Speak, like, proper English

May 18th, 2011

A+ Advice columnist Leanna Landsman turned to Stenhouse author Erik Palmer’s book Well Spoken recently to answer a question from an anxious parent. Read her column and advice below.

Question of the Week:

To listen to my 16-year-old daughter, Alicia, you’d think she had a vocabulary of three words. She says “like” constantly in a valley-girl voice. She has a summer job as a receptionist and should speak more maturely. She’s a good student who sounds like a sitcom character. How do we change this? Help!


Mom, I hear you! I always ask teens I meet where they go to school and what they are studying. Do they plan on college? What inspires them? What is their dream career? I’m often shocked at how inarticulate they are. Shyness? Probably not. Those same kids in a high school hallway talk up a storm.

Denver, Colo., educator Erik Palmer, says students’ communication skills are weak because we’ve not made speaking a curriculum priority. “Oral communication is an essential 21st century skill but we don’t teach it,” says Palmer. That may change now that Common Core State Standards include “Speaking and Listening.”

Start by making Alicia aware of her job’s importance. A receptionist is often the first contact people have with a company and part of her job is to project professionalism, competence and maturity. Have her practice by making some calls (such as scheduling appointments, gathering information, purchasing or returning products, troubleshooting a technical problem). Have her rate her experiences for quality of service, clarity, ease of completing the transaction. Give her additional practice by role-playing callers she might encounter.

Palmer, author of “Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students” (Stenhouse, 2011), a terrific book for teachers and adaptable for parents, says good speakers have mastered six traits. Introduce these to Alicia:

  • Poise: Good speakers appear calm, confident and avoid distracting behaviors such as tugging on hair, or repeatedly saying, “um” or “like,” says Palmer. Videotaping can help develop poise.
  • Voice: They speak every word clearly with appropriate volume. “Compare different voices we are exposed to every day, from jazz radio announcers to infomercial hustlers to from PBS’s ‘The News Hour’ to ‘Top Chef,'” suggests Palmer.
  • Life: “I use this term, rather than ‘inflection’ because it resonates with students and gets them to put passion and emotion in their voices,” notes Palmer.
  • Eye Contact: This engages the listener. Good receptionists make eye contact with each person they greet. “If speaking to a group, make eye contact with each person in the audience,” advises Palmer.
  • Gestures: This means matching words to motions. Hand, face, and body movements can add to the message.
  • Speed: A compelling speaker paces well; not too fast or two slow and uses pauses for effect. Alicia will want to speak slowly when giving out a phone number but more quickly when inviting someone to have a waiting room seat.

For more practice, try demonstrations: Ask Alicia to show and describe the steps in making a recipe (a Food Channel skill!). Make a podcast about something she’s interested in. Skype an adult relative or friend regularly with family news.

When school restarts, encourage her to join a debate, forensics, or theater club, or other activity that will increase her confidence and skill as a speaker. Some schools have radio and TV stations that students run; still others have students do the morning announcements.

Do you have a question about your child’s education? E-mail it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.

Copyright 2011, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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