Looking Into Education’s Crystal Ball

(Larry Ferlazzo is an educator worth following. He collects, curates, and shares great ideas from educators around the world and contributes brilliant ideas of his own as well. He asked educators to predict the future, and included this comment from me. This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here. –Erik Palmer)

Response From Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver who ran a commodity brokerage firm before spending 21 years as a classroom teacher. Palmer is the author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World: How do I teach my students to conduct quality online research? (ASCD, 2015), and Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2011). Learn more about Erik’s work at www.pvlegs.com or connect with him on Twitter @erik_palmer:

Oral communication will be by far the number one language art taught.

Actually, it is the most important and most used language art now, but we fail to recognize that. In the near future, speaking and listening will so dominant that it will be impossible to not realize their importance. How will people communicate? By writing? Nope, by Skype 4.0 or FaceTime 6.0 or ThisIsBetter 7.37. How will people text? By thumbing a small keyboard? Nope, by talking the message. How will people communicate internationally? By writing and email? A little, but mostly by speaking. Some will use digital tools such as WhatsApp 8.9 or GoToMeeting 11.14 or NotYetInvented 7.2. Some will speak their native language into a translation app and play the audio translation for foreign listeners. How will people get hired? By analyzing a novel well? Nope, by speaking well. The resume you speak into a resume-creating app will get you in the door, but your speaking will get you the job. The hiring process will involve digital speaking tools: interviews are now being done over Skype; voice-analyzing software will be a big part of hiring decisions. How will people write? By typing on a keyboard or mobile device? Nope, by speaking into voice-to-text apps. How will we research? By verbally asking a device a question and listening to the answer. You can read more of my predictions here.

Of course, all of those are happening now so it is not very bold to suggest that our future will see more verbal communication tools and an increase in their prominence. What is bold is say that we should decrease emphasis on haiku and increase emphasis on speaking. No one will ever say, “Palmer, fire off a haiku to our affiliate in Beijing,” but every day of our lives how we speak will matter. Oddly, my son had haiku units in five different grades but never had one oral communication unit. Yes, after the haiku unit, he was asked to get up and say a haiku poem, but he was never taught how to say that poem well. Lessons about word choice, yes. Lessons about syllables, yes. Lessons about where to put commas, yes. Lessons about adding life to the voice, no. Lessons about speeding up and slowing down for effect, no. Lessons about descriptive hand gestures or body gestures or facial gestures, no.

It is already true that the odds of professional and social success dramatically improve if you are well spoken. In twenty years, those who speak well will have an even bigger advantage. At some point, schools will be forced to pay attention to this reality. The favorite lessons teachers have trotted out for the last fifty or sixty years will go away, and curricula will be adjusted to specifically teach the most important language art, speaking, as much as the language arts of reading and writing. 

Copyright Erik Palmer


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Creating an argument worth delivering

[Originally published in a blog at Stenhouse Publishers: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ]

A fairly typical classroom current events discussion:

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

            Yes, they should! Football is fun!!

            Denver won the Super Bowl!

            Yes! That was a great game.

            But kids get hurt playing football.

            I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous.

            My cousin broke his knee playing soccer.

And so it goes. Fairly random statements. Kids spouting opinions. How can we improve upon this type of discussion? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

You are probably being asked to give more attention to argumentative and persuasive writing and speaking. Has your school or district provided resources and/or training to help you with this? When I ask that question at workshops I lead, by far the most common answer is “No.” It is grossly unfair to ask teachers to teach something without giving them resources and training to do so, but unfortunately, it is quite common. How can we help students with argumentative assignments? By specifically teaching some good thinking skills.

Let’s start with the most fundamental piece of good thinking, the argument. What is an argument?

