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Speech-Teaching Expert: Integrate Speaking Skills Into Classroom Instruction

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 two of the interview, focuses on how to go about teaching speaking in your school or classroom. Part one focuses on why Palmer believes teaching speaking is important. Well Spoken can be purchased through Amazon.

EducationWorld: How do you win administrators over and get them to see the value of teaching speaking in school?

Erik Palmer: It’s easy to win administrators over because I think administrators see the importance in the big picture and I think there’s sort of a movement now about “real world preparation” and “workplace readiness.” These are terms that show up now. So, it’s easy to convince administrators to get your foot in the door, but then you have to talk to the teachers and that can be where the resistance can be because “it’s not on the test.”

EducationWorld: If I wanted to add a speaking curriculum in my school, where should I start?

Palmer: It’s not a matter of adding a speaking curriculum because every teacher has speaking activities. The problem is that it’s all haphazard. I was working with a fourth-grade team at a school here recently, and all four of the teachers had agreed to do a historical book share. They all agreed it would be an oral presentation and that the kids would dress up as characters from the book, but all four of them had different rubrics. There was no consistency. So, it’s not a matter of introducing a separate curriculum. It’s a matter of taking what we’re doing now and doing it more consistently and more purposefully.

EducationWorld: So, we’re doing it, but we’re not doing it correctly? We’re focused solely on the content and not enough on the speaking?

Palmer: Absolutely. It’s an afterthought, and then you create your rubric for the one speech a year that you have. When you create it, you think, well, “Eye contact, I know that one counts,” and “Hold your head up.” We all sort of know that we should evaluate speaking but nobody exactly knows, and there’s no consistency through a school or even a grade level as far as implementation.

EducationWorld: Explain the balance between teaching delivery and teaching students how to actually create good content.

Palmer: You do it the same way you do in writing instruction. You spend time focusing on the skill that’s needed with the child and the class, and certainly teachers have lessons on improving the content of their writing. We talk about adding details and adding richness, and then at some other point you’ll have a lesson on punctuation, capitalization. It’s a matter of spending time focused on all the skills involved in some systematic way. There are some kids who have great ideas but hideous mechanics and some kids who spell things perfectly, but have nothing to say. We have activities to bring all of them along, and I think all of them also relate to speaking.

EducationWorld: Some kids, and frankly some adults, are just simply afraid of the concept of speaking in public. How do you help kids who have “stage fright”?

Palmer: I think it’s a bigger picture. There are kids who dread everything. When I was in school I dreaded art because I had no artistic ability. I went to art, though, and I became better. For some reason we give a little more power to the fear of speaking. Yes, there are some kids who hate speaking, but that shouldn’t change our instruction.

The reason, though, that some kids hate speaking is because no one taught them how to do it. I was flying in a two-seater, single-engine, propeller plane with an older gentleman as the pilot. I had the thought while we were flying of “What if this guy has a heart attack?” I was panicked, because I don’t know how to fly a plane. If someone had taught me, at least I would know I could land the thing.

So, I think the fear of speaking is somewhat like my fear of flying. If someone teaches you how to do it, then that fear goes away. It’s just patently unfair to say that “in three weeks you’ll be doing your historical fiction book share” and I’ll grade you on speaking, but I’ll give you zero lessons beforehand that will enable you to practice for that speech.

Related resources

See part 1 of this interview: Why Teaching Speaking is Important.
See EdWorld's book review for Well Spoken.


Article by Daniel B. Kline, EducationWorld Contributing Editor
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