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Robert S. Littlefield, Collette Canevello, Roberta Egersdorf, Benita Saur, Gwen Stark, Elizabeth Wynia*

Identifying Outcomes for Oral Interpretation Events


This article examined the literature in the area of performance studies to determine if criteria can be established to assess whether oral interpretation performers are meeting the expectations of their critics. Five cognitive outcome areas were identified: Students should understand the necessity for elements of the genre to be present in their selections; students should understand the relationship between the author’s assumed intent and the interpretation the reader conveys; students should understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through vocal expression; students should understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through physical expression; and students should understand the conventions of performing an oral interpretation within a specific context. From these outcomes, particular behavioral outcomes were specified to enable critics of oral interpretation to assess whether or not students in speech competitions demonstrate expected oral interpretation skills.


The forensic tournament has been labeled as an extension of the classroom. In fact, the interrelationship of forensic tournaments and the classroom environment is one reason why forensics is often called a co-curricular activity. Just as the classroom teacher is called upon to evaluate each student’s progress in mastering the curricula, so are critics asked to rank and rate the students competing in the various categories offered at speech contests.

One of the general categories of competitive speech events is the oral interpretation of literature, which includes the reading of prose, poetry, and dramatic literature. In this category of competition, students select a story, poem, or piece of dramatic literature and read it orally for an audience. Because the student is called upon to interpret the literature, the judging of the students is subjective, relying on the judges’ preferences to help determine the winners.
The make-up of those who adjudicate forensic tournaments varies. Some critics are long- time teachers with extensive backgrounds in literature and the arts. Others are teachers or adults from the community who have a general communication or theatre background but who are not coaching forensic teams. Finally, some are college-aged individuals with areas of specialization based upon the events in which they competed while in high school. Because of the different levels of expertise held by these judges, students often receive conflicting evaluative comments on their ballots as reasons for why they ranked a particular way. Further, comments are offered which appear to coach the student on how something should be read or interpreted, in contrast to comments that assess their mastery of particular outcomes that are recognized as intrinsic components of the interpretive performance.

Not all observers are convinced that students in forensics are acquiring the skills/outcomes forensic educators say forensics provides. Some argue that forensics is becoming a specialized activity for a particular audience, rather than for a broader public. Bartanen (1994) and others called for the introduction of assessment into the competitive environment of speech tournaments to determine if students are mastering the expected outcomes in the various individual events. This call resulted from two motivations: 1) Students were being coached in what some would call a “sophistic” manner to win, using particular emotional techniques without understanding the motivation behind them; and 2) judges were using varying standards of evaluation, making the mastery of specific skills difficult, if not impossible for the students, because what one judge noted as exceptional, another cited as a weakness. In one of the few studies going beyond anecdotal assessment of individual events, Littlefield et al. (1998) identified outcomes in the original public speaking events and determined that critics were able to use these outcomes to assess whether students were meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet their expectations. However, for the interpretive events, no such compilation of outcomes or assessment has been established.

Assessment of individual speech events continues to be needed as teachers determine if what they are teaching their students meets the expectations of the critics in the laboratory of forensic tournaments. This prompts the general research questions:

• For what cognitive outcomes should student competitors in oral interpretation strive?
• From these general outcomes, what particular behaviors can be identified to enable critics to assess whether or not students are demonstrating expected oral interpretation skills?

For clarity, oral interpretation events will include the categories of prose, poetry, and drama, and dramatic duo (two performers of one piece of literature).

Although the Greeks and Romans were performing as interpreters over 2500 years ago, competitive oral interpretation is a relatively new development (Pelias, 31). As a result, performance outcomes still have not been universally established or accepted. To create a basis for a set of oral interpretation outcomes, a survey of relevant literature was conducted. Five overarching themes emerged: Students should understand the necessity for the elements of the genre to be present in their oral interpretation; students should understand the relationship between the author’s assumed intent and the interpretation the reader conveys; students should understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through vocal expression; students should understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through physical expression; and students should understand the convention of performing an oral interpretation within a specific context.

