Never Make A Slide Like This

Bad slide

This came up on my Twitter feed after someone took a screenshot of a presentation slide and tweeted it. I’m sure the intent was to share what the tweeter thought was a great idea. What jumped out at me wasn’t the idea but that the slide was terrible. Too harsh? Maybe. Especially rough because the presenter is a well-meaning person with great ideas to share. But this slide is terrible. There is no nice way to say it.

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 the slide improved because of the bullets points. In no way is it diminished if bullet points are removed. More importantly, bullet points are a way of saying you have too much on one slide. We aren’t wasting paper here. Separate slides have much more impact. Let us focus on one idea at a time. Empower! [click] Promote! [click] and so on.

Never read at your audience. Why are you there? If every word is on a slide, you are unnecessary. This speaker made herself/himself redundant. 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 like this one and send us the PowerPoint. No one wants to sit in a room and have presenters read at us. We know how to read. Plus, it is difficult to read text while listening. If you want the audience to read, shut up and let them read without distraction. 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 won’t have to work as hard. They won’t have to read your whole book while they are trying to listen.

Never have many words on a slide. Where did we get the idea that people come to presentations to read? Shouldn’t presentations be about presenting? About oral communication? Many people have made this point and fought to change the wordy/bullet point mindset, yet the message hasn’t caught on as the slide at the top of this article demonstrates. The core messages of that slide are buried in unnecessary words.

Use images.

Why the word “Empower” when an image is so much more powerful and memorable? Why not visit and download this picture for free? Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash



Tell us that we should empower students to be readers, writers, and leaders  (AND DON’T LEAVE OUT THE #1 LANGUAGE ART, SPEAKING!–readers, writers, speakers, and leaders). Put up a new slide with a new image and tell us what to promote.

In other words, do your job! Be a presenter, not a reading supervisor.




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Mind the Gap: How We Make Kids Hate Speaking

“How do you teach speaking?”

I ask that questions when I do workshops about the #1 language art. Inevitably, teachers respond by telling me about an assignment they give.

We do biography presentations. Students spend three weeks reading about some historical figure and, at the end, they dress up like the character and give a three- to five-minute talk.

Students make an About Me podcast. They use GarageBand to make a four-minute podcast about themselves with sound and music included.

I assign Brown Bag speeches. Students bring in a grocery bag with items inside that represent who they are. A child might have a small soccer ball and talk about her soccer team, and so on.

All of these are nice assignments. All of them force kids to speak. None of them explain how they teach speaking. MAKING STUDENTS TALK IS NOT THE SAME AS TEACHING THEM HOW TO TALK WELL. That’s where the gap is. More like a chasm, actually. Assigning kids the job of getting in front of people and speaking is cruel if we don’t teach them how to pull it off.

Imagine I told you that you were going to be graded on making an elaborate origami swan. One or two of you may know how to do that, but the vast majority would be quite upset. “Are you going to show me how to make a swan?” “Nope. Oh, and next Tuesday is when I will grade you.” You’d hate that assignment, right? How horribly unfair to expect you to do something that you were never shown how to do. But we put students in that position all the time. We make them recite poems, give book reports, read aloud, share research projects, and so much more without even one lesson about the pieces of effective speaking. Students fear of public speaking comes from being made time and time again to do something they don’t know how to do. And being made to demonstrate that lack of skill in front of an audience or on camera? Horribly rude.

Teachers grade students on skills they were never taught. It is so common to see scoresheets like this piece of one from ReadWriteThink. (Side note: Hey, ReadWriteThink, why did you forget the most important language art? Why not ReadWriteSpeakThink?)

Did you have lessons about how to change volume to improve effectiveness? Any activities where kids could practice that? Any lessons about pace? Any practice activities and assignments that let students work on adjusting speed? Any exercises to work on effective pausing? And how did you teach “appropriate” facial expressions? Were there lessons about what is appropriate and what isn’t? Practice activities and perhaps video recording tools so they could see themselves and work on the skills you taught? You’ll see many other skills in there that are being assessed, and you know as well as I do that none of them are specifically taught. It would be so very rude to score students on something not taught, wouldn’t it? (Another side note: avoiding the use of slang is a terrible idea. Slang may well be exactly what is needed in many situations.)

To say that all kids already know how to talk is a cheap dodge. All people already know how to fold paper, too. But there is big gap between talking and talking well just as there is a big gap between folding paper and creating a swan. Just as all students can improve as writers with specific lessons, all students—yes, all students—can improve as speakers with specific lessons. You can get some ideas here: .

