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In this digital age, we are increasingly focused on communication via technology. It can be easy to forget about the important role that speaking plays in our daily lives. However, talking is still the best way to interact with the people around us. In addition to this, speaking skills are examined in every exam from IB to DSE, and oral interviews are vital to success in university and job applications.
Being a confident speaker is a great boost for future success and happiness. From kids who clam up around strangers, to those who happily chat to friends but can’t speak formally, there’s an area of improvement for everyone. Follow the tips below to take your young learner from even the lowest levels of confidence to speaking success.
Often, young learners struggle to speak confidently with people outside the home and may therefore limit themselves to the simplest answers when asked a question. This nervousness makes little ones miss out on important socialising practice, and means they also lose opportunities to try out the complex words that are important for their development. To get your child speaking in full, confident sentences, try these tips:
Shadowing – Little ones have to work very hard to pull together the ideas, vocabulary, and grammar needed to construct a complete sentence. Sometimes, this can seem like too much, and they limit themselves to one-word answers instead. Take some of the thinking stress off them by having your child repeat (or shadow) the sentences you say. For children too nervous to do this, you can listen to an audiobook or watch a video together and pause it after each line to practise copying it as a pair. Work up to having them say a short sentence that you copy and practise full-sentence speaking wherever possible from then on.
Silly sentences – These remove the pressure to be correct that some little ones feel. Work together to make up nonsense sentences using pictures or the things around you. You can start with examples of your own and then leave gaps for your child to fill e.g. ‘The chair eats pencils and dances on grapes.’ Once your little one grows in confidence, they can create the sentence framework for you to complete, and work up to whole sentences on their own.
Anyone who’s heard a child’s ten-minute recap of a five-minute Peppa Pig episode knows that little ones can struggle to organise their ideas. Conveying your thoughts in an orderly and interesting manner is a key part of successful communication, and children who can’t do this lose confidence in their speaking. Use story-telling as a way to build up your child’s ability to arrange their ideas. If your child is too nervous to do this unaided, here are a couple of ways to support them with it:
Read books aloud – Before you ask your little one to create their own stories, they can read story books aloud. Those who are very nervous speakers may prefer to read to younger siblings, pets or even stuffed toys, as this reduces the worry about being perfect.
Use picture prompts – Once your child is used to telling stories aloud, help them construct their own using prompts. These can be a series of pictures that go together, or words which they need to include in their story. To an adult, this seems to make the task of storytelling more complex, but it’s something I do in my classroom very regularly and it works well with every single child.
For those who are confident enough to communicate, but don’t love to express themselves in front of people, it can be hard to see how to help them improve. Speaking classes are an option, and while they’re great for many people, they’re not the only thing your child can do:
Drama classes – Some Hong Kong schools have fantastic drama programmes, but others push it to the edge of the curriculum to make more space for academics. On top of this, a shy child may not want to put themselves out there at school. Try an extra-curricular drama class to give your kid a chance to come out of their shell in a new environment.
Mental practice – Several of my colleagues who speak English as a second language highly recommend doing this. Instead of waiting for speaking opportunities to arise, encourage your child to think through conversations in their head whenever they have some down time. They might listen to people around them, or those on TV, and imagine their own responses to what’s being said. Doing mental conversation practice doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but it’s a very effective way to strengthen the connections in your brain so that the next time you talk, the answers spring to your lips a little more easily.
Pursue a passion – I have found many quiet students only come to life when talking about their favourite topics. Kids who struggle to put together a sentence when talking about poetry suddenly can’t shut up when describing the robot they’re designing. If you want your child to practise speaking more, put them in situations where they can chat about the things they love. You’ll find they push themselves more far more than you’d think possible when they’re trying to discuss something they care about.
Preparing to Perform
Whether it’s the speech festival, a class presentation, or the IOC for IB, all speaking performances can be improved by preparation. When your child feels well trained for the task they’re going to do, their confidence will increase no end.
Create visuals – Draw pictures to bring out the key elements of what your child is going to say. This is something I always do with my students when they prepare for the speech festival, and it really helps them to bring the emotion of what they’re saying to the forefront of their minds. Even if nobody sees the image beside you and your child, it’s a great reference to think about when performing.
Watch others – An excellent way to reduce nerves is to give learners a model for what they’re doing. This helps them form a clear concept of what they’re expected to do, and to focus their thoughts on a few key areas rather than worrying whether they’re getting everything wrong. For children who want to watch and practise making speeches, the Gavel Club (the under-18 version of Toastmasters International) is an excellent option with many bases in Hong Kong.
Record and review – Film the performance and watch out for places to change volume, speed and pronunciation. Children who can spot their own areas for improvement go from strength to strength as they progress with public speaking.
Willow Hewitt is the Head of English for i-Learner Education Centre. She has been teaching in Hong Kong for several years, and has a highly experienced international team of teachers who love to share their knowledge and resources with parents whenever they can. www.i-learner.edu.hk