Last-Minute Speech Contest Prep!

For all those high school ALTs out there, the Miyazaki Prefectural High School English Speech Contest is only one week away! Soon, the extra after-school hours and lunchtime practice sessions will be over, but until then, we’re sure everyone is working hard to make sure their students can give their best performances next Wednesday.

Veteran ALTs have probably got their tricks and strategies down, but for those just starting out, they may not be sure what to focus on. So, we’ve put together some advice and strategies to use to help you really boost your students’ performance. At this point in time, nothing can be done about the manuscripts themselves, so we can only focus on three things: pronunciation, time, and delivery.

Speech Basics

The speeches will be scored as follows.


  • Focuses on speaking skill and delivery.
  • Pronunciation (20)
  • Delivery / Time (20)
    • Using gestures, facial expression, tone
    • Should be under 3 minutes long
  • General Impression (10)

Original Speech:

  • Focuses on content, speaking skill and delivery.
  • Content (20)
    • Originality, Concreteness (35)
    • Interest Value, Significance (15)
  • English (30)
    • Pronunciation, Intonation, Rhythm (20)
    • Vocabulary (10)
  • Delivery (20)
    • Volume, Tone, Time, Gestures, Posture
    • Should be 4:30-5:30 minutes long


Year after year, the students at the city schools outperform the students from the inaka schools when it comes to pronunciation. The difference in emphasis on English programs is very visible at this event. However, that’s not to say that there haven’t been students from lower-level schools who have performed equally as well through hard work and perseverance. Whatever the student’s educational background, we do have some universal advice.

Sometimes a student just can’t  get a sound no matter how much they practice. It is important to recognize when a student is becoming overly stressed and narrow your focus to just a few major issues versus perfect pronunciation as a whole. Unless the pronunciation error completely changes the meaning of a word or renders it incomprehensible, focus instead on the clarity of the sentence as a whole. A student who can talk through their pronunciation flaws in a clear and smooth manner is more likely to score higher versus a student who has perfect pronunciation and a stunted rhythm.

Many students also get hung up on enunciation. In their efforts to pronounce every syllable of every word clearly, they wind up having difficulty switching between sounds, and their speech begins to lose its natural rhythm. Sometimes, you need to teach them places to link similar sounds together in order to keep their speaking smooth and more natural sounding.

For example, students are likely to pronounce words that end in a hard consonant like ‘k’ or ‘d’ as ‘ku’ or ‘do’ because that is how they pronounce things in katakana English. Consonant-final words can be linked to words beginning with the same/similar consonant or vowel-initial words easily. Linking these words often reduces the effect of katakana English while also improving your student’s speaking fluency.

(It looks weird, but just try saying it out loud)

Do be sure that your student is still using the correct intonation for each word, though. There is a difference between ‘neeto’ and ‘neeto’ that the native-speaking judges will hear. This is especially noticeable with past-tense verbs, as in ‘tried to.’ Focus on tongue position for words like this. When native speakers say ‘tried,’ their tongue hits the roof of their mouth at the back of the teeth and then pulls away for the ‘d’ sound. Rather than finishing this sound and trying to repeat it quickly for the word ‘to,’ show the students that they are just taking a sound they are already making (d) and extending it to the next word (t).



Many JTEs will wait until just a couple days before the contest before introducing gestures, etc. into the speech. If you haven’t begun using these yet, best start now so that the gestures look more natural on the day of the speech.

Work with whatever gestures are already natural for your student. Some students are naturally animated talkers, and you can use this in their speeches. If a gesture they are using is not quite right for the content, teach them one that is similar to what they are already doing rather than something completely different. It is easier to make a small change than a big one at this stage.

To make sure the gestures are visible during the speech, have your students practice in front of a podium. It’s a bonus if you can borrow a microphone from the broadcasting club as well. This way the students can gauge where they should be holding there hands and how wide their movements should be. If you don’t have access to a podium, generally chest-height is a good guideline.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to have a gesture for every single idea. Once per paragraph is a good guideline. More can certainly be used if it is appropriate for the content or if the section is very long, while shorter sections may not have any content worth including a gesture for.

Rhythm and Intonation

At this point in time, most students have already memorized their speeches a certain way and many ALTs find it difficult to make and significant changes in rhythm and intonation. However, there are still a few tricks to help!

