Evaluating Speaking

Look around your building. You will see students speaking, sometimes informally, sometimes formally.  Sometimes teachers grade those speaking assignments.  (If PARCC and SBAC are successful, all teachers will have to grade the speaking assessments they develop).  Now look closely at the rubrics and score sheets that are being used.  Each one is unique.  No two teachers have the same idea of what it takes to be an effective speaker.  This means that our students will get inconsistent, sometimes contradictory, and often very wrong comments making it very difficult to piece together how to become competent communicators. We don’t really know how to evaluate speaking.

I wrote previously about the two very distinct components of all oral communication: building the speech (all the things you do before you open your mouth) and performing the speech (all the things you do as you are speaking). Understanding that distinction is the beginning point for creating effective rubrics.  Too often, teachers hand out rubrics that jump from ‘building” to “performing” elements: Content, 10 points; Volume, 10 pts.; Organization, 10 pts.; Eye contact, 10 pts.; and so on.  Worse, many teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: Content, volume, and pacing, 20 points.  A student develops content before the day of the talk, but volume and pacing are considerations as he is talking.

Multiple items on one scoring line create another problem, as well.  If the score sheet says “Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points,” did I get a 6 because I was loud enough and clear enough but spoke way too fast?  Was I a little off on each of the three things?  Was I pretty far off on two of the three?  A student will have no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

In this case, we could solve the ‘multiple item on one line’ problem by breaking those three apart: Speak loudly 5 pts.; speak clearly 5 pts.; speak slowly 5 pts., for example.  But this reveals another problem.  Two of those three descriptors are wrong.  It is not necessary to always speak loudly.  Sometimes a quiet voice is very powerful. 

When my father said softly, “Erik, come here,” I knew something big was about to happen.  Yes, every word needs to be heard but speaking loudly is often inappropriate.  Speaking slowly is equally wrong.  Recounting the exciting play when the winning goal was scored demands a quick pace.  Don’t read this slowly:

                    The defender slipped slightly. I quickly pushed the ball past him and raced to the goal.  Two other defenders came rushing at me.  The keeper’s eyes lit up.  I fired off a shot just as the defenders converged on where the ball had been.  Too late!

It is wrong to suggest to students that they need to speak slowly.  They should pay attention to speed, for sure, and they should be taught how to adjust it for effect.

          In my work with teachers around the country, I have seen many different words used to evaluate just the performing part of speaking:

          Intonation, elocution, articulation, inflection, expression, enthusiasm, loudly, pitch, rhythm, clearly, slowly, volume, hold head up, body language, posture, tone, eye contact, poise, look at audience, stand up straight, gestures, projection, body movement, enunciation, presence, fluid expression, confidence, interesting voice

You may find more at your school.  Some of these are misguided and some are confusing words for students.  In any case, imagine the difficulty we give our students when we bury them with different descriptors and bad advice.  Let me offer some solutions.

  • Develop a consistent, school-wide language.  When a student moves from grade to grade or from class to class, she should be able to expect the same grading system.  Don’t have one teacher score “articulation and posture,” another “elocution and loudness,” another “hold head up and enunciation,” and so on.
  • Make sure teachers separate “building a speech” elements from “performing a speech” elements on your rubric.  On the top half of the score sheet, score content, organization, and visual aids; on the bottom half, score poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed.  Give both parts equal weight.  Don’t make the performance unimportant; don’t make the performance outweigh lack of content.
  • Use simple language.  “Elocution,” “presence,” “fluid body language,” are not student friendly words.  “Speak each word clearly,” “be poised,” and “use hand, face, and body gestures” are more accessible terms.
  • Don’t use misleading words.  Think hard about each word as I demonstrated with “loudly” and “slowly.”  “Enthusiasm” is inappropriate in the speech about your grandmother’s death.
  • A speech is for an audience.  The audience opinion must be part of the grade.  Every listener must have some form to score as he or she listens to the speech.  No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest.  Students are very good evaluators and they know poise when they see it, they know if the speech covered the required content.  Additionally, involving the students makes them attentive and critical listeners—something necessary to address the listening part of that CCSS Speaking and Listening standard.

March 2012Eva…

Middle Level Insider
March 2012

Evaluating Students’ Speaking Skills

Erik Palmer

No two people have the same perspective about what constitutes an effective speaker. So, how can teachers fairly assess student speaking skills as they prepare for the Common Core State Standards?

As I shared in January’s Insider, building a speech and performing a speech are separate activities. When we build a speech, we think about all the things we do before we ever open our mouths; when we perform a speech, we think about all the things we do while we are talking.

Understanding the distinction between building and performing is the foundation for creating effective rubrics to assess student speaking.

