Speech and Theater Education

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Speech communication education in the secondary schools is of critical importance in preparing students for their roles in a global society. Since the early 1970s, employers and college admissions personnel have identified speaking, listening, and critical thinking as skills and knowledge crucial to success. These three skills are the basis for most oral communication or speech classes in the schools. Despite the increased emphasis on speech communication education on the part of academics and employers, most elementary schools do not offer speech communication classes, and many secondary schools do not offer a full complement of classes in speech communication. On the other hand, many schools offer at least some opportunities for students to gain speaking, listening, and critical thinking experiences. In a 2002 publication, Sherwyn Morreale, associate director of the National Communication Association (NCA), wrote, "The need for communication education in grades K12 is a crucial national concern that cannot and should not be ignored. Competence in oral communicationspeaking, listening, and media literacyis prerequisite to students' personal and academic success in life" (p. v).

Speech communication focuses on how people use messages to generate meaning within and across various contexts, cultures, channels, and media. Teachers in the field of speech communication promote the effective and ethical practice of human communication. The National Education Goals Panel set forth six broad targets for educational improvements, which became part of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994. One of the objectives within the goals identified communication as an important knowledge and skill base for every American.


The functions of secondary school speech communication education are based on the premise that such instruction should provide for the need of all studentsthose who are deficient, those who are gifted, and those who are normal in basic oral communication abilities.

The needs of the student who has a speech defect cannot be ignored. Students who stutter, have a cleft palate, or have a severe hearing disorder cry out for special speech instruction. U.S. Census Bureau data from 1997 indicated that 2,270,000 people aged fifteen years and over had "difficulty with speech" (493,000 of those had severe problems). Another 7,966,000 had "difficulty hearing conversation," with 832,000 noted as having severe problems. Most school districts have access to specially educated speech and hearing therapists. The school therapist in the early twenty-first century is expected to have knowledge of the cultural and genetic aspects of speech and language development; the physical bases of speech, hearing, and language; the principles used in diagnosing speech, hearing, and language disorders; and the methods of treating disorders of speech, hearing, and language. Thus, such remedial instruction is considered outside the province of the classroom teaching of speech.

Speech communication education also seeks to provide learning experiences for students with special interests and abilities in speech. The needs of gifted students are often met by cocurricular activities. Forensics contests, intrascholastic and inter-scholastic debate, school theatrical productions, radio and television clubs, and school variety programs are established parts of the secondary school curriculum through speech courses. Such courses are often electives and are available only in schools where the speech teacher's time, interests, and education make them available.

Speech communication educators urge an emphasis on programs that provide the best education for the greatest number. As justification for their claim that speech instruction should be a required part of the secondary school curriculum for all students, speech educators note that oral communication is an extraordinarily pervasive element of social life. In a 1980 article, Larry Barker and colleagues reported that college students spend from 42 to 53 percent of their time in listening and 30 to 32 percent of their time in speaking, and only 11 to 14 percent in writing and 15 to 17 percent of their time in reading. Earlier research suggested similar and even higher percentages of speaking and listening for K12 students. And Robert Bohlken suggested in 1999 that all students are expected to listen 50 percent of the time despite few opportunities for listening instruction. Because of the importance of oral communication in social relations, systematic instruction for all students in the nature, principles, and skills of oral communication is considered the primary objective of contemporary secondary speech education.

Incidence of Speech Instruction

Some states have mandated speech communication education. Texas students are required to take a course that covers communication fundamentals, speaking, and listening. California, Maryland, and North Carolina have passed legislation mandating oral communication. In addition, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education have published guidelines and standards that include oral communication. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/International Reading Association (IRA) Standards for the English Language Arts include attention to oral literacy and communication skills. Standard 4 states, "Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes" (NCTE/IRA, p. 33).

While these guidelines are given, speech communication educators feel that all students need to receive systematic and in-depth direct instruction in speech communication in specifically designated courses. For example, English teachers may use one formal speaking event such as an oral book report or a formal oral report as the sole measure of a student's speaking competence. Listening instruction is often only a request for students to "listen carefully"; at best, it may involve an activity where students must follow directions or summarize a story. While group work is common in classrooms, there is little instruction on how and why groups work.

Because of the need to provide speech communication instruction and the paucity of such courses in the schools, the National Communication Association developed a series of publications to address the issue of what to teach. The Speaking, Listening, and Media Literacy Standards and Competency Statements for K12 Education provides a list of twenty standards for what should be taught in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Each standard has a list of competencies addressing knowledge, behavior, and attitudes. While this list of standards and competencies is not intended to be prescriptive, it offers a beginning point for teachers, school districts, and states who want to know what professionals at all levels in the speech communication discipline deem "what K12 students need to know and be able to do."

Nature of Instruction

The field of speech communication consists of a rich amalgam of studies having to do with the act and art of oral communication. In university speech departments there are courses of study in rhetoric and public address; interpersonal, group, organizational, political, intercultural, and nonverbal communication; listening; speech science; theater, oral interpretation, or performance studies; and radio, television, and film. Scholars may approach the study of speech communication from physiological, acoustic, linguistic, aesthetic, psychological, sociological, and humanistic vantage points.

