coding or whatever than other kids do. But our job is help every child make progress. It is no different with speaking. Some kids love to talk, some are good at talking (those two do not always go together!), and some kids do not love to talk. Oh well. I will help all of them master the number one language art, speaking.

1. Introversion is not a disabling condition.

Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? You should. It will cause you to rethink some of the things you do. If Cain is correct, at least one-third of us are introverts. She is, and I know I am. And yet I now speak for a living. Huh? Lacking a propensity for something is not the same lacking the ability to do that thing. And introversion is not the same as social anxiety, a highly curable condition. Cain wrote about that here.

In 21 years of teaching, I have taught about 3,000 students. Using Cain’s number, about 1,000 of my students were introverts. Of that 1,000, how many failed to do the speaking I asked of them? Zero. None. Nada. Zip. How many of them failed to improve as speakers? Zero. Did I have students that needed extra encouragement? Yep. Students who needed a little hand-holding? Yep. Students who needed a little extra help and practice? Yep. The math teacher on my team had extra sessions to help struggling students. Shouldn’t a teacher asking kids to speak do the same sort of thing? Of course. What kind of teacher doesn’t give extra help to kids who need it?

1. Don’t believe the hype.

I really wanted to label this section “Don’t believe the bull#@*^.” I know the story: “Public speaking is the number one fear of adults.” It isn’t. Fear of public speaking showed up often when folks were asked to make a list of the ten things they feared, but not one of you would say, “Burn me badly! I’d prefer that to speaking in front of a group!” But the bad rap remains, so when a child says, “I fear speaking!” many teachers are tempted to say, “You poor baby! Me, too! We all hate speaking!! Don’t worry, I’ll protect you! I won’t make you do that horrible thing!”

Nonsense.

As I mentioned, some kids hate math. Many adults say, “I was never good at math!” So do you excuse students from math? Don’t let a child’s professed fear/dislike become an excuse for non-participation. Part of the problem is the phrase “public speaking.” Don’t teach “public speaking,” teach speaking. (See this article.) I teach kids how to speak well in any situation. I want good discussion comments. I want well-spoken questions. I want good peer-editing conversations. If you make speaking a valued part of your class, speaking loses its scariness. It’s just another version of what we always do.

1. Don’t cheat any child out of an important life skill.

Like it or not, verbal communication is the number one language art. We speak far more often than we read or write. Professionally and socially, speaking well increases odds of success. Students will have to interview for a job, explain the app to an investor, talk about the graphic design portfolio, talk to a client about the landscaping proposal or investment plan, and on and on. Why wouldn’t you want to help children in a low-stakes, we-are-all-just-learning-here environment like your classroom? Yep, you hate this, but you’ll hate it much more if you don’t have the skills you want when it really counts.

1. We fear what we don’t know.

Years ago, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to go for a ride in his plane, a two-seater, single-propeller Piper Cub. I said, “Sure,” but we were just off the ground when I had a small panic attack. What if something happened to him? A heart attack, for instance. Panic! Why? Because I don’t know how to fly a plane. If I knew, I wouldn’t have panicked: something happened to Steve but I can get this thing down.

The largest part of students’ fear is because they don’t know how to fly. Every year, teachers have made them talk, but never has a teacher taught them how to do it. You know it’s true: you have a haiku unit, but you do not have a speaking unit. Students get lessons about comma usage before being asked to write an essay, but never get a lesson about how to add life to their voices. Students get lessons about parts of a cell, but never get lessons about parts of a well-built visual aid. I wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (goo.gl/dgoSS7) to solve this problem. It has a simple, practical framework for understanding and teaching speaking. You will find that once students know exactly what they are supposed to do, they can do it. Visit pvlegs.com.

Bonus—Give students a digital voice first.