That seems like a pretty easy question, but do an experiment. Ask the teachers at your school to write down an answer without using a dictionary or searching online. You won’t get the same answer twice. We all sort of know what an argument is and it seems like a common term, but we don’t have an exact, agreed upon definition. You will see claim, warrant, reason, plausible argument, stance, strong reasons, position, conclusion, facts, details, quotes, evidence, backing, premise, correct logic, logical progression of ideas, statement, thesis, and various other related terms. No agreement. Competing ways to say the same thing. Confusing to students and adults. Because all of our students have heard the word before, too, we think they understand when we say, “Analyze the argument…” or “Write an argument supporting…” but they really don’t. Ask students to define argument. You’ll see what I mean.

Don’t think that because words are recognizable, they are understood. Argument, persuasion, evidence, and reasoning are common words (rhetoric less so), but that doesn’t mean students (or teachers) can master them without direct instruction. I wrote Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning to give teachers an understandable, practical way to teach students these important skills. There are some core principles in the book.

  • A common language is important. Shifting vocabulary from class to class, grade to grade is not OK. “Position with reasons and quotes” in English and “Conclusion with warrants and backing” in social studies and “Opinion with evidence” in health is not optimal for students.
  • Take nothing for granted. Define and teach “argument.” Explicitly explain the steps needed to build an argument. Teach five types of evidence and give students practice finding them. Teach persuasive techniques and give students practice with them. Teach grade appropriate rhetorical techniques and give students practice.
  • Every discussion, every book, every news story, every math problem, every “Can we go outside?” is an opportunity to teach good thinking. You have activities that can be tweaked to make all of the needed teaching possible, workable, and even fun.
  • Teaching students about argument, persuasion, and reasoning will benefit them for their entire lives. Knowing how to evaluate and create these will be important every day in their professional and social lives.

Let’s start building that common language. In Good Thinking, I offer this definition of argument:

An argument is a series of statements leading to a conclusion.

This is an important definition that will ultimately make life much easier. If we get in the habit of using this definition, thinking improves. Some examples:

Example #1:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting argument. What is the reason you said that?

Error #1: That is not an argument, Teacher. That is a conclusion. It is the end product of some line of thinking, the last piece of some argument.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

Error #2:  Imprecise language can lead to misunderstanding.

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What is the reason you said that?

  Student: Because you asked me to tell you what I thought about football.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements would lead us to that conclusion.

Example #2:

Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. Give me two reasons for that.

 Student: My cousin got a concussion. Football is a dumb game.

Error #3: Why two? What if it takes more statements to lead to the conclusion? Never put a number on this.

Error #4: The student gave two statements but how do they add up to “Don’t let kids play football”? Your cousin got a concussion. So? The student hasn’t built an argument yet, but has given random statements. Don’t be satisfied with this.


Student: I think we shouldn’t let kids play football.

 Teacher: That is an interesting conclusion. What statements led you to that conclusion?

Student: Football has a lot of violent contact. Sometimes that contact causes kids to get concussions. Concussions can cause big problems. So we shouldn’t let kids play football.

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

With consistent, precise language, students know what is required, and quickly get the idea of how to build an argument.

There are some simple steps we can take to teach students to build a good argument. First, of course, give them the precise definition: statements leading to a conclusion. Then, offer the same sort of little lessons you use for all other subjects. Before we ask students to write a paragraph, we have been clear about the pieces needed, and we (or someone before us) taught specific lessons on each of those pieces. We taught sentence structure and gave students practice activities with fragments and run-ons. We taught topic sentences, supporting sentences, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, and so on. Let’s do the same with argument.

Let students practice with three-step arguments (syllogisms, if you want to use the language of logicians). These little exercises [See the Stenhouse blog to see the exercises: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] get students thinking about how to make statements that lead us to some conclusion. The first one is a completed example. Students can fill in the others. Note: there is no one answer. One student could say, “Students can’t think well when they are fidgety. Recess gets rid of fidgety. So we need more recess.” Another might suggest, “Childhood obesity is a problem. Recess provides calorie burning activity. So we need more recess.” In some cases, a statement is offered and students need to come up with another statement and a conclusion. Again, there is no one answer. “The U.S. spends billions on defense. We have never been invaded. Therefore, we should keep spending.” Or, alternatively, “The U.S. spends billions on defense. Lots of that money is wasted. Therefore, we don’t need to spend that much.”