Understand the elements of the genre
One of the main reasons why students need to understand the elements of the genre for their category is related to why students read literature. Reading literature helps students to better understand themselves, others, and life. When reading, students can escape, or experience adventures they would never otherwise experience (Abcarian & Kotz, 1998; Barnet, Berman, Burto & Cain, 1997). Outcomes for teaching reading and literature include having the students think critically, analyze, and appreciate art, as well as being able to identify the main elements and overall meaning within the literature. Beyond just reading, however, interpretive reading, such as that found in the oral interpretation categories of competitive speech, “offers a fusion of literature and communication” (Bowen, Aggert & Rickert, 1978, 12), which helps educate the whole person. Oral interpretation is perhaps the best way to show appreciation of the literature, to bring it to life, and to understand the author’s intent. In actuality, the interpreter of literature is responsible to “capture the essence of the drama and convey it in a mature and convincing manner to an audience” (Taylor, 1984). This practice makes the learning more intensive. Presenting the literature aids in the analysis of the literature and its interpretation (Bowen, Aggert & Richert, 1978).

Oral interpretation in the speech categories requires analysis of the literature before it can be interpreted. This analysis and understanding of the genre, and the elements involved, leads to students who are not only going to be better speakers, but also better readers and thinkers. In any of the categories of oral interpretation, students need to understand which genre their selection is or they will be disqualified. The American Forensic Association says that a cutting from drama, for example, must represent, “one or more characters from a play or plays of literary merit” (1994). In poetry, the rules specifically state that “play cuttings and prose works are prohibited” (1994). Therefore, speech students in oral interpretation must know what a genre is and be able to discern whether or not their selection is in the correct category.
Once they have chosen their category and selection, students must be able to identify the common elements present for that category/genre. Carbone (1986), in a paper presented at the Speech Communication Association convention, wrote:

Literary analysis is an aid to oral interpretation. It is an instructional tool used to enhance understanding, study motivation, and discover an author’s style and tone. It is used to determine the theme of the material as well as the significance of action and the symbolism of the artifacts. It reveals character motivation, imagery, setting, and description. It fills in the blanks behind conflict and resolution, rhythm and cadence, experience and revelation, understanding and insight. (4)

While any number of literary terms or poetic devices can and may be used when students analyze their selections, many judges first consider the literary quality of the selection, which includes the basic elements of character or persona, plot, and theme. Because it often takes time and much synthesis of literature before finding a selection, one major benefit of selecting a text of literary merit is that it exposes the student to good literature (Yordon, 1998).

While critics don’t always agree on a definition of literary merit, most agree that good literature involves universality (Hindman, Shackelford, Schlottach, 1993; Yordon, 1998). This universality frequently is found in the theme or underlying message the author wishes to convey. Most themes appeal to a universal audience, perhaps in the form of an experience of personal values to which all kinds of people can relate. Analyzing themes in their selections can help students “focus on the literature, the themes of the literature, the relationship of the literature to the world around them, and on the creation of the literature” (Carbone, 1986). Klemme (1987/88) agreed that: “students should work with literature that ultimately has something to say about the human condition.... The human experiences of marriage, separation, death, and betrayal provide some areas for examination as potential literature is considered, for it is on these great themes that significant writers concentrate” (18).
A second essential element is character or persona, which is frequently defined as who the story, play, or poem is about or “a figure in a literary work” (Barnet, Berman, Burto & Cain, 1997, 62). There are many questions a coach, judge, or teacher will ask a student when discussing character or persona. Is the character round or flat? What are the character’s “physical, emotional, and intellectual traits?” (Taylor, 1984). Once students have analyzed and studied the characters in their selections, they should be better able to understand themselves, others, and the world around them (Yordon, 1998).

Another justification for using characters in oral interpretation is because judges tend to notice how students develop them. A study entitled, “Critiquing the Critic: Toward Improving Oral Interpretation Ballots,” identified and grouped different categories of comments made by judges while critiquing oral interpretation categories. One category included a number of issues related to character. These comments identified with “vocal characterization, distinction between characters, interactions between characters, and thought process of characters,” just to name a few (Trimble, 1994, 10).

The development of plot and structure is a third element of fiction that students should be aware of when selecting their texts. According to An Introduction to Literature (Barnet, Berman, Buto, Cain, 1997), plot is defined as the “happenings” in a work of literature (61). How well the plot or action of a scene is developed in students’ selections is another way to help students further understand the actions and events that happen in their own and others’ lives. For example, in prose and drama, plot development typically includes some form of conflict, complications, and other rising action, which eventually leads to some sort of climax and resolution or falling action. In real life, conflicts and complications also arise. When students read and follow the development of plots in their selections, they can hopefully come to a better understanding of how to resolve conflict in their lives. Although poetry typically doesn’t follow rising and falling action, it does call for some form of action. That action can also include tension and conflict (Beck, 1969).

