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 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

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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Three questions about Listening standards

How to Teach Listening in the Digital Age: Three Questions to Ask

When I began teaching a couple of decades ago, I read an article about how much television children watched. I was stunned by the numbers and wondered if my class was typical. I surveyed them. They were typical, watching an average of three and a half hours a day. I discovered that in spite of all the time they spent in front of the tube, they knew little about television. Sitcom structure, number of commercials per hour, persuasive techniques used in commercials—all of these were unknown to them. So, I developed a TV literacy unit.

As I was writing Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), I realized that the thinking behind that unit applies today. What are students listening to now? TV, yes, but a massive amount of other media in addition. Messages come on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. YouTube videos, podcasts, movies, webinars, flipped instruction, and more compete for their attention. How prepared are they to “evaluate content presented in diverse media,” to use the language of the Common Core State Standards and the Indiana Standards? No better prepared than they were to evaluate television, I’m afraid. That led me to design a media literacy unit, Listening in the Digital Age.  Let me ask some key questions here.

Who teaches students how to evaluate sound? For instance, teachers should point out that music affects the message. It is not difficult to find video clips with happy music (as the baby animals frolic in the water), dramatic music (as the storm approaches), or scary music (as the predator begins to sneak up on the unsuspecting prey). Students easily see that sound has a purpose. I watched a 4th grade teacher show students how to make an “About Me” podcast. She gave attention to how the tools worked but none to how to select the sound she required as part of the podcast. Many students randomly chose one of the tools pre-built, looping tracks—a poor idea, and one that often distracts listeners rather than engages them. Why not teach the soccer maniac how to add the World Cup theme?

Who teaches students how to evaluate images? It is easy to find images of New York City, for example, from Google Images. Ask students to select images that would make someone want to go to New York. Then have them select images that would make tourists stay away. Students see that images have power to create messages by themselves, and begin to understand that they can select images to support a point of view. A high school teacher I know has his students use their smartphone cameras to create photo essays: one essay making the school look terrible, one making it look great. Both are “true,” he points out, in spite of the opposing messages.

Who teaches students how to evaluate video? Find a video from Kid President. Ask students if they got the message, of course, but go beyond that. Why was the video shot in a locker room, on a football field, and in front of a chalkboard with football plays shown in Xs and Os? Why does the scene change so often? Why the camera angle looking up at Kid President with a beautiful sunset above him? Video techniques have a purpose behind them, and students can begin to see how scene and montage affect the message. Many of your students have made videos at home. Ask them to share appropriate ones with the class, and ask them about the construction.

These ideas are a beginning to help students bombarded by media. Make sure your school commits to giving students the tools needed to be critical listeners and viewers of all of that content.

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Kill the Messenger

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” In my first teaching assignment years ago, our team leader said it often.  He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to teach, new forms we had to fill out, new laws we had to be aware of, new programs we had to implement, and as we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us.  It certainly seemed fair.  Why vent at him when it was the policy we hated?

Lately, I have come to think differently.  There are cases where we should kill the messenger.  (This is a metaphor—I am a non-violent person.)  I attended an SBAC webinar about their tests for Common Core Standards.  Most teachers are going to have to figure out what these new tests are about, and most teachers are going to be hesitant or resistant.  We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult and teachers are generally buried.  Class concerns, parent calls, after-school activities, grading, lesson plans, and meetings are all-consuming.  The district curriculum specialist has time to explore the Common Core, but the classroom teacher doesn’t.  So someone has to be the messenger to bring the Common Core to the teacher.  And that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the webinar.  What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills.  First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: teachers at the end of the teaching day who are not really looking for something new to worry about.  I was stunned that the presenter seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking.  The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw slides like the one pictured below.  The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried in jargon:  “Present overview of CCSS for C&I and WestEd partner.”  Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed.  It was poorly constructed.

SBAC slide

Of course, no matter what is constructed, it has to be delivered. In person, speakers command some attention; in a webinar, the absence of a physical speaker diminishes the attention level of the listener so the speaker has to be exceptional.  The speaker has to be lively, engaging, maybe humorous, animated, powerful—these are necessary to sell any new idea.  But the webinar speaker was none of those.  So the attendees now generally dislike the new tests without ever seeing them.  We should have killed the messenger.  He ruined the presentation and poisoned the Common Core.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high.  I was recently at Curtis School in Los Angeles because they know that.  They realize that an effective school requires great verbal skills for all adults.  Teachers in class, in parent conferences, and at back to school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff who are the first people parents see when they enter the school; staff members who present at workshops and conferences—education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers.

