Giving Little Kids Voice

Speaking Activities for Early Elementary School Students

In a previous post, we looked at speaking activities for middle and high school students ( I noted that there are many speaking activity suggestions available online for teachers who want to encourage oral communication for students. Many activities, though, seemed designed for older students. It is not likely that kindergartners will participate in a Socratic Seminar or that first graders will compete in debate. Because of this, when I suggest that all teachers need to teach all students the specific skills needed to become confident, competent speakers, there can be a tendency to think, “Yes, but that applies to older students only.” That is a mistake. Very young students need guidance and can vastly improve as speakers if we don’t sell them short, so to speak.

How many times do we ask early elementary students to speak? I watched a kindergarten teacher lead Weekly Share Time. She had students pass around a teddy bear while her eyes were closed, and when she said, “Stop,” the person holding the bear said something about what they did over the weekend: “My grampa and me got ice cream and then we went to the store to get a spray for some bugs in his basement.” In 1st grade, I watched students read aloud. In 2nd grade, a teacher in the elementary school where I taught had students do research about countries and do a presentation for the class: “Here is my map of Italy. The population is 59 million. Famous people are…” How many different ways do you ask students to speak in your class? From day one in elementary school, oral communication activities occur. And as I said in the previous post, if you looked at all those activities with new eyes, you would notice that every one of them is about making students talk, but none is about how to teach students to talk well. We excuse young students for presenting poorly. After all, they are little kids. We can’t expect them to be good speakers. I strongly disagree, and I will share a link to a video that shows what students can do.

Treat speaking as you do writing

When do we begin teaching writing? When students walk in the door. Here’s how to make letters; these are fragments and run-ons; here’s where commas go; this is when to capitalize; paragraphs have topic sentences; and so many more. Specific lessons about all the pieces of good writing. So, when should we begin to teach speaking? When students walk in the door. Here’s how to make sure your voice is heard; this is what eye contact is; here’s how to make descriptive hand gestures; this is where to add excitement in your voice; and so on. The resource below gives an idea of the specific skills needed to speak well and points in the direction of lessons we need to teach. From the previous post:

Assign speaking activities differently: Choose an activity that emphasizes a particular skill that good speakers demonstrate; teach lessons about that skill in advance of the activity; have students speak.

Let me share three ideas for developing key skills that will fit any early elementary class and can be scaled for upper elementary grades, too.

Birthday interview: Voice

Often, teachers tell students to speak loudly. That’s bad advice. Good speakers do not yell at the audience. They simply have voices that allow all listeners to hear every word. Their voices are just right for the space. Sometimes we speak more softly than other times, but we make sure that even when whispering, everyone can hear what we are saying. Tell students that they need to make sure that everyone listening can hear each word without struggling. They don’t need to be loud, but of course some students may need to be louder than might feel comfortable with at first. (And some need to tone it down!) On the student’s birthday, invite him to come up to the “stage” for the interview. One kindergarten teacher in my school used a pencil as a microphone. You may have something more fun to represent the microphone.

Teacher: [holding the ‘mic’] Today we are talking to Kim. Hello, Kim. How old are you today? [holding the mic in front of Kim]

Kim: Six

Teacher: Class, would you please raise your hand if you didn’t hear Kim? [a few hands go up] Kim, could you repeat that so everyone can hear?

Kim: Six.

Teacher: Excellent. Six years old. Wow. What is your favorite food to eat?

Kim: My favorite food [a couple of hands go up—Kim notices] My favorite food is pizza.

Teacher: Do you like pepperoni, mushrooms?

Kim: I hate mushrooms. I like cheese pizza but sometimes ham. My mom likes mushrooms but I pick them off.

Teacher: I hear you like soccer. Tell us about that.

Kim: I’m really good at soccer. My team won…

After a few interviews, students get the idea, and it becomes rare to have to comment about voice.

Favorite toy: Gestures

We all know that gestures are part of engaging an audience, and we give students points on speaking rubrics for gestures. Sadly, we don’t teach lessons about how to gesture well. Tell students that hand and body gestures contribute to understanding and keep audiences interested in the talk. Very few teachers keep their hands still while talking to students so ask students to notice the gestures you are using as you talk to them. Tell them that they will be giving a talk about their favorite toy and the focus will be on gestures. Ask five students to bring in their toy Monday, five others on Tuesday, and so on. At showtime, guide them in gestures as they speak.

Teacher: Sofia, what did you bring in today?

Sofia: I have my mermaid doll.

Teacher: How pretty! Hold her up so everyone can see. Nice. I’m not sure this side of the room can see so let’s show them, too. Fine. Now what’s her name and what is a mermaid?

Sofia: She’s Pixie. Mermaids are girls who live in the water.

Teacher: Does she have legs?

Sofia: She has a tail.

Teacher: Like a dog’s tail?

Sofia: No, like a fish.

Teacher: Can you show the class her tail? [Sofia points] Oh, nice gesture! We can see exactly where to look. What else would you like to point out? Tell us all about her.

Sofia: One of her eyes fell out but my mom put a new one in here. [showing the face to the class, pointing to the new eye] I got her for my birthday when I was one. I like to play with her hair and put ribbons in and this crown. [holding the crown up] If you push this button [points], her tail lights up.

With this safe, fun activity, students get used to using their hands and bodies as they speak. Starting with these simple moves, it will be easy in later grades to transition to gestures for emphasis or descriptiveness.   

Read aloud: Life

Many students animated when talking in the lunchroom but become monotonous when put in front of the class. Rather than teach students about inflection, an unfriendly word for little kids, teach them about adding “life.” Indeed, this is a critical lesson in order for students to advance as readers. Students move from sounding out to fluency to prosody—understanding how the text is supposed to sound. Show them a bit of text where the author has given readers clues about how the text should be “heard.” For example, use a page from Children Make Terrible Pets. On one page, this line appears: “OH. MY. GOSH. You are the cutest critter in the WHOLE forest!”

Teacher: The author uses big letters for the first three words. That means he wants us to say those words a certain way. Let’s all read those first three words aloud together.

Class: Oh my gosh.

Teacher: Hmm, that sounded pretty regular. I think he used big letters because he wants big life in our voices. Let’s try again.

Class: [some shouting] OH MY GOSH!!

Teacher: Wonderful! Did you notice he put periods between the words? Periods tell us to stop, right? Now how should we read this?

Class: OH [pause] MY [pause] GOSH!!

Teacher: Wow, that was great! Now who wants to volunteer to read the next sentence? Think about that word in big letters and how we might add life to that sentence. Gigi?

Gigi: Youarethecutestcritterinthe [shouting] WHOLE forest.

Teacher: We’re getting the idea! Every time we read, let’s read like a speaker with lots of life in the voice. We’ll use the clues the author gives us.

There are many places in all the books we read where adding life makes the story come alive and makes listeners love reading. Read aloud becomes much more interesting.

Video proof

If you want to see what kindergarten students are capable of, watch the video posted by a teacher who used a green screen for weather “reports” after her unit about weather.

The students aren’t all masters of speaking and not all are comfortable yet. It is clear, however, that the teacher taught about gestures, poise, voice, and more. The students are on the right track and would get high marks using the checklist below.

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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