When students cut their literary selections, the plot, structure, tension, conflict, or action must also be considered, so that the cutting contains “a beginning, middle, and end” (Hindman, Shackelford, Schlottach, 1993, 139). Taylor (1984) suggested the following question that a judge might ask when evaluating a student’s cutting of literature: “Does the cutting develop a plot characterized by rising action, climax, and a resolution of the dramatic conflict?” Other scholars agree that it is important to include a beginning, middle and end in order to “maintain the integrity of the material” (Yordon, 1998, 122).

Clearly, understanding the necessary elements of the genre of their oral interpretation selection provides the foundation for students to further analyze and bring meaning to their selections. By presenting texts that have identifiable themes and characters, development of plot, and a beginning, middle, and end, students will be more successful as they demonstrate their interpretive capabilities before adjudicators in oral interpretation competitions.

Relationship between author’s intent and reader’s interpretation
Since no two interpretations will ever be identical, the choices that an interpreter makes must be consistent with the text in order to have believability. For each line of the script, the interpreter makes conscious choices. Subsequently, since interpretation is “the art of translating the written word into the spoken feeling” (Klemme, 21), analyzing, understanding, and communicating the author’s thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and intentions are important to the overall interpretation. The interpreter should be subordinate to the literature. Understanding the literature and conveying that understanding should dominate. But how does one know that an interpreter understands the author’s intent? Three observable outcomes can establish this understanding: The presentation of an introduction that puts the selection into context; the credible presentation of the characters or persona; and the demonstration of an awareness of the balance between author’s intent and the sensibilities of the listeners.
One way to show that the interpreter understands the author’s intent is through the use of an introduction. The introduction should include most of the following: the title, the author’s name (Yordon, 1223), a summary of the plot leading up to the start of the selection (Grimes, 327; Fetzik and Littlefield, 12; Sellnow, 4; Shaheen, 11), and a listeners’ relevance link and/or an attention getter (Grimes and Mattingling, 327; Fetzik and Littlefield, 12; Sellnow, 4; Yordon, 122). If the reader incorporates these elements into the introduction, she/he will automatically develop a clearer understanding of the literature for himself/herself and his/her audience. The introduction should “begin the process of analysis with the audience” (Klemme, 20).

A teaser—reading a portion of a selection orally before delivering the original introduction —is another way to introduce a selection. A teaser should be used when the audience’s understanding is enhanced because the reader shares a part of the literature describing an event that took place earlier, or when the setting is unknown to the audience; then a teaser may be a less time-consuming way of presenting the situation. It should not be used in place of an introduction; the reader must still present a clear understanding of the author’s intent (Sellnow, 5-6).
If all of the needed information to fully understand the oral interpretation is not given in the introduction, interpreters may use transitions, allowing the interpreter to speak instead of the author. These transitions provide clarity especially when cuts are made in prose writings (Beck, 9-10). If a program has more than one selection, a two- or three-sentence transition will be necessary to prepare the listeners for the next selection, but they also give the interpreter a moment of reprieve especially from an intensely emotional piece of literature (Grimes and Mattingling, 329). Transitions should not be an afterthought. Providing a road map for the listener, the transitions should be carefully planned and executed which means the interpreter must understand the author’s intent.

Besides providing an appropriate introduction, the delivery of credible characters, or persona in an oral interpretation is essential if one is to present a legitimate reading that allows the reader to convey the author’s assumed intent. Performers must carefully choose which insights to stage, and their performance should be seen as instances of preferred choices (Pelias, 61-62). Since the choices seem endless, the following suggestions are offered as examples. In Group Performance of Literature, seven considerations are suggested: biological (human or animal, race, male or female); physical (physical size, age, voice, health, posture); social (class, nationality, education, religion); dispositional (personality, temperament, mood); motivation (desires, goals, purposes); deliberate (quantity and quality of characters in thought; and decisive (decision-making) (Long, et al., 38-53). In The Oral Interpreter and Character Analysis, Owens (1970) stressed believable, three-dimensional characters. These three dimensions are physical (age, sex, health, appearance); sociological (class, family status, cultural pattern, environment); and psychological (emotions, needs, desires, qualities) (21). Probably most important in the analysis of non-narrative literature is an understanding of the characters. The reader’s task must include “particular attention to clear, unmistakable characterization” (Manchester, 6).
In addition to considering the choices made by the interpreter, the other issue is credibility: A character must prove himself/herself with each and every line (Klemme, 21). If the performer is to have the literature come alive, she/he must escape identification with his/her own body. It is not the character who becomes real in the interpreter, it is the interpreter who becomes unreal in his character (Minister, 4; Pelias, 67). This reality can be accomplished by repeating vocal and physical acts of the persona/character (Pelias, 67). It is also important to note that when choosing vocal and physical acts, the interpreter must be aware of inappropriate behaviors as well as appropriate behaviors for his/her persona/character. Choices must be consistent with one another and aesthetically appealing (Pelias, 64-66).

