The annual convention of the largest association of English teachers in America. The president of the organization addresses the thousands in attendance. A keynote address? Not exactly. More like reading an essay at the audience.
That’s not a typo. She had typed out word for word an essay and read it at us. If you look at the six pieces needed to deliver a good talk, she failed at four of them.
Poise? Yes, no distracting behaviors. Voice? Yes, every word was heard…thanks to the microphone. Life? None. No emotion, no passion. Eye contact? Nope, too busy reading. Gestures? No, just holding the sides of the podium and turning pages. Speed? No variation, no speeding up or slowing down for effect. You can listen to a small piece of it here: https://youtu.be/QJdE7Q3YucU
She is a good writer—it was a fine essay. She is a good reader—didn’t miss a word. But it was an uninspired, sing-songy sort of reading, wasn’t it? Sadly, it reveals a lot about how English teachers fail to understand communication. They love reading. They love writing. Most seriously shortchange the #1 language art, speaking. Oral communication is the way the vast majority of our communication takes place, yet few educators teach students how to do it well.
Yes, every year there is a speaking assignment of some sort. Usually, the assignment comes with a breakdown of what to include in the talk. Always, the requirements are almost all about how to write the “speech.” When I see scoresheets for these, commonly 80% of the total points come from the writing. It doesn’t matter how well the talk is delivered. If you can mutter it out loud, we’ll call it a speech. It will be acceptable and normal. In fact, it will get you on stage at the national convention. But no one will be impressed.
Remember Amanda Gorman speaking at the inauguration? English teachers went nuts! A poem at the inauguration!! None of the lessons created about that event spent one minute noticing that what made that poem amazing was the way it was spoken. None spent time analyzing the wonderful oral communication skills demonstrated. Watch that poem again with the checklist above in your hand. The delivery was as important as the writing. How do we always miss that?
So here we are at the time of year when students do big, summative assignments that include speeches. Millions of kids will get up and read papers at the class. Listeners will be unimpressed, maybe bored, and will get nothing from the talks. If we taught speaking skills specifically, every child would be better at presentation time. Let’s raise the bar. Let’s not accept essays read aloud.