Teaching the Art of Oral Communication: An Interview with Erik Palmer

Teaching the Art of Oral Communication: An Interview with Erik Palmer

Erik Palmer is an educational consultant and author of several books including the topic of our conversation, Well Spoken.  While Erik was a Language Arts teacher, he developed a framework for teaching his students how to speak effectively.  In this conversation we dive into his strategy for teaching public speaking as well as the importance of teaching public speaking in all subjects.

  1. Tell me about your education journey. How did you get to where you are today?  1:48

Erik’s journey starts as an exceptional debater in high school and college.  With his skills in argument, Erik went to law school, incorporated a company, and bought a seat in a Chicago commodity exchange.  But once his kids were born, he decided there were more important things in life than the price of soybeans, so he became a Language Arts teacher.  Once he arrived in education, he realized there were needs, specifically in public speaking, that were not being met by many teachers. 

Erik believes that speaking is the most important language art.  According to Erik, oral language is 75% of all communication among human beings.  Meanwhile, in the classroom, oral communication is rarely taught.  While many educators and education thought leaders focus on reading and writing, no one worried about speaking skills.  More recently, with the adoption of Common Core, many districts started calling Erik because there is a much greater emphasis on speaking skills. 

Erik doesn’t want anyone to overhaul their curricula to teach speaking.  He believes there is space to do it now, even in the world of standardized tests.  There are many activities in the classroom that are speaking dependent such as discussions, read alouds, and project presentations.  All of these activities improve if students can speak well. 

  1. How did you realize that students’ public speaking skills were a problem? 8:09

Erik shares a story from early in his teaching career where he assigned book reports to his students.   Erik taught 5th and 6th graders, who by that time had a lot of experience speaking in front of others.  However, the students’ presentation skills were very poor.  “I was shocked that my students clapped.”  He confided in another teacher and they commiserated with Erik’s problem, but didn’t offer any solutions.  “I asked where the materials for teaching speaking?  And I got this blank stare.”  Erik believes that if students are speaking in your class, then it is your job to teach the students how to do it well. 

Verbal communication is number one on the list of what employers are looking for.  Erik adds that school isn’t all about getting a job, but we want to give our students the skills to be successful, contributing members of society.  Oral communication does exactly that.  Currently, students struggle in public speaking situations.  Actually, most people probably struggle in public speaking situations.  The reality is that if teachers gave their students the skills to communicate effectively, then gave them the opportunities to practice and refine those skills, public speaking wouldn’t nearly be the beast that most people think it is. 

Erik did some research and saw that there was a mess of different information about public speaking.  Words such as articulation, enunciation, elocution, and vocal modulation were used interchangeably.  So Erik set out to make the process easier for his students.  He started with some inspiration from teaching “six-trait writing.”  Instead of getting one grade for one paper, students were evaluated in six categories including (discovered via a Google search): ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions (meaning mechanics).  This method really helped Erik teach writing and he wondered if he could do the same for speaking.

  1. What is your strategy for teaching public speaking skills in the classroom? 12:48

I am not going to write a whole lot about our conversation here because I previously wrote a thorough review of Well Spoken.  I outlined it below, but here is the link if you’d like to learn more about Erik’s simple but effective strategy of teaching speech. 

Erik breaks up a speech into two parts: preparing a speech and performing a speech.  We discuss each one separately and you can find them at the timestamps below.  Erik also stresses that these strategies apply to EVERY speaking situation, not just giving a speech in public.  They apply to discussions, jigsaws, debates, Socratic seminars, and any other time students speak in class.

Erik encourages teachers to teach the framework for speaking at the beginning of the year.  Then, during the speaking opportunities you already provide, focus on different aspects of the framework each time.  In Well Spoken, Erik provides many mini-lessons to help educators teach all aspects of the framework.  The most important thing Erik focuses on is that if teachers are providing students opportunities to speak (and all teachers are), they must teach students how to do it well.  The best part about Erik’s framework is that the language is simple and easy to understand.  When a student speaks, you can say “Voice,” and the student will know that you couldn’t hear every word that was being said.  Or “You need to work on your Poise,” means that you didn’t appear calm and confident.  None of these simple opportunities arise, however, if you do not teach the framework first.

