The Importance of Public Speaking Skills for Students

What is the most important language art?

It seems that when teachers hear “language arts,” they immediately think “reading and writing.” This reveals a serious blind spot. We seem to ignore what is really the most important language art: speaking. (Feel free to argue with me about whether speaking is truly the most important, but do not feel free to leave speaking out of the discussion.)

Why Is Public Speaking Important for Students?

Most adults fear public speaking, yet at the same time, everyone seems to love talking. I see people on their cellphones chatting nonstop, and some people at faculty meetings go on and on. But when the stakes are raised—interview, presentation, eulogy, Back-to-School Night—we panic. Your students may very well feel the same way in the classroom and beyond.

Before you add oral communication into your classroom instruction, it’s important to understand the importance of public speaking skills for students and why it should be a part of your curriculum.

1. Speaking is the number one way we communicate.

Oral communication is by far the number-one way we communicate. Think of your day. Do you spend more time writing or speaking? Reading or speaking? How would your class function without speaking? Isn’t it overwhelmingly the way you share information with students and set the class atmosphere? Isn’t it the number-one way you communicate with teammates, family, and friends? That’s just in the “in-person” world, but let’s also look at the world of technological devices—your phone, FaceTime, Skype, even virtual classrooms. Close to 100% of the learning environment involves speaking.

2. Classroom activities improve when students speak better.

Teachers often have students talk as an afterthought to some assignment, yet offer no lessons about how to speak well. Can you point to specific instruction you gave to students about the elements of effective speaking, or how you taught “presence”? Body language is also important, but have you taught that? How about a lesson on pacing or connecting a talk to a specific audience?

Read-alouds make books come alive and inspire an interest in reading when done well. Poems, written with the sound of words in mind, become worth listening to if they are recited well. Presentations that don't bore classmates, who remember none of what was presented a day or even an hour later, become something worth striving for. Discussions are more engaging when ideas are presented passionately and coherently. With improved oral communication skills, we won’t suffer through student speaking activities but will enjoy the talks.

3. We make students talk—but don’t teach them how to talk well.

The minute students begin writing, we start offering instruction. We offer comments, lessons, and practice about how to make letters, spell, punctuate, and capitalize. We have specific lessons about run-ons, fragments, word choice, topic sentences, commas after an introductory phrase, commas to separate items in a series, commas to join independent clauses, and other aspects of writing. Just as we teach elements of writing, we must teach the elements of speaking. We comment on student speech: “Speak up” and “Louder please” and “Look at us” and “Stand still.” We hand out scoresheets: “Gestures, 5 points; Organization, 10 points.” Many teachers, however, don’t offer related lessons.

"With improved oral communication skills, we won’t suffer through student speaking activities but will enjoy the talks."

The odds are excellent that you have already assigned some kind of student presentation this school year. The odds are also excellent that students were unprepared. That’s why we fear speaking: we were made to do it, but no one taught us how to do it. Public speaking makes many students (and adults!) nervous because nobody wants to be asked to do something they don’t know how to do, especially in front of an audience.

4. Many digital tools showcase speaking.

Many tools put a spotlight on oral communication: FaceTime, Skype, Flipgrid, Zoom, to name a few. Because of COVID-era online instruction, all teachers are now using such technology for instruction. The impact of all these tools? Increased emphasis on the importance of oral communication.

How well or how poorly a person speaks is on display everywhere. Ironically, as teachers embrace the tools that showcase speaking, they create a lot of evidence proving that students don’t speak well. Video after video that teachers post on YouTube show mediocre and potentially embarrassing student speech. It isn’t the student's fault. Teachers were focused on the video/podcast/webinar technologies instead of focusing on the oral communication the technologies were designed to share. That has to change.

5. Social and professional success increasingly depend upon oral communication.

George Anders is an American business journalist and senior editor at LinkedIn. On HMH’s Shaping the Future podcast, he says:

What we're seeing now is much more of a demand for oral communication rather than written. And that has big implications in our educational system because traditionally we've doubled down on writing skills.

Anders noticed that oral communication dominates in the business world. As an example, my son works for a company that connects people who have ideas for high-tech financial innovations with potential investors and users. He reports there’s no shortage of brilliant people with brilliant ideas but a serious shortage of people who can verbally communicate those ideas. Turning ideas into reality requires talking to others. It doesn’t matter what you know; it matters that you can communicate what you know, and the number-one way we communicate is verbally. Tools for video conferences, webinars, podcasts, narrated slideshows, and video creation put the importance of oral communication for students on display, and now, due to COVID, all of us are using these technologies. Those with better speaking skills will be more successful regardless of what industry they’re in.

The Bottom Line

  • Don’t ignore speaking. Don’t think of language arts as “reading and writing” but rather “reading, writing, and speaking.”
  • When students start speaking, start teaching speaking skills. When students have weekly share time in kindergarten, teach a lesson first, perhaps about how to look at all audience members. Before a research presentation in 10th grade, offer a lesson about how to add life to students’ voices so they don’t bore their classmates.
  • Don’t accept poor speaking. Listen to students talk with new ears and know they can all improve. Commit to giving all students the gift of effective oral communication.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs. Palmer was also a guest on HMH's podcast series, Shaping the Future, in November 2019.

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