We live in an era with many, many digital tools for oral communication. That means that mastering oral communication is even more important than ever. It also means there are many ways to practice, get feedback, and develop confidence for eventual in-person talks. Every device can record audio and video now. Students can record, re-record, and re-record until they get something they like. In the fall, I’ll let students submit a digital talk to be played in class. By spring, they are ready to speak in person. I ask the students that didn’t participate in the live, classroom discussion today to think about what they want to say and record their comment to be played tomorrow. I love Flip. Learn about it here. Again, students can re-record as needed and the fun of the digital tool and the fun of seeing others can inspire participation.

Bonus two–Mike Rowe has a great story about someone afraid to speak:

http://mikerowe.com/2016/05/twihi-breakingsilence/

Bonus three–This book is free. Contact me at pvlegs.com and I will send it to you.

Posted in Speaking | 1 Comment

## 100 English Teachers Walk Into a Bar

Originally published in California English

One hundred English teachers walk into a bar. One by one, the bartender asks them why they became English teachers. The first one says, “I love poetry! I write poetry and I want students to love poetry, too.” The second one says, “When I was in 4th grade, I had a teacher that encouraged me to write. I love writing and I want to encourage others.” The third one says, “Reading opens up a world of ideas and journeys. I love reading. I want to share that passion with others.” The 4th person says, “The classics! Shakespeare! The Scarlet Letter! To Kill a Mockingbird!” From the 5th person to the 100th, the bartender gets very similar answers. Finally, he asks the group, “How come not one of you mentioned speaking? Not one of you said, ‘I love speaking, and I want my students to love speaking.’ Not one of you said, ‘I had a teacher in 9th grade who spoke so well, and I wanted to be like her.’ Not one of you said, ‘I have seen speeches that changed the world. I want my students to have that kind of ability.’ How come no one talked about the language art we use most often?”

Okay, so it’s not a joke. It is also not funny to notice that language arts teachers almost always fail to mention the most important language art, speaking. Adults spend twice as much communication time speaking as reading; four times as much speaking as writing. Given that importance, you might think direct instruction of oral communication skills would get two to four times as much direct instruction time as reading and writing. Yet no one seems to value it as highly as other language arts.

It is not what you know that counts, but rather whether you can communicate what you know, and oral communication is by far the number one way of communicating. That has always been true, but oral communication is actually becoming even more important. Think of all the digital communication tools. Skype, Zoom, video calling and video recording on smart phones, video conferences, webinars, and podcasts put speaking skills on display like never before. Those devices demand effective oral language. We should not ignore technological realities and the ways technology increases the demand to be well spoken.

Teaching Speaking

None of this would matter if students spoke well. If we saw great book reports, wonderful poetry recitations, terrific explanations, brilliant discussion comments, and so on, we could say that all students have mastered oral communication and teaching specific skills is not necessary. That isn’t the case, is it? Look at students speaking with new eyes. How many impress you? One or two per class? A teacher at a recent workshop commented that summative presentations in her class are PowerPoint presentations that “are often boring recitations of what they read.” Pretty typical of what we all see, right? If one or two students use commas correctly, you are the one who failed, not them. You obviously didn’t teach needed skills. You will go back and offer another lesson about commas after introductory phrases and commas to separate items in a series, and you’ll give some practice activities. You will reteach commas to join independent clauses and have them do some practicing. Yet if only one or two students do well with the presentation after the biography research, you say, “Oh well, that’s just how kids speak.” Why do we sell them short? Why do we fail to help them?

It is likely that most teachers don’t know how to teach speaking. To begin then, let’s establish a framework for understanding what it takes to be a competent speaker so we can impart the necessary skills to our students.

Build and Perform

There are two distinct parts to all effective oral communication. The first part is building the oral communication.  Building refers to all of the things we have to do before we ever open our mouths. For example, consider the teacher who has her students perform an oral presentation on historical fiction. The students have to include certain content (main character, historical events, rising action, etc.), organize that content, make a visual aid (plot line, map, etc.), and dress in a costume from the historical era. All of these things are done before presentation day and all of these are quite distinct from performance skills. These building elements should always be scored separately from presentation elements, just as punctuation should be scored separately from content in writing.

