Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Let’s Talk About Speech, Baby: Speech & Debate and the Common Core

By on February 2, 2014

Besides being a Language Arts teacher, I am also a Speech and Debate coach.  I haven’t written about it too much, not for any reason other than I spend a lot of time geeking out over curriculum design in teaching Reading and Writing.  But coaching a Speech team as a full-time Language Arts teacher takes up a huge percentage of my brain and time, so it seems only fair that I tip my hat to those standards which I find equally important: Speaking and Listening.

There has been a huge surge of popularity in forensics as of late.  When I say forensics, of course, I don’t mean that which happens on NBC during an episode of CSI, but that which is about the study of oral speaking and argumentation.

I’ve often been asked by coaches and teachers for permission to come observe my speech elective or have a sit and pick my brain about what makes the team so competitively successful and how to implement such a program into their own schools.    After all, teachers know the truth: that for all a student may understand content, it means nothing without the ability to communicate that content.

I’m note sure why forensics is taking off in such a big way lately, but I can’t help but wonder if both standardization and the Common Core have something to do with it.  For one thing, with the onset of standardization, we have neglected the more advanced student.  You can’t standardize and individuate at the same time.  That’s an oxymoron that only morons ask of us, and as a result parents and students have hit upon a sport that is both challenging and recognizably necessary in terms of college and career readiness.

Which beings me to the Speaking and Listening standards required by the Common Core.  Speech and Debate clearly hits them unlike almost any other elective and more so than some core classes themselves.  But that doesn’t need to be the case, for unlike other activities, Speech and Debate skills can be successfully integrated into any core curriculum.

In terms of Speech and general oral presentation, the Common Core states that student must:

mic CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.4  – Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.5  – Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.6  – Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.


And that doesn’t even include the researching, reading comprehension, and writing standards that are hit when you begin to integrate debate into your curriculum.

Additionally, in terms of the need to incorporate these skills into our regular schooling, I also find myself thinking about other possible rationale.  I think about that claim by the CDC that 1 in every 70 boys has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and how these students will be mainstreamed into our classrooms if they haven’t been already.  I think about children, seemingly younger and younger these days, heads bowed into their DS or tablet  at the restaurants and dinner tables around the world.  I think about the recent call for a focus on STEM, the logical side of the brain, a call that inherently downgrades the importance of linguistic communication.

For all of these reasons: the appearance in the new standards AND our awareness that there is a gap in students’ communication skills, we must incorporate speech (and even debate as argumentation) into our mainstream class rooms.

But what does that look like in a class that isn’t Speech and Debate?  How can we bridge that communication gap for those students who don’t independently reach out to push themselves in oral speaking?

The answer is that all classes should adopt some kind of standard in oral presentation. For instance, every Project Based Learning unit that I design culminates in an oral presentation of some kind.  It takes time to get through, but it’s vital.  Of course, you can also assess oral speaking in a less formal way as well.  The important thing is to establish your criteria early, assess often, and hold students to your standards; and it is equally important that these standards are hopefully expected across the classes, from ELA to ELD, from History to Math, from Science to P.E.,  so that those skills more deeply transfer beyond the walls of school.

In Language Arts, when students present in front of the class or even simply raise their hand to respond,  I hold them to the following (if applicable):

Volume Can I hear you from the back of the room? Do you remain consistent in your volume throughout your presentation?

Stance – Are you doing the “Middle School Rock”?  The “8th Grader Hip Lean”? The “7th Grade Jig”? Are you clutching the pedestal for dear life?  Do you have good posture?  Are you cracking your knuckles?  Are you wearing your nerves on your sleeves?  Everyone’s nervous, but how well are you concealing your jitters?

Emphasis – Is there topography to your words that tells me you understand/comprehend the material from word to word and idea to idea?  Are you presenting like you are interested in what you yourself are saying?  Do you have have passion in your voice?  Are there too many ums or uhs?  Are you monotone or is there emotion in your voice?

Eye Contact – Are you trapped to your cards/notes? Do you only use the cards for spot-checking your place in the content or are they your lifeline?  Do you connect with your audience or are you looking for the words to be found on the ceiling or floor?

Content  – How is the actual quality of your writing?  Do you cite your evidence?  Do you cite your pictures and your graphs?  (Even though you have gotten a grade for the quality of your essay already, you were given the opportunity to revise prior to this presentation.) How well did you revise?  How deep was the content?  Did the evidence help prove the position of the author?

Visuals – How well do your visuals aid your audience’s understanding of the material?  Do you balance graphics and text?  Is the information chunked appropriately from slide to slide?  Is the text that we see merely what you are saying or does it add to/supplement what you are saying?  Are the words highlighting main points or have you just cut and pasted paragraphs onto slides?  Do the visuals help enhance the text?


In the future, I’ll share a bit about some of the activities that I do in both Language Arts and Speech and Debate to highlight oral presentation, fluency, and comprehension.  In the meantime, however, assess each student’s level of comfort by simply observing them informally.  Then, establish your Speaking standards and hold students to, if not reaching them, then growing towards them the best that each child can achieve.

In the end, it may not win every student a trophy, but it will help to make them winners in whatever future they decide is worth competing for.

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