Building a Speech (ACOVA) 21:10

  1. Audience
  2. Content
  3. Organization
  4. Visual Aids
  5. Appearance

Performing a Speech (PVLEGS) 31:38

  1. Poise
  2. Voice
  3. Life
  4. Eye Contact
  5. Gestures
  6. Speed


  1. What challenges do you face in teaching speaking? 39:29

“There were zero challenges in teaching my students.”  Erik states that students get it straightaway.  My guess is students are thankful that someone is finally giving them the tools to be better speakers.  With teachers, it is a different story.  All teachers will agree that students have poor speaking skills.  In Erik’s experience, however, many are hesitant to teach these skills because they are not reflected in the curriculum or their high stakes test at the end of the year.  That is why his approach is calculated to take up as little class time as possible.  Teach the skills at the beginning of the year, then at each speaking opportunity, remind students of the skills and focus on a new one each time.  Erik is trying to convince teachers, who know students need to speak more effectively, to help the students improve their speaking skills.

  1. Tell us a little bit about one of your other books, Good Thinking. 46:17

Originally, I had intended on discussing both Well Spoken and Good Thinking in this interview.  But, as you can see, we talked about Well Spoken for about 45 minutes, which didn’t leave a whole lot of time for Good Thinking.  So Erik agreed to come on the show again to discuss this in more detail, but here he gives us a sneak peek at Good Thinking and why teachers should be teaching these skills in the classroom.

In the last few years, there has been a growing emphasis on teaching argument in our education system.  Erik discovered that while the terms argument and evidence are familiar, many teachers disagree on the definition of argument or the parts of an argument.   He realized that this was the other half of debate.  He had already written a book about the building and performing a speech, and Good Thinking teaches people how to construct a solid argument behind that speech.  Basically he is trying to do the same thing he did in Well Spoken, construct a framework that is easy for educators to implement and easy for students to understand.

  1. What is one thing that I can do right away in my classroom to help improve my students’ oral communication skills? 49:42

“Look at student speaking with new eyes.”  Don’t think that how students speak is how they can speak.  With a little bit of instruction, you can have a dramatic effect on your students’ lives.  You wouldn’t accept subpar work in other areas, and speaking is no different.

  1. What is your vision for the American education system? 51:27

Erik would like to see education look at the bigger picture.  So often educators focus on the short term.  What information do my kids need to know for the test?  How do I prepare them for the final?  Instead, Erik wants to focus on the long term.  What is important for the students’ lifetime?  What skills do they need in their future that we can start working on right now?  These are the skills the students are hungry for, and they are the skills in which the students will see value.  If we start thinking long term, we will start to see drastic improvements in student engagement and achievement.

  1. What is your number one tip for shawesome educators? 54:08

“Take one thing you have done for a number of years, and stop doing it.”  If you update your instruction, you might find the success you’ve been hoping for.

My Top Takeaways

  1. If you ask students to do something in your class, don’t assume they know how to do it

Every day of school, we ask students to perform.  Whether we are discussing, jigsawing, testing, or presenting, students are performing and we are giving them feedback.  In math, it wouldn’t make sense to test your students over graphing lines if you hadn’t taught them how to do it.  It is the same with speaking.  Don’t mildly accept that students can’t speak well.  Take the time to teach them speaking skills, reinforce them throughout the year, and watch the dividends pile up.

  1. Think long term

Teaching is hard.  There are so many things we have on our plates that making it through the year almost always seems like a daunting task.  As teachers, we need to focus on helping our students succeed, not just for the current lesson or the current unit or the current class or even the next class.  Let’s give students skills that will help them succeed anywhere and everywhere they might be or might be heading.  If teachers can apply these success skills to their content, they will have a greater impact on a more engaged student population.   

What do you think?  Did Erik convince you to teach speech in your class?  How do you teach public speaking to your students?  Let me know in the comments below!


Erik’s Website: www.pvlegs.com

Erik’s Twitter: @erik_palmer

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