Student Voice! You don’t have it if you don’t speak well.

voice

  1. The sound produced in a person’s larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/voice

Student voice. What a hot topic! Educational conferences have themes such as “Raising Student Voice” (NCTE) and “Speak Up! Finding and Using Our Voices in a Noisy World” (NEATE). Social media is full of posts about how to increase student voice. Educational publications have articles about student voice. A true buzz word of our time! Unfortunately, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice: speaking. The conference with the theme “Speak Up”? Not one strand about oral communication. The “Raising Student Voice” conference had hundreds of sessions with exactly ONE session about how to improve students’ oral communication. Think about that. It is an example of an epic fail.

When you see the word voice used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those: I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means what you hear.

How can so many people talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media is used which expands the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tragically, students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed.

Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one way to have an impact.

“All kids can talk already.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have never been trained about how to teach speaking skills.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.”

All of these are good excuses for ignoring the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. But the truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons to improve writing (punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure…) and to improve math (common denominator, order of operations…) and to improve reading (setting, metaphor, plot line…) there need to be specific lessons to improve speaking.

I’ll give you one example. The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding inflection, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouic59Gv0x0 There is a visual of a voice with no life and a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference.

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling.

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or math or drawing or anything. But all will get better, and all will understand how to communicate better. Many more resources are here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/shortchanging-speaking/

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. Visit www.pvlegs.com

About Erik Palmer

The #1 language art is speaking. By far. I'm committed to promoting the teaching of oral communication in all of its forms.
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