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!

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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.



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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?


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.

One more example. A student in your virtual class turns in this talk: 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 this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) 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.

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 one-hour video: http://streaming.ascd.org/watch/view-all/5114243528001/listen-up-speaking-matters

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.

Listen Up

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

An article about teaching speaking: https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn%3Aaaid%3Ascds%3AUS%3A05aa8932-5668-453f-92ff-c520fa862912#pageNum=1

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.

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Never make a slide like this.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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/

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Don’t hit record! 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?

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.

You know that while students have had lessons and worksheets on capital letters, for example, they never had a lesson or practice phrases to help them understand descriptive hand gestures. Lessons on topic sentences? Common. Lessons on adjusting speed for effect? Extremely uncommon. ReadWriteThink.org posted a unit on radio broadcasts, a verbal medium, that had absolutely no mention of speaking skills and no lessons about how to speak well before recording. In short, they missed the entire point of radio. (https://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/audio-broadcasts-podcasts-oral#ResourceTabs4) Without specific instruction, students will just make more un-listenable recordings.

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.

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Ready for the Real World

Read “Speaking Out” from Educational Leadership May 2022 issue

Or click here.

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Redefining Reading

[This was originally published at the HMH Shaped Blog. I am reposting it in response to the NCTE’s recent position statement which includes these lines:

My wife recently rediscovered her grandmother’s copy of The Scarlet Letter. The edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1892. My first thought was, “We’re rich!” It turns out that an 1892 edition is not worth a lot, however. First editions of the book have some value, but first editions are from 1850. This led to my second thought: “This book was written a long time ago!” And that led to these questions:

  • Why is this book still a part of the curriculum in many high schools? Has nothing been written in the last 169 years that has as much or more value than this book?
  • Are we doing unto others what has been done unto us and missing a bigger picture?
  • Is there anything about today’s world that demands teaching something other than what has always been taught?
  • Should the definition of well-educated evolve? It used to be that being well-educated meant being familiar with The Scarlet Letter and other texts in the traditional literary canon. Should there be a new definition now?
  • Has the virtual learning forced upon us by the pandemic increased the urgency to rethink how we teach reading?

Talking like this can cause some upset. I once posted a blog on a site for an educational organization and asked, “Should we think about dropping The Scarlet Letter and updating our instruction?” Let’s just say it didn’t take me long to find out how snarky some people can be. One person said she was going to cancel her membership to the organization. The organization wasn’t responsible for the post, but she was appalled that they allowed it to be posted even though I only asked if we should consider making a change. Don’t touch the literary canon! Yes, some are challenging the white-male aspect of the canon, but we aren’t challenging the book-centric nature of the canon, leaving us stuck with an antiquated idea of what reading is and how it should be taught.

We Must Redefine Reading Instruction

Overwhelmingly, we teach ink-on-paper reading. We obsess over how to get students to read more books. We want them to read poetry. Those are noble goals but are not sufficient to prepare students for the reading they do today. Less than 20% of teens have reported reading books, magazines, or newspapers daily in recent years. Does that mean they aren’t reading? Nope—they are reading online. According to one study, the average 12th grader spends about six hours a day using digital media, with about two hours devoted to each of these: texting, surfing the Internet, and using social media. Those numbers were from the before times. With access to print now diminished by COVID, reading on devices is the norm. Who is teaching students how to read online?

“We aren’t challenging the book-centric nature of the canon, leaving us stuck with an antiquated idea of what reading is.”

Reading teachers usually teach novel structure, haiku structure, textbook structure, short story structure, and strategies for reading ink-on-paper. Now we must teach lessons to prepare students for digital reading. Example lessons for the 21st century should include:

Digital Reading Versus Online Reading

Reading on an eReader (NOOK, Kindle) is text-bound. There is research about diminished comprehension on tablets compared with books, but that discussion is for another day. Online reading is NOT text-bound. Embedded ads cause distraction and hyperlinks can destroy attention and veer us far off track. Warn students about these perils and give them metacognitive awareness of the hazards.

The Cursory Reading Trap

Online reading tends to be cursory. We skim. We read short snippets. We think 140 characters is a full message. Our attention spans shrink and tl:dr is the default. (We don’t even take the time to write out “too long: didn’t read.”) Talk to students about the danger of diminished understanding that comes from superficial reading and help them recognize and resist rushed reading.

How to Do Online Research

There are several parts to this.

  • Even though most students do all research on technological devices, many students still do not know what the Internet is. It itself is not a source of information: it is a web of computers linked together. What is found on that web is information on somebody else’s computer. Are they reliable? See this blog post I wrote for Shaped.
  • Many students don’t know what Wikipedia is even though they use it all the time. It is crowd-sourced information that is editable by anyone. There are advantages to that (many potential experts contributing instead of a couple of authors, for example), but there are disadvantages (pages get prank-edited). Show the History and Edit tabs to students and stress the need to check for the “bibliography” of the Wikipedia page: links to other sources at the bottom. No links? Trouble.
  • Past searches determine future results. Searching “Are vaccines harmful?” starts a user profile. Algorithms think, “Ah, this person dislikes vaccines so I will send anti-vax information.” Encourage students to go beyond the first three results and seek out multiple viewpoints.

