aha moment, choices, inspiration, lessons learned, student voice

Teaching Students How to Speak Well – A Unit to Explore

It had never occurred to me that I haven’t taught my students how to speak well.  After all, for the past 7+ years my students have spoken in front of their peers.  I have told them to stand up straight, to speak clear and loud and to establish eye contact.  That should be enough, right?  Except for the last 7+ years I have also sat through one terrible presentation after another.  Yes, most have spoken loudly, yes, most have had some stilted eye contact, and yes, most have stood up fairly straight.  Yet, most have also been terrible presenters.  No passion, no enthusiasm, no special something that have made them enjoyable to listen to. I figured it was because I taught elementary school and perhaps better speaking skills would develop naturally.

As a 7th grade teacher, now I can see that they don’t.  My 7th graders still present fairly poorly and I realized, with the help of Erik Palmer, that we need to teach how to speak well.  Not just assume that students will figure it out over the years.  We need to teach it early, we need to teach it often, and we need to teach it every year.  So I have snagged ideas from Erik’s article and adapted them to fit our purpose.  Feel free to use and make your own and check out his other resources as well, it has been easy and fun to use.

The main idea I have borrowed from Erik is his 6 points of what a great speaker does.  These have been the framework for this week and as we go forward.  It has been essential for my students to have common language and a framework to develop them as speakers and this is what Erik discusses quite well.

These have been the guiding points for our lessons and have also been the base points of our rubric.

While we will be doing speeches all quarter, our first assignment was given on the very first day of the quarter to give the students a goal to work toward.  Assignment:  Create a one minute speech answering “How do you want to be remembered at the end of 7th grade?” (Thank you Josh Stumpenhorst for the inspiration).  To see the entire assignment, see here.

I have tweaked their first speak to be given in a circle format.  Our school uses counseling circles/restorative justice circles throughout the year and every Tuesday all of our students do circles with their homeroom teacher.  This format for delivering a speech means that my students are automatically more comfortable, which is a huge barrier in 7th grade.  They are so worried about what their peers are thinking about them.  And that is something I have faced head on when I have been teaching them how to speak.  My biggest tool has been my own enthusiasm and tendency to screw up and laugh about it.  I have no problem making mistakes in front of them to take the pressure off of them.

So what have we been doing?  Note: these lessons are about 10 minutes long, maybe 15 depending on the discussions.

Big talking points every single day:

  • What have they been taught in the past and why they need to learn better skills.
  • The need to trust others when we speak or at the very least assume that others mean us well when they watch.
  • The need to step a little out of their comfort zone.
  • That speaking well is a life skill, something that will help them be more successful in life.


Student definition:  Your swag, or how you use your body to match your message.

  • Discuss what is poise, have the students get up and move showing you poise.  They started off very hesitantly, which is ok, I have been taking baby steps.
  • Every student gets a Shell Silverstein poem and are told to practice speaking it aloud.  I then fishbowl the next activity – perform the poem just worrying about poise, none of the other things, and have their mirror (partner) critique them kindly.
  • I then partnered them up randomly and had them perform the poems in front of just their partner.  I helped them coach each other and we talked about how to give kind criticism that allows others to grow.


Student definition:  Controlling how you speak to match the message.

  • Discuss what is voice, why it is important to take control of your voice and how it is not just all about being loud and clear at all times.
  • Video clips of powerful speakers.  After giving them background knowledge about Hitler and his powers of persuasion, I showed them a one minute clip with no subtitles just so they could see how he used his speaking skills to incite people.  This really caused a reaction in my students because they saw how powerful being a great speaker can be and how that power can be used for good or evil.
  • I then juxtaposed that with clips of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who used their voices in much different manners and yet still had people follow them.
  • The students then worked on what type of voice would be needed for their speech assignment.


Student definition:  The passion you bring to your speech has to match your message.

  • We faced our demons head on this day as we discussed why most 7th graders have a hard time speaking in front of people.  This was excellent because the kids offered very honest answers about their fear of being judged by others or screwing up.
  • I then told them about major screw ups I have had as a teacher such as substituting words in read alouds for the wrong very bad words, clean underwear falling out of my pant leg while teaching thanks to static, and other fun things that happen when you are a teacher.
  • I read aloud Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems and did the emotions and voices.  I actually made them laugh out loud because I went there, something that is hard to get 7th graders to do.  This was important because they needed to see me let down my barriers.  Then we talked about allowing us to be silly when we need to be such as when we read picture books aloud and I promised them that I would be the craziest person that day.
  • We discussed why it can be extra hard to read aloud in front of others because we worry about screwing up the words.
  • They then each got one line or two from Jabberwocky, a phenomenal nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll.  Why this poem?  Because students can’t mess up the pronunciation of the words, who knows how they are supposed to be pronounced?  They got one minute to practice how they were going to perform their line with as much life in their voice as they could.
  • I lined them up in order and each student performed their line.  Some classes we did it twice to allow the kids to build up their courage.
  • This was awesome, the kids laughed – laughed!  And not at each other but with each other.  This was a huge break through for my kids.

Eye Contact

Student definition:  How we look at our audience and how they look at us

  • We did different things in different classes based on their unique mix of personalities:
    • Most classes I did an eye contact experiment: Two students sat in front of the class while two other students came up.  The two seated students shut their eyes and then had to report whether the other two students were looking at them or not.  Most of the time they were wrong.  We did it a few times.  Mission: To prove that not everyone is looking when we think they are.
    • I had note-cards with different emotions on and we used them in different ways.  Some classes stood in a circle and acted out the emotions.  Others found a partner to do it.
    • Some classes I did an emotion charade scavenger hunt competition.  All students got an emotion but was not allowed to say it or tell others about it.  Four kids each got the same emotion (anger, sadness, excitement etc) and when I said go the students had to try to find their group partners without talking and gesturing, they could only use their emotion charades.  First team to correctly assemble got a prize.
    • All of these things may not seem like they have a lot to do with eye contact but they do; students had to pay attention and use their facial expressions to express their feelings.  This is all part of doing eye contact well and definitely helped students push themselves out of their comfort zone a little.


Student definition:  How our hand/body movements tell our message.

  • I have note-cards with different statements on them (“Yes, we won!, No….., What happened?” and such) and students will be acting them out using gestures, with no voice.
  • We also acted out different versions of the same words, such as “no, ok, and I’m sorry…”
  • Students will have to give directions of how to do something to their partner using only gestures, such as how to tie a shoe, how to mail a letter, how to make spaghetti.  Their partner will have to try to guess what they are doing.
  • We will also try to make emotions with our hands, so what do our hands do if we are sad, if we are confused, if we are happy and such.  The key is building awareness of our own bodies so we can control them when we speak.


Student definition:  How fast or slow we speak.

  • We will watch clips of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech paying attention to the way Martin Luther King Jr. changes his pacing to emphasize his message.   I also have various other clips of speakers to show up, just snippets so they can see speakers speak well.  It is important that students get a sense of many types of speakers; male and female, present and past.
  • Each student will decide which picture book to act out by themselves or with a partner, I have grabbed a stack of Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss for them to work on all of the elements.  They will work on all elements that we have been working on.
  • They will not perform in front of the class but instead in small groups and then kindly critique each other.

And that’s how we are starting.

As we move forward this quarter, I am excited to give them continued opportunities to speak and speak well.  Next year, this will be starting off the year.  Not only are we becoming better communicators, we are also building community.  The students are slightly kinder, slightly more relaxed, and having a bit more fun in English because they are all acting a little bit silly, getting into something a little bit more, and yet developing essential skills at the same time.  I am sad that I hadn’t taught this before but at least I can correct my ways starting now.  All students deserve to have the opportunity to become great speakers and their practice starts with us.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

13 thoughts on “Teaching Students How to Speak Well – A Unit to Explore”

  1. Thanks for advancing the cause! And of course, thanks for giving your students help with the #1 language art, speaking. Other resources: goo.gl/ven2jp (my words animated as I speak), goo.gl/sOrLp (the book that introduces the framework with lessons & activities), goo.gl/hylp86 (another testimonial), my website http://www.pvlegs.com. If only 10% of our students pass the test, we didn’t teach well. If only 10% of our students speak well, that is our fault as well. Teach speaking.

  2. This post was a wonderful read Pernille. Excellent, practical advice on how to improve our students’ abilities to speak with greater confidence and clarity. You are right, our kids need to be explicitly taught these skills as part of the literacy curriculum- as important as reading and writing.

    My 5th graders wrote and illustrated simple narratives which were professionally bound into books.

    We created a simple rubric.
    Their first task was to write and simply illustrate a narrative that would engage younger kids. We looked at and analysed countless junior kids’ books. Some chose to do this in partners.

    Their second task was to read their stories to younger kids ( at our school)

    Their challenge was to keep their young audience engaged in:
    • The story content ( focusing on excellent writing skills)
    • Expression, body language, eye contact tone of voice.

    Besides the immense enjoyment the kids experienced creating their books, they focused independently on proofreading and editing – checking and rechecking to get it right. They had a personal desire to engage their younger audience.

    •The strong, creative writers managed independently.
    •The strong, creative illustrators shone.
    •The strong, confident kids read their stories aloud using all the speaking skills we had been focusing on.
    •The not so strong writers and illustrators required support and guidance along the way.

    However, each student accomplished their challenge of engaging their younger audience who loved listening to their older peers sharing their books.

    Thanks Pernille, for focusing on speaking. After all, most jobs are clinched after the face to face interview and are not only based on the ‘wonders’ of a written CV.


  3. A fantastic post, thank you. I did speech and drama throughout high school and was always frustrated when I had teachers who didn’t speak well. This is an issue that has to be addressed too. Can we expect students how to do something we can’t all do ourselves? I hope your post encourages some teachers to reflect on their own presence in the classroom. As Erik said, it is the number 1 language art.

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