This one is the scariest of them all (and sometimes the least popular), so I figured I would tackle it right off in this book report blog series.
The first thing you need to know is this: your students can do oral book reports!
It’s up to you to set the tone for a learning environment in which it’s OK to not be great at everything. Learning is messy.
When I first started trying to do oral book reports, I just knew that I would have a few kids accept a zero rather than try, and/ or there would be tears and/ or vomit. (Sorry, just keepin’ it real here.)
I had precious students who I knew suffered from social anxiety, and those who I knew were just very, very shy. I was prepared for disaster.
But guess what? There was none!
Was every presentation stellar? Nope. But did everyone try? You betcha. You can do it! They can do it!
Here are some tips to help:
1. Be extremely specific about your expectations.
In the syllabus I hand out to students and parents at the beginning of the year (get it for free here!), I include a list of exactly what types of book reports we will be doing and I even include the date they’re due. No surprises.
A couple weeks before the report is due (and after students have begun the independent reading book they selected), I officially introduce the assignment and give them a detailed handout that includes clear requirements and even some step-by-step instructions.
When putting together the handout, I do my best to anticipate any questions or concerns they might have, but I also try to anticipate any ways they might try to cut corners (but still expect a high grade, of course). So I have a requirement for everything. And I spell it all out.
Even though the handout is detailed, I don’t let it speak for itself- we go over it together. After I’m done talking through the entire handout, I take questions. Expect approximately 6,542 questions if you’re doing this with middle schoolers. 🙂 But one of the biggest reasons your kiddos will have so many questions is probably that they’re very nervous about this. They’re just sure they will fail, and worse, they’re just sure everyone will laugh at them.
So tip #2 is where you will save the day.
2. Have a Z.E.R.O.-tolerance policy for laughter.
Now I don’t mean no one can laugh if the presenter says something funny (however, I would caution my class clowns beforehand that their book report doesn’t have to be a comedy show). But I make a huge deal out of the fact that we are NOT going to make fun of someone before, during, or after their presentation.
We are not going to make faces at our friend while he’s talking.
We are not going to sigh or roll our eyes if someone is taking a while to get out what they’re trying to say.
We are not going to comment on the “performance.”
And if someone does? That someone loses points on his own grade. Points off for every offense.
At first that sounds harsh to the offenders, but I found what this strict policy really did was help to alleviate some of the pressure of getting up in front of your classmates and trying to say stuff.
Most teens’ worst fear is being embarrassed. So when you come right out of the shoot with a serious plan in place to help them feel less embarrassed, it seems to alleviate some fears.
Now knowing that everything is funnier when you’re not supposed to laugh, I have a plan in place for that too: I tell them, “if you’re about to lose it, just put your head down until you can get the giggles under control.” Sounds silly, but it helps.
On presentation day, I position myself facing the class, and I look over at the speaker. That way they see how serious I am about monitoring audience behavior.
However you choose to go about it, just be sure that you do everything within your power to let your kiddos know that this presentation is purely academic, meant to be a growing experience for them, and you’re there to make sure that no one uses it as an opportunity for being unkind or making others feel stupid.
3. Ease students’ fear of failing.
While I know that a large part of the fear behind oral book reports is that of looking dumb in front of their peers, another part of the fear is that they will fail the assignment, not for lack of effort or understanding, but for lack of public speaking skills. Reassure them that this will not happen.
That’s why tip #1 is so important. Have really clear expectations for this assignment, and let students know that if they follow directions and do their best, their grade will be just fine. Tell them exactly what you’re going to be grading about the actual speaking part of the project, and model examples of what to do, and what not to do. This will give them a lot more confidence.
4. Require written work beforehand.
This is- whether they know it or not- another confidence-booster for your students. Require them to write an outline of what they plan to say about the book.
Give them an easy-to-follow template of what needs to be in the outline. (Not only does this make it easier for the students to complete, it makes it way easier for you to grade!)
I also like to have students write out short introduction and conclusion paragraphs, to further help them plan, and to reiterate the importance of an engaging beginning and a strong ending.
Again, model examples of these, and give funny examples of what not to do.
Require a rough draft of this outline to be checked a couple days before they’re scheduled to give their presentation.
By requiring written work, you’re giving them a framework for their speech, and you’re guaranteeing that their brain has to at least plan a little what they’re going to say before they find themselves standing in front of the class.
5. Encourage practice.
Once your students have outlined what they plan to say in their report, encourage them to practice. For my teaching style, encourage is a bit of an understatement. I BEG them to practice.
