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Teaching Speaking is a Core Skill


Found In: teaching strategies

I am concerned about student oral communication. Students don’t generally speak well and almost all of them fear or hate presenting. I also think about the speaking and listening standard of the Common Core State Standards. I realize that so far I am alone in focusing on this standard but I truly believe that all students will be more successful in life professionally and socially if they speak well, and I wish we paid more attention to teaching speaking.

I often ask, “What are you doing to teach speaking?” I get answers like these:

  • Every year from grades 7 to 12, we require our students to give a major presentation about a historical figure.
  • My students made a podcast about bike safety.
  • We have “Show and Share” weekly where kids get up and talk.

All of these responses answer a question I didn’t ask. They all answer, “What speaking activity do you make kids do?” I didn’t ask whether or not you make students talk. All teachers at all grade levels in all subjects have students speaking informally (discussions, answering questions, sharing solutions) and almost all have some more formal speaking like the three examples above. That is not the issue. The problem is that teachers do not see how those responses don’t answer the question.

Let me try these:

  • Assigning a speech does not equal teaching speaking.
  • Just because you made kids get up in front of the class does not mean you taught oral communication.
  • Giving students a chance to present does not mean that you prepared them to present.

Let’s look at this differently. Suppose I asked, “How do you teach writing?” You answer, “Once a year, I make all students write a big essay.” That’s it? “No, I give them feedback and write comments on the paper when I give it back.” That’s it? “Well, yeah, what else is there?” We could agree that this is a poor excuse for writing instruction.


In fact, what we usually do with writing instruction is quite complex. In early grades we teach capital letters and punctuation. We have lessons and even units on these with lots of specific instruction and lots of worksheets and practice activities just on capitalization and punctuation. At some point we teach fragments and run-ons and complete sentences, with specific lessons and worksheets and practice activities just on sentence structure. We teach paragraphs and topic sentences and have a paragraph unit with lots of paragraph examples and lessons and with lots of paragraph writing practice. And there are many other lessons as well. By the time we assign an essay, students have had many specific lessons and lots of practice with all of the pieces needed to compose and essay.

We do none of this for speaking. Yes, you make every seventh grader give a talk about a historical figure and you made a podcast. But you are seriously kidding yourself if you believe you are teaching speaking (If anything, by putting high stakes on a project you never adequately prepared them for, you are adding to the fear of speaking that is so prevalent.)

In third grade, did students get a gesture unit? Did you teach them about hand gestures, body gestures, facial gestures and give them lots of practice activities to work on gestures? Did you have lots of little speeches with high gesture potential to practice with? In fifth grade, did you have a pacing/speed unit with lots of lessons and examples of how speeding up sometimes works well and slowing down is sometimes better and pausing can add dramatic effect? Did you have lots of little speeches to practice with? In any grade, did you have an eye contact unit, an inflection unit, a voice unit, an effective visual aid unit, or any kind of lessons at all on any of the pieces of effective oral communication? Let me add: Giving kids comments after they speak does not equal teaching speaking.

Of course, few teachers actually know how to teach speaking and there are no teacher preparation courses on the topic. Odds are that oral communication is not on the agenda for next year’s in-service days either.

So how do we solve the problem? Here’s a start:

  1. Realize that you need to teach speaking, not just assign speeches.
  2. Find resources, which unfortunately are quite scarce on the topic. Try for a start.
  3. Understand the incredible gift you would be giving students if you truly made them effective oral communicators.
  4. Tell people that if I ever ask, “How do you teach speaking?” and they give me an example of some assignment, I will get really angry. I have gotten really cranky about this but I won’t apologize for that. Oral communication is too important.

This article previously appeared on The Educator’s Room.

About the Author

Erik Palmer is a professional speaker, educational consultant, and author from Denver, Colorado. He spent 21 years in the classroom in the Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, Colo., primarily as an English teacher but also as a teacher of math, science, and civics. Erik’s latest book is Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014). Learn more about Erik’s work at or connect with him on Twitter @erik_palmer.


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