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




Eye contact



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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But what about the introverts?

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?

   What about…

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

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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:





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Tired of poor student presentations?

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer. we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?


A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids write.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We won’t do everything at once. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:

1/4 + 1/5  =  1/9    and   2/3 + 2/7 = 4/10

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.

One more example. A student turns in this talk: http://edge.ascd.org/audio/composting-podcast

What do you do?

A)    Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.

B)    Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.

C)    I teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of this recording, the teacher posted it to YouTube for the world to hear even though it is clearly “rough draft” speaking. (I’m guessing it was so poor that you didn’t even listen to the entire one and half minutes.) I have had a few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

In this case, I would teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting, and I would offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. Then I would teach some lessons about Speed, adjusting pace to make a talk more interesting and effective. I would offer practice with some little speeches so students can learn to adjust speed well. See some ideas here: http://pvlegs.com/activities/. Do you see those kinds of lessons and practice activities in your school?

We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. How could the teacher that put this up on YouTube (with identifying information that I removed!) not have noticed that the kids in front of the green screen need help with basic speaking skills? https://youtu.be/KmnoAxptUsA How could he/she have thought that this was the best kids can do? Shame on you for selling these kids short and posting a video for the world to see that fails to show how well they are capable of speaking. Unfortunately, many teachers fail to pay attention to poor speaking, fail to give needed lessons, and fail to give teaching oral communication the instruction time it deserves. Many teachers watch students speaking like this and do nothing to help them. We make kids talk after the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the facts that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. (“That’s just how kids speak.”) If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction about how to speak well.

Solutions? Speaking skills are an afterthought in most materials out there. There are few materials that specifically show teachers how to help students master oral communication. But there are some:

An online course: http://shop.ascd.org/Default.aspx?TabID=55&ProductId=172581907

A one-hour video: http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/videos/listen-up-speaking-matters-dvd.aspx

A book focused exclusively on explaining listening and speaking standards with lesson ideas and activities: goo.gl/4iJh1G

A book focused exclusively on teaching all students to speak well: goo.gl/dgoSS7

An enhanced ebook with embedded tutorials, audio and video examples of lesson and of students speaking: goo.gl/13vwA4

An article about teaching speaking: goo.gl/engkOt

A website devoted to showing how to teach speaking: www.pvlegs.com

A short video with animated words about how to teach speaking: goo.gl/ven2jp

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. They deserve a chance to be well-spoken.

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Communication in the 21st Century (originally published in HMH Charter School Newsletter)

Charter School Newsletter August 2015

Communication in the 21st Century
By Erik Palmer–Educational Consultant, Author, and Speaker

Communication in the 1st century. No, that’s not a typo, though to be more accurate, I should say 1st century B.C. What was the most important skill to develop for effective communication? Oratory, the art of speaking. In ancient Greece and Rome, oral communication skills were highly valued and those who spoke well ruled. Most of us recognize the name Cicero. He was in our history texts, and, twenty-two hundred years after his death, he is still remembered. Why? He was a great speaker in an era when oral communication was valued.

Fast forward to the 21st century. What is the most important skill to develop for effective communication? Once again, the art of speaking. Skype. FaceTime. Webinars. Podcasts. Video. Video conferences. Google Hangouts. We can easily get caught up in the “Wow! These tools are amazing!” and fail to realize that all these tools (and many others) have at their core oral communication. They are designed to showcase speaking. Verbal communication is on display in the 21st century like never before. Cicero spoke to small audiences around Rome. It is common for speakers today to be digitally addressing potentially huge audiences around the world. Today, people who are well spoken will be more successful professionally and socially than people who aren’t well spoken.

Unfortunately, schools have largely ignored oral communication. After some other unit, we will make students give a speech, but we do not have specific lessons to prepare them to do that speech well. No wonder people fear public speaking—they have never been taught how to do it. You’ve noticed. When you look at students speaking, you have realized that they do not speak well. Listeners are not engaged. Poetry recitations are unimpressive. Book reports do not inspire other students to go get the book. Twenty four hours later, students cannot tell you anything about the historical figures presented in the 3–5 minute talk required at the end of biography research unit. The speaking we make students do isn’t working for the speakers who aren’t improving or for the audiences who are not getting anything out of the talks. What do we need to do?

A short article cannot solve the problems, but I think I can point you in the right direction.

