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November 20, 2003

How to teach: Integrating writing and speaking

ps teachfair poulakas

John Poulakos

If students developed and reflected on both their oral and writing skills in the same class, would such integration increase the effectiveness of those literacies?

Two Pitt professors reported on their efforts to answer that question based on their project called Integrating Oral and Writing Skills, one of 15 funded 2002 innovation in teaching proposals presented at the annual Teaching in Excellence Fair Nov. 14.

John Poulakos, Department of Communication, and Patricia Sullivan, English department, team-taught a course in speech composition that asked students to transform their essays into speeches and their speeches into essays; to reflect on the complementary nature of writing and speaking, and to complete a questionnaire about their educational experiences.

“I have for many years taught public speaking, including speech composition, but never from the ground up,” Poulakos said. “I paid almost no attention to the instruction of writing, or the mutually supportive aspects of these two modes of communicating. Professor Sullivan has taught writing for many years, so we attempted to combine our strengths.”

Students were asked to pick a Nobel Prize in literature winner and stick with that author for the entire semester. Short writing assignments included writing speeches and essays on the author’s biography, contemporary criticism of the author’s work, the historical period, themes in the author’s fiction and rhetorical elements of the author’s Nobel acceptance speech.

Sullivan said, “The process was not just that they wrote the speeches before they gave them, because that happens in all speech composition classes. In addition to having to give the speech, let’s say on the historical era of John Steinbeck and its impact on his work in the ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ the student had to turn the same topic into an essay for a reader.

“We discussed explicitly and repetitively both the similarities and differences,” Sullivan continued, “the different rhetorical scenarios, different conventions, et cetera, and what’s the relationship between the two.”

“A large part of the class was to reflect on that,” Poulakos added. “At the end we gave them a survey with many questions, including some open-ended ones: Tell us if they thought this was beneficial — they reported that it was. Should there be more courses of this kind? — they said yes. Did it help their speaking skills? — they said yes. Did it help their writing — they said yes.”

As a control factor, Poulakos videotaped presentations in the class and asked two outside viewers to judge those against videotaped presentations from a class he taught by himself. “Their report was that the presentations in our class were significantly better than in my class,” he said.

Whether students’ writing improved was less clear, Sullivan said. “Students were struggling to move between modalities. At first writing is an obstacle to their speaking, because they can’t get out the [same amount of material] in 5 or 10 minutes. If they don’t have a set thesis with a couple of supporting points that animate or sustain their papers, then they’re really stuck when they go to give the oral presentation.”

But it’s encouraging that students felt their writing had improved despite their opinion that writing is the more difficult skill, Sullivan said.

“The best papers have the best main idea, the best organization, the clearest articulated points, and so students were able to take those strong papers and make them into good speeches, because they already had a nice scaffold,” she said.

Students were able to recognize the common qualities for effective papers and speeches, Sullivan said. “But then you get yourself embroiled in the differences: You can’t wander around endlessly with details in your speech; you have to build in repetition; you have to build in examples that people understand; you can’t quote a block of 10 lines in a speech,” she said.

The professors agreed that the stakes are higher for students who have to get up in front of a class full of staring peers. “So even though they said writing was more difficult, they were more committed to writing a text that they could speak comfortably enough instead of writing an essay that would be viewed by two [faculty] readers,” Sullivan said.

“It appears the kind of writing they were doing in our class was often somehow biased or influenced by the idea that they were going to present it,” Poulakos said. “They learned that to write an essay that will be turned over to readers and to write something that you were going to speak are two different kinds of writing.”

True to the tradition of faculty sharing thoughts on teaching, the Integrating Oral and Writing Skills presentation morphed into a discussion of speaking across the curriculum, when, following their presentation, Poulakos and Sullivan joined a separate teaching conversation moderated by Peter Simonson of the communication department.

Simonson said that the move to implement speaking curriculum-wide is relatively new at Pitt, but has its origins in the early 1980s with the British model of teaching language across the curriculum. “It’s really a movement to simulate the classic small liberal arts college where students need to learn to speak in all their classes to demonstrate their mastery of a subject,” Simonson said. “The basic principle of this approach is to help students use speaking to learn, in addition to learning to speak.”

Among the benefits of speaking assignments, regardless of the discipline, are: aiding students in formulating their thoughts more clearly, testing what they know and don’t know, and synthesizing material to communicate to others. These activities also provide opportunities for students to improve thinking skills and to engage in problem-solving and other active learning techniques, Simonson said.

In adapting speaking to their courses, he said, faculty should be aware of the variety of possibilities, including speeches or presentations, in-class debates, full-class discussions, small-group or team-based oral work, one-on-one presentations and oral examinations. “Videotaping students speak is very helpful for the students’ self-evaluation, and it’s relatively low-intensive labor for the instructor,” Simonson said.

The group of discussants agreed on the importance of learning speaking skills, despite the virtually universal fear of public speaking among students.

Some highlights of the conversation:

  • “Being afraid of speaking publicly is consistent with developmental psychology,” said Mary Margaret Kerr, associate professor of education and child psychiatry. “When we’re in grades 1 to 3 we think everyone thinks we’re cute. But by third grade, we begin to need peer-approval. Speaking in front of an audience of peers raises the stakes that much higher.”
  • “I didn’t become comfortable with speaking in front of a class until I became a teacher,” said Sullivan. “Once you’ve lived through it, you gain confidence, and you get beyond embarrassment. So I think experience and practice are very important.”
  • “One of the most important things students need to learn in speaking is to stay with one central point or idea,” Poulakos said. “Students get very excited. They want to tell everything: ‘I found this, and I found this, and I found this,’ instead of staying with the center of gravity of what they’re reporting. Mind you, I catch myself having the same problem. You have to learn to make judgments. Part of it is time restraints in a speech, and part of it relates to the specific audience you are addressing who have to understand what you’re talking about.”
  • Simonson said he emphasizes paying attention to the audience in his communication classes. “I tell students to be prepared to speak on any of three topics that I give them beforehand. They come into class and pick one out of a hat. But then I say: ‘Now explain that topic to a 1st-grader, or explain it to your mother.’”
  • Kerr said that many students resent being called on in class. “I don’t care. I call on them anyway. I want them to be able to think on their feet and not be able to hide.”

Kerr has worked with the Western Pennsylvania Superintendent’s Forum, an intense training system for superintendents-to-be. “Here there is a lot of pressure to be able to speak, which is appropriate to a superintendents’ job. We do simulated press conferences. ‘You’re going to be asked about a teacher in your district who was picked up on a DUI last night.’ They have about 10 minutes to prepare. They have to be aware of confidentiality issues, parents’ concerns, and they have to face merciless questions.”

  • Sullivan reported a recent example of a spectacular success with students speaking in a writing course. “I assigned a 1-2 page paper. Usually, the assignments are analytic, but sometimes I like them to be creative. So this time I offered extra credit for students who would read their paper aloud, and even more extra credit if they would memorize them or perform them: say, write a song version based on “Antigone,” for example. Well, 15 or so of them did this! There is something about role-playing — and perhaps, something about extra credit — something about how when you role-play you are not you, and therefore you are not responsible for opinions,” that helps overcome the fear of speaking.
  • Kerr said, “It just struck me listening to this group, that as many Ph.D.s as this University awards, there is no formal instruction in how to prepare dissertation defenses. Maybe there should be.”

—Peter Hart                 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 7

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