Students Shouldn’t Have to Speak in Front of the Class

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Image: Wikimedia Commons, Henderson_Family_Day_Arm_2007.jpg, CC-BY-2.0

I’ve been saying this for over 35 years, since the first time my teacher made us all participate in Show and Tell. I hated speaking in front of people then, and I hate doing it now. In between, I hated being called on when my hand wasn’t raised, which some teachers did to try to encourage more participation. But all it succeeded in doing was to make me fear those classes and to be so busy worrying that I wasn’t learning. I hated oral presentations. I hated having to be the spokesperson for group work. I hated anything that caused me to be the center of attention for more than a couple of people at a time.

Katherine Schultz, the author of a not-so-recent (but new to me) article in The Washington Post seems to agree with me, that forcing students to verbally participate in class may not be the best way to teach all students.

I come out of my shell only when I feel comfortable and accepted. Your typical classroom is not a warm and fuzzy place. It is a place where kids are thrown together because their birthdays were within a year of each other. It is a place of disparate interests, abilities, attitudes, and levels of respect. It is a hot bed for the dominant to.. well.. dominate, regardless of deservedness.

I learn best when I can observe for a while, and then try my hand at something in private, without an often-judgmental audience. Forcing me to verbally participate before I am ready not only is fruitless, it is counter productive. It ensures that I’ll never be ready. There are countless others out there like me.

This article from The Washington Post posits that perhaps there are more ways to participate in class than just raising your hand to answer a question. What does it mean to participate? What can count as part of a “participation” grade?

Some people seem to think that later success is somehow tied to speaking up in class. But there are countless jobs and life choices that do not include this kind of interaction. If someone is drawn to other types of work, why continually force them to be someone they are not?

Just because we are not raising our hands and speaking in front of our classmates doesn’t mean we aren’t learning. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Katherine Schultz is also the author of the book Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.

[Ed. Note: Opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or other writers of GeekDad.]

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47 thoughts on “Students Shouldn’t Have to Speak in Front of the Class

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Several decades later, after some public speaking training in front of a friendly audience, I can finally speak in front of a group of people without sweating, shaking and feeling nauseous.

  2. I agree that some students can learn quite well without speaking in class. The question of whether speaking in class should be required may depend on the goals of the program. I now teach in a teacher education program; if my students do not gain confidence speaking, they will not be successful in their chosen career.

    Rather than excuse shy students from speaking in class, I try to foster a safe environment where students can speak and not risk being judged.

    There may be some fields where students do not need to develop oral skills, but I imagine those exceptions are rare. We do a disservice to students by not helping them develop oral skills in addition to other mediums of communication. And I say this as a student who strongly disliked speaking aloud in school. Thankfully I had experiences and college-level instructors who helped me overcome this anxiety.

  3. I have to disagree. If you don’t get used to speaking in front of people, how on earth will people gain the skills to put across their ideas in a group, at work, to their boss, to a large or small audience? If anything we don’t do enough public speaking in schools. There are many things children don’t like doing: tidying their room, eating vegetables, speaking in front of people. If they don’t start early, those same habits will carry on into childhood.

  4. Interesting take on this, Jenny, from a direction I hadn’t considered previously.

    I do want to emphasize what robbsims wrote: “Rather than excuse shy students from speaking in class, I try to foster a safe environment where students can speak and not risk being judged.” I think that is an important point: make it easy, gentle, safe.

    Some folks may still not want to participate in it, but making it a less risky event would widen the accessibility. And, like swimming, I think it’s a good skill to at least know you have, even if you don’t choose to use it very often.

  5. I don’t think I can agree. Most of us don’t like speaking in front of a group, especislly when young. Many kids don’t like math, some apparently have a real aversion – many adults freely admit this. Many kids don’t like writing essays – one of my sons has almost dropped classes because assigned papers caused him such anxiety.

    But we make our kids learn math, write essays, and occasionally speak in front of class. Whether calling on students for answers in class is effective or not is probably a separate issue. But learning to speak in a group to some degree is a useful skilll like math and writing. Of course there are probably better ways to teach this than are often used (as is true with most school lessons).

    If you can always choose to avoid something then eventually you really will have a problem doing it, even if you have a real need or desire to do so. And some people find when they try that it’s not that bad, or even that they actually like it, including those who would have avoided it if allowed to choose.

