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:

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. C)    I 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?

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.
  3. C)    I 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?

  1. A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.
  2. B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. C)    I 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:

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

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

An enhanced ebook with embedded tutorials, audio and video examples of lesson and of students speaking: goo.gl/13vwA4

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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Blame the messenger

teemu-paananen-376238-unsplashPhoto by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t blame the messenger!” In a school I worked at, our team leader said it often. He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to do: new initiatives we had to implement, new tech tools the school purchased that we were supposed to put into play, new [math/science/bullyproofing/grammar/insert your own idea] program we had to use. As we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the new things we hated? Don’t blame the messenger.

Lately, I have come to think a bit differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. Let me give an example. I attended a talk about making more effective use of technology in instruction. I think the message is an important one. Many teachers put their students in the position of being time travelers: the students are in 2019 outside of school, but when they come into the classroom, it looks like 1980. Few have expertise in the effectively using digital tools, and many are still hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult, and teachers are generally buried. Planning, grading, parent meetings, school meetings, and shifting requirements are all-consuming. The tech teacher may have the time and interest to explore all the new tools, but the average teacher doesn’t, so someone has to be the messenger to bring the new information to the teachers. And that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the talk at the conference. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: teachers giving up their time and paying for a couple days of sessions who are not really looking for complicated jargon or some glitzy new tool. I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw the typical PowerPoint slides with bullet points and a massive list of “apps you must have.” Who wants to see that?  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried with a quick explanation of the 25 tools we should be using. Way too much, way too fast, way inappropriate for those who aren’t tech savvy. Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed.

Of course, after a presentation is created, it has to be delivered. Speakers presenting new ideas need to be really good. Selling change requires exceptional skills. A speaker has to be lively, engaging, animated, powerful, and maybe humorous. These are necessary to sell any new idea. Unfortunately, the conference speaker was none of those. Most attendees left the session before it was over. Blame the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the idea of using valuable tech tools.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high. I was at Curtis School in Los Angeles because they know that. They realized that an effective school requires great verbal skills for all adults: teachers in class, in parent conferences, and at back to school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff (the first people parents see when they enter the school); staff members who present at workshops and conferences. Education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers. They realized that all of their staff needed to be better communicators. Is that true at your school, too?

Most adults would benefit by improving their speaking skills. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many teachers got upset because an administrator communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest?  If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get them some help. Check out Own Any Occasion. (Find it here: https://www.td.org/books/own-any-occasion) I’ll buy it back from you if it doesn’t help.

 

 

 

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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 bullet 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 unsplash.com and download this picture for free? Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

miguel-bruna-503098-unsplash

EMPOWER!

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.

Bonus content! Slides from ASCD Empower19: even the best names in education do not know how to design slides.

 

 

 

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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: https://pvlegs.com/activities/ .

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: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/100-english-teachers-walk-into-a-bar/.

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. https://www.td.org/insights/code-switching-its-not-always-proper-to-speak-properly 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 pvlegs.com. 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

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 (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 www.pvlegs.com. 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 www.pvlegs.com

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