Debunking Myths Around Speaking Instruction

I struggle to get teachers to understand the difference between speaking activities and speaking lessons.

 All of us have activities to utilize. Students speak informally (discussions, showing solutions at the board, asking questions, group work, and more) and formally (poetry recitations, presentations to the class, and more). What many educators may not realize is that simply making students speak does not prepare them to speak well. If you look with new eyes at students speaking, you will notice that they don’t speak effectively. YouTube is littered with videos that teachers have posted proving this point. The speaking skills of these students are not impressive and demonstrate the need for direct instruction.

I recently ran a MOOC (massive open online course), and teachers from all over the world participated. I started a discussion by asking, “How do you teach speaking?” The worldwide response? Most teachers admit that they explicitly don’t teach speaking. 

Common Myths About Speaking Instruction:    

  • Rubrics Equal Instruction: One of the most common ways teachers attempt to teach speaking skills is by presenting students with an assessment rubric prior to their presentation.  Mentioning criteria warns students about how they will be scored—but is not teaching. An example: a teacher had “presence” on a rubric and awarded up to ten points for it. I mentioned that no one would ever score something that had never been taught. How do you teach presence? You don’t score capitalization until students have had lessons (e.g., use capitals at the start of sentences and for proper nouns) and practice (e.g., a worksheet with errors to correct and/or practice writing sample sentences that call for capital letters). I wanted to see how presence was taught, why it was important, and what practice activities existed. Putting a word on the rubric is not teaching that skill.
  • Modeling Equals Instruction: "I model good speaking and ask them to speak like that.” Watching something is moderately useful, but, again is not teaching. An example: I want students to punctuate well. I hand out an essay that is well punctuated and I tell students, “Punctuate like that author did.” No one would think that is sufficient, and no one would call that teaching punctuation. Odds are that you had a lesson about using commas to separate items in a series (along with a few practice worksheets), a lesson about commas to join independent clauses (with practice activities), and more. Speaking deserves that same level of attention. The same goes for watching great speakers in action. It’s moderately helpful but not direct instruction.
  • Practice Equals Instruction: “I give students time to practice. They practice with peers and get comments.” Practice only makes perfect if you know what to practice and comments from peers are only valuable if the peers know how to help. An analogy: I want students to become great golfers. I hand each one a club and say, “Practice!” and then I put them in groups to watch each other and give advice. Will any of them become proficient? No. Many little lessons are needed: how to grip the club, how to stand, how to take a proper backswing, how to position the ball, and how to roll your wrists at impact. Practice is useful only if you are practicing the skill you have just been taught. 
  • Organization Guides Equal Instruction: “We go over organization; having an introduction, body, and conclusion; using correct grammar; and choosing a good topic.” Fine, if we are talking about writing an essay. Unfortunately, teaching students how to write a talk is not the same as teaching them how to deliver a talk. The lesson here focuses on what to do before students start to speak, rather than what to do during a presentation. In truth, how a talk is presented is more important than how it is written. Great words are lost in poor delivery and great delivery causes us to overlook weak writing. (Great writing plus great delivery? You can run the world.)
  • Feedback Equals Instruction: “I give comments after students speak to highlight good things and bad things. A better approach would involve giving instruction before the talk. Sharing models of speeches where pacing and pauses are used effectively, practicing with little speeches that call for speed variation, recording rough drafts of speeches using easily available digital tools, and critiquing pacing before performance day—that would be teaching speaking. 

I apologize for being so critical, but this is a high-stakes game. In a world where oral communication is the number one way of communicating, we have to give more emphasis to speaking instruction. In a world with digital tools designed to use and showcase verbal communication, we must prepare students to use those tools well. We have to look at our language arts instruction with new eyes, too. We’ll see that we have opportunities to improve speaking instruction, opportunities to develop well-spoken students.

Erik Palmer spoke with HMH at the 2017 ILA conference about the importance of teaching speaking skills. Hear our Facebook Live interview with Erik here.