Don’t hit record! Don’t turn on the Zoom mic! Don’t Flipgrid! First…

Fourth graders are learning about the Reconstruction. The teacher wants to test out his new green screen tools. He has students speak and posts the video on YouTube. A huge problem: he is so focused on the tech tool that he fails to notice that the students do not know how to speak well. Check out what he posted for the world to see (I removed his identifying information because posting a rough draft is not kind to students): 4th graders Do you really believe that that is the best these kids can do?

A high school teacher has her class interested in school reform. She has students generate ideas about how to improve schools. She creates a video and puts it on YouTube. The intention is great; the message may be provocative and needed; and the students use appropriate digital tools available to create a message for a real audience.  One huge problem: no one taught the students how to speak well. Watch the students in the YouTube video she posted.  Again, I took clips of the students from the video and took out all identifying information.

Another high school teacher has students record podcasts about historical events. I love the idea. Podcasts showcase oral communication for a real audience. But you need to have something worth showcasing. Do you want to listen to all of this podcast: This is the best that students can do after 11 years of speaking in our classes? All of the speaking that happens in all of those years of speaking leads to this?

Yes, because we made kids talk but we never taught them how to talk well.

I feel bad about criticizing these students, but the truth is that not one of them is close to impressive. I apologize for being rough but you know it is true. This is tragic. Here is the part that is hard to hear: it is our fault as teachers that students have such poor speaking skills.

I guarantee you that each of these students has spoken often in the years of schooling they have had. Many talks were informal: answering and asking questions, solving problems at the board, commenting in discussions, and such. Many were formal. How many book reports do you suppose a child has given? How many research reports presented? How many poetry recitations? How many lab results explained? How many times explaining a travel brochure on the Central American country they were assigned? Would you guess that at least ten times, each child had to get up in front of a class at some point and speak for 3 to 5 minutes? Would you believe twenty times? More? In other words, it isn’t that they have never done this. It is that no one ever taught them to do it well.

You know that while students have had lessons and worksheets on capital letters, for example, they never had a lesson or practice phrases to help them understand descriptive hand gestures. Lessons on topic sentences? Common. Lessons on adjusting speed for effect? Extremely uncommon. Without specific instruction, they will just make more un-listenable recordings.

In remote learning where all talk is online, the problem increases. Zoom. Podcasts. Flipgrids. Videos. Digital presentations with various tools. How many impressive speakers do you see?

Here is the reality: speaking well matters in life. No matter what profession someone enters, the person who speaks well will be more successful than the person who speaks less well. As 21st century communication tools put oral communication on display, verbal skills are critical. Podcasts, Skype (now being used by employers for intake interviews), videos (like the one I am critiquing here), digital stories, and video conferences demand strong oral communication skill. Look at skills employers want.

Verbal communication is at the top of the list of skills most desired for prospective employees. Which of those speakers do you think would impress the HR committee?

Some kids get pretty good on their own. In my experience, about 10% of students speak pretty well. But if only 10% of your students pass your test, I am going to blame you.  You didn’t teach well. So I have to suggest that teachers have failed these students. (This will no doubt be a very unpopular blog: criticizing well-meaning kids and blaming teachers?)  We have a great excuse: we have been focused on big tests and have been forced to ignore the most important language art. But with the communication tools available today, that omission is becoming more serious.

One more video. These fourth graders were given specific instruction about how to speak well in the weeks leading up to the book reports. Watch them here. You notice the difference right away, don’t you?  You, too, can give students help. If you use digital communication tools in your class, this enhanced e-book explains how create effective podcasts and videos. It’s full of tutorials, audio and video examples of students, lessons, and rubrics.

I’ll send it to you for free. Contact me at

Look here for a book that explains generally how to teach students to build a powerful message and how to deliver that message well.

I believe in these kids. I know that each one of them is capable of impressing us given proper instruction. I know that we have accepted too little for too long. Don’t hit record until you teach them to be well spoken.

