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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Verbal Communication

By Erik Palmer — August 24, 2011 2 min read
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Note: Erik Palmer, an author from Denver, Colorado is a guest blogger today.


That word best describes our approach to teaching speaking. Yes, every teacher at every grade level in every subject has oral language activities: discussions, book reports, research presentations, Socratic seminars, dialogues, read alouds, debates, and many more. But very few teachers specifically teach students how to do those activities well, and every teacher seems to have a different idea of what it takes to be an effective speaker. I worked with a team of four fourth grade teachers who all planned language arts activities together. They agreed to do a unit on historical fiction, agreed on the time frame, and agreed on an oral presentation. No two of them had the same rubric, though. Three scored eye contact, one scored “loud enough,” one scored posture... it was clear there was no agreement on what was needed for effective oral communication. Though I at first thought that this was an unusual situation, I have come to realize that it is the norm. In every school I have worked with, there has been no consistent language, no consistent scoring guide, and no consistent instruction. We make random comments after the fact but have no lessons prior to the speeches or discussions. That’s haphazard.

Imagine grading a written paper with a score sheet that gives points for powerful adjectives. Quite unfair if you haven’t given lessons on what adjectives are and worksheets/practice on powerful adjectives. Commonly, teachers teach about adjectives. Now imagine grading a speech with a score sheet that gives points for gestures. Did you ever give a lesson on gestures? Did you ever have students practice descriptive hand gestures in some mini-lesson? Did you ever have students practice emphatic hand gestures? Did you teach a lesson in body gestures? Facial gestures? Quite unfair to score gestures if you never specifically taught them. Yet, commonly, teachers don’t teach about gestures. Each teacher scores students on some elements of oral communication. We seem to assume that they have somehow picked up how to perform these elements, and that over time, all the elements will be included. That’s haphazard.

We have math programs, reading programs, foreign language programs, science and social studies programs, Thinking Maps programs, Art and Science of Teaching programs, and usually teachers have training in all of these. Where is the speaking skills program? What resources do teachers have? What training is given about how to teach effective oral communication?

Be honest. For most of us, speaking skill is an afterthought. It isn’t on the big test and, therefore, it hasn’t been high on our priority list. But the Common Core standards “Speaking and Listening” are out there now; “verbal communication” was number one on the list of skills employers are seeking (NACE Job Outlook 2011); digital tools showcase speaking skill (podcasts, webinars, FaceTime, video conferences, video); and the majority of communication in your life has been oral. People who speak well have more professional and social success than people who speak less well. It is time to move beyond haphazard.

Erik Palmer

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.