As I shared last week, competitive speech and debate was one of the most formative activities of my high school and college years. I love helping young people learn to communicate with clarity, confidence, and grace. So I wanted to share some practical ideas for incorporating public speaking into your homeschool or classroom. (Note: This post includes affiliate links.)
1. Encourage Memorization
The first time I remember doing any “public speaking” was reciting a Robert Louis Stevenson poem to a group of people. I don’t remember all the details of it well, but my mom tells me I was probably about six at the time. I’m sure I had already memorized some Bible verses and hymns at home, but I remember learning The Moon because I performed it for other people.
Children can memorize as soon as they can talk. My 19-month-old isn’t stringing enough words together to memorize much quite yet, but I can see her getting close. She knows that two comes after one and “obey” is the next word after “children” in Ephesians 6:1 (our first Bible memory verse)! As soon as she’s able to memorize full sentences, I plan to make memory practice part of our daily routine, both to put good content in her mind and to help develop her communication skills.
You can encourage memorization in children of any age by giving them a quality piece of literature, a good poem, or a famous speech. Make regular time for them to practice at home and, if possible, give them opportunities to perform. You can find audiences in a local nursing home or with your next dinner guests!
2. Practice Narration
This is an easy exercise to incorporate into your school schedule as you can do it with virtually any topic. With young students who still primarily listen while you read, stop periodically and ask them to summarize what they’ve just heard. Older students who are reading on their own might summarize an entire book at once.
Alternatively, you could ask students for a short narration about their favorite birthday party, most memorable vacation, or dream job. Give them room to be creative, making public speaking something they associate with fun rather than dread.
Narration requires the speaker to identify the most important information and present it in a logical, clear fashion. Assume that you aren’t familiar with the content the student is narrating and ask questions when something isn’t clear. Q&A will help the student identify assumptions he’s making about the audience’s knowledge and rethink which facts are most important to convey and in which order.
If you’re interested in a more comprehensive discussion of using narration in teaching, check out the sections on it in Susan Wise Bauer’s, The Well Trained Mind.
3. Find Opportunities to Speak in the Community
Speaking to parents and teachers is great practice, but true public speaking eventually needs a wider audience. Articulate, confident, winsome young people who are willing to talk to adults are hard to find. A much easier task is finding adults who are willing to listen to them!
Community speaking venues translate an academic skill into something with real world impact. For many young people, preparing a speech for a community audience will offer far more motivation than simply completing an assignment in hopes of a good grade.
The best venues will depend on your student’s interests but here are a few ideas.
Teen Court – Teen court programs allow juvenile misdemeanor offenders to be sentenced by their peers. I volunteered as a “teen attorney” during high school and learned much about communication, the legal system, and criminal justice. This was also a good environment to be exposed to and think about hard life issues like poverty, crime, abuse, loneliness, and the human longing for meaning, purpose, and identity. You can run a search here for programs in your area.
Retirement Communities/Assisted Living Facilities – Residents love to see young people!
Civic Meetings – If your student is at all politically minded, look into local government meetings where public comments will be permitted.
Drama Clubs – Develop acting skills and perform for the community.
Churches/Religious Organizations – Youth group, missions trips, and other church events may provide speaking opportunities.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
4. Enter Scholarship Competitions
For high school students, speech competitions that award scholarship money offer both speaking practice and the potential for college funds! I personally earned several thousand dollars in college scholarships through two speech competitions sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. These afforded public speaking practice, fun travel opportunities, a deepened appreciation for our nation’s veterans, and some financial help with college.
If these competitions aren’t the best fit for your student, a search for speech competition scholarships may offer additional leads. FastWeb is the most helpful scholarship search tool I’ve found.
5. Hold Classroom Debates
Debate requires significant mental discipline to understand both sides of an issue, choose a position, develop an argument, and defend that position when attacked. Even if you aren’t trained in debate yourself, you can facilitate a simple debate between two or more students.
Pick a topic you’re studying on which disagreement exists. If that seems broad, it should! You can debate almost anything. Here are a few possible topics to get you started.
Resolved: The minimum voting age should be lowered to 16.
Resolved: War is only justified in self-defense.
You could also pick fun topics related to your family or school.
Resolved: The school cafeteria should be open all day.
Resolved: Our family should start a business.
A resolution should be an assertion that can be reasonably proven and disproven.
Set time limits and determine the number of speeches for each side. You can also include cross-examination after each person’s first speech. There are several common debate formats used by competitive leagues, any of which could be modified to fit your time requirements and the age and experience of your students.
6. Join a Competitive League
I’ve listed competition last because it requires the largest time and financial commitment. The five suggestions above can be incorporated in any classroom or homeschool depending on the ages of the students. Competition is one of the best tools for teaching public speaking but it won’t work for everyone.
For homeschoolers there are two main competitive leagues with local clubs around the country. There are differences between them but both provide good opportunities to develop public speaking and debate skills in a supportive, distinctly Christian environment.
Competition is a huge motivator for many students and participating in a club can add a fun social dynamic to learning speech and debate skills. Most of my good friends in high school were fellow competitors.
But doing well in a national league will require a significant commitment of time and financial resources to travel to tournaments. If you’re on the fence about whether a competitive league is worth it for your family, consider attending a local club meeting or tournament to check it out.
What have you found most helpful in developing your own communication skills or teaching public speaking to your students? I’d love to hear from you!