Teaching Oral Communication Skills: What Student Voice Really Means

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Student voice is a hot topic. When you see “student voice” used by educators, it might mean choice or options as in “give students voice instead of directing their learning.” Sometimes it means opinion as in “we need to value student voice and make them feel comfortable expressing their ideas.” Sometimes it means literary style as in “Hemingway has a unique voice in his writing, and we want students to develop their voice as well.” I’m not arguing with any of those; I think we should give students choices, we should value their opinions, and we should let them have their own style. But we should also give them the gift of being able to verbalize well, because when you see the word voice used by everyone else on the planet, it means sounds from the mouth.

How can so many people talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we advocate for ourselves? How do we express our opinions? How do we interact socially and professionally? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital tools are used which expand the reach and importance of verbal communication.

We have reasons for doing less than we need to do to develop student voice. I have heard all of these:

  • Speaking is not on the state assessment. I focus on the skills being tested.
  • Students already know how to talk. They do it all the time.
  • Speaking is innate. Some kids are good at it and others aren’t. That’s just how it is.
  • I have activities where I make students speak so I don’t ignore student voice.
  • I have never been trained about how to teach speaking skills. My school has no materials, and we have never had PD about oral communication.

My responses:

  • The state assessments will be over when schooling ends, but for all their lives students will appreciate being able to be confident, competent speakers.
  • Talking is not the same as speaking effectively.
  • Some students are better at math, some are better at reading, some are better at drawing, and yes, some are better at speaking. Those innate predispositions shouldn’t stop us from helping students in areas where they struggle. We teach because we believe that all children can grow even in areas more difficult for them.
  • Making students speak is not the same as teaching them how to communicate well. Making students do a book report in front of the class without first teaching them how to speak effectively is cruel.
  • As for not knowing how to teach speaking, let me give you some help.

How to Teach Speaking in the Classroom

You can help students become effective speakers more easily than you might think. Just as there are specific lessons to improve writing (punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure…) and to improve math (common denominator, order of operations…) and to improve reading (setting, metaphor, plot line…) there are specific lessons that improve speaking.

I’ll give you one example. You may have noticed that student presentations are more rote than engaging. We can teach students how to make their delivery much livelier and more interesting.

Lesson one: To demonstrate the importance of adding inflection, let students practice with phrases where the meaning can change depending on how it is said.

Don't hang your backpack on that hook! (Oh oh, Mom is really mad!)

Don't hang your backpack on that hook. (It's only for coats?)

Don't hang your backpack on that hook. (I should hang it on the other hook?)

Lesson two: Have students watch a short video of a speaker who demonstrates excellent inflection.

I would recommend A Pep Talk from Kid President to You or the last couple of minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Ask: How did Kid President make the words “And it hurt, man…Rocks, Thorns, and Glass” come alive? Where else did he add lots of life to his words? How did Martin Luther King, Jr. use added inflection to make his speech inspiring and powerful? Why was it effective?

Lesson three: Give a small practice speech where adding life makes a huge difference. Have different students speak encouraging each one to add lots of feeling.

One time, we had a squirrel in our house. When we opened the door to let our dog out, it ran right in. Everything got crazy! The squirrel was running all over! My brother was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” He jumped on a chair and stood there crying his eyes out. My sister was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room. “Open all the doors!” she yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my sister started laughing. “That was interesting,” she said with a chuckle.

Those activities might take 60 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn about one of the keys to effective speaking. All students will understand ways to improve, and all will take one step toward becoming more engaging communicators.

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. I believe we want students to have an effective voice. Give them the gift of being confident, competent speakers.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author on HMH's K-12 Into Reading and Into Literature programs.

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