The Journey to Becoming Well Spoken

By Erik Palmer, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

Student voice. What a hot topic! I see tweets about it, conference sessions about it, articles in educational publications about it—it’s all the rage. How can we give students voice? Oddly, every single one of the mentions of student voice ignores the first and most important meaning of voice, speaking. 

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When you see the word 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. 

Dictionary.com defines it this way:

voice

noun

      1. the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.
      2. the faculty or power of uttering sounds through the mouth by the controlled expulsion of air; speech

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/voice

I think you’ll find every dictionary thinks of speaking first and foremost. How can so many educators, then, talk about giving students voice without thinking about oral communication? That’s the original and most important voice! How do we declare what we want? How do we express our opinions? How do we share information? How do we socialize? Overwhelmingly by speaking. We say things out loud. Often, that speaking is face-to-face, but increasingly digital media are used expanding the reach and importance of verbal communication. Tools such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, TikTok, Flipgrid, and so many more showcase oral communication. All students can make videos and podcasts designed to let us hear their voices. If we listen closely, we hear that students don’t speak well. You’ve noticed. You’ve struggled to listen to the end of a student’s two-minute podcast. And if you think back to how mediocre those in-class poetry recitations were, you shouldn’t be surprised.  

Remember how amazed people were when students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spoke? You heard many comments about how well they communicated, and some conspiracy types thought they must be paid actors because normal kids just don’t speak that well. Two important points: one, we were impressed because good speaking is not the norm for students and two, the way they captured America’s attention was by speaking. As much as we value writing, speaking is by far the number one to have an impact, to have voice, if you will. 

Why have we let kids down on their journey to become competent, confident oral communicators? We have been focused on reading and writing. I joke that we should have a new word: readinganwriting. Those words always seem to come together, and they are the only words mentioned by English and language arts teachers. No one ever says reading, writing, and speaking. We have an enormous blind spot. By consistently shortchanging and often downright ignoring the number one language art, speaking, we have robbed students of their most important voice. We have excuses: “Some kids are just naturally good at it and some aren’t.” “Speaking is not on the Big Test.” “I have activities where I make students speak so I have this covered.” These excuses keep us from giving the direct instruction needed to give students real voice. I especially worry about the last one. Making kids talk as an afterthought in some other activity does not teach speaking. At the end of the poetry unit, have students mutter a poem. After reading the book, make students give a book share that inspires none of the listeners. Listen to those with new ears. How many students demonstrated an effective voice? Few. They were never specifically taught the skills of verbal communication.

The truth is, it isn’t that hard to teach students how to speak well. Just as there are specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., punctuation, capitalization, word choice, sentence structure) to improve writing and specific lessons on specific topics (e.g., genre, setting, metaphor, plot line, textbook structure, character development), to improve reading there need to be specific lessons on each of the specific skills needed to improve speaking. I’ll give you an example of how to teach one speaking skill. 

The biggest weakness of almost all speakers is that their talks are dull. They speak in a lifeless way. We suffer through this in the classroom, but when we listen to recorded lifeless talks, we stop the podcast 30 seconds in. See if you can make it past that amount of time with this clip: https://youtu.be/BKRvk4-Xk70 I’m not criticizing the student, I’m criticizing us. We had this child in class for eleven years and did not teach her how to be well spoken. As we went to remote instruction and asked students to submit presentations digitally, these sorts of clips were the norm. Because recorded voices are always less impressive than voices in person, and because distance learning involves more recorded voices, maybe more of us will come to notice that students have never been taught how to avoid being dull. You taught how to choose better adjectives in writing, so teach how to add life in speaking.

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.

I don’t think you are dumb. (But everyone else does?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You know I am?)

I don’t think you are dumb. (You think he is?)

Lesson two: Play this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouic59Gv0x0 There is a quick visual showing what a voice with no life looks like compared to a voice with life as well as an audio modeling the difference—1:20 of no life followed by the exact same words with life. 

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 mom was yelling, “Do something! Do something! Get that thing out of here.” My sister jumped on a chair and stood there crying her eyes out. My dad was chasing the squirrel with a broom from room to room.  “Open all the doors!” he yelled to me. “I did already!” I yelled back. Finally, it ran out. After a minute or so, my dad started laughing. “That was interesting,” he said with a chuckle.

All three of those combined might take 40 minutes of instructional time, and every student will learn one on of the keys to effective speaking. Will all students master this? Of course not, just as not all master the skills of writing or of reading or of drawing or of anything. But all will get better, and all will understand one aspect of how to communicate better. 

One aspect? What are the others? When I ask teachers at workshops to give me descriptors of effective oral communication, answers vary wildly: inflection, articulation, enunciation, vocal modulation, loudly, slowly, clearly, pacing, body movement, expression, eye contact, gestures, stand still, humor, and many more. Some of the answers are wrong. You’d hate me if I talked loudly and slowly—obnoxious and boring! Many are confusing for kids. Vocal modulation? Say what? I created six-trait speaking to solve the problem. You know one of the traits, life. That’s a teaser. There isn’t time in this blog post to explain them, so visit pvlegs.com. The site name will make sense once you get there, but I bet you can guess what the “l” stands for.

Bottom line: do not ignore the most common and most important definition of voice. If you really want students to have voice, give them the gift of being well spoken. They can’t get there on their own, they can’t get there just by speaking a lot in class. They need you to be the guide.

Many more resources here: https://pvlegs.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/shortchanging-speaking/

Erik Palmer is a Denver-based education consultant who has published two books with Stenhouse: Well Spoken and Good Thinking. He presents often at the CCIRA conference and his sessions are favorites among attendees.

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

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