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May 1, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 8

Speaking Out

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To prepare students for the real world, schools need a bigger focus on oral communication skills.
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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: FATCAMERA / iStock
What did you do at work today?
If you took time to write down all that you did, I'm guessing the list would be quite long. I don't know you, nor do I know what you do, but I know this: you talked. Depending on your job, you may have talked with a student, a group of students, or a classroom full of students. You may have talked to parents, coworkers, or support staff. You may have talked to other educational leaders, the superintendent, or the board of education. If you have a significant other, ask them what they did at work today. I can say with near certainty, without knowing their jobs, that they talked, too.
Oral communication is the number one way people communicate in the workplace. That's true for all businesses and even for international interactions. Once, while doing a presentation in Egypt, I had people from Germany, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Brazil, the Philippines, and the Netherlands in the audience. How did we communicate? Verbally. Luckily for me, spoken English is the currency of international business.
Of course, face-to-face communication is primarily oral, but now, much digital communication is verbal, too. Yes, we use email for short, written, digital communications, but often those emails end with a request to continue the communication by talking online. In those cases, we use many options—such as GoToMeeting, FaceTime, and Zoom—to talk with others virtually. Even before the pandemic, we used digital tools that showcase speaking to share ideas. Employers commonly used Skype or Zoom to conduct interviews. A restaurant owner I talked to in California asked applicants to send in a short video. He could instantly assess their verbal communication skills and weed out less qualified candidates.
With so many devices and a plethora of tools that enable us to talk to others remotely, oral communication is now overwhelmingly on display like never before, and speaking is becoming more dominant than it used to be. Given this context, it's time for education to stop focusing primarily on reading and writing.

The One Skill Every Child Will Need …

People watching media and employment patterns recognize how key effective oral speaking is now. George Anders, a senior editor-at-large at LinkedIn and a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, recently said on a podcast (emphasis mine):
On communication, what we're seeing now is much more of a demand for oral communication rather than written. And that has big implications in our educational system because traditionally we've doubled down on writing skills. We regard that as the hallmark of an educated person. But we're living in the world of podcasts and YouTube and TED talks, and the very fact that we're doing this exchange of ideas via a podcast tells you something.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys businesses every year and produces the annual Job Outlook report. In 2021, the top four skills wanted were ability to work in a team, problem-solving skills, analytical/quantitative skills, and verbal communication skills. Written communication skills were lower on the list. Consider that survey respondents included a broad range of businesses (retail, construction, computing, food and beverage, utilities, and others), and you'll see that speaking well is valued in every occupation.

Effective, engaging speaking gets people to notice you and builds your reputation in any field, attracting all kinds of opportunities.

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Erik Palmer

If educators want to prepare students for college, career and technical education programs, apprenticeships, internships, and more, let's look at the one thread that runs through all of them: speaking. Would you agree with me that people who speak well are more likely to have an easier time and be more successful in their job and in personal relationships than people who speak less well, no matter what life choices they make after school? Effective, engaging speaking gets people to notice you and builds your reputation in any field, attracting all kinds of opportunities.

… Is the Least Taught Language Art

But while oral communication is overwhelmingly the way people communicate, it's difficult to find many teachers, schools, districts, or educational organizations that highly value teaching public speaking. Look at the book catalogs of education organizations. You won't find many books focused on developing well-spoken students. Your school has likely never had professional development about how to improve students' speaking skills. It's hard to find a conference with sessions about how to give students an effective voice in the original meaning of the word. While every educator has activities requiring students to talk, very few have specific lessons designed to teach students how to talk well.
Before an essay is assigned, students generally have lessons to prepare them for writing. We teach about fragments and run-ons and offer sentence-fixing practice activities to reinforce the learning. We teach about capital letters, and students practice capitalizing proper nouns. We have lessons and practice in how to use commas, lessons in subject/verb agreement, lessons in … well, you get the idea. And math? Before we ask students to solve an equation, we provide lessons and practice activities about order of operations, finding common multiples, looking for the least common denominator, and … you get the idea.
Now consider what happens before students give their first oral report in elementary school. Do they have any lessons about how to design a talk for an audience? How to organize the talk with a grabber opening and dynamic closing? How to create powerful visual aids? How to use emphatic hand gestures and facial expressions to enhance the spoken words? How to speak quietly sometimes and loudly at other times for dramatic effect? How to make eye contact to connect with listeners? Did students do any practice activities to work on those skills before showtime? Sadly, usually not.
We can all agree it's unfair to grade students on something we never taught. But I often see scoresheets for oral reports containing phrases like "Gestures (10 points)," although no lesson on using gestures was ever presented. In truth, most educators have a difficult time describing what the elements of effective speaking are. For years, I've asked educators around the country to tell me the specific skills that make good speakers impressive. Many struggle to answer—and those that answer reveal that no consensus exists about the specific things speakers do to work their magic. We can't design lessons to teach what we don't know.