Speech instruction has traditionally been the sort that seeks to help students develop their personal skills in oral communication. Thus, units and courses of instruction in speech attempt to improve the students' fundamental communication, speaking, listening, and media literacy skills. The first, and often the only, secondary school course in speech usually consists of bits and pieces from the various areas of public communication. Each student makes speeches, takes part in debate, reads a poem, listens effectively, and uses media in an appropriate way. In addition to the basic introductory course, advanced elective courses are often made available for students with special speech interests. Table 1 shows the NCA K12 Standards from 1998 suggesting twenty areas in which students should be allowed the opportunity to gain skills.

Cocurricular Speech Programs

In many high schools forensics, debate, and theater activities are as natural to the cocurricular program as band concerts, football games, and junior proms. The purpose of these activities is to give students with special aptitude an opportunity for more intensive and extended experience than is possible in the classroom. While the speech communication curriculum has moved away from total student performances, cocurricular speech programs will undoubtedly continue to make such experiences possible for interested and gifted students.

Forensics. The structure of forensic activities in high schools in the United States varies greatly from state to state. Some states have a well-defined and carefully organized system of forensic contests; others do not. Most states have a central agency responsible for the direction and control of forensic activities. In states with well-established forensic programs, a number of levels of contest activities exist. Most states offer some forms of impromptu and extemporaneous speaking, humorous interpretation, dramatic interpretation, original oratory, and poetry reading or literary programs. A number of states offer other events such as group acting, prose reading, radio and television speaking, after-dinner speaking, oratorical analysis, storytelling, pantomime, choral reading, student congress, informative speech, duet acting, expository speaking, and book reviewing.


The number of activities offered is also subject to great variation from state to state. Two national organizations sponsor contests for member schools. The National Forensic League offers contests in extemporaneous speaking, original oratory, humorous and dramatic interpretation, prose and poetry interpretation, student congress, and debate, with the latter including policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas debate, and Barbara Jordan debate (which concerns urban issues). The league has more than 1,000 chapters in the United States and a membership of approximately 240,000. The National Catholic Forensic League sponsors contests in extemporaneous speaking, original oratory, interpretation events, and Lincoln-Douglas and policy debate for its more than 500 member schools.

Debate. Debate is often listed as one of the forensic activities and is usually sponsored by the same state agency sponsoring the other forensic activities. Debate is frequently handled apart from the other school forensic activities, however; thus it may be considered separately.

Because debate is an intellectually rigorous activity, it is most appropriate for students who are above average in intelligence and possess strong interest in problems of social concern. Debate is credited with developing such skills as the ability to collect and organize ideas, the ability to subordinate ideas, the ability to evaluate evidence, the ability to see logical connections, the ability to speak convincingly, the ability to adapt, and the ability to think and speak in outline terms.

Because interscholastic debating activities must focus on common topics, a central national coordinating agency is necessary. The National Federation of High School Activities serves this important coordinating function with the help of an advisory council made up of a representative from each state with a speech league or similar organization, a representative from the National Forensic League, and a representative from the National Catholic Forensic League. At an annual meeting the advisory committee considers the various problem areas that are recommended for consideration as debate topics and selects three of these areas for possible adoption; the final selection is made by means of a national referendum. Because three alternative debate propositions are provided for the national topic area, each state must decide which of the three propositions within the national topic area selected it will use as a debate topic.

Once a state agency has determined the particular proposition to be debated, the state conducts a series of tournaments in which that proposition is debated. Most states sponsor a state tournament, and many offer district and regional elimination tournaments as well. In addition to state-sanctioned tournaments, individual schools and cooperating universities and colleges sponsor invitational tournaments. Near the end of the season, member schools of the National Forensic League engage in league-sponsored tournaments in which the national proposition is debated. Teams that win a district tournament are eligible to compete in the National Forensic League National Tournament. The National Catholic Forensic League sponsors a similar national tournament.

Theater. The vast majority of high schools in the United States have some form of cocurricular theater program. The quality and quantity of cocurricular dramatic activities differ a great deal from school to school. Some schools still limit dramatic activities to class plays, which are directed by teachers with limited experience and directorial talent. Other schools have active and balanced theater programs consisting of several full-length productions of various types, one-act play productions, play readings, theater trips, and formal and informal meetings, workshops, and discussion sessions. High school theater, both curricular and cocurricular, has strong national leadership through the International Thespian Society and the American Educational Theatre Association.

Teacher Preparation

Nationally, a standards-based evaluation is used to measure how well teacher candidates meet quality indicators and competencies. According to a 2000 NCA document, Communication Teacher Education Preparation Standards and Guidelines, there are six quality standards used to assess the speech communication teacher preparation program: (1) structure of the program, (2) general studies component, (3) knowledge of communication, (4) professional education and pedagogical studies, (5) professional collaboration and growth, and (6) field-based experiences for communication.

See also: English Education, subentries on Preparation of Teachers, Teaching of; Journalism, Teaching of; Language Arts, Teaching of; Secondary Education; Speech and Language Impairment, Education of Individuals with.


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Melissa L. Beall

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