How to Ferret Out Fakes

We know that fake news exists. We know that social media spread falsehoods. Teach strategies to help students avoid being duped. You can start by following the advice in these blog posts:

How to “Read” Sound and Image

Words are often accompanied by pictures and music. Those impact how we interpret the words. Teach students how to be critical analysts of sound and image rather than passive receivers. You can start with this blog post.

The bottom line is that reading now is radically different than reading was a short time ago. We have to recognize and react to the change. Ditch The Scarlet Letter. We have way more important things to do.

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I Hate “Public Speaking”: Why Those Words Need to Go

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 hate 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.

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Essays Muttered Aloud!

The annual convention of the largest association of English teachers in America. The president of the organization addresses the thousands in attendance. A keynote address? Not exactly. More like reading an essay at the audience. Listen to a piece of the talk here.

She had typed out word for word an essay and read it at us. If you look at the six pieces needed to deliver a good talk, she failed at four of them.

Poise? Yes, no distracting behaviors. Voice? Yes, every word was heard…thanks to the microphone. Life? None. No emotion, no passion. Eye contact? Nope, too busy reading. Gestures? No, just holding the sides of the podium and turning pages. Speed? No variation, no speeding up or slowing down for effect.

She is a good writer—it was a fine essay. She is a good reader—didn’t miss a word. But it was an uninspired, sing-songy sort of reading, wasn’t it? Sadly, it reveals a lot about how English teachers fail to understand communication. They love reading. They love writing. Most seriously shortchange the #1 language art, speaking. Oral communication is the way the vast majority of our communication takes place, yet few educators teach students how to do it well.

Yes, every year there is a speaking assignment of some sort. Usually, the assignment comes with a breakdown of what to include in the talk. Always, the requirements are almost all about how to write the “speech.” When I see scoresheets for these, commonly 80% of the total points come from the writing. It doesn’t matter how well the talk is delivered. If you can mutter it out loud, we’ll call it a speech. It will be acceptable and normal. It will get you at least a B. In fact, it will get you on stage at the national convention. But no one will be impressed.

Remember Amanda Gorman speaking at the inauguration? English teachers went nuts! A poem at the inauguration!! None of the lessons created about that event spent one minute noticing that what made that poem amazing was the way it was spoken. None spent time analyzing the wonderful oral communication skills demonstrated. The delivery was as important as the writing. How do we always miss that? Here is a plan for using her poem as an oral communication lesson.

So here we are at the time of year when students do assignments such as speeches, poetry recitations, book reports, and more. Millions of kids will get up and read papers at the class. Listeners will be unimpressed, maybe bored, and will get nothing from the talks. The problem is compounded when weak speaking skills are showcased via podcast and video. Digital tools make mediocre talks seem dreadful, and you know as well as I do that almost no one makes it to the end of even short online talks. If we taught speaking skills specifically, every child would be better at presentation time and recording time. Let’s raise the bar. Let’s not accept essays read aloud.

Visit pvlegs.com for help.

Read this post: Shortchanging Speaking.

Get the book pictured below for free (contact me at https://pvlegs.com/contact/ ).

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Talk First. Write Later.

“F9. Action”

That was Mason’s response to the prompt “What’s your favorite movie? Why is it your favorite?” It was part of a Getting to Know You assignment at the start of the 6th grade year. I had to look up F9. Turns out it is the abbreviation for “Fast & Furious 9,” the ninth movie of the Fast & Furious saga. This brought up three questions:

There have been nine Fast & Furious movies?

Should a 6th grader be watching Fast & Furious movies?

How can I get Mason to write more?

I’ll just talk about the last question here. Every teacher has reluctant writers. In Mason’s case, he was two or three grade levels below his peers in writing. He knew he was not good at writing. Years of extra support and encouragement haven’t changed his opinion of writing or markedly improved his writing ability. I think I know why.

In school, we tend to focus on deficits. If a child is behind others, we try to address the deficit. Difficulty reading? We’ll give you more reading to try to bring you up to speed. Difficulty with math? We’ll give you more math. In my school, we took students out of electives to give them extra classes in their problem areas. Mason couldn’t take Media Production because he needed the remedial writing class. (Yes, we changed the name of the class and didn’t use the word “remedial.”) To Mason, this was double punishment: unable to take a fun class and forced to do more of what he hated.