The second part of oral communication is delivering the message. I prefer calling this “performing” because the word performing has connotations that the word delivering lacks but that more accurately describe the task. No two teachers at your school use the same language to assess speaking. Articulation, intonation, vocal modulation, loudly, slowly, clearly, eye contact, presence, expression, pitch, enthusiasm, gestures, body motion, elocution, charisma, hold head up, and many more such terms are used to confuse students. Interestingly, you don’t go into one class and get scored on “Cases appropriately used,” the next on “Large and small letters,” and the next on “Proper uppercasing.” We agree on the key term, capitalization. To help students succeed at performing a speech, we need to agree on the key terms for speaking, too. Here is what necessary and sufficient to speak well: students need to appear calm and confident; make sure every word is heard clearly; have feeling/emotion/passion; look at audience members; gesture with hands, faces, and body; and speak at an appropriate and varying pace. If students do those things, they will be good speakers. In a shorter form, students need to think about

Poise

Voice

Life

Eye contact

Gestures

Speed.

Simple. Understandable. Teachable. Absolutely guaranteed to improve oral language in your class. Years ago, when I wrote those six traits of speaking on the board for students to see, one student called out, “Pee Vee LEGS!” as she made a mnemonic of the capital letters I had written. I have been surprised at how useful that acronym has been for students (and adults) of all ages. ROY G. BIV is odd, too, but it has been very successful, and almost all of us remember the colors of the rainbow because of that mnemonic device. If you master PVLEGS, you will be a successful speaker, and many, many students have told me that they think of the acronym every time they have to speak. Each part of PVLEGS should be scored individually on the rubric. Some students excel at adding life to the presentation but are a bit wiggly; some are totally poised but never look up from their notes; and so on.

The skills described here apply in all speaking situations, not just on the occasions we think of as “speech-making.” In an interview with a prospective employer, a successful candidate will think beforehand about what she is going to say and will build responses to likely questions. Then, being poised, having an appropriate voice, expressing passion and interest, making eye contact, gesturing, and speaking at an appropriate pace will set her ahead of other job seekers. In a committee, a member who comes prepared and has given forethought to what he is going to present will be more valuable to the group. If he pays attention to the elements of delivering his oral communication, he will be an even more effective member of the group. One on one, small group, large group, informal presentation, formal presentation, in-person talks, talks via digital tools—all require building what you are going to say and then delivering that message with PVLEGS. If we used this common framework and language for teaching and evaluating speaking, our students would be much more likely to meet the speaking standards in their states.

Putting the concepts into play

As I mentioned, every teacher at every grade level in every subject has students speaking in class. Do you ever have students give book reports? After listening to 29 of them, are students inspired and filled with a desire to rush out and get the 29 books presented?  Probably not. If you are going to take class time for oral presentation, take time to teach them the speaking skills to do it well. Then perhaps the presentations will inspire students to read the books presented. Additionally, there is a fairness issue here: Don’t assign an oral presentation unless you are prepared to teach students how to succeed at orally presenting. Grading oral performance without specifically teaching speaking skills is patently unfair.

Let’s work with another typical reading assignment. Listen closely as students do readers’ theater. It is often painful and monotonous, and often kills a good story. When you put a new lens on the task, however, students read much differently. After teaching PVLEGS, ask students to think about reading in a new way. They are not “readers” but rather “speakers.” That causes them to look at the text differently. Consider the following passage:

Life is too crazy. We are always busy. We rush to get up, wolf down breakfast, run to school, race to practice, hustle through homework, do our chores… we are always in a hurry. What if one day we just stopped? I mean stopped. Dead halt. Catch your breath. Relax. Take a break. It will improve your life.

Sometimes a “reader” will read a passage like this word by word, parsing the text with no regard to phrasing and no sense of reading for meaning or expression.

If you ask them to read like a speaker, a change occurs.  A “speaker” will perform the words in the passage. This leads to an interesting discussion with students as well.  Where does the text call for life? Where should pace be adjusted? What did the author do to suggest these things? It is much easier to grasp the concept of prosody when students think like speakers. Orthographic conventions (e.g., commas, exclamation points, italics) are not reading cues but are prosody cues, and thinking of speaking the text makes those cues more meaningful for many students. “Speak” readers’ theater, don’t “read” readers’ theater.

