Talk First. Write Later.

“F9. Action”

That was Mason’s response to the prompt “What’s your favorite movie? Why is it your favorite?” It was part of a Getting to Know You assignment at the start of the 6th grade year. I had to look up F9. Turns out it is the abbreviation for “Fast & Furious 9,” the ninth movie of the Fast & Furious saga. This brought up three questions:

There have been nine Fast & Furious movies?

Should a 6th grader be watching Fast & Furious movies?

How can I get Mason to write more?

I’ll just talk about the last question here. Every teacher has reluctant writers. In Mason’s case, he was two or three grade levels below his peers in writing. He knew he was not good at writing. Years of extra support and encouragement haven’t changed his opinion of writing or markedly improved his writing ability. I think I know why.

In school, we tend to focus on deficits. If a child is behind others, we try to address the deficit. Difficulty reading? We’ll give you more reading to try to bring you up to speed. Difficulty with math? We’ll give you more math. In my school, we took students out of electives to give them extra classes in their problem areas. Mason couldn’t take Media Production because he needed the remedial writing class. (Yes, we changed the name of the class and didn’t use the word “remedial.”) To Mason, this was double punishment: unable to take a fun class and forced to do more of what he hated.

But here’s the thing about Mason: he was an amazing storyteller. Ask him about F9 and he would light up. Describing the cars, the chases, the actors in an engaging, animated way? Absolutely. Wonderful gestures, facial expressions, and speed variations as he spoke? Definitely. Mason was one of the best student speakers I have ever heard. Unfortunately, in seven years of schooling, no one noticed. Everyone focused on what was wrong with Mason. Everyone focused on his reading and writing.

Teachers seriously shortchange oral communication. English and language arts teachers talk about “reading and writing” almost exclusively and rarely mention speaking. Why? In part because speaking is not on the Big State Test. Mostly, though, we have misconceptions about speaking. Many teachers think speaking is scary so we shouldn’t make students do it. Many teachers think speaking skills can’t be taught and students are born with speaking ability or not. Many teachers don’t see how speaking is the key to reading and writing. From Mason’s point of view, though, writing is scary. He noticed that some kids were good at writing from the start and seemed to be born with more ability. And Mason couldn’t write until he was allowed to speak first.

Here’s what that means. Before making students like Mason write, let them talk. Record audio or video of them as they respond to a prompt. Consider letting them turn in the recordings instead of making them write. Because that can’t be allowed all the time, use the recordings to guide the writing.

         Teacher: Mason, you have done a great job describing F9. I can really see why you love that movie. Let’s listen to your storytelling and use what you said as a guide for your writing. I’ll play the first minute of your talk and pause the recording so you can write down some of what you said.

The result? Mason’s writing: F9 is for fast & furius 9. Its the nine fast & furius movie. I saw all movies but F9 has the best cars. Theres a Dodge Charger that cost a million dollars to make and this Ford Mustang chase by hellicopters. Jhon cena is driving that one Hes really cool. [sic]

A bit better than “F9. Action” isn’t it? Now we have something to work with.

How can you fit this in?

  • If you have Google Docs open on a Chrome browser, let a student use Voice Typing, one of the Tools available. As students are writing in class, allow Mason to go out into the hall and speak his rough draft into the computer. Windows OS has speech recognition, also.
  • Look for Dictate on Microsoft Word.
  • Do you use peer editing? Some students will be looking at each other’s writing. Mason and his partner could be listening to recordings and helping each other transcribe.
  • If Mason has access to a phone, have him call your Google Voice number and leave his rough draft. Google Voice will transcribe it. You can show the text to Mason so he can use it to write his final draft. Older students will easily find apps that transcribe.
  • Consider letting a spoken assignment replace one of your writing assignments. Listen to the response to your prompt, instead of reading the response.

For an example of a writing assignment where a student spoke instead of wrote, I’ll share Ryan’s video. My civics students were asked to write about what democracy means to them, but Ryan hated writing. He asked if he could submit a video. See the result here: https://youtu.be/0_TJBfL5gzs. If I had forced him to write, I might have gotten two boring paragraphs.

All of us spoke before we read or wrote. For many students, speaking first is still the best idea. Don’t just focus on reading and writing. Look at speaking with new eyes and let the many students whose strength is speaking use their talents as a bridge to reading and writing.  