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Fake Quotes: A lesson in how easily we can be duped

We all see the news: trolls are posting fake stories. We all think, “That’s terrible!” We worry that our students will be duped. Why do these falsehoods spread? Why do fake posts work? The answer to that can be found by taking a look at a very common practice on social media, posting/liking/retweeting nicely decorated quotes from famous people. You’ve seen this quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  Albert Einstein

Einstein never said any such thing. There are hundreds of nicely decorated versions of this available with a simple web search and even some classroom posters. All lies.

On Twitter I saw:

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.  Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin never said that. Total falsehood.

Here are four fun ones:

Which version is correct? None of them. They are all lies.

This drives me crazy. Intelligent people. Educators. Folks with degrees. All of these people get upset when they hear that Facebook is being used by troll farms putting out falsehoods that end up being widely shared, yet they are guilty of forwarding falsehoods themselves.

I think I know how these fakes get created. Someone somewhere thought, “These are nice words, but no one will read them unless I say a famous person said them. How about Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Wait, no! This has the word ‘genius’ in it, and when I hear the word genius, I think of Einstein! I’ll say that Einstein said it!” And I understand why re-posting and retweeting happen: the post includes some nice sentiments or an inspirational message, and we want to share them. We end up spreading lies.

Don’t be so harsh, right? The message was super nice so don’t be picky. So Franklin or Roosevelt didn’t say it. Big deal. The point is that the words are inspiring! With that kind of thinking, you can see how troll farms succeed. Put out a message people like, and it will be shared whether true or false. Maybe the post includes something Donald Trump never said or Joe Biden never said, but so what? I like the post! It reinforces what I already believe so I’ll re-post it. Be aware that it is very easy to create attractive but fake messages. Rather than take non-famous words and attribute them to famous people, I used Canva ( to create a poster taking famous words and attributing them to me. The message is wonderful, right? Feel free to share it!

We need to model the behavior we want our students to emulate. We can’t mindlessly accept and perpetuate what we like online. Be suspicious. Think critically. Sometimes the red flags are obvious.

Sometimes it is trickier to detect fakes. You have to know about Ben Franklin’s writing to know the words above are not his style. You have to think that while the world thinks Einstein is a genius, he didn’t hold himself out to be a genius or a commentator on genius. Verify. Use Snopes, a fact-checking site ( Use Google. On the search line I typed, “Did Einstein ever say everyone is a genius” and got many results verifying that he didn’t including this one:

This is all effortful, but necessary. Make it part of your behavior to think critically and never mindlessly accept or repost anything. Then share your skill with your students. To stop the spread of falsehoods online, we need to cure ourselves first.

Posted in Media Literacy | Leave a comment

Evaluating Speaking

Look around your building. You will see students speaking, sometimes informally, sometimes formally. Sometimes teachers grade those speaking assignments. Now look closely at the rubrics and score sheets that are being used. Each one is unique. No two teachers have the same idea of what it takes to be an effective speaker. This means that our students will get inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, and often very wrong comments making it very difficult to piece together how to become competent communicators. We don’t really know how to evaluate speaking.

I wrote previously about the two very distinct components of all oral communication: building the speech (all the things you do before you open your mouth) and performing the speech (all the things you do as you are speaking). Understanding that distinction is the beginning point for creating effective rubrics. Too often, teachers hand out rubrics that jump from ‘building” to “performing” elements: Content, 10 points; Volume, 10 pts.; Organization, 10 pts.; Eye contact, 10 pts.; and so on. Worse, many teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: Content, volume, and pacing, 20 points.  A student develops content before the day of the talk, but volume and pacing are considerations as he is talking.