We absolutely must teach students to become better oral communicators.  It is part of the Common Core Standards, and more importantly, a huge part of success in life.  But we must also teach adults to become better communicators.  We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly?  How many parents got upset because a teacher communicated poorly?  How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest?  If these have happened, kill the messenger.  Or better yet, get them some help.

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Evaluating Speaking

Look around your building. You will see students speaking, sometimes informally, sometimes formally.  Sometimes teachers grade those speaking assignments.  (If PARCC and SBAC are successful, all teachers will have to grade the speaking assessments they develop).  Now look closely at the rubrics and score sheets that are being used.  Each one is unique.  No two teachers have the same idea of what it takes to be an effective speaker.  This means that our students will get inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, and often very wrong comments making it very difficult to piece together how to become competent communicators. We don’t really know how to evaluate speaking.

I wrote previously about the two very distinct components of all oral communication: building the speech (all the things you do before you open your mouth) and performing the speech (all the things you do as you are speaking). Understanding that distinction is the beginning point for creating effective rubrics.  Too often, teachers hand out rubrics that jump from ‘building” to “performing” elements: Content, 10 points; Volume, 10 pts.; Organization, 10 pts.; Eye contact, 10 pts.; and so on.  Worse, many teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: Content, volume, and pacing, 20 points.  A student develops content before the day of the talk, but volume and pacing are considerations as he is talking.

Multiple items on one scoring line create another problem, as well.  If the score sheet says “Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points,” did I get a 6 because I was loud enough and clear enough but spoke way too fast?  Was I a little off on each of the three things?  Was I pretty far off on two of the three?  A student will have no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

In this case, we could solve the ‘multiple item on one line’ problem by breaking those three apart: Speak loudly 5 pts.; speak clearly 5 pts.; speak slowly 5 pts., for example.  But this reveals another problem.  Two of those three descriptors are wrong.  It is not necessary to always speak loudly.  Sometimes a quiet voice is very powerful.

When my father said softly, “Erik, come here,” I knew something big was about to happen.  Yes, every word needs to be heard but speaking loudly is often inappropriate.  Speaking slowly is equally wrong.  Recounting the exciting play when the winning goal was scored demands a quick pace.  Don’t read this slowly:

The defender slipped slightly. I quickly pushed the ball past him and raced to the goal.  Two other defenders came rushing at me.  The keeper’s eyes lit up.  I fired off a shot just as the defenders converged on where the ball had been.  Too late!

It is wrong to suggest to students that they need to speak slowly.  They should pay attention to speed, for sure, and they should be taught how to adjust it for effect.

In my work with teachers around the country, I have seen many different words used to evaluate just the performing part of speaking:

Intonation, elocution, articulation, inflection, expression, enthusiasm, loudly, pitch, rhythm, clearly, slowly, volume, hold head up, body language, posture, tone, eye contact, poise, look at audience, stand up straight, gestures, projection, body movement, enunciation, presence, fluid expression, confidence, interesting voice

You may find more at your school.  Some of these are misguided and some are confusing words for students.  In any case, imagine the difficulty we give our students when we bury them with different descriptors and bad advice.  Let me offer some solutions.

  • Develop a consistent, school-wide language.  When a student moves from grade to grade or from class to class, she 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 enunciation,” and so on.
  • Make sure teachers 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.  Don’t make the performance unimportant; don’t make the performance outweigh lack of content.
  • Use simple language.  “Elocution,” “presence,” “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.
  • Don’t use misleading words.  Think hard about each word as I demonstrated with “loudly” and “slowly.”  “Enthusiasm” is inappropriate in the speech about your grandmother’s death.
  • A speech is for an audience.  The audience opinion must be part of the grade.  Every listener must have some form to score as he or she listens to the speech.  No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest.  Students are very good evaluators and they know poise when they see it, they know if the speech covered the required content.  Additionally, involving the students makes them attentive and critical listeners—something necessary to address the listening part of that CCSS Speaking and Listening standard.
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