Looking Into Education’s Crystal Ball

(Larry Ferlazzo is an educator worth following. He collects, curates, and shares great ideas from educators around the world and contributes brilliant ideas of his own as well. He asked educators to predict the future, and included this comment from me. This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here. –Erik Palmer)

Response From Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver who ran a commodity brokerage firm before spending 21 years as a classroom teacher. Palmer is the author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World: How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research? (ASCD, 2015), and Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2011). Learn more about Erik’s work at www.pvlegs.com or connect with him on Twitter @erik_palmer:

Oral communication will be by far the number one language art taught.

Actually, it is the most important and most used language art now, but we fail to recognize that. In the near future, speaking and listening will so dominant that it will be impossible to not realize their importance. How will people communicate? By writing? Nope, by Skype 4.0 or FaceTime 6.0 or ThisIsBetter 7.37. How will people text? By thumbing a small keyboard? Nope, by talking the message. How will people communicate internationally? By writing and email? A little, but mostly by speaking. Some will use digital tools such as WhatsApp 8.9 or GoToMeeting 11.14 or NotYetInvented 7.2. Some will speak their native language into a translation app and play the audio translation for foreign listeners. How will people get hired? By analyzing a novel well? Nope, by speaking well. The resume you speak into a resume-creating app will get you in the door, but your speaking will get you the job. The hiring process will involve digital speaking tools: interviews are now being done over Skype; voice-analyzing software will be a big part of hiring decisions. How will people write? By typing on a keyboard or mobile device? Nope, by speaking into voice-to-text apps. How will we research? By verbally asking a device a question and listening to the answer. You can read more of my predictions here.

Of course, all of those are happening now so it is not very bold to suggest that our future will see more verbal communication tools and an increase in their prominence. What is bold is say that we should decrease emphasis on haiku and increase emphasis on speaking. No one will ever say, “Palmer, fire off a haiku to our affiliate in Beijing,” but every day of our lives how we speak will matter. Oddly, my son had haiku units in five different grades but never had one oral communication unit. Yes, after the haiku unit, he was asked to get up and say a haiku poem, but he was never taught how to say that poem well. Lessons about word choice, yes. Lessons about syllables, yes. Lessons about where to put commas, yes. Lessons about adding life to the voice, no. Lessons about speeding up and slowing down for effect, no. Lessons about descriptive hand gestures or body gestures or facial gestures, no.

It is already true that the odds of professional and social success dramatically improve if you are well spoken. In twenty years, those who speak well will have an even bigger advantage. At some point, schools will be forced to pay attention to this reality. The favorite lessons teachers have trotted out for the last fifty or sixty years will go away, and curricula will be adjusted to specifically teach the most important language art, speaking, as much as the language arts of reading and writing. 

Copyright Erik Palmer


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fake News! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!! (Part Two)

Fake news!! ALTERNATIVE FACTS!!! (Part Two)

In my first post about fake news (https://goo.gl/06VyM7), I mentioned Bat Boy, the Pope carving roast cherub for Christmas, and the imminent destruction of Earth by the planet Nibiru.

I suggested that no one would believe any of those stories and would recognize that they are all fake. Well, almost no one.

Since that post, our new administration has given us other stories to challenge our thinking about news, including President Trump’s press secretary statement that Trump’s inauguration attendance was the largest in history, disagreeing with many of the news reports. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/24/fact-check-inauguration-crowd-size/96984496/ Whose “news” was accurate? A Trump surrogate suggested that the press secretary didn’t lie but rather used “alternative facts.” https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2017/01/23/alternative-facts-quip-from-kellyanne-conway-sparks-mockery/45si5b0bXrRsPB0BZGs1xM/story.html So here we are discussing whether comments from the White House are in the same category as Bat Boy, cherub carving, and Nibiru. The problem of fake news is much bigger than we might have thought and certainly bigger than we wished.

(You’ll recall that one of the strategies from my first post was to analyze sources. That can’t be done if no sources are given so I have provided many here. Consider asking students to provide sources for all their comments, too. Ban discussion comments such as “The Keystone Pipeline will wreck the environment” and encourage “According to an article in the Huffington Post, the Keystone Pipeline will cause environmental damage.” Then you can discuss sources—why should I believe the Huffington Post?—as well as the pipeline.)

Teach students to verify

 Don’t take any one person’s word as gospel. Don’t believe one source. Check everything out. For example, watch candidate Trump describing Obama dealing with a protestor: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/fact-check-trump-claims-obama-scolded-protester-video-shows-otherwise-n678351  Notice that Trump said, “You have to go back and look and study.” Good advice. Did Trump accurately describe where “they put the cameras”? Did he accurately describe what Obama said and how he said it? You can check it out yourself. Here is a video of the event Trump was talking about: http://time.com/4559072/barack-obama-north-carolina-rally-heckler-video/ Unfortunately, we live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Fortunately, almost everything is recorded somehow which makes verification easier. If there is no recording, remember the tip from my first post about looking for multiple sources. Are other reputable news outlets reporting the event in a similar way?