  • As a school, commit to valuing speaking. Develop a scope and sequence for speaking skills. Whenever someone says “reading and writing,” stop them and say, “You mean reading, writing, and speaking.”
  • Just as you have workshops about bully-proofing, equity training, RTI, and more, commit to providing workshops about how to develop verbal skills.
  • Find materials that show teachers how to teach speaking skills. They are hard to find. I wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students to fill this void. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Collections has self-guided student tutorials guiding students to effective oral communication. Avoid materials that include speaking as an afterthought—a book about writing or reading strategies with a couple of oral activities mentioned is not going to get the job done.
  • Develop a school-wide consistent language. Odds are that every teacher in your school has a unique score sheet or rubric. One might score “elocution, eye contact, inflection;” another “enunciation, gestures, vocal modulation;” another “loudly, clearly, slowly;” and so on. We make mastery difficult if we shift language and expectations from class to class, grade to grade. I offer a framework in Well Spoken that can be a model for your school.
  • Use digital tools. Every Mac computer has Photo Booth built in. PCs all have digital cameras built in. Record students and use those as rough drafts giving students the ability to see themselves before presentation day. Use http://www.vocaroo.com to have students record themselves. Provide feedback. If students have cell phones, have them video their talks and share some for instructional purposes.

Bit by bit, educators are coming around to the belief that we cannot continue to shortchange the number one language art. I started out by saying that speaking well is the most important communication skill for the 21st century, and I guarantee that your students will be forever grateful to you if you give them an effective voice. They may not achieve the fame of Cicero, but they will be prepared for the communication demands of their futures.

Erik Palmer is a veteran teacher, education consultant, and author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking, Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students, Researching in a Digital World, and Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology. His areas of focus include improving oral communication, promoting technology in classroom presentations, and updating instruction through the use of digital tools. He is also a program consultant of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt™ Collections. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Colorado.

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Speaking & Listening Article from MiddleWeb


Speaking & Listening Are Core Skills Today

by MiddleWeb · 11/03/2015

Erik-Palmer-140By Erik Palmer

Pop quiz! Please fill in the blanks:

The primary responsibility of English and/or language arts teachers is to teach _____________ and _____________.

Did you think “reading” and “writing?” The overwhelming majority of educators do. Those two words are inextricably linked in our minds.

Look at session descriptions at educational conferences. Many are about “reading and writing” strategies. Look at educational materials being sold. Most want to help you with “reading and writing.” Follow Twitter chats online. Often the tweets are about cool things to use to teach “reading and writing.” We might as well just make one new word: readinganwriting.

Here is the second question of the quiz:

Adults spend a large amount of their waking hours communicating. Reading and writing make up _________percent of that time.

If you answered twenty-five percent, you are correct. Yes, only one-fourth of our communication time. That might seem surprising to teachers so focused on readinganwriting, but few people find the percentage hard to believe once they think about their typical day.


Sure, we spend some time with emails, online news, and print, but we spend way more time engaged in conversation. Three times more, in fact. Listening and speaking make up the other seventy-five percent of adult communication time.

We haven’t taken speaking & listening skills seriously

I came into education after a career in business. I ran a commodity brokerage firm, and I had a seat on the floor of a commodity exchange. Those are verbal businesses so I was perhaps more tuned in to oral communication than most teachers.

I noticed right away that my fifth and sixth graders spoke poorly. My teammates had an attitude of “Oh well, that’s just how kids speak.” How they do speak, however, is vastly different from how they can speak. And we would never say, “That’s just how kids do math.” Or read, or create a pot in art class. All these are skills that require teacher time and student practice.


I suggested to my teammates that after years of weekly share time, book reports, sharing solutions at the board, poetry recitations, and all the other talking students do in elementary school, to have students speak so poorly reflected badly on us as teachers. Clearly, we had been inattentive to the most important language art. Students had been shortchanged. Our expectations of them were way too low.

I asked for the materials we had for teaching speaking. We had a spelling program, a grammar program, a science program, a math program, a Daily Oral Language program, a drug education program, novel sets, and basal readers. We had zero materials about how to teach speaking. (Did I mention that speaking is not just for English class anymore?)


I started searching for resources to teach students how to be better oral communicators, and I discovered that there weren’t any. For example, the catalog of the National Council of Teachers of English had over 200 books listed yet included no books about how to teach speaking. (That’s still true today.) I was shocked and disappointed.

The solution? Create my own materials. I came up with a logical, practical framework for teaching speaking. I developed mini-lessons to teach the skills set out in the framework. I invented rubrics for evaluating speaking. You can get a sense of the framework and sample a couple of activities in this video:

Effective-Communication-Erik-PalmerClick to watch Erik’s animated video

The result? My students began to speak well. An administrator in the building asked me to go to the school her sons attended to show that staff how to teach speaking. She wanted her children to be well spoken and gave me my first consulting job. I was invited to teach a workshop for a district’s summer teacher training.

