Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Every year at this time, I notice that many of the schools I work with are holding or hosting speech competitions... which brings about some quality time for reflection.
I’m often asked to adjudicate these speech contests. Typically once they wrap up, there's a collective sigh of relief from teachers and much the same sigh from students!
Here's how this process typically goes:
Speech contest is marked down in the term calendar
Teachers make time to write speeches in class
There's normally a generic topic, for example “The world would be a better place if we……”
Students draft, edit and finalise their written scripts and then transfer these onto small ‘hide in the palm of your hand’ cue cards
Students might get time to practice in class, or this can be something done for homework
This leads to:
Everyone having to deliver their speech in front of the class over a period of time
The teacher and class pick the ‘best’ to go onto a syndicate competition
The best speech in the school might go to a regional or cluster competition
It becomes, essentially, an elite sport. If you think about it, it's almost like a cross country sports event, right?
Back when we had to run cross country, some of us pulled sickies and stayed ahome, some of us did it only to finish in the last bunch. Some of us were silly and mucked around the whole race, some of us practiced after school and tried hard, some of us went to athletics training outside of school to get the edge. Most of us knew that there was no way we could do well because Sarah Smith always won! Can we all relate to his experience? I think so!
On the face of it, speech contests are a great opportunity for schools to integrate formal speaking into their curriculum, however there are some big challenges.
I'd like to pose these challenges as a sequence of questions:
What happens if a teacher/or parent deems a student ‘too shy’ to participate?
What explicit teaching and learning happens beyond the writing of the text?
How are we providing explicit instruction in delivery and the management of anxiety when delivering?
How many students arrive at the task with skills that were not learned in the classroom?
Is there a learning progression associated with developing the skills for delivering speeches? If not, why not?
How are Assessment for Learning practices applied to this learning?
As a teacher, do you possess the skills to provide quality exemplar in speech delivery?
On the other hand, many schools have given up the explicit opportunity for students to participate in formal speaking situations. Probably because they recognise the inequity, the challenges in providing quality whole class instruction, and they have a strong eye on student wellbeing.
In my opinion, these polar opposite positions don’t serve students. As educators we have a responsibility to build student “presentation literacy” in a safe, structured, authentic and connected environment. The opportunity to develop this literacy needs to be equitable and available to all students. It’s totally doable!
Here are some questions school leaders can ask themselves to begin the process:
What are whanau aspirations around presentation confidence?
What breadth of delivery options are we providing that will engage students (spoken word, rap, pecha kucha, in front of audience, voice overs, videos etc.)
What will future employers expect from our students in terms of presentation skills?
How are we explicitly teaching the range of skills required to all learners?
What PLD support do our teachers need to implement effective practice in presentation literacy?
How can we build a culture where presenting is valued, engaging and fun for all.
If you are not convinced, here is a short TED clip, called 'How can you make your voice heard in a noisy world? The key is public speaking and presentation literacy, and we can help: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_bucknall_why_public_speaking_should_be_taught_in_schools
It unpacks the neuroscience and the importance of us all having this skill - I hope you enjoy the watch.
Del Costello Managing Director, Coactive Education