Let’s go one step further. We require rough drafts for writing assignments, right? If you value speaking as you should, require a rough draft for speaking assignments. A rough draft for readers’ theater? Use digital tools. Every computer can record audio and video; every smart phone can do the same. Google Voice will generate a phone number for free so students with low tech phones can call and leave “rough drafts” for you to listen to and use for real examples to aid in teaching key skills. Several tools and Web sites can be used as well. Vocaroo is a free, easy-to-use site that records student voices (http://www.vocaroo.com). Students can visit the site and will find the “Record” button on the first page that opens. No sign-in or registering is required—just click the button and record. When they are finished, the site enables them to email the recording. Every smartphone has audio and video recording tools and products can be easily sent to you. All of these are ways students can practice and ways students can send you rough drafts before readers’ theater in class. All of these encourage practice and rereading. All of these make it clear to students that we value speaking skills.

One hundred English teachers walk into a bar. All of them notice that the only language art used there is speaking. All of them have an Aha! Moment and realize the importance of speaking in life. They realize that their classrooms are oral language dependent, too. They agree to increase emphasis on oral communication skills. Okay, so it’s still not a joke, but I would smile broadly if it happened. Visit pvlegs.com.

Erik Palmer is an educational consultant from Denver, Colorado.  Prior to becoming a consultant, he had a career in business as a commodity trader and a career in the classroom as a teacher of English and civics. As a consultant, Palmer is a frequent presenter at national, regional, and state conferences. He has given keynotes and led workshops for schools and districts across the US and internationally. Palmer focuses on improving students’ listening and speaking skills, making argument and persuasion teachable. Palmer is the author of Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011); Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology; Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014); Researching in a Digital World (ASCD, 2015); Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016); and Own Any Occasion (ATD Press, 2017). He is a program consultant and author of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s into Reading and into Literature language arts programs.

Erik’s educational background includes Oberlin College, University of Denver Law School, and the University of Colorado.

Posted in Speaking | 2 Comments

## Speaking NOT “Public Speaking”: Why The Difference Matters

I want all students to become better speakers.

Every time I say that I get a response like “Oh yes, public speaking is so important!”

I really dislike that response. Let me explain.

The words have a terrible connotation. “Public speaking” is one of the most loaded phrases in our language, and lots of baggage comes with those words. We all know that public speaking is feared. The cliché is that people fear public speaking more than death. This is obviously absurd. Given a choice between going to a microphone for five minutes or getting killed, everyone would choose speaking. But the damage has been done:

public speaking = horrible experience

Convincing teachers to spend time teaching speaking is harder when I start in such a deep hole. Teachers want to protect students from painful things.

The words limit our understanding of what speaking is. All speaking is, in a sense, public. Unless you are muttering aloud to yourself at home, your speaking is heard by others and is done in public. Whether in a school, a restaurant, a staff meeting, or a store, if someone can hear you, you are speaking publicly. I don’t expect to get agreement that the common definition of public speaking should change, however. I know that “public speaking” makes people think of some formal speech in front of a large crowd.

But I didn’t say I want all students to become better at public speaking, I said I want them to become better speakers. Public speaking as people think of it is one tiny aspect of speaking. A couple of times in life, we may be called upon to do that kind of talk—wedding toast or eulogy perhaps—but we do so many other kinds of speaking every day. Think of the speaking you do. Some of it is one-to-one, small group, informal, in-person, or via digital tool; some is to family, friends, co-workers, students, or parents. You talk in many situations. I want to prepare students to succeed in all of those.

Oral communication is always at the top of the list of skills employers want. The 90% of hiring managers who say that speaking is a very important skill (see chart) aren’t looking for public speakers. They want employees who are generally well spoken. Yes, some jobs involve occasional presentations, but all jobs involve talking. Whether collaborating with co-workers, attending to customers, or fielding client calls, effective speakers are in demand. If we look at oral communication the way the business world does, we realize that speaking is an incredibly important language art for professional success. To conflate “speaking” with “public speaking” causes us to seriously undervalue the need to teach verbal communication skills. It allows us to pretend that speaking will not be important in the lives of most students: few will be public speakers so why teach speaking?

