Well Spoken

Well Spoken

New from Stenhouse Publishers

Nobody exactly knows.  I mean, we all have some ideas, but no one knows for sure what is really involved.  This is what I find out when I ask teachers, “What are the skills involved in effective oral communication?”

It is not an unimportant 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, 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 21st century students.  With the tools out there today, oral communication is more important than ever.  Over 300 employers were surveyed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and 89% of them said they wished schools spent more time on oral communication skills.  That was the number one wish.  I don’t care what your job is—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 we think of in terms of large groups only.  The interview, the staff meeting, the sales call, the Back to School Night show, the wedding toast, the Socratic Seminar and more all require the exact same skills of oral communication.)  I have collected many rubrics/score sheets over the years and there is nothing close to agreement.

From a 9th grade 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 4th grade 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 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…”

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


Well, you get the idea.  We all seem to know 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 12th grades, 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—you guys know all the secrets to speaking fluently, don’t you?  Expression, volume, pace, gestures and all that other stuff.  But we don’t know!  Who teaches teachers about how to create effective oral communicators?

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.  As for the second part, how many of us have given a score for “gestures” without ever teaching mini-lessons on gestures?  “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 expression so that next week when you give your speeches, I can score you on gestures.”  I can’t make that happen, but I do believe it is more fair to students to specifically teach them something before we grade them on it.

You already have them speaking.  Let’s make those activities more meaningful.

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