Since introductions and characters/persona have been addressed, showing the importance of balancing author’s intent and listener’s sensibilities is the next outcome. The need to be concerned with the author’s intent, that which contributes to the final statement of the work, becomes a focus as interpreters juggle to decide what material, if any, should be cut since the author felt all of his/her words were needed for the overall meaning of the story. The reader must also concern him/herself with the sensibilities of the listeners and especially the judge (Pelias, 37; Fetzik and Littlefield, 6; Klemme, 20). In the category of dramatic interpretation, the question of appropriateness is a bigger issue than in any other competitive category. There are conflicting ideas about appropriateness (Shaheen, 11). Defining appropriateness, audience members and judges are not impressed with an interpreter who uses excessive profanity or sexual references for startling effects. This is not to say that they should never be allowed (Klemme, 19). However, an interpreter should cut out extreme profanity or any elements which might offend the judge and other listeners (Beck, 10). An interpreter if she/he wants to be successful should remember that: “The individual member of the audience may read privately whatever his/her personal tastes dictate, but when she/he becomes part of the audience, the responsibility for the selection...becomes that of the interpreter” (Manchester, 3).

When students understand the relationship between the author’s assumed intent and the interpretation the reader conveys, they will be better able to demonstrate their interpretation in a manner that will be accepted by the critic. Through an introduction, the credible presentation of characters or persona, and the demonstration of an awareness between the author’s intent and the sensibilities of the listeners, the interpreter will show how intent and interpretation interact in performance.

Vocal expressiveness
Vocal expression is a learned behavior. Anderson (1977) contended that there are no human organs that function inherently for the purpose of speaking. Because speech is a human invention, it stands to reason that if speech can be learned poorly, humans can also improve their vocal expression. Oral interpretation offers students both opportunities.

Whether the student studies vocal expression as a way of enhancing oral interpretation, or the student studies oral interpretation as a way of enhancing vocal expression, the result can be increased communication skills. It is these same skills that aid human beings in adapting to their environments. Speech, generally, and paralanguage, specifically, are culturally relevant and highly necessary for the psychological and economic well-being of the individual in a society. A well-developed voice is an asset that can aid the student in all aspects of communication (Anderson, 1977).

Facial and physical aspects are important parts of speech, but vocal dimensions are crucial. At the Second National Developmental Conference on Forensics, judges considered the voice to be the “primary” means with which to enhance or detract from an oral interpretation (Vertabedian, 1995). However, as Anderson (1977) pointed out, verbal expression for most students will probably have been largely learned through imitation of ineffectual role models. In other words, the verbal expression that individuals are learning from their friends, at school and at home, is not as effective as it could be. Secondly, Anderson contends that vocal expression must be polished in an on-going manner. As the athlete continues to train in order to stay in shape, speakers need to continue to train vocally or they will lose some of the effectiveness of their expression. Anderson uses the terms “lip-lazy” and “slovenly” to describe ineffective vocal aspects.

Even though the individual is born with certain physical traits which do predetermine certain vocal dimensions, many vocal characteristics are learned, including: rate, pause, volume, emphasis, articulation and pronunciation, and vocal variety.

The quality of the interpretation is helped or hindered with the use or misuse of rate and pauses. Oral interpreters learn that by varying their speed and knowing where and for how long to pause, they can capture the literature’s tone (Woolbert and Nelson, 1968). Rate is very important for comprehension. If the rate is too slow, then the listener can become distracted with boredom, but if the rate is too fast, the listener may not have enough time to think about and digest what is being said (Vertabedian, 1995). When rate is used effectively, it helps the interpreter in a variety of ways. Because no two people speak at the same rate, the rate at which the characters speak can be varied in order to distinguish between them (Yordon, 1993). Rate also allows the interpreter to express subtle variations that are found in the piece, including various emotions. Similarly, the interpreter should control the rate so every sound is formed accurately (Lee and Gura, 1982).

Rate also involves the use of pause. Woolbert and Nelson (1968) contended that the lack of pause is the surest mark of the novice. On the other hand, the oral interpreter can effectively use pauses to reinforce the central idea, create suspense, reinforce meaning, and direct the listener’s focus. The pause can also be effectively used with characterization in order to show hesitation and uncertainty or to allow the character a moment to think (Yordon, 1993).

