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Let's Japan

Chapter 17

Some Tips on How to Judge an English Speech Contest

Judging speech contests is one of those tasks which English teachers are occasionally asked to perform. Unfortunately, nobody tells us how to be judges. So today, I'll attempt to give a "crash course" on what I've learned the hard way.

Dress formally: It is important to look like a judge. After all, you can be sure that the contestants have done their best to be presentable. This is only fair.

Arrive early: The fact is, organizers tend to wait until the last minute to explain just what is going on - if then. Check seating arrangements; judging forms; meet the other judges, if any; and find out just what criteria you are expected to use in reaching a decision. Of course such contests are somewhat impressionistic and subjective; it comes with the territory. Try to get a reading between the lines on your actual role. You may be a "show" judge, just a decoration. You may just be expected to sit back and enjoy the event. On the other hand, you may have to work very hard.

Pick the winners: A judge's main objective is to identify the prizewinners. If there are 20 speakers and five prizes, concentrate on picking the top five. You will probably be under great pressure to come up with a decision while the contestants and the audience are waiting. Don't waste time in the committe room on the no-hopers. If you are not the only judge, expect disagreement. Careful notetaking can help you make your point but you will have to decide for yourself just how hard you want to push during negotiations.

Understand the judging sheet: If you are given some sort of "digital" judging sheet, e.g. "Pronunciation" 10 points, you might make it analog by breaking the 10 points into A=10, B=8, C=6, D=4 and E=2 points etc. Since most judging sheets will have a nubber of criteria: e.g. 50 points total for pronunciation, intonation, clarity, pitch, rhythm, eye contact, gestures, topic idea and overall impression, to use a real example from a recent contest I judged, it gets confusing fast. Making a worksheet which assigns letter grades to these criteria lets you sort candidates out quickly and accurately. It's much easier to compare contestants by letter grades than to try and remember if you gave a 12 or a 13 to the girl who came after the one who talked about her homestay in Moose Jaw. Another quick way to sort them out quickly is to use "contrastive sorting". Take your judging sheets and lay them out by "best speaker-worst speaker, next best-next worst" etc. This will give you a rank-ordered list which you can easily number.

Be prepared for unusual demands: Beware, one university wanted written reports on all 20 contestants, from myself and the other native-speaker of English judge, in 40 minutes! Not only did we have to agree on every contestant (which we didn't) but we had to give the contestants the university's (very badly designed) judging sheets and our (we thought private) comments while the ink was still wet! Since that fiasco, I've always used criteria that I could record quickly, explain simply and defend on the spot.

You may have to make a speech yourself: Have some general remarks ready and tailor them to the event. They should be very general and upbeat.

Practice Japanese "stage etiquette": You may be expected to present the prizes. Use two hands to give or receive the certificates or trophies; the contestants bow first, then the judges. Be sure your jacket is buttoned up. Basic stuff.

When the job is done: Leave quickly. The winners will want to celebrate. The good losers will want to be alone. And the sore losers (or their mothers) may well want to have a word or two with you.


Note: I've judged a lot of speech contests since this column came out. Looking back, the two main points that stand out now are (1) find out if your notes will be public or private and then make them accordingly and (2) just accept the fact that the other judges might disagree with you - totally. One judge may give points for what she considers "appropriate facial expressions and body language" while another judge will be taking points off for "not being serious" e.g. looking to the front, body stiff and formal, face a rigid mask.
It's worth noting that not every "speech contest" is in fact a speech contest. There are "recitation" contests, "English speaking" contests and of course, basic speech contests. Confused? I was too.

A recitation contest is usually held in middle school. By definition, the students did not write the piece they are to recite. Popular stories including "The Little Prince," "The Three Little Pigs," and so on are popular. The main points of judging here are performative. Did she huff and puff? Did she use different voices in a multi-character story? Did she indicate by expression and postural shifts, who was talking? Were her gestures appropriate? The idea here is to encourage students to break away from rigid formal facial and body expressions, to get them to use varying stresses, rythms and intonations. Good recitations are similar to good children's tapes. And in fact, that is exactly what many of the young students are imitating.

English speaking contests, that is a contest where anyone can do anything and in any number too, are really tough to judge. They are often English "free-for-alls" and you may have to compare several recitations, group skits of varying numbers of members and just about anyhting or anyone who comes up on stage. It really can be an apples and oranges type situation but just make the best of it.

Speech contests are formal expostulations of ideas or views, and ideally, are written by the speaker. Their formal nature makes many of the presentation techniques that will win a recitation contest inappropriate. As with the recitation, there should be a close connection between the material and the style of presentation as each point in articulated. Speeches may have been re-written or heavily edited by teachers or native-speakers.

In terms of judging, as long as a judge applies the right rules to the right contest, it is a fairly simple assess and compare exercise. What can be a real shame for students who have practiced long and hard for their event is a judge who through ignorance, laziness or sheer "bloody-mindedness" misapplies the concepts. For example, misjudging a middle school recitation contest with its emphasis on character performance by marking down students for not being formal: In effect demanding that the student tells say, the story of the Three Little Pigs in a hortative tone appropriate for the "Gettysburg Address." Over time, this kind of sloppy judging can damage the prestige of a contest; especially if students who are marked down go on to win prizes using the same speech at other contests. As with good teaching, good judging seeks to encourage as well as to grade.


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