Monday, June 9, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Podium


All of these skills I thought I'd been teaching for the past umpteen years. My students have never had any trouble talking, so of course they could speak. Or so I thought.

Then I read Erik Palmer's book,Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking Skills to All Students, and realized that not only have I failed to teach my students to speak effectively, but I hadn't been teaching them to prepare writing to be spoken aloud.

Sure, I talked about making eye contact and taking deep breaths...about slowing down because we usually speak faster in front of an audience...about practicing in front of a mirror.

My students shared during morning meeting, discussed during literature circles, and read the assigned D.A.R.E. essay in front of the class each spring. However, judging from the bored looks on my students' faces as they listened to the monotony of essays on the day these were read aloud,
I know that my teaching of speaking skills had missed the mark.

However, I've learned from my failure. As B.F. Skinner said, "A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying."
So, keep trying I must!
Back to Erik Palmer's book, which I picked up on recommendation from Kelly Gallagher (who wrote the forward). I read this book, with sections on creating a respectful classroom atmosphere, building a speech with the presentation in mind, and presenting that speech effectively.

I learned about PVLEGS
Eye Contact

This past year, I revamped my teaching to include mindful instruction, modeling, and practice with Erik's ideas. I taught each of the PVLEGS, using many of the activities in the book and on his website,

And we practiced.
We made fools of ourselves and felt uncomfortable at first.
We laughed at the strange mannerisms we discovered once we watched ourselves back on video.
We became more comfortable and willing to try different ways to work on our speaking skills.

We realized that there's a lot more that goes into presenting to an audience (even to our peers) than reading the words a few times and adding a joke or two to lighten the mood.  Even eye contact has a certain finesse, and gestures can be more powerful when added at just the right time.

We practiced our PVLEGS in any way we could. We noticed others' speaking skills (in person and in videos). Our school's morning announcements were a great source of material. Students are surrounded by numerous examples of strong and effective speakers, especially on the internet. I called out specific PVLEGS to look for in advance, or commented on those I noticed afterwards. My students became very comfortable sharing the good and the bad. They also learned how to take critiques and learn from them. There was a wealth of formative assessment to go around.

This spring, I added a listening component when I got my hands on Erik Palmer's new book, Teaching the Core Skills of Speaking and Listening. Yes, my students had learned to listen more effectively when we focused on PVLEGS elements. However, the words in this book encouraged me to include listening lessons in my instruction.

It's not just about students looking at the speaker, nodding and laughing at appropriate spots, or even taking relevant notes. I want my students to listen and truly be engaged in their learning.

Sections in this new book include: collaborating/discussing, listening/media literacy, questioning/reasoning, adapting for the occasion & assessing listening and speaking. I was only able to dabble in these activities in April and May, yet we'd never had richer Socratic Seminars than our final few.

Erik has this to say about speaking and listening, "They are so deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives that most of us don't think about them much." He goes on to compare these skills to a fish in water. Since it is surrounded by water, a fish doesn't realize its importance and takes it for granted.

I agree with Erik that it's time to change that.

I've brought speaking and listening to the forefront of my teaching, highlighting their use whenever I can. So much emphasis is placed on reading and writing, but speaking and listening have been a largely ignored player in Language Arts planning and instruction.

This fall, I look forward to getting started right away. Yes, my students will talk a lot in my classroom! However, they will also discover how to speak and to truly listen to each other.

What a gift I will be giving them!

Palmer, E. (2014). Teaching the core skills of listening & Speaking.Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Palmer, E. (2011). Well Spoken: Teaching speaking to all students. Portland, ME: Stenhouse  Publishers.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for passing along this resource as well as highlighting the importance of teaching these skills. As young students, standing in front of a class is often scary. Providing them the skills they need to be more successful in speaking (as well as listening) is something we need to do!