One of my favorite elements of the Common Core is the standards’ emphasis on speaking and listening. These elements of language arts are often the victims of assumicide — we assume that, since kids speak and listen all the time, we don’t need to teach them how to do these things.
And I was right up among the guilty when it comes to teachers who vastly undertaught speaking and listening — until, that is, a friend of mine introduced me to the work of Erik Palmer. Palmer’s Well-Spoken is masterful in its paradoxical blend of brevity and fullness; in the book, he helps teachers across the content areas and grade levels to teach students how to both build and deliver effective speeches.
For this post, I’d like to focus on what was probably the most valuable discovery I made as a teacher-researcher last year: Palmer’s PVLEGS acronym, which is a simple (Palmer even calls it stupid) yet highly effective way to help kids remember the basic elements of effective speech delivery, whether the speech is conversational or formal.
Poise: Calm confidence
The truth is that all speakers have a degree of nervousness. Even a professional speaker with massive experience will have a heightened level of excitement before a presentation. It is also true that if that nervousness is obvious, listeners can be distracted and miss the point of the speech. This is why the first skill needed in performing a speech is poise. Webster defines poise as an “easy, self-possessed assurance of manner… pleasantly tranquil” (Merriam-Webster 1998, 899). The key to performing a speech is to appear calm and assured even when we may not feel precisely that way (or even remotely close to it).
The key breakthrough for my students here, initially, was that poise is a skill–it’s a thing you can learn, practice, improve. I always love, in the beginning of the year after some of our early debates, asking my students to raise their hands if they were nervous. It is awesome for them to see that most of their peers are just as jittery as they are; misery loves company, I suppose 🙂
Students love explicit instruction, so borrow from Palmer’s chapter on poise and teach my kids that, specifically, this skill is about:
- Appearing calm and confident
- Realizing what our annoying tics are and training ourselves to stop them (one of my tics is fidgeting with a coffee cup)
- Being intentional about stance, movement, and posture
How can students gain poise? Palmer has a whole section of tips in Well Spoken–one that I began using after reading the book is, right before taking the stage, counting slowly to five several times, taking deep breaths with each number. (So much of poise is about gaining control right at the start; usually the longer we speak, the more comfortable we get.)
Perhaps the most basic (and important) way to help students gain poise is giving them many chances to speak during your course. And just to be clear, by chances I mean requiring them to talk. I have kids with intense fear of public speaking at the start of each year, and all of them are confident by the end. This isn’t magical Mr. Stuart; it’s giving them the gift of experience.
Voice: Every word heard
A good speech is a good conversation magnified. The speaker retains his basic conversational style but uses animation and volume suitable for a larger audience… You don’t want students to imitate any style or person. You should, however, point out to students that there are different types of voices and you should begin the process of having them think about their voices. Some people have very strident voices, for example, making it tiring to listen to them. Help students become aware of how they sound to avoid such problems.
There are three elements of voice students work on: volume, enunciation, and avoiding odd vocal patterns like ending each sentence with a questioning tone or fading away at the end of each sentence (this latter vocal pattern is common in my students before we talk about it).
When students can’t hear another student, I teach them to simply call out “Voice” in a respectful manner (I borrowed that strategy from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion).
Life: Insert passion
Listening to students’ speeches over the years, I was often reminded of a time when I took my four-year-old son, Ross, to a school event for his older brother. The principal was droning on and on about something, and, before I could stop him, Ross had put both hands to his mouth, made a loud raspberry sound, and said, “Bor-ring!” As a parent, you are sometimes put into a position of having to tell your child he is wrong, even when he is right.
Awesome anecdote 🙂
Life is about adding emotion to our voices–showing that we actually care about what we’re talking about. Very practically, then, life is about inflecting our voices in a manner that expresses an intended feeling, like excitement, joy, sadness, fear, disappointment, humor, amazement, or anger.
One mini-lesson Palmer shares involves giving students a simple phrase, like “I don’t think you’re wrong,” and then having them play around with the phrase to make it feel sad or happy or angry or condescending.
Eye contact: Engaging each listener
Students… need to direct their vision toward the individuals in the audience. They aren’t speaking to a group; they are speaking to many different people. It may seem intimidating to look at each person in the audience, but it is necessary.
There are two key points in eye contact: first, students need to work on meeting the gaze of as many people in the audience as they can; second, students should familiarize themselves with their speech rather than memorize it.
When we have in-class debates, I often require my students to have notes. It is up to them how they use them in the speech, but if I find them getting stuck in “reading straight from the pre-written paragraph” mode, we’ll talk about how to transition from that into occasionally glancing at notes (as Drake does in the speech depicted in this photo).
Gestures: Matching motions to words
Watch people in some public places as they converse. Look around a restaurant or coffee shop. Sit on a bench in the mall and watch people walking by. Sneak a peek at friends a few seats over on the bus. Odds are that as they speak, they are gesturing. Hands move, faces mote, and body positions change. This is typical and natural. Sure, some people use gestures more than others, but it seems that when humans talk, the body moves.
There are three kinds of gestures to help students become aware of: those with the hands, those with the face, and those with the body (e.g., shoulders, posture). Again, Palmer shares lots of mini-lesson ideas for this skill in his book.
Speed: Pacing, baby; pacing
Excitement, nervous, and the adrenaline rush of showtime lead to increased speed. Your students are not lying when they say, ‘I know it was five minutes long when I practice last night!’ after you tell them that the speech lasted three minutes and forty-seven seconds. Giving a speech in front of Mom in the living room is not the same as presenting it to thirty peers in the classroom. …[T]o begin with, we should try discuss with students the need to pay attention to the speed of the delivery. Then, we can teach them the more complex issues of pacing and using pauses.
There are three basic skills here:
- Be conscious of your speed while giving a speech.
- Use the speed of the speech to enhance the message (i.e., pacing)
- Pause for effect
For speaking, start with PVLEGS
This post as focused on teaching students how to deliver a speech well, but that’s only part of the Common Core speaking and listening standards. Yet, a key tenet of the non-freaked out approach to the Common Core is that we take on one thing at a time. So go teach your students PVLEGS, and then let’s talk about character next week for our last installment in this series.