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by Erik Palmer
Author and Consultant

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


June 7, 2016
Speaking Matters! Improving Project Presentations

by Erik Palmer
Author and Consultant

A student turns in this paper:

many people think that we should not have ginetticly modifyed foods we could be having health problems in the future if we eat them, Some studys say that they cause cancer we should pass laws to stop this.

What do you do?

  1. Nothing. That’s just how kids write.
  2. Nothing. I want authentic writing, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. I teach some lessons to help improve the writing.

Most of us will choose option C. We might teach a lesson about capitalization and give practice with capitalizing the first word of a sentence. We might then teach a lesson about “changing the y to i” before adding an ending and give some practice activities. We might reteach sentence structure with lessons about run-ons and then give some practice activities to help students identify run-ons.

A student turns in this work:



What do you do?

  1. Nothing. That’s just how kids do math.
  2. Nothing. I want authentic work, and I don’t want to devalue student work.
  3. I teach some lessons to help improve adding fractions with unlike denominators.

Most of us will choose option C again. We will teach finding common multiples and give students lots of practice activities.
One more example. A student speaks poorly while doing a Project Based Learning presentation:

What do you do?

  1. Nothing. That’s just how kids speak.
  2. Nothing. I want authentic speaking, and I don’t want to devalue student voice.
  3. I teach some lessons to help improve speaking.

In my experience, most teachers choose option A. In the case of most presentations in PBL, I fear that the teachers are so excited about the project that they fail to notice that students did not present their work very well. We seem to have very low expectations. Many teachers post student project presentations on YouTube for the world to hear even though they are clearly “rough drafts” of speaking. A few teachers choose option B, claiming that they don’t teach speaking because they value “authentic” speech, as if a child cannot be both well-spoken and authentic. I have found almost no teachers who teach specific lessons with guided practice about speaking skills.

A Better Project Presentation
Let me give you an example from the BIE website. Watch the “Courtyard Redesign” video. I love this project. I love the real world thinking, the creativity, the geometry, the art, the community involvement… the entire concept. But there is a breakdown. Teachers didn’t help these 5th grade students enough with some basic presentation skills. They expected too little, perhaps, or maybe they somehow failed to notice errors of speaking. But why have a wonderful project finish with less than wonderful speaking when it would be so easy to help students shine? Let me share three examples.

One boy says, “…this pond because like if like birds, if ducks were born like swimming here…” How was that not noticed? I teach students a lesson about Verbal Viruses, the extra things that infect our speech from time to time. “Like” is an example. Do not sell that boy short: if he had been made aware of the problem, he (and all the others) could have corrected it.

Did you notice that every child faced their drawings and talked at the display wall when speaking? I teach a simple lesson about Eye Contact to my students. After explaining why eye contact is important, I give a presentation tip: “Point to what you want to tell us about, turn your head and face the audience, talk to us, not the wall.” All of the children could have easily done that and been much more engaging.

And one final missed opportunity: one boy has a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the courtyard. A KFC! I teach a lesson about Life, adding passion/feeling/emotion to make the talk more interesting. I offer practice with little phrases and little speeches so students can develop life. With that help, this child would impress. Do you think he is incapable of conveying excitement about the KFC? He isn’t. He would have had a blast, and the audience would have loved it: “I have a swimming pool, a hot tub,… and… wait for it… a KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN! I know! Crazy, right?” All of the other students would have had more life as well, if they had been given those lessons and practice activities.

In short, I break speaking into little, teachable pieces and offer lessons for each piece. See some ideas here. Do you teach those lessons and offer practice activities before PBL presentation day? I guarantee that your presentations will be as impressive as your projects if you do.

Importance of Speaking Skills
We live in an age where speaking well matters. Digital tools showcase speaking: podcasts, videos, Facetime, Skype, webinars, video conferences, and more. Verbal communication skills consistently rank near the top of the list of skills employers want.  Speaking (and listening) is emphasized in the Common Core and other recent state standards.

Unfortunately, we have given teaching oral communication little time in traditional classrooms. We make kids memorize poems in the poetry unit and ignore the fact that most of the recitations are quiet poor. We have students do their biography/country presentations and ignore the fact that most listeners were not particularly engaged and two days later would be able to tell you almost nothing about the reports they heard. Too often we say, “That’s just how kids speak.” If you listen with new ears, it will be painfully obvious that we have shortchanged our students and failed to give them needed instruction.

In classrooms that engage students in Project Based Learning, we have even more incentive to teach core oral communication skills. When parents and other adults show up for presentations, or when students present to a panel of experts or the city council, we want them to be impressive and persuasive.

It is time to quit shortchanging our students. We have expected too little and have failed to give them needed help. Let’s help them with speaking the way we help them with writing, with math, and with all other subjects. Your projects deserve a great finish. Your students deserve a chance to be well spoken.

Erik Palmer provides resources for teachers to help students master oral communication at


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