Public speaking, or rhetoric, is
an ancient art, which, in western culture, dates back to the ancient Greeks. Greek
sophists, the rhetorical experts, were much sought after and enjoyed great popularity at
that time. The vitality of rhetoric exists today as evidence in the high acclaim of the
basic public speaking course in many institutions of higher learning.
western languages should be exposed to and trained in this art so as to develop their
communicative ability in the target language and a deeper understanding of western
culture; English majors are no exception. Unfortunately, in Chinas foreign language
institutions, public speaking is not in the curricula.
As an English teacher at Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute and a communication
consultant in 1996, I set out to remedy the situation by introducing a public speaking
course to seniors in the English Department. According to my July 1997 data, more than 98%
of the trainees improved their confidence with the target language, developed their
creative and logical thinking, and became more motivated in communicating in English. All
course recipients expressed the need for incorporating the course into the present
curriculum for English majors.
My public speaking course is not complex. The first one-hour session is
"theory" time when certain skills in my course book are discussed, using some
sample speeches and presentations. These are either videotaped, recorded, or written. The
purpose of this hour is to familiarize the students with certain speaking skills and
prepare them for the following practice session.
The second hour is "do-it-yourself" time. First, students view one or two
videotaped homework speeches made by their peers and then comment on the positive and
negative aspects of the speeches. This task aims at helping the learners develop a
critical eye by drawing upon their observations. Then, students working in groups of four
or five make impromptu speeches on topics introduced by their group leaders. Speakers
receive feedback after finishing their speeches. It is during this practice that students
are encouraged to tryout those target skills discussed in the previous hour.
After much observation, I discovered that Chinese students benefited greatly from this
course, particularly, in the two sessions of videotape discussion and in-group speech
Each class session I assign a homework topic to two students who will present their
speeches during the next class. The speeches are then videotaped and analyzed by the class
using the following example of a feedback form (See Figure
1). Several observers write down their observations of certain target skills and give
feedback to the speakers.
This kind of practice is never an easy job for beginning students because they have to
juggle several balls at the same time. They have to jot down what the problems and merits
are; how serious or good they are; how they affect the audience; and how they can be
improved or strengthened. In all, observer students have to have several pairs of
"eyes" in order to do the job well.
At the beginning I always pause the videotape and throw in some helping clues, such as
"look at the hands," "listen to the sentence structure," or I simply
rewind the tape for observers to catch more points, but I never do their job. Not until
the very end of the feedback session do I give my views of the observed performances. This
is done so students can digest the targeted skills and sharpen their critical eyes. Only
when they begin to "find faults" with other students performances can they
develop a strong awareness of their own speaking skills.
Finally, students become more and more critical of their sentence structures, choices
of words, body movements, eye contact, vocal quality, and many other elements in their
speaking which have gone unnoticed.
Through this practice, students not only become better speakers, but also better
In-group speech making
This activity is loosely patterned on Toastmasters* club activities, but it is
simpler. Students are split into groups of four to five. The pre-appointed chairperson of
each group introduces his/her prepared topic area to group members and then invites each
to give his/her view. Team members stand up before the group and give improvised speeches.
Each is allowed to take several seconds to form an outline before presenting the speech. A
round is ten minutes: five minutes for the speech and another five minutes for feedback. A
chairperson summarizes each round, manages time, and submits a written report to the
instructor about the group performance. The observers use the following example of a
General Evaluation form to write notes and comments (See Figure 2).
At first this activity intimidated my students, but later it became a magnet in the
course. As chairpersons, students became even stricter and gave different topics in
different rounds so that group members never knew beforehand what they were supposed to
talk about until their turns came.
The public speaking course has provided a communicative environment in which students
share substantive ideas, explore topics, and develop personal characteristics. In this
sense, this course is personal, democratic, and, more importantly, rewarding.
As a result of this training many students have demonstrated a greater confidence when
speaking in public, a quickness in logical and creative thinking, and critical ability in
their aesthetic judgement, all of which stimulates their motivation in the target language
acquisition. Moreover, by acting as chairperson, students have developed leadership and
group management abilities, and have become more cooperative and efficient with group
Capp, G. 1981. Basic oral communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
*Toastmasters International is devoted to making effective oral communication a
worldwide reality. Through its member clubs, Toastmasters International helps people learn
the arts of speaking, listening and thinking. (The Toastmasters, March 1996, CA., U.S.A.)