Teach students to verify images

My presentations about how to teach students oral communication skills are enormously popular. Here is a picture of the crowd that came to see my last presentation:


Except that isn’t true. Well, it is true that I do presentations about teaching speaking (http://pvlegs.com/recentwork/) but that picture is not from my show. Use Google’s reverse image search. Upload an image, and Google will tell you where it is from:


Oops. Busted. If you wonder if an image is accurate, verify.

Teach students to demand evidence

As I write this, news outlets are talking about Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes. Trump said that three to five million votes for Clinton were fraudulent. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/01/23/at-white-house-trump-tells-congressional-leaders-3-5-million-illegal-ballots-cost-him-the-popular-vote/?utm_term=.cb9173c6c951 A simple and very specific statement. Where did that number come from? What evidence supports that statement? Turns out, none. As I write this, the President is going to launch an investigation into voter fraud so maybe some evidence will turn up later. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/26/fact-check-trumps-bogus-voter-fraud-claims-revisited/97080242/


Of course, asking to students to look for evidence is not worth much if they haven’t been taught what evidence is. Teach them the five types of evidence. I talk much more about evidence in Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (https://goo.gl/svtXEw), but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the questions this teacher asked a student during a discussion about football:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

As I said in my first post, there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Why are we susceptible to fake news?

Partly because we are lazy. It takes effort to investigate. Partly because we haven’t been taught about argument and reasoning. We make errors in thinking because we don’t know what to look for. Good Thinking also gives teachers ideas for teaching about how to avoid reasoning errors. I’ll share a couple of ideas from that book here.

Teach the availability bias

For years, my father gave money to an organization that claimed to be committed to eliminating pork barrel spending, money Congressmen and women earmark from a large budget bill to send to a local project in their district. For example, in 2006 the federal government authorized $500,000 to Sparta, North Carolina to construct a teapot museum to showcase Gloria and Sonny Kamm’s 6,000 teapot collection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparta_Teapot_Museum Frequently, my dad would get an email with another example. Over time, my father came to believe that pork barrel spending was the largest part of the federal budget. I told him that pork barrel spending is between 0.5% and 1% according to most studies, and eliminating all of it wouldn’t dent the federal deficit. He didn’t believe me. What he saw was what he believed. My father was misled. Easily available information crowded out significant other information. This doesn’t apply only to repeated messages. The first message we see colors our subsequent thinking. We have all said, “I think heard somewhere that…” We didn’t research it, we don’t remember exactly where we heard of saw it, but it stuck. Teach students to be wary of believing something just because it was easily available.

Teach the confirmation bias

You have opinions. Unfortunately, those opinions alter the way you view reality. Humans are apparently wired to notice things that confirm what they believe. Ever have parents who think you are treating their child unfairly? You do several hundred things well but mismark one paper: “See? You hate my kid!” None of the good stuff got noticed. We want to be right, and we notice the things that “prove” what we already think. Fake news creators know this. You are more susceptible to falsehoods if they fit your pre-existing narrative. You hate Hillary? I will write a fake story alleging she did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You hate Trump? I will write a fake story alleging he did something horrible, and you will be inclined to believe it. You don’t need to verify the because you already feel it is true. The flip side is that you will call something that doesn’t agree with you fake news even if it is true. Teach students to be very careful about making decisions about news stories based on what they want to believe.

Critical thinking is a good thing to teach students (and adults). I worry that many of us are letting down our guard, and fake news creators are counting on exactly that. I hope these two posts are useful start for media analysis. Give students tools they need to be intelligent consumers of news. Keep them from being duped.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fake news!! FAKE NEWS!!! (Part One)


For years, as I checked out in the grocery store, I saw Bat Boy on the pages of the Weekly World News. That “news”paper is no longer being printed, but weeklyworldnews.com exists. According to an article on the site, Earth is going to collide with the planet Nibiru on October, 17, 2017, so don’t sweat that your retirement accounts are not up to par.

Did you know that Pope Francis carved roast cherub for the Vatican Christmas feast this year? You can see the story and the picture of him carving the slow-roasted 18-pound cherub at The Onion website.

My point is that fake news is nothing new. Weekly World News started in 1979, The Onion in 1988. Others could be mentioned—others who had the idea of writing silly news stories for our amusement. No one thought this was real stuff. We all knew it was satire or farce. Right?

But something has changed. We have an increasing number of websites putting out stories intended to deceive, to attack, and to influence in addition to the ones putting out stories to entertain. Fabricated stories are mixed in with legitimate news stories, and it is less clear which is which. The new President of the United States said that Ted Cruz’s father was “with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.” Is that fake news? The President often tweets “Fake news!” to dismiss stories and at a press conference said, “You are fake news!” to insult to a CNN reporter. Is the reporter fake news? When the leader of the free world uses “fake news” so often, it is a term worth exploring.

Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be 2016’s international word of the year. They define “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Truth doesn’t matter to the body politic anyhow, so why worry about fake news?

