How to Empower Reading Intervention Students to Present Oral Arguments

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and SNAP!—the job’s a game.” —Mary Poppins

When I was doing volunteer work with a local high school forensics team, I saw firsthand the transformation students underwent when they discovered their power to command a room while speaking. I noted the sense of confidence and empowerment these teens discovered as they practiced and competed. I wondered if this skillset was something I could transfer into my work with striving readers. 

My fourth grade literacy intervention students were still mastering basic phonics and had become experts at trying to stay invisible in their homeroom classes. They did not see themselves as capable and certainly did not believe they had anything worth saying—especially for an audience of their peers. We had just completed a System 44 assignment on argument writing. The question they were answering was whether losing could make someone better at sportsmanship. My students had collaborated diligently on this topic, finding and quoting text evidence and then putting the evidence into their own words. I was proud of their efforts but wondered what would happen if I could break that wall of silence and help them orally present their arguments to their classmates.  

I spoke with the forensics coach and sought her input. Together, we identified a few basic forensics techniques that I could demonstrate and teach my students. Here are the essential oral presentation techniques we came up with: 

  • Get into a power stance: Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, head up, spine neutral, and take a deep breath. In this position, the audience can sense that you are strong and centered. You are standing on your own two feet and cannot be shaken. I explained that if I approached someone in a power stance, I would not easily be able to push them over.
  • Own the room: Sweep the room with your eyes, establishing eye contact with the members of your audience. I explained that this is something students observe their teachers doing all day long. It establishes a connection with your audience. It lets the audience know you see them and expect them to listen.
  • Start strong: Deliver your first sentence with inflection and conviction (e.g., “I firmly believe that losing helps a person develop better sportsmanship”). And while delivering that first sentence, make sure you continue to hold eye contact with your audience. This gets you off to a great start. 
  • Know your points: Know your best pieces of evidence and how to say them in your own words. Practice them until you are comfortable sharing them.
  • Thank your audience: This lets your listeners know you appreciate them.

After some concentrated practice time, lots of laughter, and whole-group warmups, I took my first volunteer. Kalia approached the front of the room with her eyes downcast and her shoulders hunched. I urged her into the “power stance” we had practiced, and she repositioned herself and took a deep breath. I encouraged her to “own the room” and deliver her first statement. She did exactly that, and a look of shock crossed her face as she turned to me. “Whoa!”, she exclaimed, “I totally felt the power…it feels great!” She started over and finished presenting her argument. She paused for one last sweep of the room with her eyes, thanked her audience, and returned to her seat with her head up—and the world’s biggest smile of satisfaction on her face. 

After that, it was Kalia who urged her classmates to try these techniques and feel the power for themselves. One by one, each student discovered his or her own ability to command an audience and articulate ideas and opinions. After that, students could not wait for the argument writing that happened with each module. There was a growing confidence that the students developed during that school year, and it was gratifying to see how it manifested itself in the years ahead. Some of these very students signed up for the school oral interpretation team, joined the school choir, and auditioned (and were cast!) in school drama productions.

By expanding their genuine reading experiences into performance-related tasks, these students soon conquered phonics and developed mastery of the system of sounds and letters. By exercising the forensics techniques they had learned, they found that they not only had a voice but also something worth saying.

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Learn more about HMH's System 44 blended literacy intervention program, which for 10 years has provided the foundational tools students need to achieve success in school and life.

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