Pitch and volume make up the next category. A high pitch can be used to communicate excitement, delight, and fear. High pitch can also mean that the character is youthful or immature. Low pitch, on the other hand, can be used to convey despair, reverence, tranquility, heaviness, or sobriety (Pelias, 1992; Yordon, 1993). Slight differences in pitch are often sufficient. Big differences can adversely affect the interpretation by drawing attention to themselves instead of the literature. When used correctly, changes in pitch can alert the listener to meaning, aid the interpreter in building to a climax, and add variety and richness to the selection. Varying the pitch will produce a melodious sound, whereas the lack of such variety creates a monotone. Lee and Gura (1982) especially recommend that the interpreter of poetry avoid the tendency to begin new thoughts or lines on a high pitch and end the thought or line with a low pitch. Both pitch and volume work to emphasize parts of the literature (Pelias, 1992).

Volume can be understood in two ways. First, volume is often synonymous with projection, meaning interpreters should have sufficient volume so as to he heard by everyone in the audience. Vertabedian (1995) was amazed at how many nervous and/or beginning interpreters he was unable to hear. Interpreters should have sufficient volume so that the audience can hear them without straining. Additionally, the interpreter’s voice should fill the room without the voice sounding distorted. The interpreter should strive to be as flexible as possible while still being easily heard by the audience (Lee and Gura, 1982). Volume also refers to vocal expressiveness of the literature. Shifts in volume can make scenes more interesting by adding vocal variety. However, Yordon (1993) warned the interpreter against trying to substitute loudness for intensity.
The third category consists of emphasis, variety, and inflection. Emphasis can be created by changing the rate, the pitch, volume, or rhythm or by using a pause. Emphasis is very important because it gives vitality and life to the reading. Nouns and verbs generally receive emphasis over adjectives and adverbs (Beck, 1969). Because not all elements in a selection are equally important, emphasis is required in order for the interpreter to demonstrate to the listener which parts are more important (Vertabedian, 1995). Emphasis is interwoven with the concept of variety. Without variety, speech is tedious. The variety may be created by changing the variables of pitch, volume, or the rate. Without variety, the voice is monotone (Pelias, 1992). Inflection is important for enhancing meaning. Pelias (1992) suggested the various meanings that the word “really” can take on depending on the inflections given to it. “Really” can be said to ask a question, show excitement, convey disgust, or portray an adamant response. Rising inflections are used to ask a question and falling inflections make a statement. Inflection is also used by interpreters to create mood.

Category four deals with the vocal clarity aspects of articulation and pronunciation. Pelias (1992) clarified the distinction between articulation and pronunciation this way: Articulation is the creation of sounds which form words through the proper use of the articulators (tongue, teeth, lips, hard and soft palate); pronunciation refers to the way the syllables and words are emphasized and presented in speech. Critics call the improper use of the articulators “lazy speech” (Vertabedian, 1995; Woolbert and Nelson, 1968).

The final vocal category is credible vocal variety. Just as the musical instrument is needed to bring the musical score to life, so too is the interpreter’s voice the tool with which the literature is given three-dimensional meaning (Beloof, 1966). The interpreter can manipulate all of the aspects of vocal expression and in so doing enhance the characterization. If a character is shy, the interpreter may choose to speak softly; if a character is dull, then the interpreter may speak slowly (Pelias, 1992). The elements of inflection and pitch are probably the most important in order to avoid one-dimensional characterization and often a slight variation in pitch is sufficient (Woolbert and Nelson, 1968; Yordon, 1993). Characterization can be accomplished with mere suggestion (Lee and Gura, 1983). Beloof (1966) postulated that the vitalization of the personae may be the interpreter’s greatest aim because the listener like the silent reader cannot hear such things as the character’s dialect, emotion, or any of the other subtle nuances found within the characterization unless the oral reader vitalizes them. Pelias (1992) advised interpreters to avoid falling back on Hollywood’s stereotyped characterization, and to instead experiment with variety, volume, and vocal clarity, in order to discover the personae.

In summary, while verbal expression is often poorly learned, the vocal aspects of oral interpretation are largely under the control of the student and instructor. Therefore, vocal expression may very well be the most important outcome the oral interpreter will strive to reach.

