by Erik Palmer
“I just watched our seniors present their capstone projects. They were unimpressive presentations, to say the least. Frankly, I’m worried that they make our school look bad.”
Those were the words of the president of a small university when he called to ask me to work with his faculty. The seniors had to present their final project to classmates as well as a broader audience, including community members. The content didn’t worry the president, but the lack of effective oral communication skills certainly did. Unlike many administrators and educators, he was able to take an objective look at student performance. Among the things valued in the university’s mission statement were presentation skills, but he realized that they were only paying lip service to that goal.
How is it possible that students in their 17th year of schooling can be so unimpressive when asked to speak? In kindergarten they talked at circle time; in 1st grade they shared at show & tell; in 2nd and 3rd grade they did book shares; in 5th grade they presented their biome dioramas; in 7th grade they participated in poetry café; in 8th grade they did mock trials; in high school they presented lab reports, research results, biography projects, DECA projects. In other words, at every grade level, students were forced to speak—sometimes formally, most often informally, but they had to say something. Sometimes teachers even gave comments after the students finished.
So why didn’t students master oral communication?
Here is one answer: assigning speeches does not equal teaching speaking. If we were as honest as that university professor, we would realize that we accept mediocre speaking, and we only pay lip service to the importance of oral language. We do not specifically and systematically teach speaking skills. Every school at every level claims to value oral communication and presentation skills. Some schools say they teach presentation skills. But do they?
Is there a consistent schoolwide language and coherent method for understanding the components of effective verbal communication?
Are there series of lessons that follow a logical, scaffolded pattern leading to good speaking in all of its forms?
Does every teacher have the same rubric with the same language so that students know their speaking will matter and be consistently evaluated in every subject at every grade level?
I haven’t found one school that can answer yes to all of those questions. Lip service, indeed. We don’t develop effective communication skills by making students get up in front of the class every once in a while and then handing them a score sheet with various descriptors.
A 10th grade teacher assigns a five-paragraph persuasive essay. That is fair because the 9th grade teacher had lessons about thesis statements; the 8th grade teacher had lessons about supporting statements with reasons and evidence; the 7th grade teacher taught word choice and powerful verbs; the 6th grade teacher taught topic sentences and effective endings; the 5th grade teacher taught about sentence fragments and run-ons; and every teacher taught spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and all the other basic lessons that build writing skills.
Change the assignment. Make it a five-minute speech instead. At what grade level were students introduced to speeding up or slowing down for dramatic effect and given small practice speeches about exciting events so that they could become competent shifting speeds when required? At what grade level did students get specific lessons about eye contact, its importance, and practice to improve it? At what grade level . . . Well, you get the idea.
As I said, teachers probably made some sort of comment at some point about some aspect of speaking, but a series of random comments over the years is not a commitment to presentation skills. Lip service is not an oral language curriculum. When we consider how many digital tools are designed to put oral communication on display, it becomes more critical to develop speaking skills. Podcasts, videos, video conferences, webinars, Skype, online narrated slideshows—effective speaking is in high demand. In my recent webinar, Digitally Speaking: Creating Exceptional Podcasts, Videos, and More, I go over more ways to teach these skills.
The good news: oral communication can be taught, students can do much better than we currently accept, and speaking-skill lessons are easy to add because our classes are already verbal. All it takes is a commitment to learn how to teach speaking and how to use the tools available today to develop competent communicators.
Enough lip service! Let’s get serious about how students speak, communicate, and present themselves!
Erik Palmer is a professional speaker and educational consultant from Denver, Colorado, whose passion for speaking has been part of every one of his careers. He spent 21 years in the classroom in the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, Colo., 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). He is also author of Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students 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
Teaching Oral Communication Skills; image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad