Thursday, March 10, 2011

What ever happened to elocution instruction in the public schools?

I wish I knew more history, but it does seem as if elocution (or oratory) is a skill mostly dropped from the public school curriculum.  Here is a description from our recent history.
If you were in school in the 1890s, and you wanted to impress your friends, you worked hard at oratory. Good speakers were heroes, even more than good athletes. Schoolchildren memorized Daniel Webster's speeches, and Abraham Lincoln's , too. They learned long poems and recited them at school assemblies. Boys and girls joined debating teams. They learned to speak out - loudly and clearly - and to make their speeches interesting.
A History of US, Book 8, Chapter 13, Joy Hakim
From Wikipedia:
In Western classical rhetoric, elocution was one of the five core disciplines of pronunciation, which was the art of delivering speeches. Orators were trained not only on proper diction, but on the proper use of gestures, stance, and dress. (Another area of rhetoric, elocutio, was unrelated to elocution and, instead, concerned the style of writing proper to discourse.)
Elocution emerged as a formal discipline during the eighteenth century. One of its important figures was Thomas Sheridan, actor and father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Thomas Sheridan's lectures on elocution, collected in Lectures on Elocution (1762) and his Lectures on Reading (1775), provided directions for marking and reading aloud passages from literature. Another actor, John Walker, published his two-volume Elements of Elocution in 1781, which provided detailed instruction on voice control, gestures, pronunciation, and emphasis.
With the publication of these works and similar ones, elocution gained wider public interest. While training on proper speaking had been an important part of private education for many centuries, the rise in the nineteenth century of a middle class in Western countries (and the corresponding rise of public education) led to great interest in the teaching of elocution, and it became a staple of the school curriculum. American students of elocution drew selections from what were popularly deemed, "Speakers". By the end of the century, several Speaker texts circulated throughout the United States, including McGuffey's New Juvenile Speaker, the Manual of Elocution and Reading, the Star Speaker, and the popular Delsarte Speaker. Some of these texts even included pictorial depictions of body movements and gestures to augment written descriptions.
Here's more, from the Wikipedia article on McGuffey Readers, reminding me that spelling and vocabulary instruction may also be downplayed these days.
McGuffey believed that teachers should study the lessons as well as their students and suggested they read aloud to their classes. He also listed questions after each story, for he believed that asking questions was critical for a teacher to give instruction. The Readers emphasized spelling, vocabulary, and formal public speaking, which, in 19th-century America, was a more common requirement than today.
I remember reading that President Johnson was his mother's star pupil.  This was circa 1920.
President Johnson's mother, Rebekah Baines, was one of the few college-educated women in the area. Education was her passion. It was in this home that she taught elocution lessons and debating techniques to the neighborhood children. Lyndon must have listened well to her instructions, for he too taught debate strategies for a school team.
Today, I can think of at least one or two existing courses in our public schools that I'd like to drop in favor of reinstating elocution instruction.  It remains a valuable skill, one that could benefit from formal instruction.

I like this explanation of elocution.
Broadly speaking, the word “elocution” refers to one’s manner of speaking or oral delivery. Elocution can also refer to the study of proper public speaking, with particular attention paid to pronunciation, grammar, style, and tone. is particularly used in reference to an orator’s manner of speech when speaking or reading aloud in public.
There is more to elocution, however, than a tidy definition. During the 1700s, elocution was considered an art form, and a formal discipline. In this capacity, elocution has common ties with pronuntiatio, the art of public speaking, which was one of the five integral disciplines in Western classical rhetoric. In following the syllabus of this art form, academic orators would have studied diction, dress, stance, and the appropriate use of gestures. It seems that in the study of speech delivery, the communications of the unspoken word were equally important to those of the spoken word.


  1. i would like to know whether a person is allowed to use its hands in an elocution or far as i think elocution is 'the way we speak' so it must be related to the voice modulation , face expressions n all
    plz d guide me in this regard

  2. asma -- yes, the definitions of elocution that I found include references to 'gestures' and 'stance', so the use of hands is definitely included.