But here’s the thing about Mason: he was an amazing storyteller. Ask him about F9 and he would light up. Describing the cars, the chases, the actors in an engaging, animated way? Absolutely. Wonderful gestures, facial expressions, and speed variations as he spoke? Definitely. Mason was one of the best student speakers I have ever heard. Unfortunately, in seven years of schooling, no one noticed. Everyone focused on what was wrong with Mason. Everyone focused on his reading and writing.

Teachers seriously shortchange oral communication. English and language arts teachers talk about “reading and writing” almost exclusively and rarely mention speaking. Why? In part because speaking is not on the Big State Test. Mostly, though, we have misconceptions about speaking. Many teachers think speaking is scary so we shouldn’t make students do it. Many teachers think speaking skills can’t be taught and students are born with speaking ability or not. Many teachers don’t see how speaking is the key to reading and writing. From Mason’s point of view, though, writing is scary. He noticed that some kids were good at writing from the start and seemed to be born with more ability. And Mason couldn’t write until he was allowed to speak first.

Here’s what that means. Before making students like Mason write, let them talk. Record audio or video of them as they respond to a prompt. Consider letting them turn in the recordings instead of making them write. Because that can’t be allowed all the time, use the recordings to guide the writing.

         Teacher: Mason, you have done a great job describing F9. I can really see why you love that movie. Let’s listen to your storytelling and use what you said as a guide for your writing. I’ll play the first minute of your talk and pause the recording so you can write down some of what you said.

The result? Mason’s writing: F9 is for fast & furius 9. Its the nine fast & furius movie. I saw all movies but F9 has the best cars. Theres a Dodge Charger that cost a million dollars to make and this Ford Mustang chase by hellicopters. Jhon cena is driving that one Hes really cool. [sic]

A bit better than “F9. Action” isn’t it? Now we have something to work with.

How can you fit this in?

  • If you have Google Docs open on a Chrome browser, let a student use Voice Typing, one of the Tools available. As students are writing in class, allow Mason to go out into the hall and speak his rough draft into the computer. Windows OS has speech recognition, also.
  • Look for Dictate on Microsoft Word.
  • Do you use peer editing? Some students will be looking at each other’s writing. Mason and his partner could be listening to recordings and helping each other transcribe.
  • If Mason has access to a phone, have him call your Google Voice number and leave his rough draft. Google Voice will transcribe it. You can show the text to Mason so he can use it to write his final draft. Older students will easily find apps that transcribe.
  • Consider letting a spoken assignment replace one of your writing assignments. Listen to the response to your prompt, instead of reading the response.

For an example of a writing assignment where a student spoke instead of wrote, I’ll share Ryan’s video. My civics students were asked to write about what democracy means to them, but Ryan hated writing. He asked if he could submit a video. See the result here: https://youtu.be/0_TJBfL5gzs. If I had forced him to write, I might have gotten two boring paragraphs.

All of us spoke before we read or wrote. For many students, speaking first is still the best idea. Don’t just focus on reading and writing. Look at speaking with new eyes and let the many students whose strength is speaking use their talents as a bridge to reading and writing.  

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

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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

Here’s what I’ve noticed: for reading instruction, we have lessons on letter sounds, vowel and consonant combinations, decoding words, root words, vocabulary, sentence structure, plot lines, fluency, and so on. There are many programs designed to help struggling readers. We have spent a great deal of time analyzing reading and the skills needed to become successful at it. For writing instruction, we have lessons on capitalization, punctuation, fragments, run-ons, topic sentences, paragraphs. There are books and programs designed to improve student writing, to teach us how to confer about student writing, to teach us how get boys to write more, and so on. There are many classes in teacher preparation programs about how to teach reading and writing; many sessions at conferences on the subjects of reading and writing strategies; many books about how to improve reading and writing instruction. Indeed, language arts teachers say “reading and writing” as if they were one word, readinganwriting. It is astounding to me that the number one language art, speaking, is almost never part of the conversation.

Unfortunately, very little time has been devoted to analyzing speaking and the skills needed to become a successful speaker. Do you own a book that is about how to teach speaking skills? (A reading book that has some oral language activities does not count.) The NCTE catalog includes over 200 books but not one is about teaching oral communication. Have you had workshops in your district about how to teach speaking? You have had several experts come in to help with readinganwriting, haven’t you? Have you been to conference sessions devoted solely to improving students’ oral communication? Many conferences do not even have an oral language strand. The most important language art seems to be horribly shortchanged. Yes, every teacher has in-class student speaking activities, but most teachers do not have lessons that lead students to being successful with those activities. Very few teachers have specific lessons on how to use emphatic hand gestures for emphasis or descriptive hand gestures to enhance understanding, or lessons about adjusting pacing for impact. After a book share, a rubric is handed back and students are scored in eye contact and a few other things, but that is about all there is for speaking “instruction.”

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




Eye contact



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.

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