Someone there suggested that I write a book. Stenhouse Publishers had the foresight to publish it: Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students. A second book, Digitally Speaking, followed. ASCD invited me to write Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asked me to be a program consultant for them.


I seem to have struck a chord

First, I think I created awareness. When teachers really look closely at students speaking—whether one-on-one, in a small group, or in a class presentation—they are quick to recognize that the students need help. We have been focused on other things (readinganwriting!) and we tolerated mediocre to poor oral communication.

Second, I think I filled a gap in teacher preparation. Teacher preparation programs and district workshops never show educators how to teach speaking. When speaking standards started showing up, teachers were not prepared to teach them. I ask teachers at workshops to tell me exactly what it takes to be a great speaker, and most are not sure.

Finally, I think I emphasized a skill coming back into fashion. Many digital communication tools exist—for podcasting, video creation, audio recording, producing webinars, and allowing face-to-face online communication. All of those tools showcase speaking, and many of us are beginning to realize the need to raise the bar for oral communication skills.


Simply put, we have shortchanged the most important language arts. That has to change. Our students can do better, and they deserve better. They obviously aren’t successful oral communicators now, and that won’t change unless we specifically teach them how to be well spoken. I’d suggest we start now.

(Editor’s note: Thanks to Dave Stuart Jr. for his post tracking down a direct link to Erik’s excellent animated video, which makes a compelling argument for speaking & listening instruction. Stuart’s “sparknotes” are a good read. Illustrations used in this post are from “Effective Communication with Erik Palmer.”)

Erik-ASCD-cvrErik Palmer (@erik_palmer) is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver, Colorado. He spent 21 years in the classroom in the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, CO, primarily as an English teacher but also as a teacher of math, science, and civics. Erik is the author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD 2014) and other books, and a program consultant for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s English Language Arts program, Collections.

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Why We Teach

When teachers at Mission Viejo Elementary School came back from summer break, I was there. They wanted me to present on the morning of the first day. I have worked with hundreds of schools and districts across North America, and my presentation went along well until one slide came up. I got all choked up. Yes, I am prone to that, and at my children’s big events, they will tell you that I often have to stop to collect myself. But this is the first time I got choked up during this presentation. You see, my grandson will be attending Mission Viejo kindergarten this year.

Here’s what happened: I put up a picture of my grandson and was suddenly hit by the enormity of the teacher’s task. These children aren’t data points. They aren’t 104’s or IEPs. They aren’t ADHDs or special eds or GTs or minorities or any other labels. They aren’t vessels to be filled, and they aren’t future test-takers to be groomed for the Big Test. They are someone’s child, someone’s grandchild.

Grandson Brayden is raw, innocent, vulnerable, and wonderful.   I don’t know if he’ll be a great reader or writer or artist or mathematician or athlete or anything. All I know is that he is walking into school expecting great things. His mother is one of the sweetest people on the planet, and my son-in-law is a great father. They are watching their child walk into Mission Viejo fully expecting that he will be well cared for and well educated. Their level of trust is amazing: Here. You can have our child every day. He is precious. He is unique. We love him. We believe in you and want you to help him become even more amazing.

As teachers, we easily lose sight of the enormity of the task we have chosen. We get caught up with the minutiae of education, the forms, the meetings, the day-to-day problems, the new directives, and the new initiatives. In my case, I was telling the teachers that we were going to undertake some important work this year, transforming the way all students speak. We tend to overlook the fact that students don’t speak well as we go on about our other businesses. I said that I want all students to become better at life’s most important language art, oral communication. I want Brayden and all of his classmates to leave Mission Viejo able to speak well in every situation. I want them to be comfortable and confident communicators. That is important work. I think speaking well will be worth more to them than many other things we teach in school. But I don’t want any teacher to think, “I have to teach speaking.” I want all of us to remember that we have to improve the lives of the children entrusted to us.   That is an incredible undertaking.

I had a principal who was good at spouting, “All of my decisions are based on the best interests of the children.” She used the phrase as a way of taking out other opinions: My decision is in the best interest of students whereas your opinion is selfish. She wasn’t concerned about kids as much as she was about being right, getting us to fall in line, and/or selling the new district mandate. I remember when the district decided that my 8th graders had to take a test that predicted how well they would do when the took the test in 10th grade that predicted how well they would do when they took the test in 11th grade that some colleges required for admissions. It was in the best interest of students, we were told. The test was dropped after a few years. Were we lied to? Why drop something that was so good for students, right? That is the topic for another blog. But even so, my principal was paying lip service to the wrong idea. I don’t want what’s in the best interests of students. I want what’s in the best interest of young human beings.