Contact me at https://pvlegs.com/contact/ and I’ll send you a free book.

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Teaching Speaking, the Forgotten Language Art

What are the skills involved in effective oral communication?

Nobody exactly knows. This is what I find out when I ask teachers the question. We all have some ideas, but no one knows for sure what is really involved.

It’s an important question. In every classroom at every grade level in every subject, students are asked to speak: book reports, discussions, showing solutions, debates, reading aloud, presenting lab results, research reports… And as digital tools enter the classroom and students engage in digital storytelling, podcasting, Zooming, and video production, speaking skills are on display like never before. By this point in the year, the odds are excellent that you have already had some kind of student presentation.

And in life beyond the classroom, oral communication is the most important language art. I am, as you may have guessed from other posts I’ve written, obsessed with skills that will be important for our students in their lives after school. With the tools out there today, oral communication is more important than ever. It is always at or near the top of skills employers are looking for.

I don’t care what job students ultimately get—people who speak well will be more successful at the job than people who don’t speak well.

But we don’t exactly know the secret to effective speaking. I am not referring only to “public speaking” which is what we tend to think of: the big presentation to large groups. The interview, the staff meeting, the sales call, the Back to School Night show, the wedding toast, the Socratic Seminar, the Zoom meeting, and more all require the exact same skills of oral communication.

There has been an enormous blind spot in education and specifically English and Language Arts classrooms. Organizations such as ReadWriteThink indicate the problem. Reading and writing only? Adults use those language arts far less than speaking. Oral communication is overwhelmingly the way we communicate, yet few people feel confident and competent as speakers.

What we're seeing now is much more of a demand forThe non-stop focus on readinganwriting–the words are so commonly put together that they might as well be blended–fails to give students real voice. I understand that you love reading novels and writing poetry, but your students need to be taught how to be effective speakers. It is not an innate ability and requires direct instruction.

Let me give you an example of the problem. I have collected many rubrics/score sheets over the years and there is nothing close to agreement.From a 9thgrade “Science in the News” assignment: 5 points each for “make eye contact,” “speak loud enough,” “hold head up,” “use note cards,” “knowledgeable;” 20 points for “five W’s answered.”

From a 4thgrade “Historical Fiction Book Share:” 10 points each for “interesting opening and satisfying conclusion,” “speak loudly & slowly,” “make eye contact,” “preparation and practice are evident;” 15 points for “presentation is organized;” 5 points for “keep audience engaged;” 20 points for “the character is creatively shown.”

From a 10thgrade “Cultures of the Ancient World:” “Oral Presentation: 20 points—Organized; Good eye-contact, loud voice; Dressed in clothes that symbolize the era.”

From a district language arts committee generic rubric:

4) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect with distinction;

3) Speaks fluently (i.e. with expression, volume, pace, appropriate gestures, etc.) with varying formality for a variety of purposes using appropriate vocabulary, correct sentences organization, and respect;

2) Partially speaks fluently…”

Well, you get the idea. We all seem to think that eye contact and a loud voice are important, but would a student know what it takes to be effective based on these score sheets?  In an educational career from K through 12thgrades, a student will never see the same scoring system more than once. There is no common language, no common understanding. And I love the “etc.” of the generic rubric, the universal way of saying, “I bet there’s more, but I have no idea what.” We are telling students, “You guys know all the secrets to speaking fluently, don’t you? Expression, volume, pace, gestures and all that other stuff.” But they don’t know! And much more importantly, has any teacher taught even one lesson about any of those elements? For example, one lesson about pace and why it’s important and how to adjust it, followed by little practice speeches/activities?

So we are stuck listening to students who say, “I’m like all for like health care and all but I’m like whoa who is gonna pay and stuff, you know what I mean?”  At least we are stuck until we make two changes: one, become clear on what it takes to be an effective speaker; two, commit to teaching oral communication skills more purposefully before you assign the speaking activities you already have.

I can help with the first part. Visit www.pvlegs.com. It provides a structure and a common language that has worked very well for students (and adults) for many years. It makes clear that all speaking involves what you do before you speak and what you do as you speak. You can get a sense of the distinction between them by clicking on the checklists at the bottom of this post.

