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Speech-Teaching Expert: Oral Communication Skills Need More Attention


An education consultant who spent 20 years as a classroom teacher, Erik Palmer wrote the book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students. He chatted with EducationWorld about teaching speaking to students at all grade levels and across all subject areas. This piece, part one of the interview, focuses on why Palmer believes teaching speaking is important. Part two focuses on how teachers can approach speaking instruction in their schools or classrooms. Well Spoken can be purchased through Amazon.

EducationWorld: Tell me how you came to write this book.

Erik Palmer: I have always been a big fan of teaching speaking and in 20 years in the classroom, I taught all different core subjects and all those kids were speaking, but they weren’t speaking well. So, I started teaching my students how to speak well and other people became interested in what I was doing in my class. I had an administrator whose sons went to a different school and she saw what I was doing in my class and said, you need to go work at my son’s school to teach them speaking skills the way you teach it to your class.

That school hired me and was able to give me my first-ever consulting job. I started doing presentations at difference conferences, and a superintendent for a different district asked me if I would come work with teachers in his district. I ended up going down and teaching teachers at their summer academy, and someone at that training said, “Is there a book about this, one that teaches teachers how to teach speaking skills?”

I looked and there wasn’t. There’s nothing on how to teach a classroom teacher how to teach kids to speak better. So, my answer was, “There isn’t, but there will be next year." At that point I sat down and wrote Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking Skills to All Students.


EducationWorld: Why do you think teaching speaking is important?

Palmer: The number one language art is oral communication. We speak way more than we write. All of our important communication is verbal. A resume might get you in the door, but how you speak in the interview gets you the job. Teachers hand out all kinds of materials, but how they speak in the classroom controls the learning in the class. Oral communication is also way more important now than it was because of all the various technologies that are out there to facilitate oral communication.

If you go to conferences and watch people present what their students are doing with digital storytelling, you see all the speaking that occurs. All of these things showcase speaking and most of them are showcasing very mediocre speaking, because we haven’t taught kids how to communicate well. Instead, we’re showing them, click here, click there, press this and record.


EducationWorld: At what age should we start teaching speaking?

Palmer: The minute they start having kids get up in front of the class to talk. I think that every teacher in every subject at every grade level has kids talk. In first grade you have show-and-tell or book reports. If you have kids speaking, you should teach them how to do it before you give them the assignment. You also need to keep teaching speaking as they move through school, including during college.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers does a job outlook every year where all the colleges survey the employers and say “what’s the market?” One of the fields is “Are you hiring this year and if so, what are you looking for in people?” In the Job Outlook 2011, the number one skill employers were looking for was verbal communication – ahead of written communication, ahead of teamwork, ahead of work ethic. It’s the number one skill, and I can’t believe that we have ignored it for so long. 


EducationWorld: Why do you think schools are resistant to teaching speaking?

Palmer: There are two reasons that schools are resistant. One is massive testing, and none of the tests focus on oral language. Because of that there’s all this pressure to prepare for the test. That excludes oral language. I had someone almost bite my head off at a conference because he said “That’s what I don’t have time for.” The teachers are so worried about getting kids ready for standardized tests.

The second objection is that teachers didn’t get into the business because they love speaking. If you line up all the English teachers and ask them “Why do you love teaching English?” you won’t find one of a hundred who will say “because I love speaking.” The answer is because I love poetry or because I had a teacher in fourth grade who made me love writing or because I love reading. You won’t find anyone who says, “I got into this because I love speaking.” It’s kind of our bias as teachers and non-speakers, coupled with the testing, that has pushed speaking to the back burner.

See Part 2 of this interview: How Teachers Can Approach Speaking Instruction.
See EdWorld's book review for Well Spoken.


Article by Daniel B. Kline, EducationWorld Contributing Editor
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