Where Kids Speak Up

Public speaking for children is something that many have not heard much about.

Anyway, when you think about it, speaking in front of a class itself can be just as intimidating for kids as it is for most adults, let alone in front of the public.

Many still do not realise public speaking is, indeed, an important life skill to develop at a tender age. It will help young children become better communicators while having fun at the same time.

If you want your children to grow up to be confident communicators making a difference to their environment by using the right words at the right time to get the right things done, Kids Speak programme is worth considering.

It’s a programme to build self-confidence and effective communication skills for children age between seven and 12 years.

Kids Speak Centre is located on the First Floor, No A-1F, 2nd Precinct, Jalan Setia Raja, in Kuching.

The programme coordinator and facilitator is Rebecca Chieng, a semi-finalist in the World Championship of Public Speaking in Cincinnati, Ohio,  last year.

Chieng said the skills to communicate effectively and confidently was beneficial for children in their formative years as it helped them think critically about the message that they wanted to convey, how to organise their thoughts and deliver convincingly to their listeners.

Moreover, she said, it was crucial to prepare them for their tertiary years and beyond, adding that this was amply reflected in the following quotes:

“When we hire, we consider the way graduates converse and portray themselves to be more important than what’s in the CV (curriculum vitae). What’s the point in having good academic results when they can’t communicate, can’t conduct a proper conversation and have no confidence? — (Nina Adlan, Propect Consulting Sdn Bhd).

“The lack of proficiency in English limits their ability to communicate beyond the borders of Malaysia and this lowers their confidence and curtails their ability to add value in the workplace. — (Sam Haggag, Manpower Staffing Services Sdn Bhd).

Yet, Chieng noted, it was a skill not sufficiently developed in schools, leading to the perpetual phobia people have with regard to public speaking.

Seeing the important of effective communication, she took the initiative to give children a head-start in overcoming the challenges faced by most people by starting a Kids Speak pilot project in November last year.

With its tagline ‘Where Kids Speak Up’ the project started with only eight children and was conducted in four sessions — one hour each.

She said at the end of the four sessions, the children would be asked to present a short speech about themselves before an audience.

The children’s enthusiasm was evident, prompting  further enquiries about the programme which was officially incepted in February this year as a result.

At that time, Chieng revealed, there were only three students in each of the total four classes.

By November, the number of students had increased to 43, requiring new classes to meet the requests from parents.

“As far as I know, Kids Speak is the only centre dedicated to developing public speaking skills in English for children of primary school age in Kuching,” she added.

Chieng also said in the programme, the children learned to present impromptu and prepared speeches, choral speaking as well as story-telling.

“When they first began, most of my students were self-conscious and experienced stage fright.

“That’s why, the adage ‘learn best in moments of joy’ very much applies in the classes.”

The number of students is limited to 10 so that each child gets sufficient opportunity to speak to each class.

Chieng said games were incorporated to encourage children’s engagement and stimulate interest.

“The enjoyment they get out of the experience helps them associate fun with public speaking.

“Some of the enjoyment is derived from the creative or humorous ideas and stories the children come up with.”

According to her, some of the activities the children enjoyed in all her classes included the One Minute Speech, Fortunately-Unfortunately, Blah-blah-blah and Would You Rather?

She said while it might be fun, each game had a specific objective.

Some games work on the child’s vocal variety, use of gestures, eye contact, organisation of contents and so on. Also, the element of competition added in the games spurs children to do the best they can.”

Chieng revealed the children were encouraged to be positive and not afraid of making mistakes — something constantly stigmatised in schools.

She pointed out that the children had the liberty to speak their minds and express their opinions about the topics they had been given.

She said once, a class was given the topic — Do you think we should have holidays every day?

A girl replied: “Yes, then we can have more family time every day.”

Another said: “Yes, we should because we need to take a break from all the stress.”

Yet another volunteered: “No, we shouldn’t because we need to study and work hard so that we can go to university.”

The children are also encouraged to applaud for each speaker before and after he or she has spoken.

“This, in turn, leads to increased confidence in each child because his or her efforts to speak are affirmed by their peers,” Chieng explained.

Besides public speaking which is the primary activity in Kids Speak, the children also learn to listen respectfully and purposefully.

She said that was why every showcase (held  quarterly for children to present before their parents and peers) was followed by evaluation.

“The children get to view the video of their presentations as well as their friends’. They then evaluate each other and themselves by highlighting the strengths as well as the areas to improve.”

As programme coordinator and facilitator, Chieng exercises her judgment based on observation of the children’s readiness.

She said some activities worked well with certain classes while some may not.

“That’s all right as every child is unique. Therefore, each will progress at his or her own pace.”

She calls her students Kids Speakers because “when they take to the stage they are speakers.”

She said working with her current batch of students was a great pleasure.

“This is simply because it’s wonderful to see the blossoming of each child.”

According to her, when they first entered the class, some of the children clammed up when asked to speak.

On the other hand, there were some who had to be reined in to give others a chance.

“But usually, after three months or so, the children have to present their ice-breaker speeches — about themselves.

“By then, there is a noticeable difference in their confidence level,” she said.

Chieng pointed out that there were a few factors which would make the teaching experience more pleasurable.

One is having understanding parents who do not compare their children’s progress with others as they understand their children’s capabilities and personalities.

Another is ‘teachable attitude’ among students who are willing to learn and try new challenges.

She said creativity and imagination of the children also made the teaching experience pleasurable.

“When children are given free rein to express their thoughts, they will. I love it when they come up with original ideas to enhance their speeches or stories.

“Initiative is another thing. Children who demonstrate initiative and are self-motivated go much further than “horses which have to be made to drink the water.”

As with any other skills, developing confidence and effective communication skills takes time and practice.

However, Chieng said the ultimate reward lay not just in the end result when the children stood before an audience.

“It’s knowing they have the courage to overcome the fear within themselves and to speak from their hearts.

“That’s their reward — and that is what this journey is all about.”

Her journey and self-development as a public speaker began in 2006 when she took that first step to join Toastmasters International, a non-profit organisation that operates with the purpose of helping members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills.

But she did not take it seriously until 2008 when she began competing in speech contests.

Last year, she won the District-level (encompassing East Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) International Speech Contest and was a semi-finalist in the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“That was a major breakthrough as public speaking used to be a bane for me. Growing up, if I could avoid the opportunity to speak before an audience, I would,” she confessed.

Chieng was born in Kapit, where English is hardly the lingua franca. Her family eventually moved out to Kuching where she studied at St Mary’s and St Thomas’.

Thereafter, she did a three-year course in Early Childhood Education in University of Malaya.

She said: “(Former US) President Gerald Ford once said: ‘If I went back to college again, I’d learn to concentrate on two areas — learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively.”

“Those were my sentiments when I first embarked on the Kids Speak project although, instead of delaying until college age, I believe younger children can be given an early foundation to start cultivating this skill,” she added.

This article is available at Borneo Post.

Tania Toh addressing the audience.