As for the second part, how many of us have given a score for “gestures” without ever teaching mini-lessons on gestures?  Just as we teach pieces of writing (punctuation, commas after an introductory phrase, commas to separate items in a series, commas to join independent clauses), we must teach the pieces of speaking: “On Tuesday, we will discuss and practice emphatic hand gestures; on Wednesday, we will move to descriptive hand gestures; on Thursday, we will work briefly with body gestures; on Friday, we will have a little lesson on facial gestures and expression so that next week when you give your speeches, I can score you on gestures.” Teachers are always talking about teaching reading and writing. Somehow, we never mention teaching speaking.

You already have them speaking. Let’s make those activities more meaningful. Adopt a simple consistent language. Teach specific lessons to develop each skill. It can be done. Do a web search of PVLEGS and you’ll find many teachers who are improving student speaking (and student lives) by helping kids become well spoken. Visit www.pvlegs.com 

Contact me at https://pvlegs.com/contact/ and I’ll send you a free book.

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Blame the messenger–Why Communication Fails and How to Fix It.

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. I have seen many good initiatives dead on arrival because of how poorly they were presented. I have seen well-meaning administrators create ill will because of the way they spoke to the staff. When all of us became online presenters because of the pandemic, it was more apparent than ever that weak speaking is a problem. It dooms instruction. No one, child or adult, 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 and staff 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 2022 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.

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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Give Students a Digital Voice First

You want students to speak to the class. Maybe they are sharing What I Did This Summer or About Me presentations to start the new year. Later, students will be reciting poetry or participating in a mock trial or presenting their research reports or giving a book talk or making a podcast. Every teacher has speaking activities. I’ve written elsewhere that all students tend to dislike these presentations in large part because we have never given them specific, direct instruction about speaking skills. (See https://pvlegs.blog/2019/11/16/100-english-teachers-walk-into-a-bar/.) I want to talk here about the few students who have another problem with public speaking.

Introverted. Shy. Lacking self-confidence. You know these kids and you have several of them in your class. Even if you gave specific lessons about how to speak well, they would still be reluctant to get up in front of the class. We can’t give in to that fear, though, because oral communication is the number one way adults communicate, and we don’t want to rob any child of her or his chance of success. Some kids hate math, some hate writing, I hated art (It was supposed to be a cat!), but we want to help all students become complete and competent in all areas. Including speaking.

A solution? Give kids a digital voice first. Don’t have the students get up in front the entire class live. They aren’t ready. Use one of the many digital tools available. Students can record, delete, rerecord, delete, rerecord until they have something they are proud to share. Move from a high-stakes, live show to a low-stakes but-still-developing-speaking-skills show.

Many recording tools are available. Every smartphone has audio and video recording capability. Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com/), VoiceThread (https://voicethread.com/), and Voki (https://www.voki.com/) are examples of sites where students can record presentations, discussion comments, and more. (Send me your favorites—I’d love to add to the list.)

Here’s a look at Voki. I use it to work on one of the skills of effective speaking, adding life to the voice. Students choose an avatar and add a fun voice: https://tinyurl.com/y9fns652

Voki can also be used for presentations (click on the avatar next to the book to start the presentation):

See https://pvlegs.com/ for more ideas.

The bottom line: Speaking skills are important. ALL students need help, and some need a way to dip a toe in the water before they dive in. Don’t shortchange the #1 language art, and don’t shortchange any student. Use digital tools to develop student voice.

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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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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! I’ve seen educational conferences with themes such as “Raising Student Voice” (NCTE) and “Speak Up! Finding and Using Our Voices in a Noisy World” (NEATE), social media posts about how to increase student voice, and educational publications with 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.

Did you notice all the people talking about Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration? Not one mentioned how beautifully spoken the poem was. It was more than the written word that impressed. 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. You know that it is difficult to listen to the end of any student podcast. Lesson one: to demonstrate the importance of adding life to their voices, 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 visual of a voice with life along with audio modeling the difference. You may have a hard time getting through the 81 seconds of the student’s talk, a great lesson in how weak speaking skills can kill listener interest.

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

Contact me at https://pvlegs.com/contact/ and I’ll send you a free book.

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But what about the introverts?

