Developing Speaking Skills

(Notes from Integrating the Language Arts, 3rd Ed. 2004

Yellen, Blake, & DeVries

Holcomb Hathaway Publishers, Scottsdale, AZ)


            Speaking skills, like listening skills, are often neglected in the classroom or teachers assume that they are an area that does not require instruction or facilitation.  In order to communicate effectively through speaking, children must exhibit fluency, clarity, and an awareness of audience.  Such verbal communication skills are learned through practice and observation of an effective speaker, such as the teacher.


Creating a Positive Environment for Speaking Skills

            The key to encouraging speaking skills in the classroom is creating the proper environment.  Children should feel relaxed, and social interaction with peers should be encouraged.  One teacher of fourth grade suggests these goals:

To achieve these goals, the teacher organized her instructional program around two criteria: a positive, receptive teacher attitude and a physical environment conducive to language use.


Speaking Skills: Strategies and Activities:

            Most oral language instruction takes place indirectly; that is, the teacher creates the positive climate and the motivational activity, and the students do the rest.


            Conversation and Discussion:

            The teacher seeks to engage children in talk with other children in a relaxed atmosphere.  Socialization skills as well as language are enhanced when students engage in conversations and discussions.  Conversation is informal, spontaneous, and relatively unstructured.  Discussion is more formal and usually topic-centered talk.  It focuses on a specific topic or purpose.  Both are similar in that they build on the studentŐs home-learned experiences and serve to give practice in pronunciation, fluency, expression, and vocabulary.  They also help children build confidence to express themselves orally.

            Here are some classroom guidelines:

To practice conversation, a teacher could schedule several Ňtalking timesÓ each week.  During these times, several students get in a circle and talk about whatever interests them.  This is the Ňinner circle.Ó  Sitting around them in the Ňouter circleÓ are the rest of the students who listen and observe.  At the next Ňtalking timeÓ groups are switched.

            In the discussion strategy, sticking to the point is essential.  The goal of a discussion is to reach a conclusion or solve a problem.  Before starting the discussion, the topic should be clearly defined and understood by everyone.  Usually, it is stated in the form of a question (Should children have to do chores to earn an allowance?).  Great discussion topics come from literature, school events or problems, experiences, current news, etc.  Students discuss the topic and try to reach some sort of consensus.  Other types of discussions are panel discussions and debates.


            For transactional literature discussions, the following six steps are a good guideline for students:

1.     Get ready.  Skim the book for topics to discuss, using pictures, chapter names, etc.  Make oral predictions and test the reasons for each prediction.

2.     Read and stop to think aloud.  The teacher models what he or she is thinking as the group reads in order for students to lean how to think about the text as they read.

3.     Write a response.  Time is given to students to write short responses to the reading on Post-its.  These are self-selected responses, not responses to a set of teacher-directed questions.

4.     Engage in a discussion.  Students spend 15 to 30 minutes discussing their responses using the RQL2 strategy (Respond about likes or dislikes; Question aspects of the story they did not understand; Listen to classmates; Link story to oneŐs life).

5.     Write.  Based on the discussion, students are given time to write in their journals.

6.     Review.  As a group, the students review what they learned about human nature, about things in nature, about themselves, or about any concepts in the reading.



            One of the best ways to generate a number of ideas in a short amount of time is through the brainstorming strategy.  Brainstorming helps to stretch a studentŐs imagination, encourages group cooperation, and leads to creative thinking through spontaneous contributions by all group members.  Key principles of brainstorming include the following:

á      Select a problem or topic and react to it quickly.

á      Designate one person in the group as the recorder of ideas.

á      Accept and record all ideas or suggestions.

á      Build on other peopleŐs ideas.

á      Do not criticize anyone elseŐs ideas.

á      Remember that, initially, quantity of ideas is more important than quality.

Many teachers are familiar with brainstorming but do not utilize it effectively or frequently enough.  Plan to make the brainstorming strategy part of your teaching practices.  Model the process for students:

á      Begin with a whole-class brainstorming session where each student records his or her own ideas.

á      Provide a problem question as a stimulus and a time limit to eliminate frivolous ideas and daydreaming.

á      When time is called, let each student share his or her list.  Second, open up the brainstorming session to everyone.

á      The teacher records the ideas for the whole class at the chalkboard to model the role of the recorder.

á      You may begin to evaluate some of the ideas in terms of their effectiveness in solving the initial problem



Most information students gather for school projects comes from

traditional sources like the encyclopedia or internet.  Students need to learn that another way of gathering information is through interviewing, or asking someone for information or opinions.

            Donald Graves recommends teaching young children about interviewing by having them poll their fellow classmates for information.  In this simple polling technique, students choose a different interview or polling question to ask their classmates each day.  (Which is your favorite meal—breakfast, lunch, or dinner?  What is your favorite color?)  After polling, a bar chart could be made to show the results of the survey.

