Why Impromptu Speeches Work

 

I have a confession to make.

Up until this year, I’ve avoided public speaking activities in my classroom like the plague. It’s not that I don’t think students need it – apart from playing a pivotal role in the Common Core Speaking and Listening strand — being able to express ideas in a clear and concise way is a crucial skill for success in the adult world. It’s not that I never have students speak in front of the class. We have a few projects throughout the year in which groups get up and present a PowerPoint and discussion plays an essential part of instruction in my daily lessons.

But it is a very rare occasion that I have students stand up and autonomously give a speech to the class and that is for one reason and one reason only: they fight it tooth and nail. Sure, there are one or two hams that love to get up and bask in the spotlight, but they are few and far between, and until now, this wasn’t a hill I was willing to die on. 

But after having three of my 12th grade girls break down crying when they had to give their practice Senior Project speech in front of the class in May, and several other seniors deliver painfully disjointed and rambling speeches, I realized that if I didn’t help my students learn to express themselves orally in front of a group, it was quite likely no one ever would, affecting their lives far beyond their senior year in high school.

I decided to use a baby step to introducing public speaking skills to my students – impromptu speeches – and it has had some extraordinary and unexpected results.

1. Students LOVED it

Whenever I had a few spare minutes left at the end of class, I began bringing out the impromptu speech cards I use for my Academic Decathlon team (which include various prompts designed to engage high school students) and eliciting volunteers to get up and give an impromptu speech. The process was simple. I would draw three prompt cards from the deck and hand them to the student, the student would have one minute to choose one of the prompts and prepare a speech, and then the student would deliver a one and a half to two minute speech.

There were definitely some students that shook their heads and planted themselves firmly in their seats in the conviction that I would never get them in front of the class, but I was astounded at how many leaped at the chance! And I was also surprised at how often classes would implore me to begin class with speeches than to leave them to the random chance we would finish our lesson early, which we often didn’t. Clearly, the students had a hunger for public speaking.

2. Students learned how to organize their thoughts and gained a voice

With all of the enthusiasm students had for impromptus, the speeches were usually more fun than effective. Students would either end after 15 seconds, having run out of things to say, or ramble off on tangents until I had to gently remind them to wrap it up. To help them work on organizing their thoughts for their speech, I introduced a simple acronym: MEEET.

M: Main Idea (topic+opinion),

E: All three E’s: each “E” a supporting Example and/or Explanation

E: All three E’s: each “E” a supporting Example and/or Explanation

E: All three E’s: each “E” a supporting Example and/or Explanation

T: Take Away (what you want your audience to take away from your speech.)

I then had the whole class practice preparing for an impromptu by writing the acronym in their notebooks, one letter to a line, and taking one minute to respond to a prompt by filling in the letters.

We practiced for the first time on a Reading Friday, so I chose the prompt: “What’s the best book you’ve ever read?” Everybody prepared an outline in their notebook and then, I once again called for volunteers who wanted to give their speech. Not only were the speeches far more organized and interesting, but more students than ever volunteered to give their speeches! This happened again and again with subsequent prompts, some chosen by me and some by the students.

Having the whole class prepare an outline had the effect of engaging all of the students in the activity, rather than just one, and the act of preparing gave my more cautious students the confidence to present their speeches.

When one of my girls, Areya, stood up and delivered an eloquent, articulate one-minute speech on the novel Walks Two Moons, I realized that this was the first time the class was actually hearing her voice. In the library later that period, I heard another student asking her “What was the name of that book you were talking about?”

3. Students applied their new organizational skills to their reading and writing

Of all of the other unexpected effects impromptus had on my students, this one is the most embarrassing, mostly because, in retrospect, it should obviously have been my intention from the beginning.

In the midst of reading and analyzing the conclusion of an article on “The Age of Responsibility” with my English 10 class a few weeks ago, one of my students said, “So this is his take-away, right?”

A little slow on the uptake, I replied “What?”

“His take away, Mrs. Krulder – what he wants us to remember from his article . . .” Nick continued a little impatiently, totally oblivious to the happy fireworks going on in my brain as I realized he had applied the M.E.E.E.T. organization to the article.

Other students chimed in as the period went on, asking, “If he wanted that to be his take-away, why did he make his main point in the first paragraph so different?” to which another student replied, “That wasn’t his main point. His main point came later in the essay; that was just one of his E’s he was using as a hook.”

My students finally had an understanding of the construct of an argument that they and I had been struggling to put together all of first semester, one that I’ve applied to the process of writing our analysis essays with astounding success. Some serious bang for the buck from one little five-minute activity.

Impromptu speeches will be an integral part of my curriculum in all grade levels from here on out, and they’re definitely worth a try in your classroom. Your students may surprise you.

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