Multiple items on one scoring line create another problem, as well. If the score sheet says “Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points,” did I get a 6 because I was loud enough and clear enough but spoke way too fast? Was I a little off on each of the three things? Was I pretty far off on two of the three? A student will have no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

In this case, we could solve the ‘multiple item on one line’ problem by breaking those three apart: Speak loudly 5 pts.; speak clearly 5 pts.; speak slowly 5 pts., for example. But this reveals another problem. Two of those three descriptors are wrong. It is not necessary to always speak loudly. Sometimes a quiet voice is very powerful. When my father said softly, “Erik, come here,” I knew something big was about to happen. Yes, every word needs to be heard but speaking loudly is often inappropriate. Speaking slowly is equally wrong.  Recounting the exciting play when the winning goal was scored demands a quick pace.  Don’t read this slowly:

The defender slipped slightly. I quickly pushed the ball past him and raced to the goal.  Two other defenders came rushing at me. The keeper’s eyes lit up. I fired off a shot just as the defenders converged on where the ball had been. Too late!

It is wrong to suggest to students that they need to speak slowly. They should pay attention to speed, for sure, and they should be taught how to adjust it for effect.

In my work with teachers around the country, I have seen many different words used to evaluate just the performing part of speaking:

Intonation, elocution, articulation, inflection, expression, enthusiasm, loudly, pitch, rhythm, clearly, slowly, volume, hold head up, body language, posture, tone, eye contact, poise, look at audience, stand up straight, gestures, projection, body movement, enunciation, presence, fluid expression, confidence, interesting voice…

You may find more at your school. Some of these are misguided and some are confusing words for students. In any case, imagine the difficulty we give our students when we bury them with different descriptors and bad advice. Let me offer some solutions.

  • Develop a consistent, school-wide language. When a student moves from grade to grade or from class to class, she should be able to expect the same grading system.  Don’t have one teacher score “articulation and posture,” another “elocution and loudness,” another “hold head up and enunciation,” and so on.
  • Make sure teachers separate “building a speech” elements from “performing a speech” elements on your rubric. On the top half of the score sheet, score content, organization, and visual aids; on the bottom half, score poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. Give both parts equal weight. Don’t make the performance unimportant; don’t make the performance outweigh lack of content.
  • Use simple language. “Elocution,” “presence,” “fluid body language,” are not student friendly words. “Speak each word clearly,” “be poised,” and “use hand, face, and body gestures” are more accessible terms.
  • Don’t use misleading words. Think hard about each word as I demonstrated with “loudly” and “slowly.” “Enthusiasm” is inappropriate in the speech about your grandmother’s death.
  • A speech is for an audience.  The audience opinion must be part of the grade. Every listener must have some form to score as he or she listens to the speech. No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest. Students are very good evaluators and they know poise when they see it, they know if the speech covered the required content. Additionally, involving the students makes them attentive and critical listeners—something necessary to address the listening part of your state’s standards.

I created a framework for building a talk and performing a talk which you can see at Look at the Rubrics and Organizers tab for lots of help. A sample of what you’ll find:

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Listening skills: Way More Than “What’s the main idea?”

HMH listening

I sometimes get emails from an organization about improving student listening skills. They point out that speaking and listening are not being addressed in schools and claim that listening is a key piece of the “literacy puzzle.”

Kudos to educators who focus on these forgotten language arts! For years, English teachers have been focused only on “reading and writing.” If you look at conferences, Twitter feeds, and educators’ blogs, you will see “reading and writing” so many times that it will seem as if we ought to just adopt a new word: readinganwriting. You never see “reading, writing, and speaking” or “reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” This reveals an enormous blind spot.

The most critical language arts—the ones upon which almost all learning depend—are ignored. Are all students competent listeners? Isn’t it apparent to all educators that students generally do not speak particularly well? Yet no one seems to think that we ought to start paying attention to these language arts. We seem to not realize that speaking and listening are teachable, too.

