Why Student Presentations Bore Classmates

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“In New Jersey v. TLO, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the appropriateness of the application of the exclusionary rule.  The Court overturned the lower court ruling in a 7-2 decision and held that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

What does that mean?  I heard that during a student presentation about landmark Supreme Court cases.  I can’t challenge the accuracy of the statement because that is exactly what the Court did.  I can challenge the appropriateness of the statement for the listeners.  Most eighth graders are probably not familiar with “certiorari” (though if all students are researching Supreme Court cases, the listeners in that situation may be) and probably no eighth graders understand what the exclusionary rule is.  What we have here is an example of a student presenting information without any consideration of the audience.  It happens all the time in our classrooms.

Here is what happened in the situation above: the teacher gave each student a case to research; she gave them a date for an oral presentation; she required certain content (name of the case, decision of the case, law the case was based upon); and she gave them a score sheet that would be used to evaluate the presentation which included eye contact, time limit, and posture. In this case, the student got maximum marks.  He accomplished what was asked.  Unfortunately, the class got nothing from his presentation.  The teacher failed to require that the speech be designed for the audience, a common omission.

All oral communication must be designed for a particular audience.  This is true for one-on-one communication, small group communication, or large group communication.  It amazes me how often speakers miss this point and fail to analyze the audience.  I recall being called to a faculty meeting on Friday afternoon so someone from the district could introduce us to RTI with a PowerPoint presentation full of densely packed text.  Really?  Is that going to work with this audience at this time?   You have been to talks where the speaker failed to understand the audience, too: telling you things you already knew; using insider jargon audience members didn’t know; not noticing the mood of the listeners; and so on.  If adults can be so inept at designing a speech for a specific group, no wonder children fail as well.  Students need specific instruction about how to build a talk for an audience.

First, whenever an assignment is given that involves talking to an audience (this includes mock interviews, discussions, book chats, digital stories, podcasts—everything!), begin with an explicit caution to students to think about the audience and design the talk for them.

You may have read a book designed for boy readers, but our class has boys and girls.  How can you make the book talk interesting to all of us?

We will have an in-class discussion about whether or not we should ___________.  Come prepared to state your opinion and defend your position on the issue.  Think about what arguments will be persuasive to class members.

You researched your topic and know a lot about it.  We didn’t research it and our class may not know many of the terms you are now familiar with.  How can you explain to our age group the important things we need to know?

Ideally, at some point the audience will change.  Perhaps students will present to another grade level or to parents.  This creates a great opportunity to broaden the discussion and analyze disparate audiences.

Second, make sure students know they will be judged in part based on how well they communicated with the audience.  The audience must be involved in scoring this part.  Way too often, students speak at the teacher only.  They know he or she is the only one whose opinion counts.  This is misguided.  A speech is for an audience and only by asking the audience will we know if the speech was effective.

Let’s score Spencer’s speech.  Did you think he did a good job of designing his talk for you?  Did he make everything understandable?  Did he keep you interested?  We use a 1 to 5 scale, remember, with 5 being perfect.  Raise your hand if you give Spencer a five?  A four?  A three?  Hmm, seems like most people gave you a three, which is good but which could be better.  What did you think he could do better next time, class?  (Discuss)

It does not damage students to have their performance scored if the teacher creates the proper atmosphere. (Of course, we don’t all get perfect marks, we are just beginning to master the difficult job of presenting…)  It does damage students to fail to teach them that what the audience thinks matters.

Third, teach students how to connect with the audience.  A good talk becomes a great talk if specific statements are added that let the audience know the talk was designed just for them.  The speaker must take his topic and connect it to the lives of the listeners.  In the eighth grade class mentioned above, this would be a connector:

How many of you have cell phones?  Would you be OK with the principal taking your phone and looking at your text messages?  My case, New Jersey v. TLO, is about a principal searching a student’s stuff, too, and like you, she wasn’t happy about it.

Now, some old Supreme Court case is much more interesting to the class.

Students (and adults!) need to do a better job of making sure they design their words for their listeners.  That means that we have to do a better job of letting them know how to do so. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

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What the Oscars can tell us about speaking

Are you going to an Oscar party this year?

