public speaking unit

Speaking of Talk: Public Speaking Experience in the Elementary Classroom

By Sarah Hanna, Rubicon International

Students talk every day- to one another, their teachers, and their families. But are they building skills to speak well? Are they receiving feedback to help them build confidence and improve upon those skills?

If the classroom was a stage, Reading and Writing tend to get the spotlight. And while no one can deny their importance…what about Speaking and Listening? Is there time to teach kids to talk and to reflect upon their talk?

Why Public Speaking?

Public Speaking, particularly in the elementary grades, and the larger umbrella of Speaking & Listening can sometimes be outshined by more familiar tunes. Erik Palmer, author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking suggests that students are not being taught public speaking skills early or often enough. Palmer advocates for teaching and learning the art of effective message delivery, reminding us of the unique and powerful impact the spoken message contains: “The well-constructed message has no value unless it is also well spoken… and while there are strong parallels between the effective written message and the effective spoken message, communicating to listeners rather than readers requires something more, something different.” (p 107).

But, Where Does Public Speaking Fit?

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]So once we establish that teaching public speaking IS important, the question becomes: how do we best go about doing it?[/inlinetweet] One appealing option is to consider what learning objectives would be enhanced by adding a public speaking component.

As someone who has taught public speaking and other communication courses, I recently had the wonderful opportunity to create and lead a public speaking unit to an enthusiastic group of third graders. The teacher, Mrs. Jacobs, determined that a speaking unit would pair nicely with their opinion writing unit. The students were already working on finding their voice, and generating reasons and examples to support their opinions; what better way to practice and improve their oral communication skills than by sharing their own ideas and opinions publicly?

Topic Selection

The students were given a choice of teacher-approved topics and got to select their top three favorites. Topic selection is an important part of the process- if the topics are too narrow and inconsequential (like, “what the best kind of ice-cream?”), generating thorough and thoughtful insights becomes difficult. A good litmus test to analyze the effectiveness of the topic is to consider the length of time each student or group of students will be required to speak, and ask, “Is there enough reasons, evidence and examples to support this topic and hold audience interest for 3 minutes? (or  5 or 10, etc.)” Also be mindful of the reverse research quandary, “Is this topic too vast, too complex to be adequately explored in X minutes?”

Topic selection can be accomplished a number of ways. We chose to have small poster boards around the classroom with a topic listed. Students got three sticky notes in three different colors to write their name and add it to the posters of their choice. Students were then assigned one of the topics in their top three, and grouped with two or three other classmates.

Some topics selected for this project were:
  • “Should third graders have homework?”
  • “Should pets be allowed at school?”
  • “Do video games help you learn?”
  • “What can kids do to earn money?”
  • “Is chocolate healthy?”
  • “How can kids help endangered animals?”
  • “What makes a story great?”
Post-It Selection
OREO: Opinion, Reasons, Evidence

Because the speaking project was working in conjunction with opinion writing, we used the acronym “OREO” to help students understand and organize their content. The OREO principles: stating your opinion, providing reasons to support those opinions, and offering evidence/examples to back-up the reasoning, set students up nicely for their speech outline. Students were given graphic organizers [download here: Opinion Writing Graphic Organizer OREO] using the acronym to help frame their ideas. This allowed them to make sure they weren’t duplicating reasons and evidence between group members and created a platform for discussing evidence quality.

A Formative Approach

The students went through multiple stages and iterations of their work, and were given repeated opportunity for feedback and reflection. They composed their own reasoning and evidential support individually, then shared their writing within their groups, eliciting feedback. As group members offered each other praise, encouragement, and suggestions, they gained further practice formulating and asserting their opinions, and were reminded that this exercise provided another opportunity for public speaking skill development. Individual and group work was also submitted at several stages for teacher feedback.

Bringing It All Together

Through repeat practice and exposure to public speaking, the students gradually improved upon their skills and, equally important, their confidence. Several students who were unwilling to speak up during class, braved the spotlight and spoke louder and more clearly than before. Presenting in groups seemed to be an added benefit for the elementary age group. After the presentations, many students asked if they’d get the opportunity to “do this again in 4th grade.” I think we can call that a win!

In our follow-up post, we share tips and tricks to make your public speaking unit a success! Read it here!

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