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December 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 4

Speaking of Speaking

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Project-based learning is the ideal way to build the speaking and presentation skills called for in the Common Core State Standards.

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From the early elementary grades through high school, the Common Core State Standards ask students to organize and explain their ideas in oral presentations, use visual aids, and speak appropriately for various contexts and tasks. Although teachers could give assignments that teach some of these skills in isolation, we have found that nothing pulls the skills together as effectively as project-based learning.
Project-based learning, done well, has already been shown to be effective for teaching content and problem solving. Geier and colleagues (2008) demonstrated that a project-based approach improved science content knowledge and science process skills among urban middle school students. Studies of high school economics classes showed that students taught with project-based units not only learned more economics content, but they also learned to be better problem solvers in economics (Finkelstein, Hanson, Huang, Hirschman, & Huang, 2010; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006). A 2011 study of elementary students by Expeditionary Learning Schools found that students in project-based classrooms scored higher on state-mandated assessments than students in more traditional classrooms.
In our work with hundreds of K–12 schools, we have seen that project-based learning also builds skills in critical thinking, collaboration, and communication—and especially in making presentations. In a recent study in West Virginia (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012), 75 percent of the teachers who used project-based learning said they asked students to "prepare and deliver an oral presentation" at least monthly, compared with only 26 percent of the teachers who did not use project-based learning.

Teaching Presentation Skills

It's not enough to simply require students to explain their work aloud or create pieces of media as part of a project. Teachers need to teach students how to make effective presentations. Teachers can use these basic strategies to develop and improve students' presentation skills:
  • Discuss what makes a good presentation.
  • Look at and critique sample presentations (live demonstrations or videos).
  • Write a rubric or create a list of qualities of effective presentations with the class.
  • Help students plan presentations, with attention to the audience, content, organization, and visual components (Palmer, 2011). Provide a planning guide to help.
  • Plan practice sessions in which the teacher and peers can offer feedback for students to use in revisions.
An essential element of every good project is a public audience (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). Interaction with an audience beyond their classmates and teacher ups the stakes for students, motivating them to do high-quality work.

An Appropriate Sequence

The standards build presentation skills at a gradual, age-appropriate pace over the grade levels. Teachers can plan projects to match this sequence.
For example, in the kindergarten project Creatures of Oldham County at St. Francis School in Goshen, Kentucky, the students created a book about local animal life. The speaking and listening standards ask kindergarteners to "add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions as desired to provide additional detail" (ELA-Literacy SL.K.5), and the students included both drawings and written information in their books. A representative of a local conservation agency requested a copy of the book for display at her office and asked students to explain the book's contents to her.
To prepare her students for the big day, teacher Abbey Flynn talked with her class about what makes a good presentation, showed them video clips of other student presentations to critique, and had them practice by presenting to 4th and 5th grade classes. Students not only learned about animals, but they also practiced such skills as asking and answering questions; describing familiar people, places, and things; and speaking clearly and audibly—all of which are called for in the kindergarten speaking and listening standards.
By 3rd grade, student presentations in projects need to step up a notch to meet the increased requirements under the standards. In the Parkland on Display project, 3rd graders at Maupin Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, researched the history of their urban community and created a variety of products to show what they learned.
Each classroom focused on a particular aspect of the community. One classroom studied people and created biographical sketches of famous residents of their community. Another classroom looked at places and created brochures for a walking tour, photo exhibits, and replicas of buildings. And another learned about significant events and created a timeline using the technology tools Comic Life and PhotoStory.
At a showcase event in the library media center for parents and community members, students stood before their exhibits and explained their work, answering questions and demonstrating their ability to "report on a topic … with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace" (ELA-Literacy SL.3.4).
In middle school, the presentations, like the standards, become more complex. In the My Restaurant project at TEAM Academy in Newark, New Jersey, student teams presented ideas for a new restaurant in their community, such as the All-Sports Café and the Hip-Hop Grill. They researched nutrition and developed menus, wrote grant letters for start-up funding, produced video commercials, and created multimedia presentations for an audience of peers and visiting adults.
Students had to logically organize their ideas about how they would attract customers, set fair prices, and feature menu items that reflect a healthy diet. Students demonstrated oral presentation skills such as making eye contact—introduced as a standard for the first time in 6th grade—and using a clear speaking voice and clear pronunciation. They used formal English appropriate to the context, a component of the standards since 4th grade.
When students reach high school, projects often require them to carefully consider their audience and use digital and visual media in sophisticated ways. Many projects require students to interact with experts and other adults outside the classroom, again knowing when and how to use formal English. Sound familiar? See ELA-Literacy Standards SL.9–12.4, 5, and 6.
At Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, juniors in Susan McCray's English and social studies classes studied homelessness in the Give Me Shelter project. The students read both fiction and informational text, researched public policy on the issue, and interviewed homeless members of the community. Students then used laptops, iPhoto, GarageBand, and digital cameras to create multimedia presentations documenting the lives of the people they interviewed. They had to craft a message that suited two very different audiences: parents attending an exhibition night at the school and, at a community center a few days later, the homeless people themselves.
Or look at the Wing Project at Aviation High School in Seattle, Washington, in which 9th grade math students made models of airplane wings and tested them for strength. The class worked with a structural engineer as student teams designed and built wings made of cardboard and paper, hung weights on them until they broke, and then tried again with improved designs.
At the end of the project, each team presented its findings to a group of engineers, who questioned and assessed the nervous but well-informed teenagers. The students' visual displays of data needed to be of professional quality, and they had to speak and dress more formally than they typically did.