The organization suggests playing audio clips of interesting news stories for your students and then asking comprehension questions about the stories. If I use a story I heard on National Public Radio about how China is no longer buying plastic waste from the U.S., for example, and ask online comprehension questions, I wonder if that is sufficient. Does listening to the news teach listening skills? What do my questions really measure? Is this a test of comprehension skills, checking to see if students understand what a main idea is? While the main idea may be “China has stopped buying our discarded plastic,” a child may report that container ships arrived in the United States from China with goods made in China and, instead of going back empty, were being filled with plastic. The student listened well but had difficulty with the concept of main idea. Is this a memory test? A question such as, “What reasons did they give for why China doesn’t buy plastic anymore?” may assess remembering more than listening.

Putting those issues aside for a moment, notice all the elements of listening that were never asked about:

  • The story had a little music at the start as the reporter introduced himself. Did you notice it? Is the music important? Why do you think the music was added? What does music contribute to a story?
  • At one point, some sound effect was playing as the speaker was talking. What was that noise? Did you realize it was noise from a recycling plant? Did you hear glass tinkling? Did you hear the conveyor belt running? Why do you think they added that sound? Does it help you understand the story?
  • How well does the reporter speak? Was his voice clear? Did he have feeling and emotion in his voice? Is there a certain style of talking that news people have? Is that the way you speak?
  • Sometimes the reporter played a clip of other people speaking. Did hearing the voice of the recycling plant manager add to the story? Did hearing the voice of the environmental scientist affect your understanding of the problem? If the reporter had just told you what they said instead of playing a recording of their voices, would it have made any difference?
  • How well did the plant manager and the scientist speak? Did they have different styles from each other and from the reporter? Who was your favorite to listen to? Why? What makes someone fun to listen to?

We don’t have to be media literacy experts to think of these questions. We simply need to realize that good listeners should be able to do much more than repeat what someone said. Because messages come with sounds and music attached, listeners should be asked to think about the audio elements of messages. Because speaking skills can dramatically affect the way we receive messages, listeners should be able to identify the skills needed to be an effective speaker and to critique the speakers they hear. If we fail to teach students how to listen to all the elements of what they hear, we risk creating passive consumers of media instead of astute, active thinkers about media.

Bottom line: It’s time to broaden our ideas of listening. If we really want to improve listening skills, we need to listen to much more than words.


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Can Numbers Be Biased?

We love statistics. Specifically, we love raw number statistics: number of students proficient or advanced, number of babies named Emma, number of hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes, and more. We also love percentage statistics: grades; batting averages in baseball, women’s pay as a percentage of men’s pay, and so on. There is a certainty to these. Statistics are made of numbers, and numbers don’t lie.

But while numbers don’t lie, it is easy to use the statistics compiled from them in a biased way. The media literate person needs to understand how statistics can be manipulated—and that’s where statistics literacy comes in. Let me offer a hypothetical example—followed by tips for educators and parents to teach students about statistics literacy in either the classroom or at home.

Hypothetical Example: I want my students to turn off all devices for one day—24 hours with no cellphone, no computer, no e-reader, no Xbox, no anything. I want them to see how addicted they are and how life can still continue without screen time. Let’s say I try this experiment with 100 students in three of my middle school classes. I toss out the idea on Monday and ask students on Tuesday how many succeeded. The answer? Only one. I spend some time Tuesday sharing some numbers with students about the average amount of screen time spent daily and the possible negative effects that may have. I repeat the challenge. On Wednesday, five students report that they turned off all devices for a day.

Bias in Selection

Let’s look at two reports using statistics from Tuesday and Wednesday:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge. At this rate, in just two more days no students will have devices on.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

Both reports are true. Both accurately report the numbers, and the statistics are correct. Yet they lead to opposite conclusions about how the project is going. The reporters selected different numbers to analyze. If you are biased in favor of this project, you will likely use the first report. If you are biased against this project, you will likely use the second.