Too often, teachers combine disparate elements on their rubrics: “Content, volume, and pacing—20 points.” Or they combine multiple factors on one scoring line: “Spoke loudly, clearly, and slowly—10 points.” Did the student get a 6 because she was loud enough and clear enough but spoke too fast? Was she a little off on each of the three things? She has no idea what to work on before the next presentation.

Separate “building a speech” elements from “performing a speech” elements on your rubric. On the top half of the score sheet, score content, organization, and visual aids; on the bottom half, score poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. Give both parts equal weight.

Get Focused
You do not need to use the same rubric for every oral presentation. For example, I use a six-trait writing rubric for evaluating student writing, but I do not score all traits on all assignments. I might give a 10-minute prompt and say, “Our focus today is on word choice. Use powerful words and well-chosen adjectives.” Next time, I might focus on content and detail.

Similarly, you can tell students that in today’s presentation, we will focus on eye contact and look at classmates as we talk. Or, for the next oral book report, we will focus on organization and on gestures.

Be Consistent
Always use the same terms when you talk about performance. At the beginning of the year, I introduce PVLEGS as the six traits of all performances: poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures, and speed. I may not score each element each time, but I never vary the language. “Gestures” never becomes “body language” or “movement.”

Use simple language. “Elocution,” “presence,” and “fluid body language” are not student-friendly words. “Speak each word clearly,” “be poised,” and “use hand, face, and body gestures” are more accessible terms.

Develop a consistent, school-wide language. When students move from grade to grade or from class to class, they should be able to expect the same grading system. Don’t have one teacher score “articulation and posture,” another “elocution and loudness,” another “hold head up and enunciate.”

Involve the Students
A speech is for an audience, and the audience’s opinion must be part of the grade. All listeners should have rubrics to score their classmates’ speeches. No, it doesn’t become a popularity contest. Students are good evaluators and they know poise when they see it; they know if the speech covered the required content.

Involving the students also makes them attentive, critical listeners—which is important when you address the listening part of that Common Core State Standards Speaking and Listening standard.


Erik Palmer, a former teacher, is a consultant, AMLE Conference presenter, and author of the book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse 2011). E-mail: erik_palmer@comcast.net

  January 2012…

Middle Level Insider 
January 2012

Teaching Students About Speaking

Erik Palmer

Common Core State Standards are part of many of our lives now—or soon will be. One of the standards that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the Speaking and Listening standard.

Although all teachers at all grade levels in all subjects require students to speak in their classrooms, few teachers have been given instruction on how to teach speaking.

When SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments come online, will your students be ready? Just as important: will you be ready?

The Components
All speaking, regardless of purpose, has two distinct parts: building the speech and performing the speech. This is true for all oral communication: one-on-one, small group, large presentation, webinar, video, and more.

Building a speech refers to all the things we do before we ever open our mouths. We think of the audience, we work on the content, we organize the content, we construct visual aids, and we may even dress up—all before we ever say a word to the audience, camera, or microphone.

Presidents, actors, and newscasters have people who build speeches for them. It is a special talent, and some students will be better at creating the communication, some will be better at performing.

Performing a speech refers to all the things we do as we are talking. I use the word performing instead of delivering to emphasize the true nature of the task. As we speak, we need to be poised, we need to be sure every word is heard; we need to have some life in our voices; we need to make eye contact, we need to gesture, we need to pay attention to pace—all during our address to the audience, camera, or microphone.

Some students have a special talent when it comes to speaking, but all students can be better performers if we give them specific instruction.

  • Teach inflection. Have students play with phrases and techniques that bring life to the message. Help them determine how and where to add emotion. “Never ever use my toothbrush on that dog’s teeth again!” “Almost one billion people on the planet do not have enough food to eat. One billion.”
  • Teach gestures. Put up phrases that demand gestures. “My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst!” “There’s a bug in my hair!” “He picked up the dandelion and blew the seeds into the air.” Discuss what hand, face, and body gestures add that little something to the performance.
  • Teach poise. Use a webcam or inexpensive video camera and record students speaking. Play back the video and discuss distracting behaviors such as fidgeting and shuffling, and how students might overcome those behaviors.

As with all things, the more opportunities students have to speak, and the more instruction—and constructive feedback—you can provide, the more prepared they will be when the Common Core Standards come calling.

Coming Up
In the next issue of Middle Level iNSIDER, we’ll look at strategies for building effective rubrics for oral activities.