Changing Our Thinking About Speaking

So we have a situation in which most students don't receive adequate preparation to do well at the world's dominant mode of communication. If we want to get students ready for the real world, we must make dramatic changes—starting with realizing that some things should be scraped off our full curricular plates. (Warning, this gets edgy.) I believe that:
  • A child who is taught how to speak well will have many possible career paths available, even if they're not a good reader or writer.
  • A child who never learned about haiku but received specific lessons about how to present well will probably never regret not being taught haiku.
  • Although writing about literature develops thinking and writing skills, and obviously shouldn't be eliminated, no employer will ever ask a graduate to analyze Macbeth. But every day, he'll be asked to talk, informally and formally, to individuals and groups, and present ideas and solutions in speech.
  • While trendy topics like coding and makerspaces get lots of attention, giving students the gift of effective voice will be more valuable to their lives than most of those topics.
While these statements may cause some tension, my point is that to strengthen students' voice, we may have to teach less of certain traditional content—and that's OK. For instance, teachers could replace some repeatedly taught units (my son had units on haiku in five different grades!) with lessons about how to adjust pace and add life to make an orally told story riveting.
If we're going to really prepare students for speaking in all its forms—doing presentations, sharing ideas in meetings, speaking convincingly to customers, talking to a child before handing her car keys for the first time—educators need to get rid of some old ideas. One such idea would be our conviction that reading and writing skills have more inherent value than speaking skills. While reading and writing are important on state tests and in many work settings, they may not be the most important language arts for students once schooling ends.
Another old idea is that speaking well is an innate gift. On the contrary, speaking skills can be taught. All students can improve with instruction. The fear of public speaking is real, but largely comes from having to do something in front of an audience that we don't know how to do. So let's not make students get up in front of the class until we show them specific steps that will make them successful in front of the class.

If we're going to really prepare students for speaking in all its forms, educators need to get rid of some old ideas about what takes precedence in language arts.

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Erik Palmer

Schools need to take bold steps to put more emphasis on speaking skills. There are a few resources specifically designed to show teachers how to teach the skills of effective speaking, such as my book Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014) and the video Listen Up! Speaking Matters, available on ASCD's YouTube channel. If you're acquiring a new language arts program, find one with strong speaking and listening skill instruction—including specific lessons about how to do oral activities well.
Leaders might even task a willing professional learning community with exploring how to teach verbal communication and sharing their learning with all faculty. Part of that work would be to develop a schoolwide language about the skills involved in speaking so students can expect the same terminology as they move from class to class. Consider that teachers generally agree to use standard terms for writing mechanics (like capitalization, not correct upper casing or good use of large and small letters.) Yet each teacher often uses his or her own term for the same key element of speaking, causing confusion. At one school I visited, one teacher's rubric mentioned vocal modulation while three other teachers used the terms inflectionenthusiasm, and expression for the same skill. I suggested they all agree to use the more understandable term life, telling students that speeches come alive when a speaker has life in their voice. (See Figure 1 for a sample checklist with terms all teachers could agree on for elements of good presentation delivery.)
May 2022 Palmer Figure 1
No teacher needs to be responsible for teaching every aspect of speaking, just as no one teacher teaches all the pieces of effective writing. Instead, divide and conquer. Infuse speaking lessons and practice in many areas. In kindergarten, interview students on their birthdays. As they talk about their favorite food or toy, teach them about being sure every listener can hear every word. For the 4th grade oral book report, teach a lesson about adding life so that the exciting parts of the book really seem exciting. For the traditional Supreme Court case presentations in 8th grade social studies, teach a lesson about audience analysis and how to connect with the audience. You'll end up hearing more talks the class actually gets absorbed in than talks where the speaker rotely goes through all elements required to be in the speech. ("The name of my case is … the Amendment involved was … the decision was …)

Time to Give Oral Skills Their Due

It's time to give oral communication skills the emphasis they deserve in our schools. For years we have tolerated mediocre student presentations with an "Oh well, that's just how they talk" attitude. Now it's time to move to "Ah, but that is not how they can talk. Let's give them help." Their lives will be better for it.
End Notes

1 Anders, G. (2019, Oct. 15).Future career skills and preparing students for the workplace. [Podcast]. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2 National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2021). Job outlook 2021 spring update.

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