Speak Up! Speech Contest Tips and Tricks


So you’ve been asked to tutor speech contest. Junior High School speech contests start in the end of August and the Senior High School speech contest is in September.  Speech practice may be the first big challenge and ALT faces when starting their job, and there aren’t hard and fast guidelines for what to do.  While it can be difficult to even know where to st art, we have interviewed SHS JET Joshua Tweedy and have tips and tricks from other ALTs!

Joshua Tweedy has been the ALT at Koriyama Senior High School for five years. Koriyama SHS (also called Gunko) offers a specialised English course for students which has a core curriculum of teaching students how to write and present speeches in English. Joshua has helped develop much of the curriculum from scratch and helped assist one of his 2nd-year students to claiming first prize at the Fukushima SHS English Speech contest last year. In addition, Joshua has been a judge for the Koriyama-area JHS speech contest for the past four years. In short, he is an English speech contest expert. 

How do students benefit from speech contest?
In many ways. Not only can they increase their writing skills, but it helps them with their critical thinking when they pick a topic to write about. They learn confidence – how to be confident while speaking in front of other people, and stating their opinions. Confidence will not only help them with their speeches, but in their everyday lives.

What can the ALT (as opposed to the JTE or the student themselves) do to help prepare for speech contest?
Make yourself available to the students. It sounds simple, but a lot of the times, the students think you are busy and don’t want to disturb you (even though you may just be on facebook all day). Let them know times when you are free, and that they can come to you at any time for help. Be there for them!

What good things do the judges look for in a speech? How about what bad things?
This is a tough question. Foreign judges tend to look for naturalness. That is to say, nice rhythm, natural gestures and intonation. Japanese judges tend to look for fluency. I have been the judge of the Koriyama JHS speech contest for 4 years, and every time, without fail, a speech that the three Japanese judges thought was really amazing, always received low scores from the two foreign judges, and vice versa.
The bad things students should try to avoid is over the top gestures. “It is a BIG problem” doesn’t require a giant gesture where your flail your hands around. Try to aim for natural gestures.  Further, avoid katakana English, and watch your ‘l’ and ‘r’ pronunciation!

What sorts of themes are better as topics for original speeches?
Original themes that have the “How interesting!” factor. For example, anyone can write about their dream, but that may not be so interesting. Compare, then, My Dream with The State of Russia and Ukraine Relations (an actual speech by my ni nen sei). Which stands out more? Try to have students write about topics that are interesting to them – not just easy. You will find a lot of the times the students write below their level to make sure they get the English right. Get students to write about their experiences, things they are passionate about – that is what grabs the judges attention!

What are some of your best tips and tricks for tutoring speech contest?
– What is the key to a good speech? Anki! (memorization). Anki is key – if the students can remember their speech, it increases their confidence. Once their confidence is up, doing gestures and using inflection becomes much easier.
– Practice makes perfect
– Record your voice, the way you would read it, and give it to the students to mimic.
– Never criticise. ‘That pronunciation was horrible Try again. No, it is FLY, not FRY. FLY….FLLLLLLLYYYYYY!’ That doesn’t help anyone, and will make your students feel horrible. If you need to suggest a change, try constructive criticism – Wow, that was good, I loved your gestures! I have a suggestion though….why don’t you try this instead?
– Always encourage them!
– Tell them to have fun!

Any final words?
Giving a speech in front of many people isn’t easy in your native tongue, let alone a second language. Students rely on you to help them and support them. Make yourself available and always attend speech practice with a smile, even if you would rather be doing something else. Never get frustrated with the students – they are trying their best! And always encourage them. Even if they don’t win, tell them they are a winner to you, because it took a heap of courage to stand up and deliver a wonderful speech. I tell all my kids that, and it is the truth – I am proud of my kids, and I hope you will be of yours too!

fight_2Now, some tips from other ALTs across the Lucky Island!

On original speeches:

“Write the speech together with them, rather than letting another teacher translate it into English for them. Not only does this make it easier for them to memorize, but their higher comprehension of the content makes it easier for them to understand which tone of voice to use where and which words to emphasize.” –Aki Gormezano

“Never just translate it for them, see what they have written, and work together with them to finesse it out into a finished product. They’ll remember parts of the speech based on conversations you had together about that concept!” –Xan Wetherall

“Students’ expression during the speech is much better if they wrote it in English themselves! That way it is THEIR speech not the teacher’s. Also it makes their gestures more natural.” –Felicity Kerkham

“And if you can guide them, guide them to a slightly interesting topic. That would at least gain the attention of judges and make the speech stand out from all the others about how Japanese culture is different, future dreams or the earthquake.” –John Au-Yeung

 On recitation speeches:

“The students will be provided a full Japanese translation. One of the best ways to work on comprehension and meaning is to have them act as ‘translator’ during the early practices. That is, you say a sentence in English with as much intonation and feeling as you can muster, and have them do the same in Japanese.” –Steven Thompson

 On gestures:

You may be asked by the student or your JTE to help with gestures. Because the student may not understand the meaning of every sentence, it can be difficult for them to know where to gesture. Some tend to over exaggerate their hand movements, which can look unnatural. “Please keep the gestures down. Nothing more irritating than spirit fingers going everywhere.” –Bradley Trenery

“Do gestures early. Physicality aids in memorization immensely. Have them doing gestures as soon as they’re memorizing. You can tweak it later, but a gesture could help them remember when they go blank.” –Steven Thompson

 On recordings:

At the end of every week, I record my students reciting their speeches, and play it back for them comparing to the previous weeks recordings. They might not notice small improvements every day, but when I can show them proof that their speech has gotten faster / smoother / more confident, etc., over the course of each week, it really boosts their confidence!

“I made a CD as well with words and phrases the student found particularly difficult as well as the speech as a whole so the students could listen at home.” –Felicity Kerkham

 On pronunciation:

Japanese students in particular have problems with the following English sounds: [r] vs [l], [b] vs [v], [f], and [θ][ð] (TH). It’s useful to work on words in their speech with those particular sounds. I over pronounce them, elongating the sounds, and have them pick out all the words in their speech with the sounds they have trouble with, and get them to practice them separately.

I also like to give my students tongue twisters with these difficult sounds. It can be a fun way for students to practice!  Here are some I use pretty often:

“Red leather, yellow leather.”
“Four fluffy feathers.”
“Trolls in a tantrum cause terrible trouble.”

I also sit down with my students and help them figure out where the stress is in a word. It can really help with their intonation. The Japanese language is syllable-timed, meaning that every syllable gets the same weight. English, on the other hand, is stress-timed, meaning the stressed syllables in a sentence are fairly evenly spaced, and all the weak syllables are forced to fit between them. It can immediately make a sentence more understandable if they use natural English stress, even if their pronunciation is not perfect. See this video for a more in-depth explanation.-Danielle Markewicz


Here is a typical session with one of my students. Keep in mind that every school and student is different, so what might work with my students may not work in every instance. Usually all together this takes around half an hour, though if you finish early you can always have them read through their speech another few times. Sometimes I have less time than that, and I cut a few steps depending on the student’s strong points. It’s all about balancing the different needs of the students.-Danielle Markewicz

1. Greetings and ask about their practicing on their own. Of course without self-practice, it is difficult for them to improve. I suggest practicing their speech a few times after every meal, and before they go to bed. That’s at least eight times a day, spread out so they don’t get overwhelmed!

2. Reminder of the key points we talked about in the previous session.

3. First read through. If they have already started memorizing, have them try reading without their paper. It’s better to have them start memorizing early rather than at last minute as it takes a long time to do. After they’ve read through what they’ve memorized, have them read through the whole speech using their paper. While the student is reading, I mark any words or phrases that sound strange and that I want to review with the student.

4. Talk about what went well in the speech. If they’ve improved on the key point from the last session, say so. If they sound smoother or more confident than the day before, let them know! If you start immediately with critiquing, they can lose heart.

5. Talk about what needs improvement. In the first sessions, I usually talk about mispronunciations of specific words, then focus on one or two difficult sounds per session. For example, one session will focus just on the two forms of “TH,” and I have the student find all the instances of words with those two sounds. The next session would be with “V,” then “L” and “R,” etc. After working through specific sounds, I work on phrase intonation with the student, figuring out which words and syllables are stressed, and which are weakened or elided completely. This goes a long way to make a non-native speaker sound more natural.

6. After talking about a few key points, I have the student do another read through their whole speech, paying particular attention to what we talked about. If they are having a difficult time, I would have them repeat after me phrase by phrase, but otherwise just read it on their own.

7. Ask what they thought about their reading this time. Usually they know if weren’t about to do this sessions key point.  Talk together about whether or not they improved compared to the first reading of the session. For example, if they got seventy percent of the “TH” words pronounced correctly, or if they missed every one of the “V” words, etc. Of course,  they should not forget what we talked about in previous sessions either.

8. Once a week, I’ll record them reading their speech. Have them practice reading once, then record. Play back all or part of today’s speech first, then play back part of the previous week’s speech. Talk about what has or hasn’t changed. Usually the student can hear the difference!

8. Talk about what they should improve on for next session, and ask about their plans for practicing.

9. Ask if they have any final questions before you finish they session, and go over any lingering problems they have.

10. Last minute encouragement! “Do your best! There’s still time to improve!”


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