Sneaking in Biased Words

Beware of descriptive adjectives added to statistical reports. Numbers are embedded in sentences and paragraphs, and the words used to introduce the numbers suggest bias:

The No Device Challenge is gaining traction. In only one day, an impressive five times as many students as the day before accepted the challenge.

The No Device Challenge is not gaining traction. After two days, a disappointing 95% of students have failed to change their behavior.

It is extremely common to see opinions such as these slipped into statistical reporting. Just one or two words can totally influence the way you read the numbers. Did the number of students surge up to five, or did the number of students barely budge from Day 1?

Bias in Graphs

Graphs are used in biased ways, too. Here’s a graph that makes the No Device project look great:

But if you change the graph to include all of the students, the project is going nowhere:

Again, both charts are accurate. They use the same numbers, but somehow, they leave different impressions. Changing the scale is a very common way to make the mundane seem dramatic.

Selecting only a piece of a graph can change the impression, too. I made up these numbers, but let’s say this is a graph of students who need free lunches. This looks scary, right? Our community is falling apart!

How about looking at the entire graph?

The numbers didn’t change, but somehow the community doesn’t look as bad, does it? It looks like lots of progress has been made.

Bias in Percentages

There was a 200% increase in snow days last year in my district. If I had said, “Last year we had one snow day and this year we had two,” you wouldn’t have been impressed, but it is another way of describing what happened. What if I said that last year, about 1% of the days during the school year were snow days? Again, it comes down to which numbers you select to compare. Do you want to be dramatic and shock readers? Make a percentage with one snow day and two snow days. 200%! Do you want to keep things calm? Make a percentage with two snow days and 185 days in the school calendar. 1%. Both are true. Both are biased.

The Bottom Line: Statistics don’t lie. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be manipulated. The perceived certainty of numbers can make us less critical than we need to be when reading the barrage of figures that come our way daily.

Tips for Teachers

  • Make sure students know that it is possible to be biased and true. Reporters don’t have to lie about the numbers; they just choose the ones they want to use.
  • Have students look for adjectives that describe the numbers. We read “a shocking 15% increase” differently than “a modest 15% increase.” Bias shows up in those adjectives.
  • Encourage students to look for the bigger picture. In an era where the dramatic is used to attract eyeballs, perspective is lost. “One million people may be in trouble!” Is one million a big number? There are 7.7 billion people on the planet, so one million is way less than 1% of the population: about one one-hundredth of 1% (0.01%).
  • Have students look for different ways to put numbers together. For example, in my No Device activity, there was a 500% increase (from 1 to 5), there was five-fold increase (from 1 to 5), there was an increase of four percentage points (from 1% of the students to 5% of the students), there was a 95% failure rate, there were 19 times as many students failing as succeeding (95 divided by 5), and so on. Have them discuss how the different versions suggest different meanings.
  • Tell students to analyze all graphs. Is this the right scale to use? Is this a representative selection? What other graphs could be made with the same numbers?


Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH’s Learning Moments podcast, Shaping the Future: Future Skills for Fact-Checking Online Fakes.

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Blame the messenger–Why Online Instruction Fails

You’ve 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 differently. There are cases where we should blame the messenger. Now that all of us are online presenters it is more apparent than ever that weak speaking dooms our attempts at instruction. No one wants to listen to hours of mediocre to poor oral communication. Add all the other options available online and we can’t be surprised that students are tuning out. You wouldn’t watch this stuff either.

Let me give an example of how poor oral communication can ruin good intentions. I attended a talk about making more effective use of technology in instruction. I think the message is an important one. Many teachers were putting their students in the position of being time travelers: the students are in 2020 outside of school, but when they come into the classroom, it looks like 1980. Few teachers have expertise in the effectively using digital tools, and many were 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. Think of how much better prepared we would be for remote learning now if we had had better presentations about it then.

Which brings me back to the talk. 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 well built. To start, it should have been created 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. (Check out a collection of bad slides to use as examples of what NOT to do.) How well built is the online instruction that you  are seeing out there today?

