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November 2014 | Volume 72 | Number 3
Talking and Listening
How are students supposed to become proficient at speaking if we don't teach them how?
Despite all the speaking that students do in class—in informal discussions and formal presentations, when sharing solutions to problems, asking questions, and working in groups—we have to admit that they don't speak all that well.
Typically, our expectations are low. We sit through mediocre book reports and think, "Oh well, that's just how kids speak." We hear poor student explanations of science fair projects and reason, "It's the project that matters, not how well it's presented." We post a video to YouTube with students speaking poorly and kid ourselves by saying, "Hey, that's authentic speech!" Daily, we accept oral communication that's far below what our students are capable of—and far below what we should accept.
Look at it with fresh eyes. How often do most students zone out when their classmates are speaking? Can you blame them? How often do you have a hard time staying focused when listening to poor speakers?
We undercut many of our activities by not teaching effective speaking skills first. Reader's theater is ineffective if students speak poorly. Poetry recitations are death without strong oral communication skills. Book reports bore classmates and ruin interest in the books presented. Formal presentations about a Supreme Court case or health issue waste classmates' time unless the presentations are engaging enough to command interest.
Everything you do in your class would improve if students spoke better. Students would be more engaged and learn more from one another, discussions would be more productive, and groups would function more smoothly because students would be better able to express their ideas.
In an article about writing instruction, Carol Jago (2014) recently wrote,
If we expect students to learn to write, we need to teach them how. This means embedding in our practice daily opportunities for students to write, combined with deliberate instruction about the moves good writers make as they compose.
I'd argue that we need to do the same thing for speaking. Let's revisit Jago's statement, substituting the term speaking for writing:
If we expect students to learn to speak, we need to teach them how. This means embedding in our practice daily opportunities for students to speak, combined with deliberate instruction about the moves good speakers make as they talk.
The fact is, we do expect students to learn to speak—we just don't teach them how.
Let me suggest three reasons that may explain why we fail to teach speaking skills.
We can't deny it. We teach to the test. At my wife's school, the test preparation packet comes out a month before the big test is given in March, and most teachers diligently go through the packet. And, of course, well before that, teachers are thinking about the state assessment. Speaking skills aren't tested.
At a conference at which I was presenting, when I said we should teach speaking skills, one teacher exclaimed, "That's what I don't have time for!" She was angry that I suggested it. Like many other teachers, she struggles daily to get her students proficient in writing and reading because those scores will be recorded and reported.
New assessments may push us to pay attention to oral language. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) have been considering speaking assessments. We should be more motivated, however, out of concern for our students' future. In life beyond school, oral communication is highly valued. In fact, in the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Job Outlook Survey 2013, the highest rated skill was "the ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization" (p. 31).
When students come into your classroom, they know how to speak. Sometimes we struggle to get them to stop talking. It's easy to assume that they don't need instruction.
But is the ability to utter words the same as effective oral communication? Students come into our classrooms able to read and write, but we don't think, "Oh, they've got those down! I'll just move on to something else." We notice that although they can read and write at some level, we need to help them improve their skills. Similarly, although students can speak at some level, we need to help them hone that skill.
The truth is, we're not sure we can teach students how to master oral communication. Indeed, many teachers are uncomfortable as speakers themselves and panic at back-to-school nights, award assemblies, job interviews, and retirement dinners. No teacher preparation program offers classes about how to teach speaking, few schools or districts offer training on the topic, and few professional conferences include sessions about oral communication.
This absence is reflected systemwide. Many districts have a reading specialist, a writing specialist, a math specialist, a science specialist, and so on. But I've never worked with a district that had a speaking specialist. (Speech therapists are in a different category entirely.)
Look at your school's curriculum. Almost every school has a scope and sequence for reading, math, writing, and other subjects. Not one has a scope and sequence for developing well-spoken students. In other words, when teachers realize that they've never been trained to educate students in oral communication, they find that their district has neither people nor resources on hand that can help them learn how to teach those skills.
As an organization, commit to valuing oral communication and increasing your expectations of students, and agree to be more purposeful in addressing deficiencies. Develop a districtwide or schoolwide scope and sequence for speaking. Offer workshops to train teachers in how to teach oral communication. Include speaking skills on proficiency reports or report cards.
This is not an unrealistic demand. All teachers have oral activities in their classrooms, so nothing is being added to their already overcrowded plates. We simply need to be more attentive to those activities and to raise our standards for the way students speak.
Most important, let students know that you value oral communication every time they speak. Asking a question in class, working with others, recording the screencast, presenting the report—if students are speaking, they need to know that how they're speaking matters.
Ask the teachers in your school to bring in all their rubrics that award points for presentation. Make a list of the terms used: neat poster, adequate evidence, posture, inflection, expression, articulation, vocal modulation, eye contact, and so on. Write them all down.
First, note the lack of consistency. The language changes from class to class and from grade to grade. Next, discuss which terms are unclear to students (and to teachers). Indeed, many common terms are bad advice. For example, teachers commonly put "Speak slowly" on rubrics, but many speeches would be enhanced by a fast pace in parts (Palmer, 2014). Finally, agree to develop some consistent language. An effective mnemonic that I've developed—P.V. Legs—has worked for many teachers:
Use P.V. LEGS or develop your own school's version of multiple-trait speaking. Insist that teachers use the same language from grade to grade to enable students to understand what's required every time they open their mouths.
We assign speaking, but we don't teach speaking. Ask an English teacher to show you his lessons about topic sentences. He'll be happy to comply. Ask a science teacher to show you her lessons about cell division. She'll show you specific readings, media items, and handouts.
Now ask a teacher to show you his lessons on eye contact—or her lessons on expression. Neither will have any materials on these; neither will have taught these topics. They may think these things can't be taught. Eye contact? You can't teach that; you just have to tell students to do it! The truth is that every part of P.V. LEGS is teachable.
All oral communication has two distinct stages: building the talk and performing the talk. Teachers are quite good at defining for students how they should build the talk—that is, defining the content the talk should include. Also, most rubrics are overweighted in favor of how well-built the talk is.
But great content has no value if it's not delivered well, so here I focus on the performing part of speaking. You can use P.V. LEGS to teach students steps toward mastery in performing (Palmer, 2011).
We need to hear every word you say. That means speaking loud enough for all to hear. You don't have to shout. You just have to speak loud enough. Mumbling is not OK because we won't be able to hear all the words.
That was a good question, Trevor.
I heard every word, Jude.
Thank you for looking at the speaker, Precious.
Did Angel demonstrate voice? What should he do?
When you emphasize voice in this way, students see that making every word heard is valued in every situation.
If teachers explicitly teach these skills, when it's time for students to give a big presentation, the students will know what's required and will have had the opportunity to practice good speaking along the way. They will have made steps toward becoming effective oral communicators.
Not long ago, I got a call from a university president who wanted me to work with the faculty to show them how to develop better speakers. It seemed that the seniors giving their seminar presentations were so inept at speaking that he felt it made the school look bad.
These students had been speaking in school since kindergarten. Every year for the 15 years that followed, they had engaged in verbal activities in their classrooms—yet they never developed as speakers. Students don't master what isn't taught. We've shortchanged our students. We've failed to give them an effective voice. We need to change this—now.
Jago, C. (2014). Writing is taught not caught. Educational Leadership, 71(7), 17–21.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2013, October). Job outlook 2013. Bethlehem, PA: Author.
Palmer, E. (2011). Well spoken: Teaching speaking to all students. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Palmer, E. (2014). Teaching the core skills of listening and speaking. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Erik Palmer is an educational consultant and book author. His most recent book is Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014).
Copyright © 2014 by ASCD
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