My background is actually speech and drama, so to me, practice is everything, and I try to give them my best practice tips.
I “encourage” them to practice in front of family or friends, but if this feels too awkward, practice in front of your dog, your baby sibling, or in the shower. Whatever works- just practice!
I even offer for them to practice with me ahead of time. (Only one student has ever taken me up on that, and that’s because his mom forced him. Poor thing was so embarrassed, but he ended up getting a good grade!)
6. Let them use a notecard.
Another little thing that I found solicited a sigh of relief from my kiddos was my allowance of speaking from a notecard.
Now with juniors and seniors or gifted students, you may want to skip this step. Do what you feel would give your students the most meaningful learning experience.
I allowed one 3×5 card with large writing front and back, but no full sentences, and no tiny writing all crammed on the card. Why? Because having everything they plan to say all written out will just result in unintelligible mumbling from students whose heads are down, eyes glued to their card, reading the whole thing.
One of the things I grade on in an oral presentation is eye contact, and I know there will be no incentive to make eye contact with their audience if everything is written down.
Also, if they do try to make eye contact with their audience, they will have to come back to their notecard to find their place. If the card is crammed with information, they will most certainly have lost their place.
I “encourage” (I keep using that word because it sounds more friendly and professional than “stand on one of their desks, waving my arms and screeching at”) them to just neatly write a few key phrases and ideas they’re likely to forget such as the author’s name and their main points.
7. Offer bonus points.
Yet another way to help students feel like they can be successful with this assignment is to offer a way to earn a few bonus points. This way, students who don’t have the best public speaking skills can make up for it by just doing a little something extra.
My favorite bonus opportunity is to simply require a visual: students can wear a costume piece (like a hat or jacket), use a prop (like a baseball mitt or a stuffed animal), or make a poster.
I always clarify that to earn the bonus points, they must have clearly planned ahead with the item(s) (I’m not going to count holding a pencil they found in the hallway, because the character in their book wrote a letter, as an actual prop), and they must tie it in in their presentation- explain to the class what the significance is.
This just adds an element of fun to the project, and relieves the anxiety of your perfectionists trying maintain that 4.0. I was surprised to see that even my senior high students would don a costume piece or bring a stuffed animal in to get a few bonus points.
8. Take volunteers on presentation day.
I usually start off by allowing anyone who wants to, to volunteer to go first. You’ll usually have a couple takers, and it will be a great way to break the ice, because often those confident enough to go first will probably do a good job, giving yet another good model for the students who still aren’t sure.
9. Wait to tackle this project.
I don’t suggest making this the first (or even second) project of the year. Wait until you’ve gotten to know your students a little better, because the truth is, you will need to grade this a little bit on a case-by-case basis.
English class is not a public speaking class, and while you want to expose them to opportunities to hone those skills, you don’t want to hurt the grade of a student who is otherwise comprehending and moving successfully through the course.
Additionally, your students will feel more comfortable getting up in front of each other after they’ve gotten to know each other a little bit.
10. Grade during the presentations.
Work smarter, not harder, friend!
The great thing about oral presentations is that you don’t have a stack of grading to take home with you! Have students turn in a final draft of that outline they wrote when they come up to speak- give it a quick once-over, and assign it a grade.
Assess their presentation in real time (never try to rely on that memory of yours to conjure up how they did later!), and grade it right then and there. While you may need a moment or two later to glance over their outline a little more, or add up their final score, the bulk of your grading on these will be done, and you should be able to return grades the next day! #teacherwin
In order to do this, you’ll definitely want to use a rubric. If you haven’t already, take a look at this oral book report resource — it has everything you need to teach, introduce, assign, and assess oral book reports or book talks.
11. (Bonus!) Alternatives for students with special needs
While I am a huge proponent of the thought that oral book reports are definitely a doable thing, I do understand that students with certain IEPs or other learning differences may still need some accommodation. And that’s okay!
Here are a couple of options:
- Have the student record his presentation at home, and play it for the class on presentation day.
- Allow the student to write out his book report and read it to the class.
- Shorten the time requirement for their presentation.
- Allow students to present in pairs.
- Allow students to present to small groups, rather than the whole class.
Whew! That was a lot! So, tell me, how do you feel? Are you ready to take on oral book reports in your classroom? Are you an oral presentation veteran, and have some tips to add? Please share in the comments below! 🙂
Also be sure to take a look at the next post in the Book Report Series: Written Reports.
Happy teaching, my friends!