  6. A big part of the issue here IS the fact that many kids in school, especially elementary school, don’t feel like they are in a safe enough environment to speak freely. Learning to speak in front of a group as an adult in a teacher education program, for example, where the audience is likely to be supportive of your goals and efforts, is quite different from having to make an oral report on some random topic in front of the same people who bully you on the playground. Context is everything.

  7. I think a big assumption is being made by some commenters that being forced to speak in class is a proven way to develop oral communication skills. Any research to support your position? I didn’t learn how to present until I had done it many times as an adult. I doubt my participation in class, or lack thereof, had anything to do with it.

  8. Throw me in with the disagree camp. Part of life is learning to be resilient and getting pushed out of our comfort zone. Should participation in classrooms be based solely on talking in front of the class? No, but should it be removed as a requirement? Absolutely not.

    Everyone has to learn to speak before their peers–it’s as important as learning how to articulate your own thoughts through writing, or finding a way to express yourself through the arts (or even sports!).

    Humans are linguistic organisms. I’m largely an introvert, and I participated in drama, forensics, and a host of other extravert activities–including raising my hand in class. My identity was never determined by what I didn’t say out loud–it was formed by expressing those thoughts and sharing them in places that aren’t always warm or fuzzy.

  9. I agree with Jay. I was one of those painfully shy kids who tried to be invisible in class. I remember a particular teacher who was known to humiliate students in class and I tried extra hard to be invisible in that class. But other teachers were ‘safe’. Despite the trauma of having to put myself out there, I do feel that if I had been allowed to hide, I would never have developed enough confidence to get out there and have a life.

    Ironically I am now a teacher myself and it is always my goal to make my classroom a safe enough place for students to speak up – I hope they know that I am not going to laugh at anything they say or make them feel inadequate. I have a special affinity for those shy, quite ones and try to bring them out of their shell without overwhelming them. Letting them hide is not necessarily the answer.

    1. These are some fantastic comments. Thank you, everyone. I never expect everyone to agree with me, and these varied perspectives are really valuable.

  10. I am currently a high-school student, and I am researching student anxiety for an English project and argumentative speech. I found this article supportive of my claim, and I thought I might leave some feedback from a student point of view. I was diagnosed with generalized and social anxiety when I was in 7th grade. Due to insurance restrictions, I have never been on any form of medication for anxiety. I have always hated speech assignments with a passion, and a few times I made myself so ill with anticipation that I stayed home from school the day I was supposed to give my speech to my class. I have done at least 15 speaking projects since then, and I can’t say I have improved at all. Anxiety still keeps me awake for hours on the nights leading up to my speech. I believe assigning a speech does not help teach the unit any better than an essay or other form of writing project would. In fact, I think I spend considerably more time stressing over the speech than paying attention or writing the speech. When the time comes to actually give my speech, I am a shaking, stuttering mess. I simply cannot be comfortable speaking in front of a large group of people. Being required to do it multiple times a year and getting graded on it does nothing to improve my public speaking abilities; it just makes those few weeks a flourish of anxiety and stress. It also makes me dislike the unit and class. I would rather write a ten-page essay than give a speech to my class, and I think it is extremely considerate when a teacher offers a student an alternative to giving a speech.

    1. I agree completely. I am doing research for an English argumentative speech and my claim is that students with anxiety should NOT be forced to give speeches. Not everyone gets better with time. I personally get worse with every speech I give to be honest.

    2. I agree with you! I am 41 and I have done the same thing. I clam up in meetings , I am generally talkative but I have anxiety with this. My 9 year is old is the same way. Looking for answers because he won’t read his news report at school he is getting a zero. He sits down on floor and hides. He told teacher he will take a zero. He says he is scared and he answered he doesn’t want. Them to laugh. Whether a safe environment or not some people get so overwhelmed they cannot do it.

  11. ive never liked it i was very dumb i have bad anxiety an i really didnt like school i didnt like bein around alot of people an i sure didnt like talkin in front of em an i tried to get out of speakin in class when i could an im doin just fine in life so i dont think its needed to force kids to its just really dumb

  12. I disagree. When I was a child every student would speak in front of the class every day. It became natural. Then in high school speech class we were taught that everyone had stage fright, that it was normal, and that even presidents didn’t like giving speeches. Even presidents! Guess what happened? Suddenly people that I’d known for years that exhibited confidence and flair were reduced to quivering wrecks on stage. All in a subconscious effort to be normal.

