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

Poise

Voice

Life

Eye contact

Gestures

Speed.

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 .

 

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