Evaluating speaking (reprint from Middle Level Insider)

Middle Level Insider
March 2012

Evaluating Students’ Speaking Skills

Erik Palmer

No two people have the same perspective about what constitutes an effective speaker. So, how can teachers fairly assess student speaking skills as they prepare for the Common Core State Standards?

As I shared in January’s Insider, building a speech and performing a speech are separate activities. When we build a speech, we think about all the things we do before we ever open our mouths; when we perform a speech, we think about all the things we do while we are talking.

Understanding the distinction between building and performing is the foundation for creating effective rubrics to assess student speaking.

Too often, teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: “Content, volume, and pacing—20 points.” Or they combine multiple factors on one scoring line: “Spoke loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points.” Did the student get a 6 because she was loud enough and clear enough but spoke too fast? Was she a little off on each of the three things? She has no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

Separate “building a speech” elements from “performing a speech” elements on your rubric. On the top half of the score sheet, score content, organization, and visual aids; on the bottom half, score poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. Give both parts equal weight.

Get Focused
You do not need to use the same rubric for every oral presentation. For example, I use a six-trait writing rubric for evaluating student writing, but I do not score all traits on all assignments. I might give a 10-minute prompt and say, “Our focus today is on word choice. Use powerful words and well-chosen adjectives.” Next time, I might focus on content and detail.

Similarly, you can tell students that in today’s presentation, we will focus on eye contact and look at classmates as we talk. Or, for the next oral book report, we will focus on organization and on gestures.

Be Consistent
Always use the same terms when you talk about performance. At the beginning of the year, I introduce PVLEGS as the six traits of all performances: poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. I may not score each element each time, but I never vary the language. “Gestures” never becomes “body language” or “movement.”

Use simple language. “Elocution,” “presence,” and “fluid body language” are not student-friendly words. “Speak each word clearly,” “be poised,” and “use hand, face, and body gestures” are more accessible terms.

Develop a consistent, school-wide language. When students move from grade to grade or from class to class, they should be able to expect the same grading system. Don’t have one teacher score “articulation and posture,” another “elocution and loudness,” another “hold head up and enunciate.”

Involve the Students
A speech is for an audience, and the audience’s opinion must be part of the grade. All listeners should have rubrics to score their classmates’ speeches. No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest. Students are good evaluators and they know poise when they see it; they know if the speech covered the required content.

Involving the students also makes them attentive, critical listeners—which is important when you address the listening part of that Common Core State Standards Speaking and Listening standard.


Erik Palmer, a former teacher, is a consultant, AMLE Conference presenter, and author of the book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking

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