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.

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