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Teaching our teens to speak
By Orson Scott Card June 24, 2010

When I was young, back in the previous millennium, the California school system was the best in the world. And one of the things they did, which few schools seem to do anymore, was teach their students to speak.

We memorized poems. We recited them. We read aloud. And the teachers actually critiqued us on whether we could be understood.

Such a simple thing -- memorization, reading, and intelligibility of speech. But our society has evolved to despise such things.

Raw memorization -- one of the few markers of intelligence which can be improved with practice -- is now treated as cruelty to children instead of mind-stretching exercise.

When it comes to reading aloud or reciting, it would be shockingly wrong for a modern teacher to criticize the way a student talks. That might lead to low self-esteem.

It's one of the oddities of our present age that we seem to think we preserve or build children's self-esteem by praising them always and criticizing them never. But if a child is never told that his speech is unintelligible, and is never shown examples of clear speech, how can he possibly improve?

Let's take the sacrament prayer. It is usually recited by 16- and 17-year-old boys who are on the cusp of going forth into the world (or the university). They have received most of their high school education -- and few of them are able to recite the sacrament prayer clearly.

Listen this Sunday and, with rare exceptions, you'll hear what I mean. A lot of clauses begin with "that." Many, most, or all of the "thats" will not be said at all, especially if they are followed by the word "they." Instead, the last "t" of "that" gets attached to the front of "they."

Say this sentence: "Do it though." Say it quickly. Hear how "it" almost disappears; we only know it's there because of the way it forces a tiny hesitation at the beginning of "though" that gives it a bit more force. That's all that's left of many of the "thats" in our sacrament prayers.

But let's not just pick on the priests. Listen to everyone giving a talk or bearing testimony that ends with "in the name of Jesus Christ, amen." Hear how many of them rush the phrase, so that what you actually hear is "innemma jeezkrice tay men."

Most of us have lost all concept of the first responsibility of a speaker: to be understood, which means to be loud enough to be heard, to make all the sounds clear enough for all the individual words to be discerned, and to speak slowly enough for people to have time to process what they say.

Speaking clearly sounds pretentious to teenagers precisely because nobody has ever commanded them to do so. If teachers required clarity of speech, then everybody would have to do it, and no one would be teased. But absent that command, the only people who dare to speak clearly are the ones who have already marked themselves for social death by being either intellectual or theatrical.

Years ago, I was invited by the Young Men's president to give the priests and teachers a lesson in how to recite the sacrament prayers correctly. It was a simple process. I laid out some general principles:

1. It's a large room with bad acoustics and a mediocre sound system. Between reverberation, noisy children, and the fuzz of the amps and speakers, your words are going to be turned to mud -- especially for older people whose ears don't distinguish sound all that well (which includes most people over forty).

2. Fortunately, it's not a race. The words you are saying are the reason they came to church. You can slow down and take all the time in the world, and the congregation will not get impatient -- they will actually listen more eagerly when they can hear what you're saying.

3. If you're going slowly, you won't make any reading mistakes, which will save you the embarrassment of do-overs.

Then I had them each read the prayer aloud, from the scriptures, without a mike. Each time they slurred a word I stopped them. "Slow down, try it again." With problem phrases, I had them read word by word.

When they got it right, however -- slow, clear, loud -- they could all hear the difference. They realized that even though they felt like they were reading excruciatingly slowly, it didn't sound slow when they listened to the other priests. It merely sounded clear -- and more like a prayer.

Then I had them read again, one at a time, from the sacrament table, using the chapel sound system. They could all hear how important it was to slow down even more -- because of how the sound system interfered with the clarity of speech.

The bishop and YM president kept reminding them to use what they had learned, so they didn't forget or fall back into bad habits. In fact, we created a whole new culture of clarity among the Young Men.

As new priests join the quorum, they automatically adopt the clear speech of the old-timers. All the priests I actually taught in that first session are long gone; none of the current batch were even deacons then. But the prayers are still absolutely clear.

It gets better: When they give talks from the pulpit, they speak slowly and clearly. They don't race through their talks to get them over with. They're not ashamed to speak well. And the girls in the ward have learned to speak clearly, too.

Part of that is because most of our Young Men and Young Women have received speech training as they took part in our plays. We don't use mikes, yet every word of our actors is heard and understood by the audience in every corner of the cultural hall. Those skills transfer to the pulpit.

So in our ward, at least, it's the adults who need to learn from the youth -- to slow down, articulate all the sounds and syllables in every word, and make sure that when they speak, their hearers actually know what they said.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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