Some arguments need more than two statements to get us where we want to be. I use this example in the book:

            Schools should model healthy lifestyles for children.

            The French fries the cafeteria serves are full of fat and calories.

            Fat and calories contribute to overweight kids.

            Childhood obesity is a problem.

            Therefore, we should stop selling fries in our cafeteria.

 We can use a graphic organizer such as the one below. [See the Stenhouse blog for the organizer: http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2016/07/07/blogstitute-2016-elements-of-a-good-argument/ ] Statements leading to a conclusion are represented by steps for us to get across the bridge. Put up some conclusions and let students practice building the bridge:

           The United States should ban handguns.

            Homework should be abolished.

            Plants are good for people.

            All squares are rectangles.

How many boards do you need?

The trick is to be sure that each board is needed. An example:

           The United States leads the world in handgun deaths.

            There are many kinds of hand guns.

            The high number of deaths is the result of how easy it is to get a handgun.

            If people couldn’t get handguns, they couldn’t kill someone with a handgun.

            The United States should ban handguns.

Which one of those statements does not help us get to the conclusion? Make sure you have students critique each other’s arguments checking to see if statements are missing and if all the statements are needed.

Arguments should be supported so we are tasked with teaching how to evaluate and use evidence. I ask teachers how they teach evidence and this is a typical response: “I tell students to add facts, evidence, etc.” Actually, facts are one type of evidence and I’m pretty sure “etc.” means “I don’t know anything else.” Do all of your students understand that there are types of evidence? How do you teach those? Let me guess: you have been given no materials and had no training about this, either.

Let’s go back to the football argument. We left off here:

Teacher: I see. Well that does add up, for sure. Those statements would lead me to your conclusion and make me think your conclusion is correct.

Here’s how that discussion should continue:

Teacher: Now we have an argument. But it seems some of your statements need support. “…causes kids to get concussions?” Do you have any evidence for that? “Concussions can cause big problems?” Do you have evidence for that?

I fear that most often when teachers ask for “evidence,” they mean “find me the place in the reading where it said that.” That is asking for the source, not for “evidence.” Another fear is that teachers give the impression that “quote” equals “evidence.” Too often, we say, “You need some evidence for that. Can you find the quote in the book where that was said?” I get really picky about imprecise language. Muddied vocabulary leads to muddied thinking. Students can get confused or, worse, misled.

I talk much more about evidence in the book, but alert readers will get a pretty good sense of the five types of evidence from the question the teacher asks:

Teacher: Can you give us a number of how many concussions occur? Do you have any facts about how concussions affect the brain? Can you tell us more about the example of your cousin and how he was affected? Is there a quote from some doctor who agrees with you? Can you make an analogy perhaps about how concussions are like hitting a car windshield in a car wreck?

That wasn’t so hard, was it? We change our language to be consistent and specific, and we teach a couple of mini-lessons just as we do with every other subject. We are well on the way to having arguments supported with evidence. A little upfront investment in teaching these skills will make so many things better in your class and beyond. Look back at the discussion that opened this article. With lessons about argument and evidence, discussions such as that are transformed.

Kids shouldn’t be allowed to play football.

Why would you say that? [Student version of “what statements lead to that conclusion?”]

 Kids get hurt playing football. [Nice! Student gives a statement of the argument!]

I play football and I didn’t get hurt. That’s ridiculous. [Direct challenge of the statement.]

You are one example only. Lots of articles talk about the number of concussions kids get.

Denver won the Super Bowl!

Where did that come from? What does that statement have to do with this argument?

Notice the improvement? The lessons we teach will spill over into every part of your class. I hope the lessons spill over into every part of our lives. I don’t know about you, but the election season drives me crazy.  Seems lots of candidates count on us not being able to recognize good thinking. Make sure your students don’t end up in that group!

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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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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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