The Art of Public Speaking

"I hope that my readers will train their children in the art of recitation; in the coming days, more even than in our own will it behoove every educated man and woman to be able to speak effectively in public; and, in learning to recite you learn to speak”.
Charlotte Mason

I think you would agree with me that a child who mumbles through his memory work with head down is not quite what we want grandma and grandpa to listen to at the family reunion. It is only natural that a young child who is at ease reciting classic poems from Robert Louis Stevenson or William Shakespeare will be more self assured in other public situations, causing shyness to gradually fall away. One of my daughters was extremely shy, but ever since she was six years old, we have encouraged her to learn to recite beautiful passages from literature. At first, this was just to our immediate family, later, this small circle grew to include close friends. Until finally, the day came when she could recite in front of anyone, and at a moment's notice. She learned to overcome her shyness and today she enjoys this form of communication immensely.

The art of recitation not only draws out the child, but also inspires the audience. It is the art of interpreting a passage that has been memorized, for the enjoyment and edification it brings to those listening. We make it a practice to invite close friends and family every year to enjoy a meal and hear the children recite classic poetry and prose to the elders. I remember the look on the grandparent's faces when my children stood before them reciting timeless passages such as 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred Lord Tennyson and 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' by Lord Byron, Longfellow's 'A Psalm of Life' and Emily Dickinson's 'I'll tell you how the sun rose...' My own father’s eyes filled with tears when my daughter recited Tennyson's 'Crossing the Bar.' Recitation is good for the soul.

“It (Literature) was meant to be interpreted by the voice of life;
there is only half the passion in the printed page.”

Arthur Burell

When my children memorize poetry or literature that they enjoy, naturally, they want to share it out loud. Their enthusiasm for the passage bubbles over because they are inspired. When my daughter Shannon was twelve years old, she studied the early history of Britain during the reign of King Alfred. One night, my husband read aloud to our family “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K Chesterton, a gripping, poetic rendering of the struggles between the Saxons and the Danes. The poem captured her interest and she began reading it on her own. Shannon asked if she could memorize some lines from this 182 page poem because every term, as part of our children’s education, they each memorize a lengthy poem of their choice to share with the family. Due to her enthusiasm, she memorized several hundred lines and it is still one of her favorite passages from literature today. She will take the book out in the fields while walking, memorize a few more lines and then recite to the wind. Recitation not only moves others, but it stirs the heart of the one sharing the passage as well.

"The child should speak beautiful thoughts so beautifully,
with such delicate rendering of each nuance of meaning
that he becomes to the listener the interpreter of the author's thought."

Arthur Burell

Recitation Tips
I would like to share some practical advice that has helped us throughout the years. Many of these ideas came from Arthur Burell and Charlotte Mason.

-If you want to cultivate an appreciation for recitation, let your child choose the passages with just a little guidance from you. Set before them only the best literature.

-Let pieces be learnt bit by bit, after a careful explanation has been given. Five minutes a day is sufficient for young children. Ten minutes for older students.

-Be very careful about pronunciation. Teach your child to speak each word clearly.

-Children tend to speak too fast. Teach them to recite at a slower pace.

-Avoid a stage-like atmosphere and all exaggeration, because the charm of good recitation lies in its simplicity. As soon as your child ceases to be natural the recitation ceases to be good.

-Action you must have--in moderation; but a waved hand, or a moved finger, a lifted eyebrow, a closed eye, a slight shiver, this is all the action you should allow.

-The most telling parts in good pieces are those in which you interpret the best thoughts in the best and quietest way; the whisper teaches more than the shout; the steady glance tells more than a badly-imitated maniac's glare. You must always be in a state of repression, as if you could do more, but will not.

-Speak at the person furthest from you in the room so that they will hear.

-Wait during noise, coughs, laughs and interruptions of all kinds. This is only polite to the people who are listening.

-A piece once learnt must be occasionally repeated. Keep all recitations together in individual notebooks and review a previous passage each week.

-Parents should put aside one hour a month, when all the family can gather round the hearth, and you can hear some of the pieces that have been learnt.

-This is NOT a time to show off. It is a time to bless others. Discuss the importance of a job well done, that mumbled words are unintelligible, unlovely and uninspiring. Teach your children to look upon it as a gift they are giving to their audience.

If you are like me, you want your children to be effective communicators in a nation that is losing this ability very rapidly. Recently, our family returned to the United States after spending twelve years abroad. One of the very first things my daughter said to me in a bewildered voice was, “Mom, they can’t speak.” Sadly, she was right. We found that many (not all) of the young people around us could not form a coherent sentence without four or five, “likes” or “ums” thrown in. Besides this, they couldn’t express their thoughts well and would give up in frustration, so they would end up talking about mundane things. History should have taught us by now that those who know how to speak eloquently are those who change the world. My hope for my children is nothing less. I’m raising world changers. I challenge you to raise the bar for your own children and help them overcome the obstacles placed around them by our culture today. Teach them to become effective communicators. Recitation is the training ground for this skill. It will broaden their opportunities to influence our society in positive ways and enrich their own lives as well.