            Most students are familiar with interviews because of the many that are shown on television.  You could show models of good interviews and analyze them as a class.  Good interviewers keep in mind the following points:

á      Gather background information on the subject.

á      Learn something about the interviewee (person being interviewed).

á      Decide ahead of time on the information desired.

á      Formulate appropriate questions.

á      Anticipate follow-up questions based on the intervieweeŐs responses.

á      Determine how to begin and end the interview politely.

Interviewing is an important strategy for gathering information and conducting research on many topics.  However, you must eventually tie interviewing to real projects so that students can see a relevance to the research they are doing.  Here are two group projects that make interviewing authentic:


1.     Creating a Newscast:  The focus for this project is on fluent, distinct speaking so that each speaker is clearly understood.  The teacher divides the students into groups.  Each group researches its assigned segment of the news (local news, national news, weather, sports, etc.).  Then the group collaboratively writes a script for its segment.  Students practice so that their newscast is clear and fluent.  ItŐs important that each member of the group has a speaking part.  If the teacher can videotape each segment, the class can analyze the whole newscast together.

2.     Campaigning:  Students learn the power or oral persuasion through campaigning for a change within the school.  Students can divide into teams to write and create a campaign slogan and a 30-second campaign advertisement for the change.  Students should practice the advertisement so that it is clear and fluent.  The teacher then videotapes each one and plays them for the class.  They can be analyzed to determine why they are persuasive.  ItŐs important in critiquing for students to first name one or two things they really liked about the ad and why, and then to suggest one or two things the group could do to make it even better.


Dialogue Improvisation and Patterned Conversation:

In dialogue improvisation, students create new dialogue for the characters

in a familiar story as they act out a part of the story.

            In patterned conversation, the teacher chooses literature with predictable texts.  Students can use puppets or props to help them become one of the characters.  They use the pattern-phrases from the text to retell the story . . . or to take it in new directions.


            Show-and-Tell & Sharing:

            These are the oldest and most popular oral language activities used in the primary grades.  Generally the activity is a brief talk by a student describing a favorite object brought from home.  Although it is familiar and widely used, it is not a particularly effective oral language activity.  This is because it traditionally involves one child at a time getting up in front of the rest of the class.  The rest of the students are expected to listen attentively.  To make show-and-tell a truly meaningful activity, divide the students into small groups.  Then set aside time a few mornings a week for show-and-tell.

            To teach the strategy, bring something from your own home that is meaningful to you.  Show it to a small group of children and talk about it.  Allow the children to handle the object and to ask you questions about it.  In this way, they learn how to conduct the small-group show-and-tell activity in which everyone gets a chance to talk and share about his or her object.  Small groups are also less intimidating to young children.

            Another way to make this oral language activity truly meaningful is to ask caregivers to help their child prepare for show-and-tell.  The topic could be based on an experience or a small item found on a nature hike instead of an expensive toy.  As children become more and more familiar with this activity, their presentations improve and their talks are more organized.


Drama and Oral Language Development

            Television has made us a nation of spectators.  The current craze for video games has intensified this situation.  It is more important than ever that we make opportunities available for children to experience participation in the arts.  Drama is truly one of the great oral communication forms.

            Drama can take many forms in the classroom, from the simple dress-up play of preschoolers to full-blown theatrical productions with costumes, scenery, and memorized scripts.  Whatever the form, the objectives of drama in the classroom remain the same:



Pantomime is the art of conveying ideas without words and incorporates gestures and expressions.  It is more like theater acting in the sense that an entire story can be told through the movements of the characters.  Props and simple costumes can be used, but no speaking is allowed.

In preparing for their skit, students plan and talk among themselves.  They choose parts; decide on the movements they will use to convey their story; and make simple props, signs or costumes, if necessary.  This aspect of the preparation involves verbal communication.  But once the group gets onstage (the front of the class), no talking is allowed.  This is the real challenge of pantomime.

Another kind of group pantomime skit can be based on a familiar story that the class has heard or read.


Choral Speaking:

There are several kinds of choral speaking activities to choose from:

á      Antiphonal or dialogue:  Poems with two parts or a question-and-answer format are appropriate here.  Often the deep voices take one part while the light voices take the other.  This usually means the dialogue takes place between a group of girls and a group of boys.

á      Line-a-group or line-a-child:  In this approach, individuals or small groups read one line of a poem at a time.  They work to keep in harmony and tempo.

á      Refrain:  Narrative poems with a chorus are good candidates for refrain.  A teacher or student can recite the story, with the other children in the class joining in on the chorus.