Teachers often say that they are helping students get more comfortable as speakers by giving them lots of opportunities to present. Nonsense. We help students get comfortable as speakers by breaking the art of effective oral communication into teachable pieces and giving lessons about and practice with each piece. (I’ve written about some of the pieces of good speaking here:

We have to mind the gap. The space between what we do in making them present and teaching the skills needed to be well spoken is enormous. It’s time to quit making kids hate speaking. Give all students the gift of effective oral communication skills and all of them will become more confident, competent speakers.






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Speaking Well Does Not Mean Speaking White

I didn’t think I would have to clarify that. But I had an interesting experience over a tweet I wrote.

My tweet:

An irate response to that tweet: “How dare you tell students that you must speak a certain way! Who are you to insist that only white, middle-class speech is appropriate?”

This provides some important lessons for all of us. First lesson, read before you react. Don’t fly off the handle and make ridiculous (stupid?) assumptions. Had the person read the article or anything else I have ever written, she would have known that I never come close to suggesting that there is only one approved way of speaking. I have made that clear many times in my work, including here. A small exploration of what I have written would reveal that the skills I suggest teaching apply to all styles. The comment is as absurd as protesting teaching comma usage. “How dare you tell students that commas are used to separate items in a series! That’s racist.”

Second lesson, we have no idea what it means to teach good speaking. What good speakers do can be done in any language, dialect, or social group. In other words, the skills of effective speaking are neutral: gender neutral, ethnically neutral, politically neutral, religiously neutral, and whatever other kind of bias you are worried about. I’ll give you a couple of examples. All speaking involves what you do before you speak and what you do as you speak. I refer to these as building a talk and performing a talk.

One thing to address before you open your mouth is to analyze the audience. You should plan a different talk about magnetism for third graders than you do for twelfth graders. You should plan a different talk about math manipulatives for teachers at the math department meeting than for parents at Back to School night. You should use a different style for the interview committee at IBM than for the teammates in the dugout. I use a different style for my stand-up routine at the comedy club than for my keynotes at district PD days. Analyzing the audience is a tip for all speakers who want to be successful. It is not class or race specific.

One skill to think about as you are speaking is speed. Great speakers know how to use speed well. They can speed up to create excitement. They can slow down for emphasis. They can stop for dramatic effect. Watch any truly impressive speaker anywhere on the planet. Watch speakers speaking a language you do not understand. That way the message won’t distract you, and you can pay attention to the delivery. You’ll discover that great speakers adjust their pace. Yes, the pace can and should be influenced by the audience analysis. Slam poets tend to speak more quickly than TED talkers. But all effective speakers know how to adjust speed for impact. Learning how to play with pace is tip for all speakers. It is not gender or ethnic specific.

If you are curious about the five skills needed to create powerful talks and the six needed to deliver impressively, visit Then use that framework to teach students how to speak well in whatever manner they choose to speak.

As a side-note, notice that the skills are teachable. It is not the case that some kids are good speakers from birth while most are not. All students can improve as writers, as readers, as science-ers, as math-ers, as thinkers, and as speakers. Want to teach about how to use speed well? Have a little lesson about speed. Put up this mini-speech:

Just a nice relaxing day in the park. We were sitting on our blanket, looking at clouds, looking at flowers, sipping lemonade. Ahhh, peace and quiet.  But suddenly it all changed. We heard screaming and yelling and people were running toward us. Picnic tables were being knocked over. Stuff was flying. Someone shouted, “Look! Over there! An alien spaceship!!” Panic took over! Up in the sky was a large…a large…oh, for heaven’s sake…a large blimp shaped like a flying saucer. A stunt by some company advertising something. No big deal.

Have different students deliver the words focusing on speed. Where should we be slow and deliberate? Where should we speed up? Where should we pause? Why? How does changing the pace add to the words? Who did you think did the best at changing speed? Want to try again to see if you can do even better? Will all students master pace? Of course not, just as all don’t master our word choice lessons. Will all students improve at a skill that great speakers use? Yep.

Bottom line: settle down. Don’t be so quick to take offense. And don’t be so quick to assume that speaking is somehow different than other language arts. It can and should be taught. All students deserve to have an effective voice.




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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, 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? (I know you have, Sanger Unified and Sutter County!) 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, as well. 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—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 standards in Colorado where “readinganwriting” became “reading, writing, and communicating” and nationally where the Common Core State Standards have given emphasis to speaking.

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 buy 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 ( 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. 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


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 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2012), 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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Teaching Speaking, the Forgotten Language Art

Nobody exactly knows. This is what I find out when I ask teachers, “What are the skills involved in effective oral communication?” I mean, we all have some ideas, but no one knows for sure what is really involved.

It’s an important question. In every classroom at every grade level in every subject, students are asked to speak: book reports, discussions, showing solutions, debates, reading aloud, presenting lab results, research reports…. And as digital tools enter the classroom and students engage in digital storytelling, podcasting, and video production, speaking skills are on display like never before. By this point in the year, the odds are excellent that you have already had some kind of student presentation.

