Thursday, February 2, 2012

Giving students the tools to become stronger, more confident speakers

This past Tuesday, my English department spent our in-service day discussing oral communication skills. We started with a discussion of Erik Palmer's Well Spoken. After reading some good reviews of Palmer's book (and seeing that Kelly Gallagher wrote the foreword), I purchased and read the book last spring and then recommended it to my department chair. She then purchased copies for every teacher in our department, and we decided the book would become the focus of a department workshop. We worked together to create what became a very productive in-service.

There are a plethora of books on public speaking out there, and as a Speech & Debate teacher and coach, I've read (and own) many of them. Palmer's new book is perhaps the best resource for teachers of any content area. It is concise (only 148 pages), clear, and organized, with practical ideas and suggestions that can easily be implemented into any classroom, not just English classrooms. The question of how to teach oral communication skills more effectively seems to come up quite a bit in my English department, and Palmer's book is the perfect little handbook full of answers and ideas to get teachers started! (You can also check out Palmer's website.)

Here are some highlights and additional thoughts on teaching public speaking skills in the classroom:

  • I have heard a lot of teachers complain about how their students lack presentation skills. Others are noticing, too. In his introduction, Palmer discusses the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey. The results of "NACE's Job Outlook 2011 survey suggest that 'New college graduates looking to crack the still-tight job market need to hone their verbal communication skills...verbal communication skills topped the list of 'soft' skills they seek in new college graduates'" (5).  Palmer goes on to discuss similar findings in a survey of 104 Silicon Valley employers. Perhaps the most striking observation is that "employers sought improved oral presentation skills more frequently than they did written skills" (6). We need to readjust our thinking and teaching of oral communication and presentation skills. Instead of thinking "the presentations are so bad," we need to think about how we can better teach the skills. Also, we must provide opportunities for students to present and improve. The weak skills will not magically improve if students are only giving presentations once or twice a year, or even just once a quarter. Instead of thinking of presentations as an "add on" to our curriculum, we need to consistently integrate speaking opportunities. And not all speaking opportunities need to be formal. Think-Pair-Share discussions, group discussions, whole-class discussions, Socratic Seminars, group presentations, informal and/or impromptu presentations...all of these provide opportunities for students to practice their skills!
  • Students also need an opportunity to reflect on their presentations. It's one thing for a student's teacher and peers to tell him/her what they need to work on, but it's a whole new, more meaning experience when a student sees these areas for him/herself! Palmer suggests that students tape themselves at home. I encourage teachers to videotape presentations in class! Aside from providing meaningful opportunities for students to practice their presentation skills, I believe that videotaping presentations, and having students watch and reflect on their presentations, is the best way for students to work on and improve their presentations skills. I record presentations in my Speech & Debate class (and team), of course, but I also record presentations my English 10 and IB English I students deliver. At first, students can be a bit anxious about the idea that their presentations are being videotaped, but they quickly see the incredible value of videotaped presentations! Students watch their video and write a critique in which they focus on their strengths and weaknesses and create goals for future presentations. NOTE: Be sure to include a statement and explanation about videotaped presentations in your course policies/syllabus! 
  • We need to create a culture of comfort in our classrooms. Students need opportunities to practice their presentations skills, and they need to have a safe, comfortable environment in which to do so. There are many things that go into creating a "culture of comfort." Always starting with positive comments is essential to creating a "safe zone" in the classroom. Palmer tacks this idea on as almost an afterthought in his discussion of creating a "safe space": "Finally, let students know that positive comments are appreciated" (101; emphasis added). Starting with positive comments should be the first step in creating and maintaining a safe zone in the classroom. Not only do I require students to start positive when giving oral critiques, but they also have to start with positive comments when they write critiques of their own presentations. It makes a difference for confidence and comfort in the classroom.
  • Students need to understand that visual aides must enhance presentations in order to be effective. All too often, students get so excited about creating their visual, be it a Power Point or a poster, and they start planning the visual before they plan their message! Palmer has a great chapter about using visual aids. I'll just add a helpful tip our librarians share with our students: the "10/20/30 rule" for Power Point presentations. 10/20/30: No more than 10 slides. No more than 20 words per slide. Size-30 font.
  • Assessing presentations--Palmer emphasizes the importance of teaching and evaluating content and delivery separately, and he provides some helpful rubrics as well as some critiques of rubrics. As Palmer points out, though, "not all speeches have to include all elements of effective oral communication" (114). You can add skills onto the rubric as they're covered and practiced. You can even let students decide which elements they want to be assessed on based on their goals from their critiques. 
There is so much more I can say about the importance of public speaking and our responsibility as educators to incorporate meaningful presentations opportunities into our class activities and lessons! I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, and ideas! I'll plan to share some public speaking teaching tips every now and then in my blog posts.

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