Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Well spoken: a format for oral communication instruction

Over the years I have been in many classrooms where a presentation has been assigned. I have witnesses horrific presentations where students read their notes in a monotone without ever glancing up, ones that were full of emotion but nearly empty of content, and ones that were inaudible. I have seen teachers who failed to instruct in speaking skills repeatedly make students repeat presentations because they were not using a loud enough voice or not reading a poster that was full of content that we could not read from the audience. Occasionally I have witnessed the naturally talented and usually drama trained student perform and truly enjoyed a meaningful presentation. I have tried to work with teachers to adjust rubrics for presentations with some success. Erik Palmer's Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students presents a format that can be utilized to both instruct and evaluate presentation skills.

The Common Core State Standards include a strand for speaking and listening although neither the PARCC nor Smarter Balance nor NYS assessments include an evaluation of these skills. Since they are not evaluated, it is easy to predict that they will be glossed over or forgotten. Unless teachers take action, speaking and listening will at best be a back burner skill, rarely taught, usually expected and frequently slaughtered in application. Well Spoken's framework is poised to fill this gap and demonstrate how teachers can integrate oral communication into their curriculum. If a district were to adopt the concept or a similar one, consistency of vocabulary and expectation would result in students acquiring a life skill.

This book is easy to read. Short chapters highlight each of the areas of presentation. Palmer breaks these skills into two areas: Building the speech and performing the speech. In building the speech, he highlights areas that ELA teachers would recognize: audience, content, and organization. Then he adds visual aids and student appearance. You can see my blog on visual aids and their importance in presentations. Students also need to be aware that their appearance is a way that they are judged. When giving a formal presentation in front of a group, students need to learn to dress appropriately.

When it comes to presentation or performance standards, he uses his acronym PVLEGS to describe skills that need to be taught, practiced, and evaluated. The third part of the book's chapter titles are a great introduction to these skills:
  • Poise: appearing calm and confident
  • Voice: making every word heard
  • Life: passion into the voice
  • Eye-contact: engaging each listener
  • Gestures: matching motions to words
  • Speed: pacing for a powerful performance
At the end of the book is a detailed rubric to evaluate student performance. For presentations he recommends two grades- one on the building part- content is king here, and one on the presentation part. What I found particularly nice about this was his thoughts that you do not need to evaluate every skill every time. Like in writing, you can tell students that you are going to focus on one area and provide feedback on that aspect of speaking, letting the other ones ride. For a more formal presentation, more skills should be evaluated. For short presentations like participating in a Socratic seminar, show and tell or short presentations one or two aspects become the focus.

I liked his comparison of teachers not asking students to do presentations because they are afraid of it to teachers not asking students to do math because they are afraid of it. We need to push students to do these skills and teach them what is expected, not leave it unwritten. True, at the beginning, students will not be very skilled, but with focus and practice, they will improve. After all if we are going to get our students college and career ready they need to be prepared for the first test of oral communication skills- the interview.

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