A New Call for PBL

It's not hard to see how project-based learning is a key strategy for achieving the goals of the Common Core State Standards. Not only do projects build speaking skills required by the standards, but they also build thinking and application skills in the subject area related to the project.
For example, high school math projects might require students to "practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges," a key point in the high school mathematics standards. And team discussions can provide opportunities to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others"—one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice that apply across all grade levels.
The writing standards for grades 8, 9, and 10 specify that students should conduct research projects "to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem" (ELA-Literacy.W.8.7 and ELA-Literacy.W.9–10.7); such questions are at the heart of project-based learning. At all grade levels, the English language arts and literacy standards call for more emphasis on informational text, and an engaging real-world project gives students an authentic purpose for reading informational text.
A hallmark of the Common Core State Standards is the move toward depth and understanding, an emphasis also found in project-based learning. We believe that the standards give teachers a little breathing room as they step away from superficial coverage of a large number of topics. We hope more teachers take advantage of the opportunity to dive into the deep end by designing and conducting projects.

Expeditionary Learning Schools. (2011). Evidence of success. New York: Author.

Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C.-W., Hirschman, B., &; Huang, M. (2010). Effects of problem based economics on high school economics instruction. (NCEE 2010-4002). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Geier, R., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Fishman, B., Soloway, E., & Clay-Chambers, J. (2008). Standardized test outcomes for students engaged in inquiry-based science curricula in the context of urban reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45, 922–939.

Hixson, N. K., Ravitz, J., & Whisman, A. (2012). Extended professional development in project-based learning: Impacts on 21st century teaching and student achievement. Charleston: West Virginia Department of Education, Division of Teaching and Learning, Office of Research.

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2010). Seven essentials for project-based learning. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 34–37.

Mergendoller, J. R., Maxwell, N. L., & Bellisimo, Y. (2006). The effectiveness of problem-based instruction: A comparative study of instructional methods and student characteristics. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(2), 49–69.

Palmer, E. (2011). Well spoken: Teaching speaking to all students. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

John Larmer is an author and internationally-recognized expert in project-based learning (PBL). A speaker, curriculum developer, professional learning designer, innovative educator, writer and editor, he is a long-time advocate of progressive school reform and is dedicated to making learning more meaningful for all students.

Larmer was a key builder of PBLWorks and the Buck Institute for Education, serving as its editor in chief, director of publications, and director of product development. He is the co-author of the ASCD books Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning and Project Based Teaching. He is currently Senior Project Based Learning Advisor at Defined Learning.

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