á      Unison:  Although unison speaking appears simple, it really requires skill for the students to keep together.  Since everyone speaks every line, the rhythm and timing have to be perfect.  Almost every poem is appropriate for unison speaking.

á      Cumulative speaking:  One speaker begins, with other speakers, one by one, joining the first speaker.  This type of speaking helps the student who may be nervous or shy in front of classmates to gain confidence by speaking with others.

You may want to start choral speaking by just repeating some favorite poems to the children and having them join in with you.  With longer poems, you may want the students to have copies of the text for reference.  One pitfall you need to guard against is allowing this activity to become merely a test of oral fluency.  The true goal is to help children understand the meaning of poems and to interpret that meaning through oral expression.



            Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of entertainment.  It was the television and radio of long ago.  Today the art of storytelling has been revitalized in the United States.  Professional storytellers are appearing at festivals (like Weber StateŐs Storytelling Festival in November!), in concerts, and in elementary and secondary classrooms to share their art form.  Teaching children to tell stories to their classmates is one of the most effective ways to develop speaking skills in young children.

            To teach storytelling to children, it is not necessary to be a great storyteller yourself.  It is helpful, however, if you can demonstrate to children some of the characteristics of an effective storyteller.  A good storyteller should do the following things:

After you have demonstrated storytelling techniques, divide your class into small groups and have students practice telling stories to one another.  Storytelling is an art form that develops through practice.  When ready, the children can share their stories with the entire class.  Here are some activities to involve students in the art of storytelling:

á      Talk boxes:  Provide the group with three boxes containing index

cards.  The cards in the first box contain brief descriptions of characters.  Those in the second box contain brief plot descriptions, and those in the third box contain descriptions of settings.  Each child in the group chooses one card from each box.  They should study their cards for a few minutes and then make up a story that incorporates the character, plot, and setting listed.

á      Story boxes:  Teachers place a variety of objects into a box or large bag. 

Each child closes her or his eyes, reaches into the box or bag, and pulls out one object.  After the children examine the object and think about it for a while, they should each make up a story that includes the object in some manner.

á      Wordless books:  A wordless book tells a story through pictures alone. 

While turning the pages slowly, the ŇreaderÓ adds the narration and dialogue to create a complete story with beginning, middle, and end.  Once students see the wordless book strategy modeled by the teacher, they quickly pick up on it and begin telling stories themselves.

á      LiarŐs goblet:  Most children are familiar with tall tales (Paul Bunyan,

Pecos Bill, etc.).  They love to expand on and embellish their own adventures.  This activity builds on the idea of a the tall tale and on childrenŐs enjoyment of exaggeration.  It can be taught in the form of a game.  First, you need a goblet (a cup, glass, or mug will do).  One person in the group takes the liarŐs goblet and makes up a short but exaggerated tall tale.  The next person in the group takes the goblet and says, ŇThatŐs nothing; why I remember . . . .Ó  Each student tries to top the previous story; each story, though different, grows more exaggerated.

á      Serial stories:  This storytelling activity is based on a game that many

children are familiar with.  One person, usually the teacher or designated group leader, begins a story.  At any point, the person stops and the next person in the group continues the story.  A variation on this activity utilizes a ball of yarn.  When the first storyteller stops, he or she tosses the yarn to any other person in the group while still holding on to his or her section of yarn.  The next person then continues the story.  The ball of yarn is tossed back and forth, making a web design.  Finally, one person tosses the ball of yarn back to the person who originally began the story; this is the signal that the story is about to end.  The final storyteller concludes by say, ŇAnd thatŐs the end of this yarn. Ň

á      Chalk or draw-along stories:  In this activity, the storyteller begins the

tale by drawing a circle or line on the board.  As the story continues, the teller adds more details to the drawing.  Eventually, when the story is completed, there is a finished drawing on the chalkboard.  To teach this activity, draw and tell the entire story to a small group of children.  When the students have learned the story and the picture drawing, they can tell it to another group of children who have not heard it yet.

á      New versions and new endings:  Another storytelling activity involves

changing elements in the story plot and/or altering the endings of familiar stories.  It works particularly well with folktales and fairy tales.  To start this activity, read a number of different versions of the same story to your students.  For example, you could read a traditional story of the Three Little Pigs and then read Jon ScieskaŐs book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.


            Puppetry and Storytelling:

            Like storytelling, puppets and masks have traditionally been associated with oral dramatic presentations.  Like so many oral activities, creating the proper environment is the essential ingredient to a successful puppetry experience.  Begin by creating a simple puppet stage in one corner of your classroom.  This could be as easy as draping an ordinary table with an old tablecloth or with colored butcher-block paper.  You could also cut out the bottom of a large cardboard box, cover the box with colored paper, and make a simple cloth curtain to hang over the front.  Once your puppet stage is in order, the students will naturally gravitate toward it.

