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I earned an endorsement in “speech” for my teaching license. (I’m in Illinois.) In college, I took extra communication courses and observed high school speech classes. Plenty of my extracurricular activities (plus my classes) required me to prepare and deliver speeches. When I started teaching, I had experienced public speaking activities as a student and a teacher observer.
Still, I felt underprepared to teach public speaking. My first year of teaching, I thought materials were lacking on the Internet, from textbooks, from anywhere (and I searched). This was pre-TpT and I was sinking or swimming. My textbook for the class was about sixty years old, and I had no teacher edition.
That first year I did lots of paddling, but over the years I grew confident in teaching a speech class.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t make mistakes; I made plenty. Through messy lessons, too-short of lessons, and confused students, I learned to provide structure for students without squashing them. I realized how much preparation was needed. I changed basic rubrics to rubrics that encouraged students to set goals and take ownership of their improvement. Scaffolding and modeling became part of my class.
So! I improved and reflected. After years of teaching public speaking, I crafted ideas for what would help young speakers. Hopefully, these activities help your speech classes too.
I created these public speaking activities to address common areas of concern with high schoolers. Most students fear the nature of a speech class, use too many fillers when speaking, and focus on one area, such as volume and forget about the rest: non-verbal communication, tone, eye contact, etc.
Through coaching speech, spending many weekends at speech tournaments, and teaching public speaking, I created these public speaking activities. I’ve seen variations of these or adapted these from activities geared toward younger students. These speech activities should work well with high school students, but you can modify them for younger or older students. These are included in my public speaking unit as well because they can be used numerous times.
Fillers can distract an audience from hearing a really well-developed speech. Sometimes speech students are unaware that they use fillers. Other times, students become nervous, pause, and fill the empty time with a filler. Talk with students about the reasons why fillers occur and if they have a time they rely on one. Showing compassion and understanding about a common problem during speeches will relax students, and they will be more likely to work on eliminating fillers.
Before starting, choose your topic and write a list of common fillers that don’t positively add to spoken communication: um, yeah, like, uh. Ask students to contribute to the list. I normally write the list so that students can consult it.
Instruct students to speak for 30 seconds (vary the time if necessary) and not use any fillers. Students should realize how easily fillers creep into their speech.
Each student will give a short speech for 30 seconds. The topic isn’t too important. You can choose one for the entire class or allow students to choose.
Students must restart their speech if they use a filler. Some students will try to pause and draw out the speech by not speaking, but most students speak at a normal pace. Overall, the audience is compassionate toward the speaker because everyone realizes the difficulty of not relying on these words.
This activity is perfect after the first formal speech. Students need to decompress, but they also need to eliminate fillers. When I ask students to write goals for their future speeches, eliminating fillers is a common goal.
2. Nonverbal practice
Nonverbal communication matters. To help students experience that, ask them to perform an activity where the focus is nonverbal communication.
Students will line up in alphabetical order only using nonverbal communication. I have students line up by order of their middle names since they typically know everyone’s last names. They experiment with different forms of nonverbal communication and have fun. Most often they make a capital letter with their fingers. If some students know middle names, they will switch classmates around.
The real practice is when students realize many of them have a middle name that starts with the same letter. “A” is a common one. Then students must figure out how to communicate the second letters of Aarron, Ann, Alice, and Abraham. I will say I’ve never had a class line up correctly.
This activity is the perfect introduction to nonverbal communication. As students continue through the semester, they’ll be able to focus on purposeful movements that emphasize their points. This nonverbal activity breaks the ice as you start to work on nonverbal communication.
3. One goal
Speeches can overwhelm students. Help students focus on one goal. The best part about the “one goal” activity is that students choose their focus.
As students continue with class, ask them what area they see as the greatest potential for improvement. Brainstorm areas as a class. There is no right or wrong! Students normally list eye contact, proper volume level, appropriate nonverbal communication, and natural movement. Then let students decide what they desire to improve.
Students will individually decide what they want to improve in their speaking—they will each have a goal. Some students want to work on eye contact, others want to balance their volume, others want to stop fidgeting. Then I divide students into small groups. Students will practice the current speech they are creating, receiving constructive feedback when they need to correct an action to meet their goal. Their group will also tell them when they did well and moved toward meeting their goal.