The words make us think about speaking incorrectly. “Speak loudly.” That’s one common response when I ask teachers to tell me specific things that students should do to be good speakers. It is probably poor advice in any situation—you would hate it if a speaker was always loud. In any event, it is a comment that would only apply to public speaking. Remember, I want students to be good speakers across the entire spectrum of oral communication. Speak loudly at a co-worker? Not a good idea. If we think only about public speaking, we will not correctly think about the skills needed for being a well-rounded communicator. In the framework I developed, I replace “speak loudly” with “make every word heard.” That’s it. Good speakers make sure that listeners hear them and that the voice is just right for the space. In a gymnasium, we speak more loudly; on a Zoom call, we adjust the microphone; on a romantic date, we speak softly. In each case, all we want is for every word to be heard. Note that this instruction applies to all types of speaking.

Consider a comment like “Use good grammar.” That doesn’t apply to every situation, either. In the dugout, “That ain’t a strike, ump” works better than “I don’t believe that was a strike, umpire.” Good speakers don’t always use good grammar. They adjust language for the situation and the audience. Adjusting language also applies to all types of speaking. Effective public speakers make every word heard and adjust language for the audience. So do new parents talking to their baby and graphic designers showing their portfolios to prospective employers. Thinking only about public speaking leads us to offer advice that doesn’t apply generally whereas true speaking tips prepare students for all forms of oral communication.

I know I am fighting an uphill battle. I say “speaking” and most people instantly think “public speaking.” But now you know better. Let’s think about speaking broadly, correctly. Let’s give all students an effective voice. Let’s create well-spoken people who are confident and competent verbal communicators in every oral communication situation.

Contact me at https://pvlegs.com/contact/ and I’ll send you a free book.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

## What’s it gonna be this year?

Inevitably, there is some new initiative, some new program being introduced. If you have taught for a while, you have seen many of these come and go. Maybe last year was the year they introduced the new reading program that replaced the reading program introduced two years ago to replace the reading program introduced the year before. Maybe it will be a new math initiative to replace the “flailing arms” math thing we were all trained in a couple years back. (I forgot the name of it but there were dramatic gestures that all teachers were supposed to use: a certain gesture for addition, a different for division… It died fast and no one uses the gestures now.)

If your career has lasted any length of time you have a list of initiatives that have now gone by the wayside. My list includes Skills for Adolescents, DARE, portfolios, Read On Write On, support groups, equity training, proficiency based report cards, “accordion” paragraphs and “occasion/position statements”, some math program that I can’t remember the name of but I recall as Lucy Liu math though I know that isn’t right, several spelling programs, Harry Wong behavior management methods, some behavior plan that required us to write a name and check marks on the board, C4T (Computers for Teachers), Thinking Maps, and other ideas whose effects were so short that I can’t recall anything about them right now, but I know I have a giant stack of binders somewhere.

Perhaps salespeople selling educational products are extremely talented. Perhaps administrators are exceedingly gullible. In any event, it seems that a requirement of becoming an administrator is the inability to look back and see the pile of failed initiatives. Administrators bemoan the lack of buy-in from teachers when new ideas are presented, but they fail to take responsibility for creating the conditions that created the cynicism.

What percentage of new year’s resolutions actually last? We have an all-comedy radio station in Denver—non-stop clips from various comedians. I missed the name of the comic, but one talked about digging through his closet looking at all the junk he had discarded in there. One of the items was his Rosetta Stone CD set. I spent a couple of minutes researching “what percentage complete Rosetta Stone” but couldn’t find the answer right away so I quit looking. I bet it is a very small number. I’ll wager that a lot of people have the idea of learning a new language but don’t follow through.

