Improving Your Students' Speaking Skills

This is a guest post by Erik Palmer, educator and VoiceThreader.

New ears. Listen very carefully to student speaking. If you listen with new ears, it will be obvious that students do not speak well. Let me give you some examples…from VoiceThread. I will tell you up front that I love VoiceThread. I have written about and recommended using VoiceThread in three of my books: Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse Publishers, 2012), Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2013), and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016). I think VoiceThread is a valuable tool for continuing discussions, giving voice to the quiet students, getting feedback from students, and much more.

It is also, however, a tool for demonstrating how poorly students speak. Click the Browse tab on the home page. Listen to a few comments. Most are unimpressive. That seems harsh, I know. After all, these are just kids. We shouldn’t be critical. That’s just how kids talk. I understand that kind of thinking. It’s just that I disagree with that excuse. It is how they talk, but it is not how they can talk. Students can be much better speakers. We expect too little and we sell them short.

A serious problem is that teachers have never been given instruction about how to teach speaking. We aren’t exactly sure what it takes to be great at oral communication, and we certainly haven’t had workshops or classes about teaching speaking. We all sort of know some terms to toss out—elocution, enunciation, eye contact, loudly, slowly, expression—but there is no consistency of language from class to class, and there are no lessons on these skills. (By the way, telling a child to speak loudly and slowly is very bad advice. You would hate if speakers you were listening to spoke loudly and slowly.)

Years ago, I created a framework for understanding how to become effective at all forms of oral communication: one-to-one, small group, large group, in-person, or digitally. My students found it simple to grasp and enormously helpful to them. First, I pointed out that there are two very different parts of oral communication: building the talk (everything you do before you open your mouth) and performing the talk (everything you do as you are speaking). Both are equally important. I want kids to create a great comment for VoiceThread, for instance, and I want them to say it in a way that gets the comment noticed and remembered. It is the second part that most teachers overlook as so many online student talks prove. To help students with that second part, performing the talk, I created six-trait speaking. The traits have the acronym P.V.LEGS. It’s silly, but it works. Read about it at

The bottom line is that VoiceThread and other tools showcase speaking. The tools work best if students know how to speak well before hitting record. A little time spent teaching speaking will make a huge difference and benefit all students for all time.

About the author:

Erik Palmer is an educational consultant from Denver, Colorado. Erik’s presentations draw upon 21 years of classroom experience, and have inspired educators across the U.S and around the world. Palmer is also the author of Well-Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students (Stenhouse, 2011), Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology (Stenhouse, 2012), Teaching the Core Skills of Listening & Speaking (ASCD, 2014), Researching in a Digital World (ASCD, 2015), and Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning (Stenhouse, 2016). You can find Erik on twitter at @erik_palmer, on his website or you canemail him here.