Are you ready? Get set. Go! Standing by the microwave, I pressed the
keypad to start the timer. During this two-minute interlude, my
thirteen-year-old daughter, Meredith, scribbled a rough outline
furiously on a lined note card. When the timer dinged, she stood up,
clutched her note card to her chest, and turned to her audience,
comprised of her little brother and me. Nervous giggles erupted, then
she regained her composure by taking a deep breath. This time I set
the timer for three minutes, and she delivered a three-point impromptu
speech buffered on either end by a related “hook” to immediately grab
“Good job! Now that wasn’t as hard as you thought, was it?” I gently
critiqued her speech while encouraging her to tweak things next time.
There wasn’t much substance to that first impromptu speech, but at
least she had the form down, and we could work on beefing up the
Fast-forward four years, and my darling Meredith confidently places in
the top eight out of 64 teens in the impromptu category at most
competitive speech and debate tournaments.
How was this nervous novice transformed into an outstanding orator?
Just like brushing her teeth or making her bed, she made “impromptu
drill” a daily morning routine, and her language, thinking, and
communication skills tremendously improved.
Teach Three Trivium Skills
Language, thinking, and communication skills represent the three roads
of the classical trivium. Over the years instruction and application
of these three skills often happens simultaneously, and impromptu
drill is a perfect example of how you can teach all three skills at
the same time using one simple exercise.
Daily drill drastically improves language skills, such as:
- how to use proper grammar by varying sentence structure and
- how to increase vocabulary by substituting vivid nouns and action-packed
verbs for boring, overused words.
Likewise, critical-thinking skills
ramp up as the child creates her own knowledge inventory and learns to
organize her facts and illustrations in a clear, concise flow of
ideas. Finally, communication skills benefit from daily impromptu
drill as the homeschool child becomes comfortable with making
prolonged eye contact, using her body language to emphasize points,
and delivering content that persuades, informs, or motivates her
audience. Incorporate this daily drill and watch your child advance in
all three skills of classical education.
Is the Art of Oratory
Many people mistakenly think that rhetoric is the third stage of the
classical trivium, or even worse, an inflammatory term for verbose,
elaborate claims most often abused by pompous politicians. In fact,
the actual meaning of the word rhetoric for most of recorded human
history fit neither of these common, contemporary definitions. Derived
from the Greek word rhetorikos which literally translates as
“oratorical,” the truest meaning of the English word rhetoric is
simple and clear. In short, rhetoric is the art of public oratory.
Classical rhetors like Cicero and Aristotle prepared their speeches
for the purpose of persuading, informing, and motivating audiences in
the public forum, legislative assemblies, legal courtrooms, and
celebratory ceremonies. Each audience was interested in a different
period of time, and the trained public speaker considered this purpose
in preparing his speech. Judicial arguments in the courtroom were
concerned about the past. Ceremonial celebrations involved the
present, and legislative speeches were structured with a view to the
future. Every speech had a call to action, whether persuading,
defending, condemning, inspiring, or entertaining.
Students of classical rhetoric learned five “canons” or steps for
preparing a speech: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and
delivery. Basically, invention is the process of coming up with the
idea and the call to action. Arrangement is how you put together your
arguments or proof. Style involves the unique spin that you as an
individual put on your content; it could involve the use of literary
tools such as metaphors, similes, or symbolism. You can’t make
effective eye contact if you haven’t memorized the speech, and
delivery involves decisions about body language, placement, and
Just as the Dutch artist Rembrandt had to master the basics of oil
painting before he was able to create his masterpieces, accomplished
orators had to learn the basics of classical rhetoric, then discipline
and refine their skills through regular practice. So, too, your
homeschool child will greatly benefit from daily impromptu drill. Four
of the five canons of classical rhetoric apply (memory is not possible
when you are speaking spontaneously).
Here are my suggestions for transforming your nervous novice into an
outstanding orator through daily impromptu drill.
