Communication Skills

4 Strategies for Developing Confident Student Speakers

Consistent support and low-stakes opportunities to practice go a long way to help students overcome the challenges of speaking in front of a group.

May 16, 2024
Rafa Fernandez Torres / Getty Images

I belted out the opening line to Marc Antony’s funeral speech from The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, leaping up the stairs to the stage in my school’s auditorium. Thirteen ninth-grade students dressed in togas sat in the front rows, mouths agape, as they witnessed their goofy teacher unexpectedly launch into the 35-line monologue they had all just beautifully performed. 

Confession: I was nervous walking onto that stage—I sometimes get uncomfortable in the (literal) spotlight. To normalize feelings of anxiety during a performance, I revealed those emotions to my class afterward. 

Public speaking is hard, and it can be extremely daunting for our most introverted students; however, with modeling and practice, I believe that teachers can cultivate confident speakers.

Strategy 1: Provide Direct Instruction

A poster inspired by Erik Palmer’s work on public speaking (PVLEGS: Poise, Voice, Life, Eye Contact, Gestures, Speed) hangs in the back of my classroom. Well before we launch into a study of the funeral orations from Caesar, I explicitly teach those skills. I demonstrate for students appropriate eye contact—the speaker locks eyes briefly with individual audience members and scans the room as she speaks, establishing a connection with her audience. The speaker might also speed up his voice for a certain effect or raise his arms to command the attention of his audience.

Strategy 2: Provide Public Speaking Models

After we spend a class closely reading and analyzing the two funeral orations by Marc Antony and Brutus, I play clips of the speeches from the two film adaptations. We watch the performances and think about PVLEGS: Which speaking moves does each actor utilize in his performance? Which actor delivers the stronger performance and why? After we watch and students share their observations with partners, we discuss and debate the merits of each performance. 

When my classes work on memorizing and performing the monologues, I ask them to study the models and even borrow some of the actors’ techniques. They consider: Do I want to take an angrier approach to the Antony speech like Marlon Brando? Should I adopt a regretful tone like Jason Robards’ Brutus? This type of close viewing could be applied to any speaking performance. On a related note, I also hope that I serve as a public speaking model for my students as I stand in front of my English classes daily.

Strategy 3: Acknowledge and Coach through Anxiety

I remember stumbling through my senior research presentation in high school, well before the advent of interactive whiteboards and Google Slides. I’m vulnerable with my students about my former public speaking struggles. I want them to know that they’re not alone, and through practice and repetition, their self-doubt and fear can transform from an eardrum-rupturing siren into a quiet background hum.

I give a few bits of advice to nervous speakers as they prepare for any public speaking activity. First, I urge them to “practice, practice, practice!” If they know their stuff, they’ll be much more confident on game day. I also find that most students who report feeling very nervous while speaking don’t always appear nervous to others. Sharing this anecdotal evidence with them helps students tune out their inner critics and feel more calm. I also find lots of opportunities to confer with reluctant speakers and give them plenty of encouragement. This fosters stronger connections with my students and boosts their confidence. 

Strategy 4: Provide Lots of Low-Stakes Speaking Opportunities 

My Caesar unit usually takes place in the second semester, when students have had plenty of low-stakes speaking opportunities. In almost every class, I ask students to turn and talk to their partners to share a sentence from a quickwrite or to check in on their current drafts. Earlier in the year, I coach them on how to effectively talk to their partners, and the process quickly becomes routine. An effective technique to get all students speaking, even if it’s a quick response, is the whip-around. Teacher Marcus Luther asks a question with a short, one-word answer. He then goes around the room and has each student answer aloud, followed by a debrief with partners or groups. 

My favorite low-stakes speaking activity is the Pop-Up Debate, which teacher Dave Stuart Jr. invented and has been writing about for years. In this activity, the class is presented with a question, and they spend 10 minutes writing an answer to it. After that, the debate begins, and students simply “pop-up” at their desks to enter into the conversation. In my experience, this activity can transform a usually quiet class into an engaged one. Secondary students love to argue, even about literature! 

Flexibility, Support, and Incentives Develop Strong Speakers 

In many ways, the memorized funeral oration is the most high-stakes speaking task my ninth-grade honors students participate in throughout the year. I give a grade for this assessment, but to take the focus off of grades and to place that focus on improvement instead, I provide students with a few crutches to lean on. 

First, if students forget a line, a friend acts as a prompter in the pit with the text ready. Students can also revise the performance if they choose to. I tell students that they can redo the performance if it doesn’t go as planned. At the end of the class, if time allows, a handful of students always choose to give it another shot. I find that this also takes the pressure off. I think of it like a writing assignment; students can always revise a paper to improve it. Finally, I give them extra credit for wearing togas, which adds to the fun of the special day.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, “End the Phone-Based Childhood Now,” author Jonathan Haidt reports that Gen Z students are more anxious, shy, and risk-averse than the children of the past, which he attributes to social media and the introduction of the smartphone. Risk-taking, Haidt argues, “promote[s] competence, maturity, and mental health.” Public speaking, a type of risk-taking, can be very frightening for some of our students, but if teachers provide them with speaking opportunities each day, month, and school year, perhaps we can help mold them into confident, healthy young adults who venture into the world as strong public speakers. 

Thank you to my former department chair, Janet Matthews, for the Julius Caesar performance activity.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Student Wellness
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.