            The next step is to gather some simple materials for creating easy-to-make puppets.  Literally any scrap material can be used in the construction of puppets.  Here are several kinds of puppets that students can make:

á      Sock puppets:  Have each child bring an old sock from home.

Demonstrate that by placing your hand inside the sock—your fingers in the toe, your thumb in the heel—you can make the puppet come alive simply by opening and closing your hand.  Next add cloth, felt, buttons, beads, yarn, and so on to make the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears.  Additional material can be added to extend over the puppeteerŐs arm.

á      Finger puppets:  The simplest way to make a finger puppet is with an

old glove.  On each finger, draw, color, or paint facial features of different characters.  You can add bits of yarn, sequins, or buttons.  Each finger should contain a face with a different expression or look.  In this way, you have large groups of tiny character puppets that can talk back and forth.

            Paper-bag puppets:  Paper-bag puppets are easy and inexpensive.  Depending on the size of the paper bag used, you can create all types of puppets.  Large bags (never plastic!) can be placed over childrenŐs heads and worn as full masks.  Holes for eyes, nose, and mouth can be cut and the bags decorated with crayons or other materials.  Smaller paper bags lend themselves as hand puppets.

á      Stick-and-ball puppets:  With a wooden dowel, tongue depressor, or

bent coat hanger plus a plastic foam ball or old tennis ball, you can teach children to construct a stick-and-ball puppet.  First cover the ball with felt or cloth and draw in the facial features.  Then decorate with string, small buttons, and so on.  Next insert the stick to support the head.  (With a tennis ball, you have to cut a small hole to insert the stick.)  Finally, cover the stick with a loose cloth, decorated to form a distinctive costume for your puppet.  Insert your hand beneath the cloth and grasp the stick.  Your puppet is ready.

á      Shadow puppets:  To create a shadow puppet, you will use stiff

cardboard or oak tag.  Cut your puppet shape from the flat pattern in profile because only this outline is seen by the audience.  Intricate facial features are not necessary; the unique characteristics of the puppet come from the cut outline.  Next, attach the cutout to a stick to be held by the student puppeteer.  The unique effect created by the shadow puppet depends on the special stage that you create by stretching a sheet of translucent cloth tightly in a frame.  Stand behind the frame and place a bright light behind the puppet and the screen.  The audience sees a dark silhouette or shadow against the light screen.



            In improvisation, the dialogue of the various characters is improvised by the actors as the story unfolds; however, an improvisation is not totally unplanned.  Generally the story is known in advance, and the actors alter the dialogue as they see fit.  In improvisation, unlike theater acting, a script does not have to be memorized.  However, simple props, costumes, and even scenery can be used, and students enjoy creating these in class.


            Readers Theater:

            This is another form of dramatic presentation that increases childrenŐs comprehension of literature as well as develops oral language.  Readers theater is a presentation by two or more participants who read from scripts and interpret a literary work in such a way that the audience imaginatively senses characterizations, setting and action.  Vocal intonation and facial expressions can also be used to enhance the quality of the presentation.  A narrator is often used to direct the various reader-actors on and off the stage and to communicate scene changes to the audience.

            ChildrenŐs literature is a treasure chest of material to use with readers theater.  Adapting the book to create a script entails a lot of conversation and collaboration.  Sometimes creating an entertaining script calls for adding new dialogue and new scenes, utilizing studentsŐ imaginations and sense of story.



            Theater Acting:

            Theater Acting includes many of the previously described oral language activities.  It also adds perhaps the most difficult aspect of acting: the memorization of a script.  It is recommended that theater acting come after students are already familiar with the other forms of oral expression.  A school play or program should be part of the learning process that leads children to a greater appreciation of literature.  It builds confidence in oral communication abilities and enhances social growth, including cooperative learning skills.

            To introduce theater acting it is best to begin with discussion.  Talk about the work to be performed.  Encourage children to make suggestions and decisions about characters, the setting, the staging, and so on.  Then improvise the play or story until everyone has a sense of the action, the movement of characters, and the overall theme of the play.  Do not be afraid to revise lines, to change parts, or to recast characters.

            Theater acting represents the culmination of a dramatics unit.  It brings together and integrates listening, speaking, reading and writing skills like no other single activity.  It gives students a heightened awareness of the power of literature to evoke emotions from an audience.  It engages youngsters in critical thinking and discussion.  However, choosing to do a full-scale play production in your class means a commitment of time and energy.  You cannot squeeze it between spelling tests, worksheets and basal reader lessons.  The sacrifices you make, however, are balanced by the excitement, enthusiasm, and genuine learning that takes place when students discover their talents as actors.