Erik Palmer, a former teacher, is a consultant, AMLE Conference presenter, and author of the book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse 2011). E-mail: erik_palmer@comcast.net

Why they have Oscars for actors and for screenwriters

I attended an Oscar party this year.  On the evening of the television show, we all arrived at the hosts’ house and were given an Oscar ballot as we walked in.  Each of us marked off our predicted winner for each of the many awards to be given.  While this could be used as a wagering tool, we simply used it to help sustain interest during the long show.  “Yes!  Best black-and-white short documentary in a foreign language!  I have five points now!”  As I marked my ballot, I noticed that there are many awards for acting and many for writing.  This is not a particularly astute observation.  I am sure you noticed this as well.  What may have escaped your notice is how profoundly this distinction should impact the way we understand and teach speaking.

Someone creates the words.  Someone delivers the words.  These are two distinct talents.  The writer is probably not a great performer.  The performer is not likely to be a great writer.  But all speaking involves these two very different parts.  Whether we are speaking one-on-one, in a small group, or to a large audience, both parts are involved.  And for all us regular folks, we have to master both parts by ourselves.

Understanding the distinction between creating and delivering is the first step in becoming effective teachers of oral communication.  I refer to these two parts as building a speech and performing a speech.   “Building” refers to everything we do before we open our mouths; “performing” refers to everything we do as we are speaking. 

 Let’s think about building a speech first.  Sometimes the process is instantaneous—coming up with what to yell at the umpire after a bad call.  Sometimes we work hard to construct our comments—deciding what to say at the eulogy.  But before we speak, we do certain things.  If we are to be effective, we think about the audience and design our talk specifically for them; we come up with content; we organize our words; we may design some aids for the talk; and we adjust our appearance to fit the situation.  Again, we do this for all verbal communication, whether our audience is one person (interview), a few people (discussion), or many people (presentation), but we often do these things without giving them all as much thought as we should.  Some people are very good at building speeches (professional speechwriters exist, right?) and some students will excel at this part of oral communication.  All students, though, and indeed, all speakers, need to understand what is required before we ever utter a word.

Of course it makes no difference how well remarks are constructed if they are never spoken.  I prefer to use the word performance rather than the word delivery because I think the former does a better job of conveying what is really involved.  In any event, as we speak, we need to do certain things.  We need to be poised; we need voices that make it possible for every word to be heard; we need some life in our voices to avoid being dull and boring; we need to make eye contact with audience members; we need to gesture; and we need to pay attention to speed and pacing.   If we do those things, we will be effective conveying the message no matter what the situation is—interview, discussion, or presentation.  Some people are very good at performing (professional speakers exist, right?) and some students excel at this part of oral communication.  But, again, all students need to understand what is required as they speak.

I realize that there are many ways to describe the skills I refer to here.  We have buried our students with an impressive number of descriptors: content, subject knowledge, information, appropriate facts, the 5 Ws, clear message, articulation, enunciation, elocution, speak clearly, intonation, expression, inflection, enthusiasm, and so on.  I will make an argument for consistency and simplicity another day.  Whatever language you use, clearly separate the words that describe what we do before we speak from the words that describe what we do as we speak.

I sometimes get a “Well, duh” reaction when I explain this, as if everyone already knows this.  At some intuitive level, I think we all do know this but look around your building.  How many teachers specifically talk to students about this crucial distinction?  How many score sheets and rubrics are being used in your building that don’t keep these separate (e.g., “Content, vocabulary, and delivery are appropriate”)?  How many students can articulate, “Well, I’m pretty good at constructing a talk but not so good at giving it” or vice versa?  If we all know this, why do I see so little evidence of it?

The distinction between building a speech and performing a speech is profound, and understanding that distinction will make a profound difference in the way students and teachers approach all oral communication.  It is the starting place for mastering speaking.

Kill the messenger

You have heard the phrase before. Someone brings you some bad news, and, as you begin to get upset, he says, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” In my first teaching assignment years ago, our team leader said it often. He went to all the meetings and came back with reports of all the new things we had to teach, new forms we had to fill out, new laws we had to be aware of, new programs we had to implement, and as we got agitated and began to complain, he always used the phrase on us. It certainly seemed fair. Why vent at him when it was the policy we hated?Lately, I have come to think differently. There are cases where we should kill the messenger. (This is a metaphor—I am a non-violent person.)

I attended a webinar about implementing Common Core Standards. Most teachers are going to have to figure out what these standards are, and most teachers are going to be hesitant or resistant. We can kid ourselves, but change is difficult and teachers are generally buried. Class concerns, parent calls, after-school activities, grading, lesson plans, and meetings are all-consuming. The district curriculum specialist has time to explore the Common Core, but the classroom teacher doesn’t. So someone has to be the messenger to bring the Common Core to the teacher. And that messenger had better be good.