The Founding Fathers thought that protecting the press was so important that they put in the First Amendment. They realized that a free (and respected) press would help hold government leaders accountable, publicize important issues, and educate citizens so they can make informed decisions. Attacking the press, then, is a very dicey proposition. If the press is demeaned, those three things don’t happen. Who will perform those functions? I understand that it is a brilliant strategy for rulers to discredit all news sources. Take away all possibility of being examined or critiqued or caught? Nixon would have loved the “fake news” gambit.

The Public: These reporters uncovered some evidence linking you to Watergate.

Nixon: Fake news!! You know they are all scum!

The Public: OK, sir. Then play on.

In a scenario where “fake news” get shouted all the time, truth gets buried with all the falsehoods.

But what if you think that there is truth? What if you believe that quality sources exist and we should try to find them? What if you want to help students separate fact from fiction? Let me share some ideas here and some in an upcoming post. (Now available here.)

Teach a healthy level of skepticism

 Unfortunately, we must be suspicious. Just because it popped up on your computer feed does not mean it is accurate. Just because it has a great sounding name that includes the word “news,” does not mean it is news. Also be skeptical about what has been called “fake news.” Just because the President says, “That’s fake news” does not mean you should not believe the information he is attacking. What has been called news may be fake; what has been called fake may be true. But there must be a healthy level of skepticism. It is not the case that there is no news, no truth, and it is all lies. Don’t give up. Be a detective. Investigate.

Teach checking sources

Did you have the thought, “Were there really news articles about Nibiru and Pope cherub-eating?” I hope so. You want sources so teach students to demand sources. Legitimate articles will name sources. To prove that I did not make up the Nibiru and Pope stories, here are my sources:



What about the other stories I told? Did Trump really say that Cruz’s father was with Oswald or was that fabricated by me? He did say it, and here is the source:


Was Cruz’s dad really with Oswald or was that fabricated? That was made up, and here is a source verifying that it was false:


Did Trump really call a CNN reporter “fake news”? He did, and here is a source:


Obvious question: how do I know if the source used is good?

Teach about analyzing sources

 I wrote Researching in a Digital Age—How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research because too many teachers are sending students online without properly preparing them to think critically about what they will find. Lessons in that book about how to evaluate websites should be used to look for fake news, also. (Look at that book here for more detail.) As an example, teach students to look for the “About us” or “Home” or “FAQ” tabs. If there is no such tab, be suspicious. Ask how long they have been around. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have some pretty good history. Not so for lots of sites on Facebook with “news” in their name that were created in the last couple of years. See if you can find their purpose or a statement of beliefs. Do a web search. Someone sent me an article from “Truth Examiner.” Sounds great, right? A web query made me doubt everything on the site. Look for bias. Scan a list of recent articles. Do they lean a certain way? Share examples: Huffington Post seems to have lots of articles about how bad conservatives are; Breitbart has articles about how bad liberals are. That doesn’t mean everything at those sites is “fake news.” But maybe you shouldn’t believe everything.

Teach about using multiple sources

 When I grew up in Detroit, if the Detroit News said something had happened, it had happened. Now life is trickier. About one million people engaged with an article that appeared on Facebook saying the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Did the Pope do that? Well, had you looked for the source, you would have found Southend News Network. If you looked at their “About SNN” tab on their site, they admit that they are bogus. If you did a web search, you’d see lots of evidence that they are bogus. But assume you didn’t analyze the source as I suggested above. Then look for multiple sources. The leader of one of world’s largest religions makes a statement? That will get lots of coverage, yet no other news source had that story. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Reuters, The Guardian, The Washington Post—all of them missed it? Nope. It never happened.

Use “fake news” detectors

Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, and others have as their express purpose to verify information. Can you be sure they are legit? Remember: multiple sources. You don’t need to believe one of them. Check a few.

This is a pretty good start for ferreting out fake news. I wish none of this were necessary. I wish we lived in an age where complete disregard for the truth was not common. I wish “post-truth” was a term never invented. Unfortunately, my wishes don’t matter. Begin the process of teaching about fake news.




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Creating an argument worth delivering

[Originally published in a blog at Stenhouse Publishers: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ]

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

 We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

100 English Teachers Walk Into a Bar

Originally published in California English November 2016

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 (http://www.vocaroo.com). 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.


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 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2012), Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World (ASCD, 2015), and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016). He is a program consultant and author of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Collections and Journeys language arts programs.


Erik’s educational background includes Oberlin College, University of Denver Law School, and the University of Colorado. You can visit his website at www.pvlegs.com .


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!”


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.

  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.

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. But that is the topic of a different post.

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





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tired of poor student presentations?

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?


A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  1/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

One more example. A student turns in this talk: http://edge.ascd.org/audio/composting-podcast

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

In this case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking like this and do nothing to help them. We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the facts that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Solutions? Speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication. But there are some:

An online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An enhanced ebook with embedded tutorials, audio and video examples of lesson and of students speaking: goo.gl/13vwA4

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: www.pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments