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.
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