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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