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Eloquent Kids in 5 Minutes a Day

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #94, 2010.

How to help your child learn to be comfortable with public speaking, in 5 minutes a day.

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Diane Lockman


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 our attention.

“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 content later.

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
at Once

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:

  1. how to use proper grammar by varying sentence structure and
  2. 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.

Classical Rhetoric
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 mannerisms.

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
Personal “Knowledge
Inventory”

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 delivery.

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 passionate.

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.

4. Delivery:
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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