1. Invention: Create a
Retailers define inventory as all of the various products offered for
sale on the open market. Inventory at Apple Computer includes the
iPod, iPad, iPhone, and Macintosh computers. Pet food giant IAMS
maintains a simple inventory of dog food and cat food. Auto
manufacturer Toyota holds an inventory of cars, trucks, SUVs, and
accessories. At any given time, retailers can tell you how much
inventory they have on hand, and they can classify this inventory into
specific categories. Before they can offer the product for sale, they
have to know that it is physically on the premises and ready for
This concept is an easy one for the child to grasp especially if you
explain it in common terms. For instance, if I were explaining this to
a son who enjoys building “LEGO” battle vehicles, I would ask him
about the contents of the final package that he received on his
birthday. What was inside? Generally, the contents include a blueprint
for building the vehicle as well as a specific number of blue, green,
and red plastic bricks of differing sizes and shapes. The manufacturer
carefully planned the content of the package before delivering it to
the retail store. A good speech is like that prepackaged LEGO vehicle.
All the content is there ready to be delivered and acted upon.
Likewise, your child has already accumulated a vast inventory of
knowledge and experience since birth, and the first step toward
mastering impromptu speech is taking an inventory of what he knows so
that he can effectively address the problem and deliver the solution.
Sometimes when you ask a child what they know, they simply don’t know
where to start, so you have to give them clear direction and make the
brainstorming fun. First give him a blank piece of paper and tell him
to fold it in halves, quarters, eighths, and sixteenths. Next, unfold
the paper, and press it flat on the table. The grid is now apparent in
the crease lines, which provides a mental boundary that is achievable.
Now it is your turn to come up with the concrete noun categories; tell
your child to write the first category in the first grid, leaving
enough room to write under it. For example, you might want to start
with “sports.” Next, set the timer for 30 seconds, and tell the child
it’s a race to write anything he can think of that relates to sports
in the block. When the timer dings, fill the next block with the
second category. Perhaps this time, you’ll have him brainstorm about
pets. The categories can be generic with young children and very
specific with older teens. Here are common categories that I have
used: sports, pets, family, rulers, wars, experiments, hobbies, songs,
service, parties, foods, crafts, flowers, and vehicles. The
possibilities for customizing the knowledge inventory to your child
are endless. Just think of at least 16 categories, find a timer, and
make this initial brain dump a quick and fun exercise. You and your
child will be astounded at the end of eight minutes how many items he
has listed on what was once a blank sheet of paper. Ask him to tell
you what he was thinking about when he wrote a few of the entries, and
he is on his way to his first impromptu speech.
Once the initial inventory is taken, it is often helpful to maintain a
spiral-bound notebook where she can record ideas and illustrations
from her literature, history, and science assignments. Many kids have
favorite books from which they draw examples for composing their
impromptu speeches. My son is a Tolkien fan, so he often uses examples
from his Tolkien knowledge inventory, while my daughter often uses
examples from the Anne of Green Gables series. Another student of mine
is a history buff, so he exclusively selects the “proof” from his
knowledge inventory of history about which he is so familiar and so
A final tool that you as a parent need is a speech prompt. You could
use one of the items disclosed on the 16 square grid exercise in the
beginning, but eventually, you should use quote prompts and abstract
prompts. Unlike concrete nouns, abstracts are words that are more
difficult to define like liberty, cooperation, and competition. A
quote prompt is basically the same thing as an abstract prompt; all
the child has to do is find the nouns in the prompt, and these are the
abstracts. There are numerous free quote websites from which to pull,
and you can select a variety according to your child’s interests. I
have used humorous quote prompts, niche prompts like famous military
commander sayings, quotes from Shakespeare (tough!), and Proverbs.
Download them from the Web or a library book, cut them into strips,
and put them in a jar on the kitchen table for your daily morning
drill. Each morning, the kid randomly picks a prompt, and away you go!
2. Arrangement: Teach the
Basic 3-Point Outline
Accomplished orators and writers learn how to arrange their content in
numerous ways, but in my experience, the best place to start with a
novice speaker is the basic three-point outline. Every good speech
starts with a “hook” to immediately grab the audience’s attention.