Enhancing oral interpretation through physical expression
Everyday conversations reflect an understanding that communication involves more than the production of verbal symbols. It also involves nonverbal aspects which can be defined as the conscious or subconscious transmission and reception of unspoken messages. In oral interpretation, the audience sees the speaker’s bodily tension and activity before it hears the speaker’s words (Burgood, Buller & Woodall, 1998). Estimates of the percentage of meaning gained from nonverbal communication range from 60 percent to 90 percent (Burgood et al., 1989; Coger, 1972; Vasile, 1996). These nonverbal messages can act alone, reinforce the verbal message, supersede the verbal message, or conflict with the verbal message (Lewis, 1996). Body language is so revealing of basic character and personality that when presented with conflicting messages, people tend to believe the nonverbal behavior over the verbal (Pelias, 1992; Vasile, 1996; Burgoon et al., 1989; Lewis, 1996; Bowen, Aggertt & Rickert, 1978). Some experts assert that nonverbal communication is the “foundation of all human communication” (Frank, 1995).

Because nonverbal communication provides insight into the character’s emotions and personality, oral interpretation is enhanced by the interpreter’s creation of the actions that provide this information for the audience. For example, when a person or character is angry, his body experiences an increase of glandular secretions and blood sugar, his heart beats faster, and his body and facial muscles become tense. Therefore, to be effective, the student reader must transform this energy into meaningful sounds and actions (Beloof, 1996). Because literature is action-oriented, interpreters must convey action nonverbally (Brooks, Bah & Okey, 1967). Although nonverbal behavior involves the body acting as a whole; facial expression, eye contact, gesture, posture, attitude, energy, and poise all contribute to the nonverbal messages being sent.
Because of its mobility and elasticity, the face can communicate the actions, feelings, or emotions expressed in piece of literature. Bowen et al. (1978) considered facial expressions to be the reader’s most fundamental gestures. As a communication tool, the face is very versatile. Most physiologists estimate that facial muscles can be shifted to display 20,000 different expressions, while some researchers claim that the face is capable of producing as many as 250,000 expressions (Birdwhistell, 1970).

The face is the center of emotional expressiveness (Thompson & Fredricks, 1967; Geeting, 1966). Researchers of nonverbal communication claim that facial movements communicate at least eight distinct emotions—happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, and interest. Others argue that the list should also include bewilderment and determination (DeVito, 1996). Usually the face is the most reliable single indicator of mood and attitude (Bowen et al., 1978). However, facial expressiveness can be controlled. Facial management techniques include: 1) intensifying to exaggerate a feeling; 2) de-intensifying to underplay a feeling; 3) neutralizing to hide a feeling; and 4) masking to substitute the expression of one emotion for another (DeVito, 1996). The quality of any performance is enhanced when facial expression and the verbal message coincide.

Besides influencing the audience’s involvement during a presentation, facial expression can also influence the performer’s level of emotional arousal. According to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, a subject’s facial expression influences his or her level of positive or negative physiological arousal. In studies, subjects who exaggerated their facial expressions showed higher levels of physiological arousal when compared with subjects who had suppressed their facial expressions (Devito, 1996). Facial expression is an important tool of the interpreter because it communicates emotion, it can be controlled and therefore used as a performance tool, and it can heighten the performer’s other physiological responses and thus influence his/her level of emotional arousal and overall performance.

While the face may be the most communicative part of the body, the eyes are the most communicative part of the face (Lewis, 1991). Use of the eyes requires special attention because they are the performer’s chief means of bringing the audience into the interpretation (Beloof, 1966). The use of the eyes in oral interpretation involves both the ability to control and the ability to communicate with the audience. Making direct eye contact during the introduction signals the audience’s attention and opens the lines of communication. The use of focal points, also called off-stage focus, helps the audience distinguish characters. Eyes looking up or to the side may signal an inner expressed focus in which the character reveals thoughts and feelings (Lewis, 1991).

Looking down at the script for long periods of time will almost certainly result in loss of audience involvement. Although the performer must hold the script, memorization or familiarity with the text is desirable because excessive visual reliance on reading, prevents the performer from using his/her eyes to their fullest advantage (Klemme, 1987-88). It is also important to note that a quick glance at the text while speaking draws very little attention to itself, while that same glance during a pause will likely distract the audience and break the mood. This timing is important because the facial expressions of the interpreter during pauses often signal the flow of one emotion into another (Beloof, 1966).
The eyes, as the center of facial expressiveness, can communicate a wide variety of emotions or feelings, which may vary in intensity depending on the duration, direction, and quality of the eye behavior (DeVito, 1996). Because they are capable of these gradations of intensity, the eyes are the key to proper development and flow of emotion (Beloof, 1966).