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 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. Too bad. We could have used an inspirational message to get us psyched to use the tools we now need to use for remote learning. And when we move from live to online, speakers have to be much much more lively to be engaging. Online speaking is a performance art. Talking at kids doesn’t work. How impressive is the speaking on the videos and screencasts you’ve seen created?

Everyone can 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? How many good lessons have been ignored because no one wanted to continue to listen? If these have happened, blame the messenger. Or better yet, get help. Check out Own Any Occasion. (Find it here)

See also Don’t Hit Record Yet.




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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




Eye contact



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 ( 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


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, 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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Spotting a Fake Post

Spotting a Fake Post: Teaching About Media Literacy on Social Platforms

This blog post is part of a series focusing on media literacy.

If you have been on social media, you may have seen this or something similar posted:

This version was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine—a bright person with advanced degrees, a wonderful teacher, and, sadly, a duped person. We have all heard about fake content on social media, but even the best of us seem to fall for some of it. How does this happen? Why do we suspend disbelief? Why aren’t we more thoughtful and careful?

As teachers, we have a responsibility to help students become media literate. If we study the anatomy of this Facebook post, we can gather ideas about how to teach students to avoid being duped by similar posts. Let’s look at all the features of this post that made it popular—and what students can learn from it.

The post is about a hot topic: Privacy? Personal photos? Let’s put aside for a moment that Facebook pictures have already been shared and are therefore not private or personal. Good fake posts find an irresistible, hot-button issue to hook us. Teach students to get their guard up immediately upon seeing posts designed to rile us up.

The post is poorly written: Punctuation errors, capitalization errors, run-ons and fragments, missing parentheses, and disorganized thoughts are obvious. Poor writing should be a clue to help students realize that we aren’t dealing with a top-notch source.

The post lacks specificity: There are two parts to this, with the first issue being that the post has no definite timestamp. The use of tomorrow is very clever in a couple of ways. It creates an “OMG, I have to do something now” type of urgency that overrides our better thinking. The fear response overpowers the calm thinking response. Additionally, no definite timestamp creates something that can live forever. Like the sign I saw in a bar recently—Free Beer Tomorrow!—this post never expires. Indeed, versions of this post go back to 2012. Let students know that all true legal announcements have specific dates. “Effective November 1, 2019, Facebook will change its privacy rules” would at least be somewhat more likely, but suspicion is still warranted.

The second issue is that it has no definite source. It talks about a nonspecific Channel 13. Do you have a Channel 13 in your town? Do you think it is the same as the Channel 13 in my town? No matter. Most of us have a Channel 13, so it is probably talking about my Channel 13! But what’s missing? Specificity. “According to WNYT on Channel 13 in Albany, New York, Facebook is changing its privacy policy” would at least be more likely. Notice also that there is no air date given. When was this story aired? May 2 on the 5 p.m. news? June 4 at 10 p.m.? Let students know that vagueness is always a cautionary sign.

The post has bogus legalese: You want specifics? Here’s the exact statute number! I guess that looks like a number a law might have, right? And the Rome Statute? I mean, it came from Rome, so it must be real! But why not check it out? Encourage students to do a web search. In this case, a search reveals that the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court, which handles crimes such as genocide. Tell students that they always need to double check and verify.

The post offers a simplistic and silly solution: Anytime a post says to copy, paste, or forward, STOP. Don’t do it. Ever. Ask students if it is likely that pasting something on your timeline will override privacy policies in social media agreements. Facebook has staff searching through billions of posts to see who has pasted this and these staff will then change the settings of those accounts? Think about that for a minute. Point out that sites have settings. We can go into the settings and change who sees our posts, what ads we want to see, what notifications we get, and so on. Perhaps something such as “Go to Settings. Click on Privacy. Uncheck ‘Allow All’” would be reasonable, but “Copy, Paste, and Breathe”? Help students understand that privacy issues are real in the world of social media, but let them know there is no simple way to solve those issues.

