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
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.
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
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.