Helping speech contestants to help themselves

John C. Herbert, Akashi National College of Technology
Quick guide
  • Keywords: Speech contests, syntactic cues, process approach 
  • Learner English level: Varied
  • Learner maturity: Age 12+
  • Preparation time: Varied 
  • Activity time: Varied
  • Materials: MP3 recorder, speech transcript
The following approach to preparing EFL students for speech contests is meant to help students to help themselves. When a coach encourages a speech contestant to utilize these steps, they should keep in mind that ownership of the speech itself should always remain with the contestant and that the coach should try not to be overly helpful. By doing so, the contestant actually has greater benefit. However, many first draft transcripts are not immediately relevant to contest audiences. So, how can a coach persuade a contestant to modify the topic without taking away ownership of the speech? 
Step 1: Look at the completed rough draft. Make no corrections or suggestions. Just ask the contestant questions to clarify the intended purpose, meaning, audience, and flow of the speech. Praise the contestant for the strengths found in the transcript.
Step 2: Have the contestant outline the transcript to expose any weaknesses in the logical structure of the speech. Help the contestant to recognize where redundancies, contradictions, or irrelevancies might exist.
Step 3: Encourage the contestant to brainstorm ideas to restructure the speech so that it will have a clear purpose and meaning, good audience awareness, and a logical flow. In some cases, this brainstorming may lead the contestant to discard the transcript completely and start from scratch. Only contribute general ideas and hints to the brainstorming while encouraging the contestant to come up with more concrete ideas independently.
Step 4: Have the contestant outline a new or revised speech and check it for improvements in the awareness of purpose, meaning, audience, and flow.    
Step 5: Have the contestant write another draft. Make as few corrections as possible. Just ask the contestant questions to clarify the intended purpose, meaning, audience, and flow. Also, point out common grammatical errors. Again, praise the contestant for the strengths found in the transcript.
Step 6: Repeat Step 5 as many times as feasible, regarding the contestant’s revisions and responses to your questions on each draft until a clear purpose and meaning, good audience awareness, and logical flow have been established. 
Step 7: Have the contestant divide the text of the speech into 
meaningful language chunks, 
   which cascade 
     down the page
         like this
             with back indentation
                      where there may be
                              a pause,
as in the case
      of the commas
                    seen here. 
Ideally, the contestants would do this independently. However, a shortcut would be to have the contestant use ClipRead, an online program from, which will parse text automatically. Either way, coaches should confirm that the parsed text has the desired syntactic cues and is ready for speech rehearsals.
Step 8: Coach the contestants through rehearsals in person and give advice on all aspects of the contestants’ physical, visual, and vocal components of their delivery as often as feasible. 
Step 9: Upload the syntactically cued text and an audio recording of the speech read by the coach to a preferred learning management system (LMS) or simply provide the original audio file with a printed version of the cued text. 
Step 10: Have the contestant practice the speech by shadowing the recording and reading the parsed text as it is delivered online or read from paper. 
Step 11: Record the student’s best rehearsal and repeat Steps 9 and 10 with the new recording. Alternatively, both recordings could be made available for the contestant to choose from.
Step 12: Have the contestant visualize winning the gold. 
These steps lead to success. In particular, the syntactic parsing described above makes it possible for a speech contestant to guess a subsequent language chunk by the syntactic cues present in the previous chunk or the first word of the subsequent chunk. In this manner, contestants are encouraged to memorize how to convey meaning rather than memorizing word for word. In turn, recognition of the syntactic cues also makes it easier to identify where to apply prosodic features for conveying meaning even more clearly.