Teaching students about speaking (reprint)

Middle Level Insider

Teaching Students About Speaking

Erik Palmer

Common Core State Standards are part of many of our lives now—or soon will be. One of the standards that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the Speaking and Listening standard.

Although all teachers at all grade levels in all subjects require students to speak in their classrooms, few teachers have been given instruction on how to teach speaking.

When SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments come online, will your students be ready? Just as important: will you be ready?

The Components
All speaking, regardless of purpose, has two distinct parts: building the speech and performing the speech. This is true for all oral communication: one-on-one, small group, large presentation, webinar, video, and more.

Building a speech refers to all the things we do before we ever open our mouths. We think of the audience, we work on the content, we organize the content, we construct visual aids, and we may even dress up—all before we ever say a word to the audience, camera, or microphone.

Presidents, actors, and newscasters have people who build speeches for them. It is a special talent, and some students will be better at creating the communication, some will be better at performing.

Performing a speech refers to all the things we do as we are talking. I use the word performing instead of delivering to emphasize the true nature of the task. As we speak, we need to be poised, we need to be sure every word is heard; we need to have some life in our voices; we need to make eye contact, we need to gesture, we need to pay attention to pace—all during our address to the audience, camera, or microphone.

Some students have a special talent when it comes to speaking, but all students can be better performers if we give them specific instruction.

  • Teach inflection. Have students play with phrases and techniques that bring life to the message. Help them determine how and where to add emotion. “Never ever use my toothbrush on that dog’s teeth again!” “Almost one billion people on the planet do not have enough food to eat. One billion.”
  • Teach gestures. Put up phrases that demand gestures. “My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst!” “There’s a bug in my hair!” “He picked up the dandelion and blew the seeds into the air.” Discuss what hand, face, and body gestures add that little something to the performance.
  • Teach poise. Use a webcam or inexpensive video camera and record students speaking. Play back the video and discuss distracting behaviors such as fidgeting and shuffling, and how students might overcome those behaviors.

As with all things, the more opportunities students have to speak, and the more instruction—and constructive feedback—you can provide, the more prepared they will be when the Common Core Standards come calling.

Coming Up
In the next issue of Middle Level iNSIDER, we’ll look at strategies for building effective rubrics for oral activities.


Erik Palmer, a former teacher, is a consultant, AMLE Conference presenter, and author of the book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse 2011). E-mail: erik_palmer@comcast.net

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