Then I started thinking about my health club. Every year in the Before Times, it got crowded during January and part of February, but it got back to normal after that. Seems many people had the idea that “this will be the year they start exercising” but almost none of them follow through. Look at Peloton stock. We were all going to buy bikes and ride them forever!

I saw a New York Times article that said that 90% of people who lose weight gain it all back. Seems like most folks have the intention to change shapes but don’t follow through. Then I thought about an adult education class offered at the “free university” in my town that told writers how to self-publish a book. The instructor said almost none of the people attending will actually do it. They all have the idea that there is book inside of them and this will be the year that they write it, but almost none of them will actually follow through. Similarly, no administrator follows through with new initiatives. All teachers know this.

I guess my message to admin is settle down. Don’t get so blinded by the incredible possibilities that you forget who you are dealing with here: humans who are very slow to change. When you finally lose that twenty pounds you have promised yourself you would lose and when you get back to the gym to get in shape and when you finish that Rosetta Stone Spanish CD, then start talking to the staff about following through on the last six great initiatives you introduced.

We have to change our thinking about how we decide what to try, and we have to change our thinking about how we present and implement ideas. We can’t continue to waste money on the fad of the moment. We have to look at bigger pictures: What will students need for life?  How do you change teacher behaviors?  What makes an idea last?

We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while somehow expecting different results. We fail to stop the insanity of the “initiative of the year.”

This is free for the asking. No, it’s not a new initiative, it’s just a way to give students voice.

www.erikpalmer.net

## Don’t Follow Your Dreams

Dreams have a mystique in America. Teachers tell students to follow their dreams. Friends encourage each other: Go for it! Never quit! You can be anything you dream of being!!! Except…

A dream is a regular idea with a fancy name. That’s all it is. It’s an idea that popped into the head. Understanding that is very important. Why? Have you ever had a bad idea? Ever looked back at something and thought, “Whoa. I shouldn’t have done that. That was a bad idea.” Be realistic: Lots of people have bad ideas. And if a dream is an idea with a fancy name, lots of people have bad dreams, so to speak. Lots of students do, too. How do we deal with “stupid” dreams?

It becomes important because we treat “dreams” so differently than “ideas.” Let me give you an example. I was playing golf at a municipal golf course. My playing partner was 46 years old and announced that he had just quit his job to focus on golf. There is a Senior Tour for professional golfers, and he figured he could make lots of money there. Except he wasn’t that good. If he had said, “My idea is to try out for the Tour and become rich,” I would have said, “That’s a really bad idea. Every year, many touring pros with years of experience turn 50. These guys regularly shoot in the 60’s which is something you have never done. They have years of experience playing under extreme pressure and you have none. You have no chance at surviving the qualifying process to join the tour. Get your job back now!”

But he said, “My dream is to try out for the Tour” instead. Dream? No one can step on another person’s dream, right? So I said, “Oh. Go for it.” Which is really bad advice. Who knows what realistic opportunities he missed by looking in the wrong direction? Who knows what successes he could have had in the business he left to foolishly chase his dream? How did his unrealistic personal self-assessments cost him years later when his dream turned into a nightmare?

You have seen the “Famous Failures” poster, haven’t you? There are a few versions of it. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity as a high school sophomore; one person said Walt Disney wasn’t any good; The Beatles were rejected by a recording company; Steve Jobs was fired once… AND THEY DIDN’T LET THOSE THINGS STOP THEM FROM THEIR DREAMS!! Follow your dreams, too!!

Should we point out that of the hundreds of millions of Americans who lived in the 20th century, they picked out six? Should we point out the arrogance of comparing yourself to one of these people? Should we point out that for every wrong statement such as “you will never make it as an author/musician/cartoonist/athlete/whatever” literally millions of similar statements were true? Edgy stuff, right?

Do we have a responsibility as educators to teach realistic expectations? The default is “Hey, go for it! Follow your dreams.” Who would dare to challenge that? But are we sending students down the wrong path and shutting down their possibility of developing their true talents? I know some readers are thinking, “Who are you to make such determinations?!” I also know that every reader can think of students (and adults) who had very bad ideas and you knew they were bad. When should we stop parroting the cliché?