At the last one I attended, as we came into the party, we were given an Oscar “ballot.”  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given.  While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show.  “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language!  I have five points now!”  As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing.  This is not a particularly astute observation.  I am sure you noticed this as well.  What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and teach speaking.

Someone creates the words.  Someone delivers the words.  These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer.  The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts.  Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, both parts are involved.  And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication.  I refer to these two parts as building a speech and performing a speech.   “Building” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths; “performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

Let’s think about building a speech first.  Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call.  Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the eulogy.  But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation.  Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (interview), a few people (discussion), or many people (presentation), but we often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches (professional speechwriters exist, right?) and some students will excel at this part of oral communication.  All students, though, and indeed, all speakers, need to understand what is required before we ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken.  I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved.  In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things.  We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.   If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, discussion, or presentation.  Some people are very good at performing (professional speakers exist, right?) and some students excel at this part of oral communication.  But, again, all students need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here.  We have buried our students with an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on.  I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day.  Whatever language you use, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this.  At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around your building.  How many teachers specifically talk to students about this crucial distinction?  How many score sheets and rubrics are being used in your building that don’t keep these separate (e.g., “Content, vocabulary, and delivery are appropriate”)?  How many students can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa?  If we all know this, why do I see so little evidence of it?

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way students and teachers approach all oral communication.  It is the starting place for mastering speaking. Visit pvlegs.com.

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The Real Problem with Fake News

At every press event, Donald Trump criticizes the media and/or specific people/networks. Initially, he picked on the New York Times and CNN. Now, in the President’s mind, not only are almost all news sources fake, they are enemies of the American people. This has been a constant theme of his presidency.

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Why these attacks?

A.   The President wants to protect you from being duped. The President wants to make your life easier by steering you away from evil liars.

B.    The President wants to protect himself from any possible examination or criticism. The President wants to discredit news sources so that, in case a source finds something he doesn’t want you to know about, you won’t believe the story.

The option you choose may be based on your opinion of the President (see my post about confirmation bias and fake news here.) I would love to believe that A is the correct choice. I fear that B is.

MISUSING THE DEFINITION OF “FAKE”

Fake means false. Didn’t happen. Reporting that a poll that says 32% of the people trust the media, is not fake if in fact such a poll existed. That some other poll might have different percentages does not mean that the first story was fake. CNN, ABC, NBC accurately reported the polls in the election. That the election turned out differently does not mean the stories were made up.

Not covering a story is not the same as lying. If in fact there were big crowds, the story may have been ignored and that may be evidence of bias, BUT BIASED DOES NOT MEAN FALSE. There is a huge difference between choosing one story over another and reporting something that never happened. Stifling the press because you don’t like what they report is part of what is sinister. There is a larger fear.

THE PROBLEM IS DIFFERENT THAN YOU THINK

Our first response as educators was to teach students how to sniff out fake news. We pointed out that some stories were totally false. Made up. Never happened. No truth. We wanted to give kids tools for figuring out which stories were fabricated. But teaching students how to find lies is the smaller of the two problems with “fake news.” I am worried that students will believe something that is false. I am terrified that students will not believe something that is true. As we emphasize that some small amount of stuff that is encountered is nonsense, we seriously risk creating cynics who believe nothing is true. One of the most important pieces of civil society is being undermined.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS

A little history. Within minutes of creating a new country, our Founding Fathers decided to make ten changes to the Constitution. The very first change they proposed?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 1 protects freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Founders were worried that these freedoms, not specifically mentioned in the articles setting up the government, could be attacked. Before anything else, they wanted to guarantee these freedoms.

…the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. James Madison

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Thomas Jefferson

The Founding Fathers realized that a free and respected press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? This is not a liberal or a conservative issue. Both ideologies agree that a free press is critical to a well-functioning democracy.