(This is a bit like #1 but fillers are such a huge issue with high school orators that it gets its own activity.) I normally do this activity later in the year after students are comfortable with each other. I also don’t do this activity if I feel a class may not give meaningful feedback. Finally, I share with students that improving in an area is part of most jobs. In teaching, for example, teachers often record themselves and reflect on the video later. They then develop goals for improvement in their profession. (Sometimes it is a public speaking goal!)
This activity works well to meet individual goals and to build classroom community. My speech rubrics contain a spot for consideration on improvement of a goal. Plus, the art of reflection will serve students in any field or career, so I stress that message to them. This focused practice works well because it encourages students to work on a goal in which the teacher had very little involvement.
4. M&M/ Skittles
Who doesn’t like candy? With this fun exercise, students share information about a topic. You’ll get students talking in a low-stress, engaging way.
This is a fun, quick activity. Bring a large bag of small candies like M&M or Skittles to class. Ask students to take as many pieces of candy as they like, but stress not to eat the candies yet. Pass the bag around. Then, students must tell a fact about themselves for each piece of candy. 15 pieces of candy? 15 facts.
This also works with review. 5 pieces of candy? Review 5 facts with the class concerning public speaking terms. After speaking, students may eat their candy. I’ve used a similar process in other classes to review material.
This activity works well as a review or as a first day of school activity. Students are publicly speaking in their speech class on the first day of school without any feedback or real regulations. Since the process is fun, their first experience in class is a positive one.
Most speeches in real life are actually impromptu speeches. Interviews, business meetings, and proposal presentations require people to think quickly and to speak eloquently, all while proving their point.
Activate prior knowledge with a bit of an anticipatory set. Ask students about a time they gave an impromptu speech (even though they did not probably label it “impromptu” at the time!). Most people can relate to the frustration of having ideas but not conveying them well. Many times, people think of what they should have said days later! Students probably face this frustration. Acknowledge that feeling, share they you’ve experienced it too, and supply a solution.
Thinking and speaking on your feet might come naturally to some people. With practice, even those who struggle to articulate their ideas under pressure can improve.
Have students organize a speech quickly by delivering an impromptu speech. Often I would ask a class to write a topic on a piece of paper. (Sometimes I would say that the topic needed to be persuasive or informative—but it always needed to be clean.) Students would write their topic, add it to a box, and draw from a box. The topics were great because I didn’t make them and because students knew they had the potential to draw their own.
After drawing, provide 30 seconds to outline their speech. Then, students will talk about the topic for one minute. As the school year continued, I would increase the speaking time.
Older students who have been in class for a bit will probably organize their speech with a general introductory statement, two concepts, and a concluding statement. (That varies, of course.) If students struggle with the format, create a quick outline they can apply to their topics.
Students enjoy creating their own topics and learn to speak on the spot in a mature, organized manner. At first, students groan about impromptu speaking. This area is actually where I see the most growth. Students gain confidence that they can think and speak quickly, and they start to enjoy the process.
Tone matters! Many adults don’t realize the tone that they convey shapes their communication. We should certainly work with our students concerning tone so that they are aware of its power. Not only can the wrong tone hurt speakers, but the right tone can also emphasize their message.
Define “tone” for students. Brainstorm times that students know their tone has affected them. (Normally students share stories about times they were in trouble with their parents for having the wrong tone.) Then think of times that the right tone conveyed the correct message. Students might struggle to come up with examples for best use of tone. Oftentimes, a tone that matches a speaker’s message doesn’t stand out, and that is probably because the tone was woven into the message so well.
Experiment with tone with students. Put students into groups, and assign a speaker. (Everyone will have the chance to be a speaker.) Give the speaker a list of emotions and a list of generic statements. Then ask the speaker to choose a question and an emotion that conveys tone.
Finally, the rest of the group must decide the speaker’s tone. This opportunity allows for discussion about intentional tone and miscommunication. You’ll want to circulate as students practice this.
Public speaking activities can be engaging and memorable. Students might be nervous about giving speeches, so provide a variety of opportunities for them to practice. Work on material slowly and purposefully. By helping students see success with public speaking, they will gain more confidence in your speech class and in life.
As you incorporate these activities into your speech units, you’ll discover that they are easily adaptable. You will start to personalize them for your learning community. Plus, you’ll find the perfect timing for each exercise. Teaching public speaking requires experimentation and reflection. I hope these help!
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