I get this question a lot when I do workshops. In my presentations, I point out that speaking well will benefit all students for their entire lives; I share a framework that makes the complex art of oral communication simple and understandable; I show specific lessons to teach all students how to be better verbal communicators; and I make it practical and easy to teach every child to speak well. But there are non-believers, and the questions come up:

What about introverts?

 What about students who hate public speaking?

 What about kids who refuse to do it?

  What about kids who can’t speak in front of classmates?

   What about…

Let me answer all of these questions. I’ll look at five different ways.

  1. Do not sell students short.

How many times do you normally quit on children? Do you fail to teach math to a child for whom you think math is difficult? Do you tell some child, “Nah, don’t do this writing assignment. I don’t think you can do it.”? Do you fail to expect good outcomes and therefore stop helping some children? If you do, please quit teaching. Let’s not be naïve: some kids are better at some things than others. Some kids have an easier time reading or doing math or drawing or singing or coding or whatever than other kids do. But our job is help every child make progress. It is no different with speaking. Some kids love to talk, some are good at talking (those two do not always go together!), and some kids do not love to talk. Oh well. I will help all of them master the number one language art, speaking.

  1. Introversion is not a disabling condition.

Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? You should. It will cause you to rethink some of the things you do. If Cain is correct, at least one-third of us are introverts. She is, and I know I am. And yet I now speak for a living. Huh? Lacking a propensity for something is not the same lacking the ability to do that thing. And introversion is not the same as social anxiety, a highly curable condition. Cain wrote about that here.

I taught for 21 years. I had about 3,000 students during that time. Using Cain’s number, about 1,000 of my students were introverts. Of that 1,000, how many failed to do the speaking I asked of them? Zero. None. Nada. Zip. How many of them failed to improve as speakers? Zero. Did I have students that needed extra encouragement? Yep. Students who needed a little hand-holding? Yep. Students who needed a little extra help and practice? Yep. The math teacher on my team had extra sessions to help struggling students. Shouldn’t a teacher asking kids to speak do the same sort of thing? Of course. What kind of teacher doesn’t give extra help to kids who need it?

  1. Don’t believe the hype.

I really wanted to label this section “Don’t believe the bull#@*^.” I know the story: “Public speaking is the number one fear of adults.” It isn’t. Fear of public speaking showed up often when folks were asked to make a list of the ten things they feared, but not one of you would say, “Burn me badly! I’d prefer that to speaking in front of a group!” But the bad rap remains, so when a child says, “I fear speaking!” many teachers are tempted to say, “You poor baby! Me, too! We all hate speaking!! Don’t worry, I’ll protect you! I won’t make you do that horrible thing!”

Nonsense.

As I mentioned, some kids hate math. Many adults say, “I was never good at math!” So do you excuse students from math? Don’t let a child’s professed fear/dislike become an excuse for non-participation. Part of the problem is the phrase “public speaking.” Don’t teach “public speaking,” teach speaking. I teach kids how to speak well in any situation. I want good discussion comments. I want well-spoken questions. I want good peer-editing conversations. If you make speaking a valued part of your class, speaking loses its scariness. It’s just another version of what we always do.

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  1. Don’t cheat any child out of an important life skill.

Like it or not, verbal communication is the number one language art. We speak far more often than we read or write. Professionally and socially, speaking well increases odds of success. Students will have to interview for a job, explain the app to an investor, talk about the graphic design portfolio, talk to a client about the landscaping proposal or investment plan, and on and on. Why wouldn’t you want to help children in a low-stakes, we-are-all-just-learning-here environment like your classroom? Yep, you hate this, but you’ll hate it much more if you don’t have the skills you want when it really counts.

  1. We fear what we don’t know.

Years ago, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to go for a ride in his plane, a two-seater, single-propeller Piper Cub. I said, “Sure,” but we were just off the ground when I had a small panic attack. What if something happened to him? A heart attack, for instance. Panic! Why? Because I don’t know how to fly a plane. If I knew, I wouldn’t have panicked: something happened to Steve but I can get this thing down.

The largest part of students’ fear is because they don’t know how to fly. Every year, teachers have made them talk, but never has a teacher taught them how to do it. You know it’s true: you have a haiku unit, but you do not have a speaking unit. Students get lessons about comma usage before being asked to write an essay, but never get a lesson about how to add life to their voices. Students get lessons about parts of a cell, but never get lessons about parts of a well-built visual aid. I wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (goo.gl/dgoSS7) to solve this problem. It has a simple, practical framework for understanding and teaching speaking. You will find that once students know exactly what they are supposed to do, they can do it. Visit pvlegs.com.