    Public speaking is an essential skill that should be taught to all students. The problem is that so much focus is on anxiety and peer assessment, when the focus should be on doing the damn thing with no extra layers of judgment. Because in the end no one cares. Every classroom is full of dumbasses and slackers who aren’t following along or lack the capacity, and even the teacher is just mildly interested, another meaningless moment in a long march throughout the day. Get over it and do the damn thing. This too shall pass.

    1. Bull. That is one of the stupidest things I ever heard. Public speaking is not an essential skill, nor is it even a real subject. Does a painter or plumber need this “skill”. I am a teacher and I hate public speaking. Forcing students to do something that makes them that anxious is abuse. This is a case of forcing everyone into the same boxes.

  13. I agree , i was and i am the shyest person when it comes to public speaking ,though i have thrown into such situations many many times with the confidence that these will reduce my anxieties over the period of time, but that did not happen for me. In fact , it did the opposite, i am more nervous and more prone to panic attacks even with the slightest hint of such events.

    and i agree that people like us need other kinds of training enviornment, even in our professional lives. i now do not attend any meeting, any training opportunity that requires teamwork, public speaking thus lowering the chance of professional growth.

    isn’t it time to ditch the strategy of handling every horse and donkey with the same stick and accept that few of us just can not manage it.

  14. I agree completely,all of my teachers think am a failure. They say i’ll never achieve anything, just because I don’t want to be very social.It’s very relieving to hear that am not alone.

  15. I’ve never liked presenting in front of my class and all of my class mates either don’t want to go up or they laugh… My eyes water and my face turns red but i try to go up and do a quick presentation… Students shouldn’t have to go up and present if don’t want to.

  16. For me, being forced to speak in front of the room in school was extremely traumatic and to this day(at 57 yrs old), I still am very uncomfortable speaking in a group. I think public speaking is a desire and not a requirement. That is why there are classes like Dale Carnegie. Not everyone is meant to be a presenter. I am an introvert, have been all my life. There are other countries who admire and emulate introverts. Unfortunately, the United States seem to praise extroverts more. So all you introverts out there, be proud!

  17. I agree, I’m a Senior in High School and I would like to say I’ve never once enjoyed public speaking in the slightest. I have extreme social anxiety that causes my heart to drop, race, and my stomach to turn whenever I feel pressured to speak in class for any such reason. Even reading aloud in class, a seemingly easy task, terrifies me and causes me to stutter. I stumble along words when presenting, my voice is quiet and I shake where I stand. I’m so horribly anxious I can hardly look out at everyone around me, I try to hide behind my wall of hair when I go to sit back down. It doesn’t help that you can feel everyone’s eyes on you, judging you, some laughing at you, and everyone watching you fail at speaking properly along with your disappointed teacher just giving you an odd look. It’s not just a thing about being shy, socially awkward, or introverted–though I am those things as well. Anxiety, fears, and phobias are real and should be understood and accepted. No one should be forced to do something that absolutely terrifies them and forces them to freak out, have a panic/anxiety attack, or stay home from school because they’re “sick”. I nearly failed one of my classes because of a presentation that was a large part of our grade and we weren’t allowed to have note-cards and we couldn’t only read from our power point.We had to elaborate from our own thoughts on the spot and I just couldn’t, I’ve always drawn a blank during these type of things. I skipped that class for days not to do it and nearly dropped it if it wasn’t for my mother forcing me to stay in it. A fear of public speaking is not the same as not liking to write essays or do math. Forced public speaking is never a good idea, it’s just cruel and hurtful to a person’s mental health and self confidence.

  18. this is very helpful as I am making a speech I must give next week about why we shouldn’t have to give speeches. I am nervous already

    1. I wish you luck! Pretend that someone in the audience is very interested in what you have to say and values your insight on the subject, and then pretend like you’re just talking to that one person, and no one else is there. You can do this!!

  19. All these people saying it helps build resilience. No, I’ve been forced to give speeches in school hundreds of times and never got used to it. It is cruel and unusual punishment to make a child face their fears in front of their peers. Learn some psychology people.

