Speak up – why public speaking is important in primary education

No-one can deny the benefits of being a confident public speaker. It sets you up in life. It enables you to communicate. It equips you with skills and offers so many possibilities. The art of making connections, sharing opinion and making requests for your needs to be met are all easily achieved if you are a confident public speaker.

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As a teacher, you will know how hard it was to first stand up in front of a class and speak with authority. Giving a speech in front of the class is for some pupils the stuff of nightmares. Nevertheless isn’t it a skill we should be paying more attention to in schools? A recent report in The Guardian posed the question “Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking?” It’s no surprise to learn that pupils who learn to speak confidently generally do better in life.

Merrilyn Jenkins, principle of Penshurst West Public School says “A clear confident speaking voice is an essential life skill that fosters self-esteem and personal confidence.”

A contemporary approach

While The Guardian report focuses on secondary education, there’s a lot that can be extracted and applied to primary schools. Work by consultant Martin Robinson in his book Trivium 21c explores whether a more contemporary approach to grammar and dialect may be the answer to uniting progressive and traditionalist institutions, as well as uniting teachers and politicians. Whilst looking for a school for his daughter, Robinson became frustrated by schools’ inability to foster and value seemingly opposing teaching and learning skills (such as discipline alongside freethinking).

In the classroom Robinson’s ideas are being tested. Robinson believes that by the time every child reaches the age of 18 they should be able to respond in debate and not worry when they don’t have an answer. At Highbury Grove comprehensive school (where Robinson advises) a teacher tells his year 7 English class “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you are wrong, it just means I want you to explain more.” Encouraging kids to speak up in class can be a challenge, but the more it’s normalised and encouraged, the easier it becomes.

An essential part of teaching

Back in 2012, speaking at a Department for Education seminar, Education minister Nick Gibb, expressed the fear that raising the profile of spoken language in schools could ‘encourage idle chatter in class.’ Professor Robin Alexander, an authority on primary education argued that a planned approach to spoken language sustains children’s attention, challenges their thinking and probes their understanding. In his paper Neither National nor a Curriculum, which examines the governments’ 2012 proposals, he writes “in any case, one child’s idle chatter may be another’s exploratory talk, especially where early years teaching and learning are concerned.”

Teachers may often think they don’t have time to encourage public speaking in the classroom when there is so much content to get through, but verbalising difficult concepts helps children in more ways than one. Reports from experiments in public speaking at Highbury Grove indicate that students are adapting quickly now they know that speaking is something expected of them.

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