In an era keyed to oral communication, US schools are neglecting the spoken word

The sending and receiving of messages separates human beings from all other forms of life. Language is the connecting tissue that binds society together. All students not only need to learn to ''read and write,'' but also to read with understanding, write with clarity, and listen and speak effectively.

In our recent examination of the American high school, we found that the study of the spoken word - rhetoric - is the most neglected area in English courses throughout the nation. Speech is rarely a requirement for graduation, even though historically it has been an essential element in education.

The importance of speech is reflected in the works of Aristotle and Cicero and in the central position it once held in the schools. In the first public high school - the Boston English Classical School - Declamation was required every year. And in the second year all students had a course called Forensic Discussions. In 1856, at Woodward High School in Cincinnati, all students were required to take courses called Declamation, Rhetoric, and Reading. In their senior year students presented original addresses once every three weeks.

The irony is that today, when our culture is more oral than written, we spend less time preparing students in oral cummunication. Yet talk is everywhere. We use the telephone more frequently than we send letters. Throughout our lives we judge others, and we are judged, by what is said. We need to be as precise in speaking as we are in writing.

In our report called ''High School,'' we propose that schools give priority to oral communication, requiring all students to complete a course in speaking and listening. Such a course could include group discussion, formal debate, public speaking, and reading aloud. The goal should not just be self-expression but also reflective thinking. Students' oral comments should be accompanied by careful analysis and critiqued by teachers.

Listening thoughtfully as well as speaking more effectively must be the goal. More than ever, today's young people are bombarded by messages. They should learn to separate fact from fiction. They should be taught to evaluate what they hear, to understand how ideas can be distorted, and to explore how the reliability of an oral message can be tested.

Our youth, like all other Americans, increasingly are getting information about the society in which they live and the world at large, not from the printed page but from speech electronically conveyed. The need for listening more carefully and thinking more critically is crucial to civic understanding.

We did find, in our examination of school curricula, accounts where students were encouraged to focus on careful self-expression. At one school we visited, students in a literature class debated a question from a Shakespearean play and resolved that John would be a better heir apparent than Hal. A civics class staged a mock trial that focused on constitutional rights, and students in a biology class thoughtfully discussed recent DNA discoveries. Good communication was an essential part of every course.

In the end, speaking and listening should be more than an exchange of information. Communication, at its best, should lead to genuine understanding. I recall a conference several years ago at the University of Chicago, where Wayne Booth, a renowned figure in the field of rhetoric and logic, put it this way:

''When we are working together at our best, we repudiate . . . the warfare of fixed positions; instead we try out our reasons on each other, to see where we might come out. We practice a rhetoric of inquiry.''

All too often, our efforts to speak and listen to each other seem to be a vicious spiral, moving downward. ''But we have all experienced moments,'' Booth said,''when the spiral moved upward, when one party's effort to listen and speak just a little bit better produced a similar response, making it possible to try a bit harder - and on up the spiral to general understanding.''

As human beings, we first use sounds to communicate our feelings. Very early, we combine phonemes orally to express complex ideas. Language defines our humanity. It is the means by which we cope socially and succeed educationally. The advent of the information age raises to new levels of urgency the need for students to become proficient in their use of the written and the spoken word. The mastery of English is the first and most essential goal of education.

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