Communication Skills

Honing Students’ Speaking Skills

Some guidelines for teaching all students to speak credibly and confidently—an essential skill for college and career success.

February 8, 2018
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It’s been a long time since schools focused solely on the three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Along the way, we realized that there’s so much more that defines a successful student and citizen, and that schools play a central role in training students to improve on a multitude of skills and abilities.

As outlined in the Common Core State Standards, for example, we are now tasked to teach a set of speaking skills. More and more businesses are citing the ability to speak and communicate comprehensively as vital skills in terms of hiring and professional success. For K–12 teachers, this means more targeted lessons that are focused on oral presentation and verbal assessment.

The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, strikes almost 80 percent of our general population. Throw in our country’s percentage of English-language learners (ELLs), which ranges from 10 to 25 percent of our K–12 population (depending on the state), and you have an issue that requires precise scaffolding to help prepare our students to hit grade-level speaking expectations. So how can we challenge students to improve their oral presentation skills?

Striving for Equity

I used to use TED talks as my oral presentation template, as many teachers do. As an English language arts teacher and recently retired coach of one of the largest middle school speech and debate teams in the country (Go Bulldogs!), I’ve relied on TED talks for both exemplars and research. But I found that despite my scaffolds, there was still a great divide in final presentation quality between those who could and those who couldn’t. Enter Ignite Talks.

TED and Ignite Talks have some similarities, but it’s their key differences that have worked out better for my high- and low-ability learners, native speakers, and ELLs, and for both extroverted and introverted students.

Here’s what these speech platforms have in common: They both use the format of advocacy: hook, background information, evidence, and a call to action. And they both blend writing genres—memoir/anecdote, argument/persuasive, and informational/expository—rather than segregate them.

And here’s how they differ: Ignite Talks include specific timing and pacing guidelines where TED talks do not. These guidelines, I find, work to bring out the best in all learners, leveling the playing field for students. In fact, with the Ignite Talks rules, I found that students who liked to talk were forced to be more concise. And those who were fearful really only had to muster their courage for a short, set period of time.

Ignite Talks break down as follows: 20 slides, with 15 seconds per slide = 5 minutes.

The slides are set to advance automatically, and because of this, they must be highly visual. So there’s an opening to teach symbolism as well as how to find and cite free images. Because of the speed, a speaker cannot rely on the slides as their script; there’s no room for bullet points or paragraphs. This encourages students to make eye contact and speak with their back to the screen and not to the audience.

The time limit reminds me of the math homework debate: If students struggle with five problems, why give them 50? And if they can conquer five, well, 50 won’t add to their learning. Having students present with a strict pacing structure helps to avoid repetition or babbling from those students who love to talk—or those who are underprepared. A strict pacing structure also helps those students who suffer from presentation paralysis.

Organizing the Speech

Sometimes students present independently. Other times, they work in small groups so they can divide up the Ignite Talks verbal workload. To help them break down the outline of a collaborative speech, I give them a choice in organization.

For the first option, I refer to the five steps for making a pitch like Elon Musk:

  1. Name the enemy.
  2. Why now?
  3. Paint a picture of the promised land.
  4. Explain away obstacles.
  5. Win them over with evidence.

I also offer an executive summary structure—background information, evidence, recommendations—to simplify a possible outline even further and bring more authentic writing to their presentation.

Both speech structures (Musk’s and mine) basically ask the students to provide research and take a strong stance on an issue, but they can select the structure that makes the most sense to them. The structure of both helps them to chunk their slides and images.

Before they get started with their planning, I always go over the oral presentation rubric, so there are no surprises. For my most recent project-based unit, I used a speech rubric when my students presented Ignite Talks as superhero leagues, focusing on global issues that they felt passionately needed to be solved. Incidentally, the groups were heterogeneous: ELLs presented alongside native English speakers, and it was an equitable success.

Depending on your group of learners, you will decide which works best—TED or Ignite Talks. What ultimately matters, though, is that you are taking on the charge of preparing your students to speak credibly and confidently out there in the world.

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