  20. Speeches have always been my weakness. I absolutely hate it and my anxiety makes it much worse. Im currently a Junior in highschool and I dont have many friends because I cant get along with teens my age. At a young age I guess you can say I started maturing ? To sum it up due to my parents jobs and events, I had to be on my best behavior. Im currently 17 and I can carry out a whole conversation for hours with adults, but not with teens. I have no idea why it really confuses me but I can make people laugh uncontrollably, which to me is the best feeling ever. For the teens in my high school, everyone is very, in with pop culture ? Im probally not making any sense but i feel like thats a big problem now these days. Bullying has been very high in schools and the class room is now made a war zone. I hate it when ever one of my teachers assign us a project to present, especially in a class where two guys have joy in picking on me. I would much rather present infront of adults then teens my age. I have no idea if this will help anyone but I thought I would leave a comment. To those who have anxiety about speaking your not alone. It can be scary and it can be hard, but this best thing to do is give t your all, and get it over with. At the end of the day give yourself a pat on the back because you where able to over come a fear of yours. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your awesome reply! You totally made sense. I had a similar experience to you. But once I was out of school (after college, anyway), I never had to do another oral report, presentation, or school-type group project. So hang in there. It will get better.

  21. my straight A daughter is now getting a D in her English class because she does not participate in class discussions. She does great in one on one settings or in small groups but not in front of the masses. Like her father, who often has learned to listen in group meetings (because the ones that talk the most usually only want to appear they know something and never seem to get a point) then afterwards will ask a specific question to the individual, doesn’t like in big public setting..I stuttered and was teased greatly as a kid in class. However her teacher has told her that if she cannot speak in public she will not be a success in life. When I asked how this can be (I know several people that are very successful and never speak in large groups), her example was her dental hygienist. Of course I had to ask how many people were in the room with them and the teachers response was just us….case closed.

    In a classroom setting there are many kids that may know each other but are not really friends. In work if you have to speak in a meeting, you are all there for a specific reason and all mutually benefit from that discussion. A classroom is never a safe space as teachers love to say it is….this is a safe classroom where you can be you…they all forget that ends the moment they walk out.

    Forcing kids to speak in front of others is basically moronic and nonsensical.

    1. Your response really hit home. Thank you for sharing it. I feel for your daughter. Rest assured, you do NOT have to speak in public to be a success in life. Not even in semi-public. Just keep encouraging her in the areas where she thrives and is passionate, and she’ll do fine. Thank you for being such a thoughtful parent.

    2. I do feel for you– and it’s hard. I disagree with your daughters teachers grading policy. However, there are many careers that never require formal essays, or higher math, history, or science. For some students many of these skills are also anxiety producing. Math phobia, being overwhelmed by essays, some of the trauma of history being triggering, various phobias tapped into in science. However, like public speaking they all offer the opportunity for a well rounded education. On the whole speaking aloud does enable people to tap into oral communication differently than reading and writing. We are able to articulate our thoughts verbally in any size group better when we learn to speak in front of others. Many colleges require public speaking or speech. Schools at their best strive to prepare students for as many options as possible and to neglect that has disadvantages as well.

  22. Well it’s really controversal topic, because students must be able to express their thoughts. And school must teach them how to do it. Nowadays in their writings students often use someone’s work more info. They can buy their research paper on the internet and get a good mark. Speaking is one of the best ways to prove you understand the topic.

  23. I think speaking in class is really important. I think that there is more than one way for students to accomplish this. They can talk in small groups, share with a partner, or have round tables as well. Students shouldn’t be forced to only stand in front of the class and present as a one-off. It is also essential to foster a healthy classroom environment for this– ideally this should begin in early elementary and not be thrust on students in middle or high school. I think like many parts of education, unfortunately people are different and many things can create crippling anxiety the best educators can do is be sensitive and create many points of entry and positive experiences– including requiring but not grading oral participation– reducing risk. They should also spend time discussing growth mindset– the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes or that growing can be uncomfortable but worth it. Reminding students often. We can’t simply remove what for many are essential skills because they may not be for some– where would math, essay writing or test taking go? What we can do is be mindful of better ways to practice in the classroom.

  24. Some people seem to think that later success is somehow tied to speaking up in class. But there are countless jobs and life choices that do not include this kind of interaction. If someone is drawn to other types of work, why continually force them to be someone they are not?

    Just because we are not raising our hands and speaking in front of our classmates doesn’t mean we aren’t learning. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  25. As a person who hates public speaking, I agree with you, but as a parent of children who want them to be confident in themselves and their social skills, I do not agree. Perhaps schools should just change the way and requirements given to students.
    It is, as I see, a long discussion, and I have read all the previous comments, and I understand that there is still no single answer.

    1. I think there are some kids who benefit greatly from it, but, for some others, it’s traumatic and causes lasting damage. I think it shouldn’t be a blanket requirement. Everyone shines in their own way.

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