Bonus—Give students a digital voice first.

We live in an era with many, many digital tools for oral communication. That means that mastering oral communication is even more important than ever. It also means there are many ways to practice, get feedback, and develop confidence for eventual in-person talks. I love using Vocaroo (https://vocaroo.com/). Students can record, re-record, and re-record until they get something they like. I’ll tell the students that didn’t participate in discussion live today to think about what they want to say and record their comment to be played tomorrow. I love Flipgrid. See a sample here. Again, students can re-record as needed and the fun of the digital tool and the fun of seeing others can inspire participation. https://erikpalmerconsulting.com/

Bonus two–Mike Rowe has a great story about someone afraid to speak:

http://mikerowe.com/2016/05/twihi-breakingsilence/ 

 

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Instead of an essay

“What does democracy mean to you?”

That was the writing prompt I gave to my class. I was expecting a three-paragraph essay about the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens. Ryan asked if he could make a video. Of course, video creation is not on the Big Test. We do lots of writing so I was not worried about test prep, and I’m open to letting kids make choices. I don’t know much about how to make a video, though, so I asked, “Do I have to teach how to make a video?”

“No, I already know how.”

I said OK.

Here’s what I knew about Ryan. He was an odd duck. He was tired of writing. Often as teachers, we focus on what we love, and English teachers love reading and writing. In fact, if you look at NCTE materials, conferences, and blogs, you’ll see “reading and writing” so many times that you’ll begin to think we should just make them one word, readinganwriting. You never see “reading, writing, and speaking” though speaking is by far the number one language art. This is an enormous blind spot. We pretend that we “cover” speaking skills because we have students talk during writing and reading activities, but we never focus on teaching speaking skills.

We all know that the fear of public speaking exists. What we miss is that some kids hate writing but love speaking.

Ryan was one of those. He would much rather say what he thinks than write what he thinks. Had I forced him to write, he would have dutifully and quickly slapped some words on a page and turned them in. As it turned out, he spent hours crafting an animated video showcasing his spoken words. His take on democracy was wildly different than I expected, but brilliant. I never would have gotten his perspective without letting him speak his response. He would have turned in a “template” writing, fulfilling the requirements without any heart. Only through oral communication could he express himself fully. You can see his video here: https://youtu.be/0_TJBfL5gzs

I realized that I had many students like Ryan, students that had wonderful things to say. And I also realized that many tools exist to showcase oral communication via podcast, video, and audio recording. I opened the door to speaking by giving digital oral communication options for activities, and many kids came charging through that door. This also opened the door to teaching speaking rather than assigning verbal activities. But that is a post for another day.

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Listen to the Rough Draft of the Talk. Yes, LISTEN…

Do you ever ask to hear the rough draft?

Yes, you read that correctly. I want to hear my students’ rough drafts. Every day, students are speaking in class. Often, teachers assign some talks with higher stakes than the daily discussions, answers of questions, and the like. We assign the quarterly book report in front of the entire class, the biography project final where students dress up as some historical figure, the report on smoking’s effects in health class, the presentation of the science project, the participation in a mock Congressional hearing, the talk at the DECA competition, and many more. At all grade levels in all subjects, at some point students will be giving a talk to a group. Before we expose the audience of students and/or parents and/or judges to these talks, we need to make sure that the talk is ready for prime time. I tell students to practice several times before presentation day, but, not surprisingly, some students do not practice. I am sure this is just an issue I face, and you never have this problem. To avoid that problem, though, I ask to hear the rough draft before my students give the final talk. I ask students to send me the rough draft recording of their talk so I can listen to it and offer advice. I don’t want to read the words they wrote, I want to hear them speaking. Do you ever do that?

