High school speech teams help students gain confidence, practice public speaking

Dundee-Crown's Sam Baker, 17, paces while practicing his speech during Saturday's Cary-Grove Winter Invitational speech tournament in Cary.
Dundee-Crown's Sam Baker, 17, paces while practicing his speech during Saturday's Cary-Grove Winter Invitational speech tournament in Cary.

When Woodstock High School senior Liz Sullivan practices her speech on choosing abstinence, she makes eye contact with different people around the room, uses hand gestures to add emphasis and throws in an intentionally awkward dance and some jokes.

Her speech is geared toward a sophomore health class, and in 7 minutes, 55 seconds, she walks from side to side when she transitions to different points of her argument.

It’s a memorized speech, which cites news articles and statistics, she gives on weekends at speech tournaments and is something she started writing over the summer.

Sullivan is a member of a speech team, a competitive high school activity that helps students learn to speak in public and helps them gain confidence.

On Saturdays from November through February, hundreds of students dressed in professional attire come to high schools to participate in speech tournaments, which have acting, informative speaking and poetry reading events, among others.

During the tournaments, the students are judged on the content of their speeches, as well as the delivery. Judges look for eye contact, whether students speak smoothly, whether the speech is well organized and proves its point, said Kyle McCoy, speech team coach for Woodstock District 200.

After Sullivan is done practicing her speech, she receives notes from McCoy.

“You’ve got to watch your pace within sentences,” McCoy said. “You have nice pauses, nice use of silence, but then ... sometimes you ramp up.”

For Sullivan, who practices three days a week at school, being on the speech team since her freshmen year has helped her improve her speaking ability and her confidence.

“It’s as serious as you take it,” Sullivan said. “It can be fun and light, that’s what’s great. ... You meet kids from all over and some of my best friends are from other schools. It’s great to get to know them.”

To encourage students to join the team, which has about 20 students, McCoy tells them they can become more effective communicators, he said.

“It’s all about communication to me,” McCoy said. “Not just public speaking, but practicing and getting better at the ability to communicate a message to someone, whether it’s one person, or a group of people, or an employer ... or a teacher.”

Over the past six years, the Cary-Grove High School speech team has grown from two students to 50, coach Stephanie Sukow said.

The speech team goes to tournaments 13 times a year, each one being a 12-hour commitment, Sukow said.

Add on top of that the practices every day after school for three hours.

“People don’t realize how much of a sport it is and how rigorous it is,” Sukow said.

To prepare for each tournament, Sukow has students gather information on current events and review information on historical references, music and movies. She has students read news websites, and listen to podcasts from National Public Radio.

In the acting events, students may perform the same script throughout the season, hoping to improve each time. The students can’t use props, except for a table and two chairs, Sukow said.

In the extemporaneous speaking events, students receive topics the day of the tournament and come up with a speech in 45 minutes.

There also is an impromptu speaking event where students come into a room, receive a topic, and then have two minutes come up with a six-minute speech.

Sammantha Dellaria has been on Cary-Grove High School’s speech team for three years. The senior, who lives in Cary, is a captain and participates in impromptu, informative speaking and dramatic duet acting, which is new for her this year.

“I was intrigued to do something that was stepping out of my boundaries, and pushing my own limits,” Dellaria said.

Before being on the speech team, she was shy, but now she has no problem speaking in front of people.

“It’s night and day,” Dellaria said. “I’m so much more outgoing that my sophomore and freshman years.”

Christine Loo is a junior at Cary-Grove, and joined speech team her freshmen year.

“Everytime is a new chance to make it better and have people listen to what I have to say,” Loo said.

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