This hook could be a personal story, a joke, a quote, or a compelling
example that reinforces the overall purpose of the speech and content.
Next, outline three points, and include the call to action along with
an echo back to the opening hook.
When you first start the daily impromptu drill, give the kids a few
minutes before you start the timer to let them set up their note card
with the words “hook, 1, 2, 3, conclusion, hook.” This visual roadmap
helps them arrange and organize their thoughts and acts as a reminder
of where they are going with the idea if they forget due to nerves.
Under each of the three points, encourage your child to find 2–3
specific illustrations from their knowledge inventory to support or
prove their point.
With time and experience, you can teach your more advanced student how
to organize the three points according to importance, priority, shock
value, or some other emotion. Additionally, once the three-point
outline is mastered, encourage your budding public speaker to boldly
try new methods of arrangement. Finally, teach your child how to
include simple transitions like “first, second, and next” to help the
audience follow the development of the idea.
3. Style: Enhance Content
with Stylistic Techniques
A beginning speaker will not be able to do this for a while, but as
your child gains more experience in giving daily impromptu speeches,
she will eventually have the confidence to try incorporating more
personal style. If you’ve been teaching literary concepts, this would
be a good time to ask her to add one element to her speech. Similes
are easy to understand, and most of us use them regularly in
conversations when we are trying to explain a difficult concept, so
this might be an easy stylistic technique to incorporate. Of course,
in written speeches that have been prepared ahead of time, there is no
excuse for omitting stylistic techniques, but in an impromptu speech,
this skill might come much later.
Stand Up and Talk
Arranging the idea (once you have it) is fairly simple since all you
do is learn a formula and follow it, but standing up in front of an
audience, even if it is your parents and siblings, can be
excruciatingly painful in the beginning. In fact, there is an urban
rumor that most people would rather die than give a speech!
After going to the trouble of taking a knowledge inventory and
arranging the material, your child must stand and deliver the speech.
It’s scary at first, but it does get better with time and practice.
Scattered “ums” and lost trains of thought are typical behaviors for
novices. Encourage your child to keep going by maintaining a cheerful
smile and eager eye contact. Clap when the speech is over even if it
is only two minutes long. Have every child in the family give her
speech to equal applause and encouragement.
Some of my favorite public speakers have this incredible ability to
just talk to the audience. I encourage my kids to think about having a
one-on-one conversation with each member of the audience, and one way
to do this is to have a casual, transparent demeanor and spend three
seconds of intentional eye contact with various members of the
audience. Teach your child how to look at an audience member and
mentally count to 3000 (1000, 2000, 3000) before moving her eyes to
the next person.
Daily Impromptu Drill has
Larger Life Implications
If you’ll make a personal long-term commitment to shepherd your
homeschool child in this daily impromptu drill, you will eventually
reap huge rewards. With time and practice, that nervous novice who
could barely squeak out two minutes worth of content will surprise you
with an easy ten minutes worth of polished, persuasive content from
only two minutes of prep time. I’m not kidding! I’ve seen it happen
over and over again in my speech club of forty kids. When parents make
the commitment to daily drill, their kids look forward to that first
assignment of the day because after all, we all love being taken
seriously about our thoughts and ideas.
I’m convinced that this simple skill, faithfully nurtured throughout
the formative home school years, will translate into confident adults
who can spontaneously and intelligently engage any audience with
eloquence, whether it’s the boss at the water cooler or the clerk at
the grocery store. That’s what we all want, right? Our labors now are
setting the stage for the future direction of this culture. Are you
ready? Get set. Go!
Diane Lockman, author of Trivium Mastery, practiced nine years as a
CPA before cheerfully coming home to be with Meredith and Connor until
they were old enough for school. When Meredith was in first grade,
Diane heard about homeschooling. She looked into it and a few weeks
later, persuaded David to let her pull the kids out of school. Diane
is the founder of The Classical Scholar (classicalscholar.com), a site
for teaching other homeschool parents how to teach in the classical
style. When she’s not reading, writing, managing the kids’ education,
or teaching live classes, Diane enjoys sewing period costumes.
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