Does age matter? Let little kids believe in Santa but tell older kids the truth? When do we share important realistic information? Do the math. There is one president, and he (or one day, she) holds office for four years. It is not the case that anyone can be president. Only one of 333,000,000 can. Do the math. There are five big name pop stars/movie actors/filmmakers/Internet company developers/baseball players/etc. The planet has 7 billion people. Do we have a responsibility to share this? Should we ever say, “You draw well and it will be a great hobby for you, but what else should you be doing?”

The odds are overwhelming that leading students to realistic expectations will be better advice than “Go for it!” Do you want to play the odds? Do you want to educate about reality or encourage fantasizing about what will never be? I struggle with that. I fear I do a disservice by blindly saying, “Follow your dreams.” I wish the kids just said, “My idea is to…”

## Never make a slide like this.

I show people how to be more effective oral communicators. Part of that job is to make the complex simple. What does it take to deliver a talk well? What are the essential skills? How can those skills be condensed into an understandable, practical guide for all speakers? I developed and teach the six keys to performing any type of talk. The slide above contains those keys. If I put this slide up at a workshop or showed it during a webinar, no one would think that the slide design is anything unusual. It looks like slides we see all the time. That’s sad because this slide is terrible. There is no nice way to say it. And yes, that means that almost all the slides you usually see are terrible. Are you going to be presenting somewhere this summer? Here’s how you can raise the bar and avoid creating dreadful slides.

Don’t bury the slide in words! Many people have made this point and fought to change the wordy/bullet point mindset, yet the message hasn’t caught on. If you are committed to complete sentences, write an article and hand it out. If for some reason you want your article in PowerPoint form, make slides such as this one and send us the PowerPoint. No audience wants to sit in a room and have presenters read at them. They know how to read. If you want the audience to read, shut up and let them read without distraction.

Focus on your speaking, not your slide. Where did we get the idea that people come to presentations to read? Shouldn’t presentations be about presenting? About oral communication? Why are you there? If every word is on a slide, you are unnecessary. You have become redundant. If you want to make a point, take down the verbiage and talk to us.

Key words only. But let’s say you want key points presented visually. Your theory is that some people are visual learners and need to see something. Maybe, but they don’t need to see every word you say. They need key words. You are there for a reason. You are there to present, to talk, to explain. Don’t have slides doing your job. See the key word which in isolation is much more impactful–listen to me explain its importance. Cut the fat. This also makes it easier on the audience. They can instantly get to the meat of your talk.

Never add meaningless art. Yes, PowerPoint makes it easy to add pictures. But do the pictures contribute to the message? Wait! There is this 3-D star thing that you can add and it rotates? Isn’t that awesome? No. It’s silly, distracting, and irrelevant.

Think of people in the back of the room. Think about people viewing on a small screen on some device. Can everyone see everything on the slide without struggling. What font size is appropriate? Larger is better. Does the background make it more difficult to see what you want them to see? Yes, I know it is easy to add background designs but they are not necessary.

Never use bullet points. Why bullet points? Totally unnecessary. THERE IS NO LAW THAT SAYS ALL SLIDES MUST HAVE BULLET POINTS! In no way is this slide improved because of the bullet points. In no way is it diminished if bullet points are removed. Audiences are sick of bullet points. Bullet points almost always indicate that there is too much on a slide, and if that isn’t the case, they are unnecessary.

Use lots of slides. We aren’t wasting paper here. Don’t cram a lot of information and pictures onto one slide. It is better to spend one minute on each of ten slides then to spend ten minutes explaining everything on one overly crowded slide.

Use images better. Break the habit of pasting little images in the corner of the slide. Make images the focus of the slide and choose images that amplify your message. I bought the images in the following slides from StockExchange, but many sites offer pictures for free (unsplash.com, for instance).

I think you get the idea. It all starts by looking at slides with new eyes. What is normal is not what is good or desirable. Be the person that breaks the mold and raises the bar. Be a presenter, not a reading supervisor. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

Posted in Speaking | 2 Comments