There is a subtle difference there.   Brayden is not just a student. He is so much more, and he is someone’s very special child. It is an awesome responsibility to realize that every being in your class has been sent to you by loving, hopeful, sometimes inept, concerned parents who believe you are worthy of crucial years of their child’s life.   Every once in a while, step back and remember how important you are to children. Think about how noble and wonderful your job is. I bet you’ll get choked up, too.

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Voices from the Middle article: Listening and Speaking Demystified

Voices from the Middle, Volume 22 Number 1, September 2014

The Forgotten Language Arts:
Addressing Listening & Speaking

Erik Palmer


The Forgotten Language Arts: Addressing Listening & Speaking


Common Core State Standards include listening and speaking standards yet those receive little attention. All teachers need to become aware of the requirements of the standards and need to specifically teach students the skills needed to master the standards. There is much more to the standards than the words “listening” and “speaking” suggest. Students must learn how to collaborate with diverse partners, evaluate information from diverse media and in diverse formats, evaluate speakers’ rhetoric, construct and deliver presentations, incorporate multimedia in talks, and adapt speech to varied contexts. This article introduces the standards and suggests approaches to mastering them.


The Forgotten Language Arts: Addressing Listening & Speaking

Common Core State Standards (CCSS; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) have been the major topic of discussion for some time now. English teachers are probably aware that ELA Standards have led us to examine the fiction/nonfiction percentages in our classes, the text complexity of our materials, and the meaning of close reading. Most teachers, however, still seem to be unaware of the listening and speaking part of the Standards. Test yourself:

  1. How many listening and speaking standards are there?
  2. What is the category name given to the three “listening” standards?
  3. What is the category name used for the three “speaking” standards? (Question one answer revealed! Six!)
  4. What is the general idea of each of the six standards?

Don’t panic if you missed some (or all). The odds are overwhelming that your school has not focused on these. Perhaps they have never been mentioned. You never had a workshop or inservice presentation about them. You most likely have no materials on hand about how to address them. Even materials that offer help with Common Core Standards overlook listening and speaking. For example, there are four ELA Standards (reading, writing, speaking & listening, language), so you might expect a book such as Pathways to the Common Core (Calkins, Lehrenworth, Lehman, 2012) to spend a quarter of its pages on each topic. In fact, the speaking and listening section is less than 5% of the book. Shortchanging these Standards is common.

Do panic if you don’t remedy these situations. Students cannot master the Common Core Standards without mastering these specific Standards. And for those of you in areas where Common Core Standards are losing favor, know that students cannot be prepared for life without mastering these Standards. If the Common Core movement goes away tomorrow, these six parts of that movement must remain.

I am afraid that when teachers become aware that listening and speaking Standards exist, they will think, “Oh, I’ve got those covered. I don’t have problems with classroom management and my students do lots of talking in class.” We confuse sitting still and being quiet with effective listening; we mistake having the ability to utter words with effective oral communication. I make the argument in Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (Palmer, 2014) that there is much more to the Standards than the words “listening” and “speaking” suggest. Let me share a part of that here.

To answer the second question above, the “listening” Standards actually fall under the label “Comprehension and Collaboration.” As you look at the three Standards under this umbrella, two points will stand out: there is not one of these that we wouldn’t want for all students; there is much more involved than the word “listening” would suggest.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric. (CCSS, 2014)

To meet these Standards, serious instruction is required. Standard 2, for instance, requires us to teach sound (how it can be used to manipulate us and/or enhance presentations); to teach images (the importance of image selection and how images convey story); to teach video (the reasons for scene selection, camera angle, montage, and so on). We probably underuse diverse media in our classrooms. We definitely fail to teach all students how to analyze the construction of multimedia messages and how that construction contributes to the underlying message.

Standard 3 requires us to teach reasoning (e.g., understanding ad hominem attacks, hasty generalizations, cause/correlation errors), logic (e.g., looking for premises that will lead to the conclusion), and rhetorical devices (e.g., hyperbole, repetition, persuasive techniques). These are teachable, yet you will find few English teachers with persuasive technique units or logic lessons. Students cannot figure these things out on their own, just as they cannot figure out metaphors without direct, specific instruction. Brilliant use of metaphors, good reasoning, and the ability to analyze images do not spontaneously occur. They all require specific instruction. Why, then, do we only teach about metaphors? How can students evaluate diverse formats without specific media literacy lessons?