As my friend made clear, intelligent people can be sucked into internet lies. But all fakes have clues that tip us off. Teach students what to look for. If the elements above are in a post, red lights should flash in their brains. If they think critically, they won’t fall for this or similar fakes. After all, according to News@4, sharing bogus posts will cause Von Willebrand Disease, so care full is needed.


Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was a guest on HMH’s new podcast series, Shaping the Future, in November 2019

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Why Student Presentations Bore Classmates


“In New Jersey v. TLO, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the appropriateness of the application of the exclusionary rule.  The Court overturned the lower court ruling in a 7-2 decision and held that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

What does that mean?  I heard that during a student presentation about landmark Supreme Court cases.  I can’t challenge the accuracy of the statement because that is exactly what the Court did.  I can challenge the appropriateness of the statement for the listeners.  Most eighth graders are probably not familiar with “certiorari” (though if all students are researching Supreme Court cases, the listeners in that situation may be) and probably no eighth graders understand what the exclusionary rule is.  What we have here is an example of a student presenting information without any consideration of the audience.  It happens all the time in our classrooms.

Here is what happened in the situation above: the teacher gave each student a case to research; she gave them a date for an oral presentation; she required certain content (name of the case, decision of the case, law the case was based upon); and she gave them a score sheet that would be used to evaluate the presentation which included eye contact, time limit, and posture. In this case, the student got maximum marks.  He accomplished what was asked.  Unfortunately, the class got nothing from his presentation.  The teacher failed to require that the speech be designed for the audience, a common omission.

All oral communication must be designed for a particular audience.  This is true for one-on-one communication, small group communication, or large group communication.  It amazes me how often speakers miss this point and fail to analyze the audience.  I recall being called to a faculty meeting on Friday afternoon so someone from the district could introduce us to RTI with a PowerPoint presentation full of densely packed text.  Really?  Is that going to work with this audience at this time?   You have been to talks where the speaker failed to understand the audience, too: telling you things you already knew; using insider jargon audience members didn’t know; not noticing the mood of the listeners; and so on.  If adults can be so inept at designing a speech for a specific group, no wonder children fail as well.  Students need specific instruction about how to build a talk for an audience.

First, whenever an assignment is given that involves talking to an audience (this includes mock interviews, discussions, book chats, digital stories, podcasts—everything!), begin with an explicit caution to students to think about the audience and design the talk for them.

You may have read a book designed for boy readers, but our class has boys and girls.  How can you make the book talk interesting to all of us?

We will have an in-class discussion about whether or not we should ___________.  Come prepared to state your opinion and defend your position on the issue.  Think about what arguments will be persuasive to class members.

You researched your topic and know a lot about it.  We didn’t research it and our class may not know many of the terms you are now familiar with.  How can you explain to our age group the important things we need to know?

Ideally, at some point the audience will change.  Perhaps students will present to another grade level or to parents.  This creates a great opportunity to broaden the discussion and analyze disparate audiences.

Second, make sure students know they will be judged in part based on how well they communicated with the audience.  The audience must be involved in scoring this part.  Way too often, students speak at the teacher only.  They know he or she is the only one whose opinion counts.  This is misguided.  A speech is for an audience and only by asking the audience will we know if the speech was effective.

Let’s score Spencer’s speech.  Did you think he did a good job of designing his talk for you?  Did he make everything understandable?  Did he keep you interested?  We use a 1 to 5 scale, remember, with 5 being perfect.  Raise your hand if you give Spencer a five?  A four?  A three?  Hmm, seems like most people gave you a three, which is good but which could be better.  What did you think he could do better next time, class?  (Discuss)

It does not damage students to have their performance scored if the teacher creates the proper atmosphere. (Of course, we don’t all get perfect marks, we are just beginning to master the difficult job of presenting…)  It does damage students to fail to teach them that what the audience thinks matters.

