Activities & Lessons

Speaking (Not Public Speaking!) Activities for Middle and High School Students

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“Public” Speaking Activities for Students

It’s not hard to find suggestions of ways to get students to talk. If you do a web search for “public speaking activities,” you will find many sites, and they include ideas for debates, presentations, podcasts, read-alouds, role playing, and other ideas you might have already considered. If you had time to sift through all the sites, you might find something novel.

I’d prefer it if teachers searching for “public” speaking classroom activities searched instead just for “speaking activities” because oral communication comes in many varieties beyond what is connoted by “public speaking.” We speak formally and informally, one-to-one, in small and large groups, in-person, and via digital tools. I want students to speak well in every situation. While all sites are about ways to make students speak, few are about how to teach students to speak well.

Contrasting Speaking with Writing

Confidence and eloquence are skills that virtually everyone can seek to improve with practice. Middle and high school students benefit especially in a range of classroom activities, such as discussions, book reports, or presentations. I believe part of the challenge is that from kindergarten on, teachers often assign speaking activities without specific instruction about the skills needed to succeed and without a specific goal for the speaking part of the activity.

Contrast speaking in the classroom with writing, for example. We break writing down into specific skills that can be honed. Perhaps we want to focus on word choice, for example. We have specific lessons about word choice. “What words can we use instead of ‘nice’ or ‘fun?’” Then we might tell students to write a short piece that puts those lessons into play. Now think about how speaking activities usually work. We teach a poetry unit. Perhaps as no more than a footnote at the end of the unit, we say, “Now, everyone pick a poem and read it aloud to the class.” Students who may have thrived reading and interpreting poetry may struggle when reciting it. There was no lesson about the oral communication skills needed to recite a poem well, no speaking skill focus for the activity, and no follow-up leading to improved communication. Let’s change that!

Not just effective but also fun speaking activities work differently: choose an activity that emphasizes a particular skill that good speakers demonstrate, teach lessons about that skill in advance of the activity, and have students speak. Here are some ideas that will fit across multiple subjects and grades. You will notice that many skills besides speaking are involved (e.g., reasoning, persuasion, prosody) but I am only mentioning the speaking skill focus.

Traveling Debate: Eye Contact

Students typically look at the teacher when they talk. Whether doing a biography presentation to the class or participating in a discussion, they always look at you. Teach about the importance of eye contact: how it creates a connection with the listeners, how it gives feedback, how odd it is to converse with someone if they never look at you.

Tell students that even though it may be difficult or feel uncomfortable, they need to engage everyone as they speak. For most, that means looking at every student being addressed. (For those with limited or no vision, make “verbal” contact and ask them to use other students’ names.) Choose a high-interest topic with two clear sides, and try this game-like activity that encourages students to consider the other side.

Teacher: Stand on this side of the room if you believe social media has harmed children and stand on that side if you believe social media has not harmed children. There is no middle—it either has harmed children or it hasn’t. [Wait for children to move.] Hmm, it seems that more of you think it is not harmful. OK, your job is to get someone to cross the room and come to your side. There is no applauding and no side comments. You look at those on the other side. Make eye contact with each of them, speak to them, and hope they start walking to your side. Let’s have the side with fewer people get the first speaker. Mason?

Mason: Social media can make it easier for people to say cruel things to each other. [He makes eye contact with specific students.] Have you experienced negative comments? [He scans back and forth looking for reaction. One child crosses over.]

Teacher: Interesting. Someone from this side? Sofia?

Sofia: Kids are sometimes mean, in person or on social media. Social media doesn’t make it worse. Think about it. [Making eye contact with each person.] Have you made any new friends because of social media, Chase? [Three kids cross over.]

After a few back-and-forths, comment about how well speakers used eye contact. Encourage students to have an appropriate facial expression with their eye contact to communicate that they are credible, confident, and conveying the proper emotion for the comment. Show students the difference between purposeful eye contact and staring. Ask students if they felt they were talked to directly at some point. Some students struggle with eye contact much more than others—an aspect to keep in mind when assessing this skill.

Demonstration Speech: Gestures

I often see rubrics that include points for gestures, but I never see lessons about how to gesture well. Tell students that gestures greatly increase interest in talks and enhance understanding. Gestures can also drive home a point, show agreement, or express emotion. You may want to provide examples to your students, for example leaning forward, nodding, shrugging, or pointing.

Assign a three-minute talk during which they demonstrate a task they’re familiar with, for example making toast or brushing their teeth. The trick: their hands are empty, and the gestures must help the audience imagine what is being demonstrated. Encourage them to indicate details specific to them, for example the type of bread they are likely to eat or how to brush around braces.

Student: I am going to show you how to make toast. I have a piece of bread here [holding right hand out as if there was a piece of bread in it]. As you can see, I have marble rye with swirls [pointing with left forefinger at where the swirls would be in the imaginary piece of bread]. I drop it in the toaster and push down on the button here [pretending to let go of the bread into the imaginary toaster and pressing the imaginary button on the side].

Ask students if they could visualize the process. Which gestures were clearest? Which gestures would they have performed differently? Stress how gestures are powerful tools to add to any talk. Note that this activity can become a game by having students leave out what they’re gesturing and having the class try to guess.

30 Second Commercial: Life

It is normal for students beginning to develop speaking skills to come across as monotonous or lifeless. Point out to students how lively voices are in commercials. So much feeling comes across in the speaking: sadness can get viewers to donate money, excitement can get viewers wanting to eat or drink something, gruffness to get viewers to think a truck is tough, and so on. You may want to call out specific ways that a speaker conveys emotion, for example by varying their voice pitch or adjusting pace.

Tell students to come up with a 30-second commercial about a product real or imagined. Stress that they will need lots of feeling, energy, and life to make the audience want to buy. Fit the commercials in during transitions in the schedule.

Teacher: We have a minute until lunch. Let’s have a commercial. Today’s class has been brought to you by…Jaden!

Jaden: Today! For a limited time only!! The must-have product for every home: the 3D snack printer. Yes, that’s right, a printer that can produce your favorite snack. Potato chips. Apple slices. Fruit-filled pretzels. THE POSSIBILITIES ARE LIMITLESS!! Only 100 available so buy now. Buy now! BUY NOW!!

Point out how adding life makes all talks more enjoyable, and the same principle of speaking with emotion and excitement makes a story come alive. Multilingual learners might have difficulty enunciating certain words in their commercials. Point out that this activity is about life, not perfect pronunciation, so articulation mistakes don’t matter. Have fun!

Wrap-Up: Oral Communication Activities and Games

As the teacher, you are of course the best equipped to determine what games and activities to promote oral communication are best suited to your class and what skills your students need the most support with. Here is a rubric from HMH Into Literature that you can use to assess a student’s speaking for any oral presentation. It will be useful with the activities above and with all oral communication activities in the classroom.

In general, speaking activities and speaking games for students are worthwhile only when they lead to improved speaking. That requires a specific focus, specific lessons about a targeted skill, and purposefully assigning the activity. Don’t just make students talk. Teach them how to be well spoken.

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For an ELA program to support fun “public” speaking activities, relate literacy to students’ lives with HMH Into Literature for Grades 6–12.

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