Which brings me back to the webinar. What was really needed there was a high-powered communicator with excellent oral communication skills. First, the speaker had to make sure the presentation was designed for the audience: a room full of teachers at the end of the teaching day who are not really looking for something new to worry about. I was stunned that the district specialist seemed to have no idea what the audience was thinking. The speaker should have well designed visual aids that engage the audience, but instead we saw slides like the one pictured above (intentionally blurred but you get the idea). The speaker should have content that is understandable, but instead we were buried in jargon: “Present overview of CCSS for C&I and SARC.” Before the speaker ever opened his mouth, the presentation was doomed. It was poorly constructed.

Of course, no matter what is constructed, it has to be delivered. In person, speakers command some attention; in a webinar, the absence of a physical speaker diminishes the attention level of the listener so the speaker has to be exceptional. The speaker has to be lively, engaging, maybe humorous, animated, powerful—these are necessary to sell any new idea. But the webinar speaker was none of those. So the staff now generally hates Common Core. We should have killed the messenger. He ruined the presentation and poisoned the Common Core.

The cost of ineffective oral communication is high. I was recently at Curtis School in Los Angeles because they know that. They realize that an effective school requires great verbal skills for all adults. Teachers in class, in parent conferences, and at back to school nights; leaders presenting new initiatives to teachers and parents; support staff who are the first people parents see when they enter the school; staff members who present at workshops and conferences—education is a verbal business, but not all educators are comfortable or competent speakers.

We absolutely must teach students to become better oral communicators. It is part of the Common Core Standards, and more importantly, a huge part of success in life. But we must also teach adults to become better communicators. We are the messengers. How many great ideas in your school died because they were presented poorly? How many parents got upset because a teacher communicated poorly? How many times have you looked around at a staff meeting and seen glazed eyes and clear disinterest? If these have happened, kill the messenger. Or better yet, get them some help.

Before you flip your classroom…

Evidence that you are getting old:
You watch the Grammy’s and don’t know many of the performers.
You say, “These students used to be so much better.”
You think the flipped classroom is a big deal.

Let me focus on just the last one. Older folks are making the decisions in your district. They are easily amazed by all the new-fangled gadgets. Interactive whiteboards and response systems! Wow! If you touch the board, stuff happens!! If you tap “A” on the little thingy, the answer shows up on the board!! We gotta have that!! Will the teachers use it? Does it improve scores? Will the glitz wear off leaving you with a “the emperor has no clothes” sort of thought? I don’t know, I just know it is really cool like the stuff I saw on Star Trek as a kid! And so your building has lots of seriously expensive and seriously underused tech stuff.

Now comes the flipped class idea. Wow! You can use this stuff to make a video? Then you can post it on that internet place? And kids have things they can watch it with? That is so amazing!! Why I bet these kids today will just love that sort of thing. They loves their computers and I just know they will love watching us on those little screens!

The debate about the value of flipped classrooms is raging. Does it just reinforce ‘the sage on the stage’? Do students do their video-watching homework? Is it right for all kids? Does it put students in charge of their own learning? And so on. I won’t get into the debate here. I will just say this: you aren’t that good.

That is a rough statement, perhaps even rude. But think about this: actors get paid well for a reason. They can do something that few people can do—they can be very impressive on a screen. Very, very few of us can command attention in a digital format. All media (radio, TV, podcast, webinar) require much more than in-person communication requires. When you digitize a live presentation, the nature of the small screen/small speaker makes a great presentation seem good; a good presentation seem blah; a blah presentation seem dreadfully boring. Who in your building has the chops to pull this off? Way less than you think. One out of twenty? One out of fifty?

And think about this: editors and special effects and foley artists and soundtrack people get paid well for a reason. They can do things that few people can do—they can enhance a presentation. No one wants to watch a teacher talk for an hour. No one wants to listen to ten minutes of looped jingles you added from GarageBand as a soundtrack. No one wants to watch you write on a dry erase board or watch a Camtasia screen capture. It is cruel to ask students to watch some of the things being created, and if many teachers switch to flipped classrooms, forcing our kids to go home and spend an entire evening watching the junk we create will be beyond the bounds of reasonable. YOU go watch an hour of some the stuff out there and see how YOU like it.

I started out teaching students how to be better oral communicators. Lately, I have been getting calls to work with adults, also. Schools and universities are contacting me not to show the faculty how to teach oral communication to students, but to show the faculty how to be better communicators themselves. These institutions realize that to be effective educators, we all need to be more effective speakers. They realize that in an era where digital media showcase oral communication skills, we need to seriously improve those skills before we attempt to use the new communication tools available.

Maybe the current fascination with the flipped classroom will wear off and the fad will fade. Maybe education will be forever changed. I know this is true, though: Don’t even think of heading down that road unless you first absolutely master oral communication. Yes, this stuff is all new and wow-inspiring, but to pull it off, your speaking needs to be wow-inspiring also. Start there. http://www.pvlegs.com

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