Often, unnatural rhythm is a result of students trying to say a sentence all in one go, and not knowing where to pause for a breath midway. If you mark out these places for the student, you’ll often see a significant improvement. Generally, anywhere a comma, conjunction, or transition is written is a good place to pause for a breath. “Scheduling” breaths in this way not only improves the rhythm, but can also help to moderate speed if your student is speaking too quickly.

Like pronunciation, sometimes you’ll find a word that a student just can’t get the intonation on. Marking which syllables in a word to stress significantly helps this issue, but sometimes you’ll need to cut your losses and choose which words are the most important to focus on.

In regards to overall tone, discuss what emotions the student is feeling when they think about the content, and how they want the audience to feel or react. Model different tones to help the student choose which one is most appropriate for their message. Echo their own speech back to them and ask them whether they are convinced by your tone. Better yet, record their speaking and have the student listen to themselves. Often, hearing a negative example will help them to realize what they need to do on their own.


Over the past few years, students have gotten much better at using gestures and varying their tone throughout their speech. These efforts are often thwarted, however, by a deadpan face. As with tone, emphasize what emotions or feelings are happening throughout the speech and the need for the student’s face to reflect those feelings.

Mimic the student’s speech and tone while keeping your face blank and ask the student how they felt afterward. Do they believe what your are saying? Are they convinced by your tone alone? Upon seeing your example, they’ll probably answer ‘no.’ Then show them a variety of expressions they can use and let them choose which is most appropriate for their message.

Another trick is to have the student practice in front of a mirror. You may have some giggles, but the most common issue for facial expression is that students just need to loosen up in the first place. 😉 Practicing exaggerated expressions in front of a mirror can also help the student find a middle ground in actual presentation.


This close to the event, time can become a huge stressor if the student still hasn’t gotten it down. In most cases, the student will be struggling with their time being too long. However, in some cases, you might have a student whose speech is too short.

Too short

To draw out a speech, there are several things you can do. First is to plan longer pauses. This can be tricky, because if the student pauses too long it can look they they don’t know what they’re doing. However, when you are changing topics or paragraphs, or asking a question, a pause of 2 seconds or so gives the audience enough time to process the shift or ponder the question without making the student look as if they’ve forgotten their next line.

Stretching out words is another useful tactic. If your speech says something surprising, shocking, or unbelievable, having the student stretch it out while using an exaggerated tone can add precious seconds while still sounding like a native speaker.

Too long

Not being within the time limit is especially common for students participating in the original speech section. Often, these students have not completed their manuscript until the very last minute, so they generally have less time overall to dedicate to speaking practice compared to the students participating in the recitation section. This means they not only have less time to memorize, but less time to focus on fine-tuning as well.

The best strategy to use both to improve memorization and decrease time is shadowing. There are various stages and styles of shadowing, and mixing/combining them will help your student with speed, memorization, and rhythm. With all of these methods, it is generally best to focus on one paragraph at a time, ensuring that the student is confident with each section before going on to the next one, and gradually building up to the whole speech.

“Repeat after me”
As the name says, the student repeats after you. You can start with short chunks of 3-5 words. Then increase to phrases that can be said in one breath. This can train the student to use those “scheduled breaths” we mentioned earlier. Finally, build up to the whole sentence.

This stage can be done in two styles: looking and no looking. Letting the student look at the manuscript while repeating after you is helpful in the beginning, especially if they are still struggling with pronunciation and remembering when to use gestures, etc. However, the most useful style is no looking. This way, they student can begin to associate the lines with their chronological order, instead of their position on the page. You’re basically training their vocal muscle memory with this strategy.

“Read with me”
Once the student is fairly confident with “Repeat after me,” read the speech together. The goal is for the student to follow along at the same pace as you without making any mistakes in pronunciation or rhythm. If the student struggles, you may need to switch back to “Repeat after me” for a few rounds and then come back.

“Recite with me”
Similar to before, the student will recite the speech at the same time as you, only they cannot look at their manuscript. This will be the most difficult stage for the student. But, once they can do it with few to no mistakes, they should be in fairly good shape for memorization, speed, and rhythm.

We hope these strategies will help you give your students the extra push they need! Good luck!

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