It is not difficult to teach these new skills. For example, here’s a simple lesson on the power of images: Give one team of students a camera and instruct them to make the school look terrible today; give another team a camera and instruct them to make the school look great today. Both will succeed. One team will photograph trash that missed the wastebasket, a torn poster hanging on the wall, and so on; the other, smiling students, the newest computer in the library. It is quickly obvious that images have power to tell stories and that image selection is important. Both groups told the “truth,” yet the messages are quite different. Students will now be critical of the images they are exposed to in the information they receive. Now we are on the way to mastering Standard 2. As I noted, it is not difficult to teach the skills. It is very difficult, however, to open our minds to the reality that haiku may have to move aside to allow instruction about new literacies.

My passion has always been oral communication—giving students the ability to communicate well in any situation. I fear that if teachers think of speaking skills at all, they think of Public Speaking, that one big presentation. The Standards correctly value developing oral communication skills for all verbal communication situations including, but not limited to, formal presentations.

Look at the three Anchor Standards for “speaking” or, more correctly, “Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas”:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (CCSS, 2014)

In a recent issue of Language Arts, a teacher described a project she did with her class. She included a grid where she checked off the many Standards met by the project. Because she had students present results to the class with a PowerPoint at the project’s end, she checked off all three speaking Standards and said, “Students met many of the speaking and listening Standards when they presented their findings to their peers” (Grindon, 2014).

In fact, it is possible that they met none of them. There was no evidence that any student spoke well, as Standard 4 would require. Standard 5 requires incorporating multimedia, audio, and video. Bullet points on a PowerPoint slide do not qualify. Standard 6 requires the ability to adapt speech to a variety of audiences. How does talking one time to a group of peers demonstrate that ability? Additionally, this teacher made a mistake almost all teachers make: failing to understand that assigning a speaking activity is not the same as teaching students how to do that activity well.

Imagine this scenario: a teacher is asked how he teaches writing. He replies, “At the end of some reading assignments, I tell kids to write for five minutes.” You ask him if ever teaches about punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, or word choice, and he says, “Not exactly. I put some of those terms on the rubric, but I don’t have any particular lessons on them. I guess I think the kids will just figure out how to be a good writer somehow. They wrote for five minutes so I checked off all of the writing standards.” You would be appalled and rightly so. Commonly, though, teachers have students talk as an afterthought to some assignment, yet offer no lessons on the skills they assess. Look at the score sheets that you use in your class for speaking activities. Can you point to specific instruction you gave to students for each of the criteria? If you score “presence,” can you tell us exactly how you taught that? How about “body language”? When did you teach that?

Standard 4 requires students to construct a speech and to deliver it. (The expectations for delivery are quite low, as you will discover when you look at grade-level Standards.) Certainly, we see a tie-in with writing instruction (content, organization, voice), but it is important to realize that an effective oral communication is more than a good essay muttered aloud.

Standard 5 will stretch us. Very few teachers require video and audio enhancements in talks, and almost none of us had instruction about how to create videos, let alone how to teach those things. Camera angles, editing, adding sound? Teaching students how to incorporate media into presentations will be difficult. Suggestion: Use your students as a resource. Many students have been creating multimedia presentations on their own and are proficient with tools teachers are not aware of. Let students lead the way and then offer them guidance about matching style to substance.

Standard 6 expands our ideas about “acceptable” speech by forcing us to recognize that effective talks are adapted to the audience. English teachers always emphasize good grammar, but effective communication can occur without it.

Again, these are teachable skills. For example, to teach Standard 6, start with a discussion. Ask students if they speak differently to grandparents than to friends. What is different? Why? Point out that intuitively, we adjust speech. Then, offer a small assignment. Have students tell about something that happened at school in three different ways: as you would tell it to peers outside of school; as you would tell it to grandma; and as you would tell it to a newsperson interviewing you for the nightly news. Language will be different, formality levels will be different. Finally, adjust audiences during the year. Assign a presentation to be given to the class; bring in parents for some talk; make an instructional video to post on YouTube. For each, explicitly discuss the adaptations needed to be effective in the situation. I know I am on thin ice when I seem to attack haiku, but again I suggest that it may need to be de-emphasized to make room for these important skills.

We work hard to improve every child’s ability to read and to write. We must commit to working equally hard to improve every child’s ability to work well with others, to evaluate the diverse messages received, to create an engaging presentation, and to speak well in all situations. These are crucial skills. Common Core Standards give us a push, but concern for our students’ future should provide the motivation.


Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the common core. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grindon, K. (2014). Advocacy at the core: Inquiry and empowerment in the time of common core state standards. Language Arts, 91, 251–266.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2012, October). Job outlook 2013. Bethlehem, PA: Author.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ela-literacy.

Palmer, E. (2014). Teaching the core skills of listening & speaking. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Palmer, E. (2011). Well spoken: Teaching speaking to all students. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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