Gestures can be defined as any clearly discernable movement of the hands, arms, head, or shoulders which helps express or emphasize an idea. In oral interpretation, gestures must be distinguished from acting or pantomiming. The actor represents and is the character. The interpreter presents and suggests the character. The action, although suggested, must be imagined (Thompson & Fredricks, 1967).
For most, gesturing is a natural part of the personality. To establish the physical personality of a character, a performer should devise a number of meaningful gestures (Shaheen, 1988-89). Care must be taken to develop natural gestures which are positive, direct, and meaningful, while avoiding gestures which result in distracting mannerism. Because gesturing helps portray the character and personal mannerism of the people in the script, these performance gestures must be considered and intentional (Frank. 1995). Interpreters must experiment with degree of intensity (overly tense to overly lax), duration of action (overly short to overly long), and range of movement (narrow to broad) if gestures are to express variations in the personalities and emotional states of characters (Coger, 1972). Once the performer has experimented with the variations of a gesture, she/he must practice the gesture to develop “muscle memory.” After repetition, the performer will build up muscle sense and memory, and the movement will tend to become reflexive (Woolbert & Nelson, 1962).

Gesturing becomes more meaningful as the performer develops an understanding of the character’s intentions. Pelias (1992) sees this as a circular process: Understanding leads to doing, and doing leads to understanding. Identifying motivation helps the performer find actions that arise from a character’s purpose or goal. Natural gestures require integration with the rest of the body (Beloof, 1966). The full experience of a thought should involve the whole body—brain, nerves, muscles—working together (Bowen et al., 1978). Normally, an action or gesture precedes a character’s words. The character’s face and body react to his/her thoughts before she/he verbalizes them (Beloof, 1966).
Posture, the alignment of body parts, affects both the audience and the speaker. Posture can reflect a person’s or character’s attitude, pride, confidence and general health (Vasile, 1996). For example, most people interpret a straight posture, with head up, as conveying confidence. In interpretation, the performer should make certain that his/her posture is responsive to the language and at the same time open to the audience (Bowen et al., 1978). A proper stance will look and feel comfortable and will allow the interpreter to move and gesture freely.

During a performance, the interpreter’s posture helps to communicate the essence of the literature (Frank, 1995). It can reveal the intensity level of emotions and suggest a character’s gender, age, body type, and attractiveness (Lewis, 1991). A slight shift of pose can be used to symbolize characters and help the audience to distinguish one character from another (Beloof, 1966). Although it often requires only subtle movements, effective use of posture adds to the total effect of the interpretation (Bowen et al., 1978).

Attitude is a dimension of a character’s inner, psychological condition. It is always evident on the outside of that character as externalized response. To one degree or another, it is communicated nonverbally. To interpret a character or persona, a performer must have an inner vision and believe in the reality of what he or see sees. As s/he performs, the audience will see that reality in the face and body and will believe it, too (Beloof, 1966). The interpreter must learn to develop those attitudes which will show his/her understanding of the characters’ actions and thoughts.
Developing this inner vision involves empathy. Empathy allows an interpreter to “feel into” the experiences of a character or persona and identify with the emotions (Scrivner,1979). Gestures, facial expression, and even muscle tone are affected from within by the mental attitude of the speaker (Lee, 1971). Without empathy, gestures and body movement would appear mechanical. With empathy, the interpreter’s movements have unity and authenticity.

Bowen et al. (1978) suggested that empathy may be one of the most important factors for success as a performer. Empathy occurs on a number of different levels during a performance. It begins when the interpreter empathizes in response to the literature. During the performance, the audience responds to the interpretation, often by duplicating the tensions of the reader in an unconscious natural impulse. The interpreter may even experience an empathetic response to the audience response. And finally, the audience responds empathetically to the literature (Bowen et al., 1978).

Energy in a performance can be described as the reader’s own mental or emotional state of readiness. It is that “slight, continuous tension in the muscle tissue which facilitates its response to stimulation” (Thompson, 1967) and gives an impression and look of aliveness (Scrivner, 1979). Energy is important to the interpreter because it makes a performance come alive for the audience. Two considerations may help the performer develop energy. First, energy is the result of the performer’s excitement and involvement in the literature; therefore, it is impossible to have energy without adequate preparation and practice. Second, if properly controlled, the energy we often refer to as stage fright can be redirected into achieving a vital, stimulating performance (Lee, 1971).

Poise is self-assurance. It is the feeling you convey to your audience that you have something worth saying, that you want to say it, that you are fully prepared, and that you regard this audience as fully capable of appreciating what you are about to say (Bowen et al., 1978). Having a sincere interest in the audience, a pleasant expression and an attitude of enjoying the selection with the audience will all help to achieve a more poised impression. Poise helps the interpreter make a strong initial impression and get the audience’s attention. It allows him/her to pause for a moment at the end of the performance to let the last thought linger (Lewis, 1991).

