Speaking of . . . Speaking

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Erik Palmer—author of the article “Now Presenting,” which appears in the November 2014 issue of Educational Leadership—explains why schools need to focus on improving students’ speaking skills.

You noticed. When students recited their poems at the end of the poetry unit, you noticed that the recitations were mediocre at best. You noticed that listeners, although polite, were not inspired and that many may well have been thinking that poetry is boring.palmer quote

You noticed that the students’ book reports were flat and that listeners were probably not thinking, “Wow! What a great book! I have to read that!” You noticed that the research presentations seemed to drag on forever, that listeners couldn’t recall many of the facts presented, that some couldn’t even tell you what presentations they heard. You noticed, in whatever class you teach at whatever grade level, that the vast majority of students don’t speak well.

When we notice student weaknesses in most subjects, we have lessons to teach the skill they need. If students make lots of mistakes capitalizing, we have capitalization lessons and practice assignments to teach them how to do better next time. If students don’t follow the correct order of operations in a math equation, we have lessons and offer practice to help them improve.

But, if students speak poorly, we tend to say, “Oh well. That’s just how students speak.” Instead of lessons and practice about how to give an articulate and engaging speech or presentation, we tend to ignore the problem.

At every grade level and in most content areas we can say things like “All our students have a unit on cell structure (or the Bill of Rights or fractions) this year.” I was recently at a school that can say, “All our students have an oral communication unit every year.” Hebron Academy in Maine is rare, I think, in that it has a scaffolded speaking program; all students have instruction and assignments that build effective oral communication skills. Speaking is not an afterthought in some other unit but rather an essential part of the curriculum.

Considering that verbal communication is the most valued language art in the adult world, more schools should follow Hebron Academy’s lead. Oral communication is teachable. Just as we have lessons and activities about comma usage, biomes, and the Civil War before we ever test students on those topics, we should have lessons and activities about gesturing, speaking rate, and adding life to a talk before we ever make students stand and deliver a poem, report, or project.

Students don’t improve simply by standing in front of a class and speaking. You noticed that. It’s time to value oral communication and develop a schoolwide curriculum to address the crucial skills that students need in order to be well spoken.