Early Childhood Education

7 Ways to Help Young Students Speak With Confidence and Poise

As early as preschool, students can learn how to improve their speaking skills using techniques borrowed from actors.

June 24, 2024
Jacob Wackerhausen / iStock

During class, you might ask a student to say the morning message, share about their weekend, discuss a topic with a classmate, or even practice reading aloud. Their days are filled with speaking, which makes sense because it’s a competence required in most elementary schools and a life skill that sets them up for future success, personally, academically, and in their chosen careers. Yet the experience can be riddled with anxiety for some students, and there is little research around interventions for educators to support reluctant speakers.

With some practical tools from drama education, we can certainly help our scholars with their communication. In my work as a director and educator, I’ve seen how the techniques that actors use to connect with their audiences can also be helpful for students in developing these skills and building a comfort and joy with speaking.

Preparing to Speak

Strategy 1: Breathe. The most important preparation for speaking is breathing, which research shows has a direct link to our anxiety and emotions. Before uttering a sound, encourage your students to get connected with their breath. I like to do this simply by having them place one hand on their heart and one hand on their stomach while taking three deep breaths. You can also try any meditative breathing or a playful variety like breath of fire or lion’s breath.

Strategy 2: Acknowledge and reframe nerves. Notice if your body is reacting to the prospect of speaking. The physiological response (sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, dry mouth, etc.) of nerves is simply our body’s way of preparing us for, and protecting us from, danger. Ask students to get attuned to what they are sensing, and then validate the anxiety. Remind students that these are normal, albeit outdated, reactions to nerves that we inherited from our ancient ancestors. We aren’t being chased by a bear; we are just sharing information with our classmates!

Flip the narrative on anxiety, and reframe it as an emotion that will help us prepare for the task at hand. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, neuroscience professor and author of Future Tense, says, “Anxiety is an advantageous emotion that evolved to protect us and strengthen our creative and productive powers.” When we feel anxious, there’s a spike in dopamine that is meant to protect us and also spring us into action.

So, ask students to use different—and potentially positive—vocabulary when they are describing how they feel about public speaking. This will help them redefine their experience: “I’m feeling nervous and lively; scared and prepared; anxious and excited.” You can do this by having students practice more feeling words in a game like emotions charades or physically expressing them in a song like “Shake Your Sillies Out.” As students get savvy about recognizing their feelings (and the sensations they cause), they are more likely to be in control of them when they speak.

Strategy 3: Ground your feet. Anytime we rock back and forth, we are giving our energy away. Have students squirt pretend glue on the bottom of their feet, or have them pretend that tree roots grow from there. The goal is: Plant your feet. With that newfound steadiness coming from the ground up, their messages will be clearer, and they will have more energy for volume and expression.

Strategy 4: Warm up your instrument. It’s easy to get tripped up on words or even feel like you have a frog in your throat. Actors use vocal exercises to make sure their “instruments” are warmed up before speaking. Here are some of my favorite, simple ways to warm up that can also help students:

  • Stretch your mouth wide (like you are surprised!), and then pucker your lips (like you ate a lemon).
  • Blow through your lips, using sound, as if you were a car or a speedboat.
  • Pound on your chest and back (like a gorilla!) while vocalizing on the “huh” sound.
  • Practice simple tongue twisters like “toy boat” or “flash message” (say it three times fast!).

Technical Tips for Better Public Speaking

Strategy 5: Get louder with music or a “playground” voice. If students have a tendency to speak too quietly as they present, sometimes they simply need to tap into the vocal energy they would use in another context. Before they speak, have them pretend they are on the playground and trying to get someone’s attention. Alternatively, ask them (and the entire class) to sing a song like “If You Are Happy and You Know It (…give a shout!)” and then go right into speaking or reading. Inevitably, this trick will help them access more powerful volume.

Strategy 6: Breathe with punctuation. Kristin Linklater, a world-renowned vocal coach and acting teacher, says, “If you’re holding your breath in any way, part of you is absent.” Breathing isn’t just important as we prepare to speak; it’s also essential to breathe effectively while we speak. Students will often run out of air, making what they say have less impact and less volume. If your early elementary students are reading, you can coach them to be expressive and not race through their words, by having them take a breath every time there is a period. This simple trick will make their speech clearer, giving them more vocal variety and connection to what they are saying.

Strategy 7: Play with dialogue and gesture and drama. For exciting read-alouds, turn storytelling into a game. If the text has dialogue, get kids saying it themselves with call-and-response. Depending on the character, model how to use rhythm, pitch, or volume to change how a character sounds. Those simple technical shifts will make their (eventual) reading more dynamic, too.

Similarly, gestures help make their ideas and characters come to life, and it’s never too early to teach this. For example: Someone cheers, and they pump their fist. A character accuses someone, and they point. Another character dismisses an idea, and they flick their hand away. You can turn a story into a movement game and just isolate the gestures to show how much impact movement can have.

Above all, have fun acting out the most exciting parts of what you read, which will help the students, in turn, enjoy storytelling, sharing information, and exploring literature, since it will be connected with play and imagination.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Arts Integration
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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