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Speech Contest Tips

Though speech contest season is still months away, some schools have already started preparing their students for the event.  I have already started discussing who we want to approach about participating with my co-teachers.  As we coach the students, I always try to keep my experience as a judge in mind.  While judging standards can vary from competition to competition (and judge to judge), here are what seem to be the most common judging criteria amongst the other foreign ALTs*:

Pronunciation is important.

That probably goes without saying, but while judging the junior high school competition, we listened for the typically mispronounced sounds: r/l, th, b/v, and wo (like in would or woman).  Pronunciation was given a lot of weight, more than memory or loudness.

Clarity can make or break a speech.

Simply put, if the judges can't understand what the student is saying, nothing else matters.  I will admit that if I could not understand what a student was saying at the beginning, I had a tendency to tune out and stop working to understand.  A lot of my speech contest students struggle with opening their mouth enough when they speak.  As a result, their words sound mumbled and jumbled.

Intonation can keep the judges from falling asleep.

While not as much of a problem as last year, some students still struggled with intonation.  They delivered their lines at the same exact pitch (normally while shouting them as well).  By using some intonation, students can make their speeches more engaging.  Intonation can also help with clarity by making a distinction between one word and the next.

Smoothness shows comprehension.

Many students take long pauses between words, which is not how native speakers speak English.  We tend to smoosh our words together into one big breath.

Native speaker: "I went to the store after work to get some milk."
Japanese student: "I. Went. To. The. Store. After. (you get the point)"

This might just be my opinion, but when a student barks out one word after another, it seems like they have no idea what they are saying, they just memorized those words in that order because their teacher told them to do so.  If a student can speak smoothly, their delivery score will go up.

Gestures are a perpetual mystery to all involved.

When it comes to using gestures in speech contests, no one can really agree on how and when they should be used.  Most of us agree that they need to look natural, to add and not detract from what the student is saying, but I think a lot of ALTs (myself included) struggle with how to achieve this.  Gestures need to match the tone of the speech.  If the student is reciting a kids' story, then their gestures can be a bit bigger and more comical, because it makes sense in the context.  If the student is reciting a UN speech, they should not be using their hands to draw a circle in the air to represent the Earth (thankfully this did not happen, but last year we had a student make a bird with their hands, it was a little over the top).

When I try and teach my students gestures, I will normally read through the speech and pay attention to how I'm gesturing.  It doesn't always work when I try to teach them the gestures (they look practiced because they are), but when it comes to gestures, less is more.

Make sure the speeches are proper English.

I thought this one would be obvious, but some schools still let the students give grammatically incorrect speeches.  Case in point, the first speech's title was, "I'm scare of steamed buns."  Unfortunately, this might not be something that the ALTs can change.  According to some ALTs I spoke with, a lot of Japanese teachers either did not ask for the ALTs to correct the speeches or did not listen to the corrections that were made.  Thankfully, it was not something that too common, but it was common enough that I felt it needed to be said.

*These may be completely different from what another ALT thinks.  This advice is just based on how I and my fellow judges judged the speech contest in previous years.  Please post your own tips if you have them.

Judging the junior high school speech contest and coaching my students for their own is always a highlight of my year.  The process can be stressful for all involved, but it always ends up being a great experience. 

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SalarymanJim
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With you on the gestures point. In my ALT speech contest days I saw some extraordinary gestures. Speeches where ever sentence seemed to be punctuated by a waving of a finger, or spreading of the arms. I often felt they'd gone way over the top. That said, some of the judges (I'm thinking the Japanese ones) liked it. I always tried to keep things natural, but I think this is hard because in most cases (in my experience) the speeches didn't come naturally to the students (understandable, given that they're not doing it in their native language). I think it's a question of finding what the student is comfortable with, really. Rather than forcing too much on them.

I always used to get an a nice box of cookies after doing the judging. As well as some cash in hand. After the contest was over, I should stress!!

SalarymanJim

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