Yet if our right to a free and independent press is infringed, all other rights fall. Our ability to be informed and the free flow of information, regardless of how damaging it is to elected officials, is one of the most essential safeguards to our liberty. The fight for a free press is one that we absolutely cannot afford to lose. http://www.freedomworks.org/content/flashback-founders-necessity-free-press

The press, which is essential to the preservation of liberty, has also come under attack from the government. One of the principles that ensures a free press is that journalists are not required to reveal their sources. This is one way government whistleblowers can feel free to come forward and reveal information that is of public importance, such as governmental corruption and abuse, without fearing exposure. If journalists were required to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing such as Watergate might never be brought to the attention of the media and, thus, the American people. https://www.rutherford.org/constitutional_corner/amendment_i_freedom_of_religion_speech_press_and_assembly

I am terrified of the President’s claim that all mainstream news sources are enemies of the people. When Trump supporters shouted “luegenpresse” at a rally, it was very disturbing. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/10/24/the-ugly-history-of-luegenpresse-a-nazi-slur-shouted-at-a-trump-rally/?utm_term=.761f5329fa1a For a sitting president to echo those sentiments is shocking.

DESTROYING FAITH IN A CRITICAL INSTITUTION

The non-stop barrage is having an effect. Distrust in the media is increasing. From Gallup analyst Art Swift:

Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/296003-poll-trust-in-media-at-all-time-low

The numbers are radically different based on party affiliation: 14% of Republicans, 30% of independents, and 51% of Democrats trust the media. According to an Emerson College poll, 91% of Republicans think the news media is untruthful (47% of independents, 31% of Democrats). http://thehill.com/homenews/media/318514-trump-admin-seen-as-more-truthful-than-news-media-poll

The President’s strategy is working.

EDUCATORS MUST RESPOND

It is not enough, then, to teach students how to ferret out falsehoods. It is critical, yes, but more is needed. We must set the context. We must explain the importance of a free press. We must explain the core principles of our Founding Fathers. We must point out how rulers around the world and throughout history have attacked the press in order to subjugate the citizenry. We must make clear that a free press is never the enemy of the people. And I fear, we must make clear that the President is frighteningly wrong.

 

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Fake Quotes: A lesson in how easily we can be duped

Why do fake posts work? We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. Why do these falsehoods spread? Why do fake posts work? The answer to that can be found by taking a look at a very common practice on social media, posting/liking/retweeting nicely decorated quotes from famous people. You’ve seen this quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  Albert Einstein

Einstein never said any such thing. There are hundreds of nicely decorated versions of this available with a simple web search and even some classroom posters. All lies.

On Twitter I saw:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  Ben Franklin

Ben never said that. Total falsehood.

Here are four fun ones:

Which version is correct? None of them. They are all lies.

This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why re-posting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or pleasant platitudes or inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Franklin Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Elizabeth Warren never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll re-post it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva (https://www.canva.com/) to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious. Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site (https://www.snopes.com/). Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one: https://www.history.com/news/here-are-6-things-albert-einstein-never-said.

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students. To stop the spread of falsehoods online, we need to cure ourselves first. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

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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?

Options:

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

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

C)    Teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

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

A student turns in this work:

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

What do you do?

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

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

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

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

One more example. A student 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.

In this 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?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. 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? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA 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. 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 like this and do nothing to help them. 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 facts 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.

Solutions? 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 online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

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

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

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.

Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 8.30.44 PMI 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, 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. How can you 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 to 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 won’t have to work as hard. They won’t have to read your whole book while they are trying to listen.

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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 rotate? Isn’t that awesome? No. It’s silly, distracting, and irrelevant.

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Think of people in the back of the room. 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 (unsplash.com, for example) offer pictures for free.

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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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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

Poise

Voice

Life

Eye contact

Gestures

Speed.

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

The skills described here apply in all speaking situations, not just on the occasions we think of as “speech-making.” In an interview with a prospective employer, a successful candidate will think beforehand about what she is going to say and will build responses to likely questions. Then, being poised, having an appropriate voice, expressing passion and interest, making eye contact, gesturing, and speaking at an appropriate pace will set her ahead of other job seekers. In a committee, a member who comes prepared and has given forethought to what he is going to present will be more valuable to the group. If he pays attention to the elements of delivering his oral communication, he will be an even more effective member of the group. One on one, small group, large group, informal presentation, formal presentation—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 (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. 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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