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