Third, teach students how to connect with the audience.  A good talk becomes a great talk if specific statements are added that let the audience know the talk was designed just for them.  The speaker must take his topic and connect it to the lives of the listeners.  In the eighth grade class mentioned above, this would be a connector:

How many of you have cell phones?  Would you be OK with the principal taking your phone and looking at your text messages?  My case, New Jersey v. TLO, is about a principal searching a student’s stuff, too, and like you, she wasn’t happy about it.

Now, some old Supreme Court case is much more interesting to the class.

Students (and adults!) need to do a better job of making sure they design their words for their listeners.  That means that we have to do a better job of letting them know how to do so.

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What’s it gonna be this year?

Inevitably, there is some new initiative, some new program being introduced. If you have taught for a while, you have seen many of these come and go. Maybe last year was the year they introduced the new spelling program that replaced the spelling program introduced two years ago to replace the spelling program introduced the year before. Maybe it will be a new math initiative to replace the “flailing arms” math thing we were all trained in a couple years back. (I forgot the name of it but there were dramatic gestures that all teachers were supposed to use: a certain gesture for addition, a different for division… It died fast and no one uses the gestures now.)

If your career has lasted any length of time you have a list of initiatives that have now gone by the wayside. My list includes Skills for Adolescents, DARE, portfolios, Read On Write On, support groups, equity training, proficiency based report cards, “accordion” paragraphs and “occasion/position statements”, some math program that I can’t remember the name of and I recall as Lucy Liu math but I know that isn’t right, several spelling programs, Harry Wong behavior management methods, some behavior plan that required us to write a name and check marks on the board, C4T (Computers for Teachers), Thinking Maps, and other ideas whose effects were so short that I can’t recall anything about them right now, but I know I have a giant stack of binders when I quit the classroom.

Perhaps salespeople selling educational products are extremely talented. Perhaps administrators are exceedingly gullible. In any event, it seems that a requirement of becoming an administrator is the inability to look back and see the pile of failed initiatives. Administrators bemoan the lack of buy-in from teachers when new ideas are presented, but they fail to take responsibility for creating the conditions that created the cynicism.

What percentage of new year’s resolutions actually last? We have an all-comedy radio station in Denver—non-stop clips from various comedians. I missed the name of the comic, but one talked about digging through his closet looking at all the junk he had discarded in there. One of the items was his Rosetta Stone CD set. I spent a couple of minutes researching “what percentage complete Rosetta Stone” but couldn’t find the answer right away so I quit looking. I bet it is a very small number. I’ll wager that a lot of people have the idea of learning a new language but don’t follow through.
Then I started thinking about my health club. Every year it gets crowded during January and part of February, but it gets back to normal after that. Seems many people have the idea that this will be the year they start exercising but almost none of them follow through. Then I saw a New York Times article that said that 90% of people who lose weight gain it all back. Seems like most folks have the intention to change shapes but don’t follow through. Then I thought about an adult education class offered at the “free university” in my town that told writers how to self-publish a book. The instructor said almost none of the people attending will actually do it. They all have the idea that there is book inside of them and this will be the year that they write it, but almost none of them will actually follow through. And no administrator follows through with new initiatives.

I guess my message is settle down.  Don’t get so blinded by the incredible possibilities that you forget who you are dealing with here–humans.  When you finally lose that twenty pounds you have promised yourself you would lose and when you get back to the gym to get in shape and when you finish that Rosetta Stone Spanish CD, then start talking to the staff about following through on the last six great initiatives you introduced.

We have to change our thinking about how we decide what to try, and we have to change our thinking about how we present and implement ideas. We can’t continue to waste money on the fad of the moment. We have to look at bigger pictures: What will students need for life?  How do you change teacher behaviors?  What makes an idea last?

We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while somehow expecting different results. We fail to stop the insanity of the “initiative of the year.”


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