In a recent blog “2 tips on teaching public speaking to primary school children, and why drama helps“, I answered a teacher’s question by explaining to her the importance of identifying (a) the context and purpose of the speech situation, and (b) the needs of the audiences. I gave specific contrasting examples on mobilising the school community towards an environmental concern (i.e. a persuasive style with a specific call to action) and a show-and-tell example that seems partly more entertaining and informative. I also made a video to explain the two.
On this post, however, I will give more specific examples to get children excited about talking and speaking in front of a group of people, regardless of the context. But do not use the phrase “public speaking”, for it only conjures up evaluation, judgement, and many other critical remarks that accentuate their fear of standing in front of a group of people confidently.
The fundamental assumptions in all these suggestions are:
(i) that they need to have fun;
(ii) the task has to be meaningful and purposeful;
(iii) that they have a specific (fictional) time to complete that task, and
(iv) the activities are properly scaffolded.
As good educationists are aware, you would need to scaffold the activities slowly to meet their needs and competencies, gradually increasing the level of difficulty and challenging them in the presence of their peers. This is what is called the zone of proximal development, coined by Lev Vygotsky (1978) who was an educational psychologist. ZPD, for short, has been defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). Without going into much theory, here’s a diagram that explains that when the task is too simple, children get bored, but when the task is too challenging, it produces anxiety and stress. The theory states that if activities are gradually layered in increasing difficulties – together with a knowledge of how peer interaction can aid their natural inquisitiveness – then they would be able to achieve a balance in exuding confidence while being challenged at the same time. This is the ZPD.
Examples of increasing the level of difficulty could mean getting up from their seats (without the need to say anything), to doing an action (still without saying anything), to saying an important line or phrase, to speaking a longer monologue (or expressing their feelings about something), to eventually preparing a script or a speech to be delivered intentionally and purposefully.
Here are my top 10 creative ways to get them excited about speaking, but some of these are on the performance continuum, while some are on the process continuum. It’s best to know what works for your students before implementing these forms. They should be achievable as an art form, but challenging enough in content:
1. SPOKEN WORD POETRY
Spoken word poetry is a form of poetry that may include beatboxing and hip hop rhythms. It’s a form that allows primary children to freely express themselves and how they see the world. As a teacher, you would need to give them permission to explore themes that may appear sensitive or controversial. This is usually the most heartfelt form with raw emotions.
See this example “Who am I?” by Sara Hean;
or “Its name is depression” by FireWithin;
or “for girls who had eating disorders not ‘bad enough’ for treatment” by Kaylo.
2. DRAMA/ THEATRE
Giving children specific roles to play in a theatrical performance builds up confidence, even if they could be a tree waving in the background. Their sense of worth is enhanced because they know that their role, even if it’s a minor one, is a major one in the entire production. You can easily choose stories that they are familiar with, or stories that are part of the curriculum in social studies, history, geography, and the like.
If you are more savvy, the technical term is “Plays for Young Audiences” or “Theatre for Young Audiences”. I found a website that has scripts for sale here. If you are adventurous and creative and want to save some penny, even religious texts, fables, and fairy tales can be turned into a script.
3. ROLE PLAY
A role-play is often a process, rather than a performance. As you tell a story, you can get them to adopt various roles and read various character lines. So there is no fear of making a fool of themselves since they are not being evaluated or judged. They are having fun while learning.
If you are interested in “process dramas” or storytelling for primary children, you can check out some of these books from Amazon:
– Drama and Traditional Story for the Early Years, by Nigel Toye and Francis Prendiville;
– The Primary Drama Handbook: An Introduction, by Patrice Baldwin;
– Learning Through Drama in the Primary Years, by David Farmer.
Campaigns are my favourite tasks. They are purposeful activities that aim to solve a real social problem, which could be from their community, where they live, or in the school premises. An example from the blog I wrote elsewhere has an example on rallying the students to clean the school for its littering problem. But to add more urgency to the task, I added a role play as a precursor:
“As you can see, boys and girls, the school is infested with rats. You might have seen them crawling and scuttling in the corridors. Many rats have died. You can see them in the toilet, in the classroom. Look, there’s one in the corner there. If we don’t do something about this, it will become a pandemic. I want to know if any of your brothers or sisters has developed a fever this morning.”
“Err… yes, sir, my little brother has a fever today.”
“Did your parents take him to the doctor’s?”
“Call your parents right now. Your brother needs immediate medical attention. If not, he might die. Does anyone else have a similar problem?”
Here, even though it is a hypothetical situation as an introduction, this drama gets students into a heightened emotional state, and would realise the gravity of the littering problem in school, with the impending rat manifestation. They can now, in role, write to the local city council, the Ministry of Environment and Health, or the school advisory board to make that speech as a primary school child suffering from the effects of littering.
5. SHOW-AND-TELL WITH A TWIST
Often, students get to do a show-and-tell in front of the classroom with a prop. Instead of asking them to share what their favourite thing is, or what they did during their winter or summer holidays, they could bring an object to class, swap it with their partner – and create an improvised story of having been given this gift by a friend. Ask them to retell fond memories of receiving that gift, what it meant to them, and what their relationship with their best buddy was like (just with the new prop).
6. DRAMA GAMES
There are many ways to get students up on their feet and playing. Games is a good one. Drama games, especially, are purposefully structured to acquire various skills and to work together as a team.
Here are some books available on Amazon:
– Drama Games for those who like to say no, by Chris Johnston;
– 101 Drama games and activities, by David Farmer;
– Drama games for classrooms and workshops, by Jessica Swale.
Tableaux is a fancy French word for a still image. You get students to freeze in motion, as if their photograph is being taken. But instead of posing, get them into the heart of a story (e.g. Jack falling down the hillslope and breaking his head, with his mother looking for him in anguish), and show the action in still pictures – frame, after frame, after frame. It’s like a storyboard. But it tells a great story and children love doing this without saying a word.
It’s also a great tool to writing narrative compositions, if you have run out of ideas.
8. COMPLETE THE STORY
Give the children any fragment of a story. It could be the introduction of a fairy tale, the climax of a movie, or the pictures from a newspaper clip. Give them enough of a context (who these characters are, what they want, etc) and get the children to come up with new ideas on changing the outcome of this current story, or completing the story. It can be done as a role play, tableau, show-and-tell, etc.
Listening to a piece of music and asking them to complete the story visually is also a variation that you can implement.
9. DANCE AND MOVEMENT
Children love moving around. Get them doing some physical activities or dance movements. You may not be equipped to do so, but I am sure if you start with a basic step or rhythm, you can get one of the more rhythmically-savvy students to continue the dance and lead the rest of the class in a synchronised dance step.
I found this video quite refreshing. Just turn up the volume and get the body moving.
10. YOUTUBE OR VIMEO VIDEO COMPETITION
With Youtube sensations, give them a competition to make a 2-minute video that fulfils certain criteria that you have set out. They might include:
– a concept or issue that is part of your curriculum (including Mathematics, or Science)
– a story between characters
– a soundtrack (for example, using classical music for dramatic effect)
Children love filming themselves. However, you want to make sure that each group has at least one student with a mobile phone that can record videos. Give them specific roles, so this will minimise the jealousy or potential class or status conflicts amongst the group members.
Also, if you have concerns with parental permissions and child safety, make sure the videos uploaded are set to a private or unlisted setting, so this will not be available to anyone or everyone. If your school computer server has the capacity to store these videos, then it’s a better option.
Creativity and imagination come hand in hand – and once you actively engage learning in a fun, meaningful and purposeful way, children will become confident speakers even without them consciously learning them.