And in life beyond the classroom, oral communication is the most important language art. I am, as you may have guessed from other posts I’ve written, obsessed with skills that will be important for our students in their lives after school. With the tools out there today, oral communication is more important than ever. It is always at or near the top of skills employers are looking for.

I don’t care what job students ultimately get—people who speak well will be more successful at the job than people who don’t speak well.

But we don’t exactly know the secret to effective speaking. (I am not referring only to “public speaking” which is what we tend to think of: the big presentation to large groups. The interview, the staff meeting, the sales call, the Back to School Night show, the wedding toast, the Socratic Seminar and more all require the exact same skills of oral communication.)  I have collected many rubrics/score sheets over the years and there is nothing close to agreement.

From a 9thgrade “Science in the News” assignment: 5 points each for “make eye contact,” “speak loud enough,” “hold head up,” “use note cards,” “knowledgeable;” 20 points for “five W’s answered.”

From a 4thgrade “Historical Fiction Book Share:” 10 points each for “interesting opening and satisfying conclusion,” “speak loudly & slowly,” “make eye contact,” “preparation and practice are evident;” 15 points for “presentation is organized;” 5 points for “keep audience engaged;” 20 points for “the character is creatively shown.”

From a 10thgrade “Cultures of the Ancient World:” “Oral Presentation: 20 points—Organized; Good eye-contact, loud voice; Dressed in clothes that symbolize the era.”

From a district language arts committee generic rubric: “4) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect with distinction; 3) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect; 2) Partially speaks fluently…”

Well, you get the idea. We all seem to think that eye contact and a loud voice are important, but would a student know what it takes to be effective based on these score sheets?  In an educational career from K through 12thgrades, a student will never see the same scoring system more than once. There is no common language, no common understanding. And I love the “etc.” of the generic rubric, the universal way of saying, “I bet there’s more, but I have no idea what.” We are telling students, “You guys know all the secrets to speaking fluently, don’t you? Expression, volume, pace, gestures and all that other stuff.” But they don’t know! And much more importantly, has any teacher taught even one lesson about any of those elements? For example, one lesson about pace and why it’s important and how to adjust it, followed by little practice speeches/activities?

So we are stuck listening to students who say, “I’m like all for like health care and all but I’m like whoa who is gonna pay and stuff, you know what I mean?”  At least we are stuck until we make two changes: one, become clear on what it takes to be an effective speaker; two, commit to teaching oral communication skills more purposefully before you assign the speaking activities you already have.

I can help with the first part. Visit It provides a structure and a common language that has worked very well for students (and adults) for many years. It makes clear that all speaking involves what you do before you speak and what you do as you speak. You can get a sense of the distinction between them by clicking on the checklists at the bottom of this post.

As for the second part, how many of us have given a score for “gestures” without ever teaching mini-lessons on gestures?  Just as we teach pieces of writing (punctuation, commas after an introductory phrase, commas to separate items in a series, commas to join independent clauses), we must teach the pieces of speaking: “On Tuesday, we will discuss and practice emphatic hand gestures; on Wednesday, we will move to descriptive hand gestures; on Thursday, we will work briefly with body gestures; on Friday, we will have a little lesson on facial gestures and expression so that next week when you give your speeches, I can score you on gestures.” Teachers are always talking about teaching reading and writing. Somehow, we never mention teaching speaking. (I’m looking at you, NCTE! Notice the omission in the Call for Proposals. No speakers?)

You already have them speaking. Let’s make those activities more meaningful. Adopt a simple consistent language. Teach specific lessons to develop each skill. It can be done. Do a web search of PVLEGS and you’ll find many teachers who are improving student speaking (and student lives) by helping kids become well spoken. Visit

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Creating an argument worth delivering

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

 We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

[Originally published at Stenhouse Publishers: ]

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Don’t hit record yet!


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?

Some high school teachers are interested in school reform. They get students involved and have the students generate ideas about how to improve schools. They create a video and put it on YouTube. The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and they use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak. Watch the students in the YouTube video they posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information.

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 can have such poor speaking skill.

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.  And you know that while you have lessons and worksheets on capital letters, for example, you never had a lesson or practice phrases to help students understand descriptive hand gestures.  Lessons on topic sentences?  Common.  Lessons on adjusting speed for effect?  Extremely uncommon.  And so on.

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 closely at the picture I put at the top of this blog.  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 well. So I have to suggest that teachers have failed these students.  (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.  Look here for a book that explains how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

If you use digital communication tools in your class look here, too, for a book that explains how create effective podcasts and videos.

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. Visit

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