Checking the rough draft is common for many writing assignments. The cynical among us may suggest checking the rough draft as a way to make sure students are doing the work they are supposed to be doing. The fear that the paper may not be started until the evening before the six-week assignment is due is real. Less cynical teachers may look at the rough draft as a formative assessment. Discovering mistakes and giving feedback before the final paper is due is more valuable than writing comments on the finished paper. For both reasons, I always asked students to do a rough draft before they handed in a major writing assignment. I collected and commented on the drafts and warned students that I would get quite miffed if those comments were ignored. I want the same thinking to apply to oral assignments—but with a twist. Don’t have students hand in a paper with the words they are planning on saying; require a recording of the talk instead.

There are many ways to record the rough draft. All of them contribute to preparation for your state’s speaking standards, by the way. While the Common Core Standards have fallen upon hard times, they left a mark. Speaking standards in most states have modeled ideas from the CCSS. For example, standards usually require students to use multimedia in presentations. In my state, beginning in second grade, students are expected to make audio recordings of talks; by fifth grade, students should be including multimedia components in presentations. This requirement is probably more daunting to teachers than to students. More of our students than you realize are already quite adept at various ways of recording and posting audio and video. Today, I want to share some of the simpler ways we can record, and show you how to use digital tools to practice talks. Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology is a source for those wanting more ideas and it is free for all teachers. Just contact me through pvlegs.com to get a copy.

Every computer/netbook/tablet has built-in audio and video recording. Every device has recording capability and your students will have no trouble finding it. In the distance learning world we all entered last year, students are becoming masters at using these tools. Have students record themselves and attach the recording to an e-mail to send to you. Use Google Voice and have students call your number and leave a message: a couple minutes of their speech. Tell students to visit www.vocaroo.com. There’s no sign-up, no password, no cost—the home page has a big red button that starts the audio recording. When students finish, they can “Listen” to the recording. If the recording is not good enough, they can hit “Retry”; if they like it, they can copy the URL address to send to other listeners or hit a button that lets them e-mail the recording to someone . . . a teacher, for instance.

Try voki.com. Students can create presentations using an avatar and share it with you. See an example here.

Think of the possibilities. Students can watch/listen to the recordings, critique themselves using a PVLEGS rubric, make adjustments, and improve. Audio and video can be shared in a group: each group member shows his or her rough draft and gets feedback from other group members. Recordings can be viewed by a teacher who can give important tips to improve a presentation before the due date. A Reader’s Theater team could record parts and send them to teammates as a way to improve before performing the book selection in class. The Poetry Café presenters can listen to themselves before getting up in front of classmates and parents. The recordings of a “This I Believe” speech could be useful formative assessments on the way to the final talk. And, of course, you have your own great ideas.

Why wouldn’t you want to do this? Improving speaking skills, avoiding dull presentations, updating instruction, and meeting state standards can all be accomplished by asking to hear the rough drafts.

Erik is the author of Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology and Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students.

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What the Oscars can tell us about speaking

Are you going to watch the Oscars this year?

In the Before Times,  I attended an Oscar party. As the guests came into the party, we were given an Oscar “ballot.”  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given. While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show. “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language! I have five points now!” As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing. This is not a particularly astute observation. I am sure you noticed this as well. What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and teach speaking.

Someone creates the words. Someone delivers the words. These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer. The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts. Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, and whether we are speaking in-person or via digital tool, both parts are involved. And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication. I refer to these two parts as building a speech and performing a speech.  “Building” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths. “Performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

Let’s think about building a speech first. Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call. Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the eulogy. But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation. Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (e.g., interview), a few people (e.g., staff meeting or discussion), or many people (e.g., in-person presentation or Zoom conference). We often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches (professional speechwriters exist, right?) and some students will excel at this part of oral communication. All students, though, and indeed, all speakers, need to understand what is required before we ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken. I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved. In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things. We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.  If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, discussion, or presentation. Some people are very good at performing (professional speakers exist, right?) and some students excel at this part of oral communication. But, again, all students need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here. We have buried our students with an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on. I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day. Whatever language you use, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this. At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around your building. How many teachers specifically talk to students about this crucial distinction? How many score sheets and rubrics are being used in your building that don’t keep these separate (e.g., “Content, vocabulary, and delivery are appropriate”)? How many students can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa? If we all know this, why do I see so little evidence of it?

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way students and teachers approach all oral communication. It is the starting place for mastering speaking. Visit pvlegs.com for more ideas. Use these checklists to help all students become well spoken: Building a Talk and Performing a Talk

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