Nonverbal communication is a powerful performance tool for the audience and the performer. Every movement the performer makes will evoke a response in the audience; even lack of movement will evoke a response. The effect of body language on the audience is subtle but influential. Therefore, all of the performer’s visible activity should be directed toward achieving a desired response. In addition, the study of movement teaches performers a deeper understanding of nonverbal communication. It encourages students to explore the subtleties of emotion that can be expressed with the face and body and helps them develop empathy through identifying with others. Poise and confidence, as well as insight into character, personality, and emotion are also demonstrated when interpreters to respond physically to literature as an artistic form (Coger, 1972).

The conventions of oral interpretation
Adhering to the accepted rules of oral interpretation is especially important to the student participating in competition. Ignorance of oral interpretation conventions could result in the disqualification of the reader. Even a lesser penalty, such as the loss of points or an automatic ranking of five, seems an unnecessary price to pay for being uninformed. In interscholastic competitions, student readers are responsible for choosing literature appropriate for the category in which they are entered, preparing and memorizing an introduction to their selected literature, and interpreting the literature in a manner appropriate to the performance space and time allocated for each speaker, with the script being used as unobtrusively as possible.

When choosing literature for oral interpretation, the reader should select the appropriate genre for the category. In a poetry interpretation, the selections must be understood and accepted as poetry. Dramatic literature must come from plays is written with stage direction and parts. Prose interpretation clearly has a narrative persona implied in the text. Students may have difficulty in categorizing literature into genre. It should be the responsibility of the coach to aid the student in this to avoid penalties in a contest situation.
Some state and national associations also have rules regarding the use of explicit language. Often state associations convey their attitude toward offensive material and language by suggesting that selected literature should not offend the moral standards of the community or be in bad taste. Specific references are often made to the elimination of all cursing, profane reference to the deity, and immorally suggestive statements. Some states also require an administrator to sign a statement on the registration form attesting that he/she approves the literature being used in the school’s speech and play entries (NDHSAA, 9). Clearly stated rules on appropriate material and language can help to clarify expectations at contests.

Once the text is chosen, care should be taken to cut the piece to the appropriate time limit, allowing adequate time for an introduction. Yordon (1993) acknowledged the need for the interpreter to “delete words, lines, and even whole paragraphs or pages to fit time limits” (132). Time limits exist to ensure the equal participation of all readers. Time limit rules are fair. During an event, timekeepers are assigned to time the entries accurately and signal the reader through the use of hand signals or time cards. The rules regarding time, and signals vary from contest to contest. It is the responsibility of the coach and the participant to know the time limit for an oral interpretation entry and the rules for the contest entered. There are penalties for going overtime.

The introduction is an important part of every oral interpretation, Swartz (1986) wrote: “The introduction…should establish [the meaning and value of the literature] clearly in the minds of audience members, by serving informational, rhetorical and aesthetic functions” (6-7).
Yordon assigned the introduction five main purposes:

(1) It prepares the audience for the specific selection you are performing; (2) it prepares you to perform for the audience; (3) it lets the audience see you as you are before you begin your performance; (4) it communicates your enthusiasm for the selection, which, it is hoped, will pique the audience’s interest; and (5) it persuades the audience to attend to your performance. (123)

She also encourages the oral interpreter to “imagine before you decide” not to do an introduction, how “the absence of one might dramatically change the overall impact” of the reading (Yordon, 123). Interpreters participating in a contest may be required to have an introduction. Required or not, an introduction is a positive addition to an oral interpretation. Most oral interpretation contestants are expected to memorize their introduction. They are encouraged to know them so well that they have a flawless delivery, one that is natural and seems spontaneous.

The convention of using a script for the performance of an oral interpretation depends on the contest rules. In many states, the script must be used. Other states do not prohibit the use of scripts but informal norms suggest that most contestants that want to do well will perform without the script. Traditionally, the script was used to place the emphasis on the literature, rather than the reader (Yordon, 128). The script should never detract from the relationship between the reader and the audience. It should “never be used only to compensate for lack of preparation” (Yordon, 128). The proper use of the script is a controversial aspect of oral interpretation performance. It is important for coaches and contestants to read and follow the rules carefully on this issue.

Students who regularly participate in oral interpretation contests can attest to the varying conditions or the environments in which they perform. Room sizes vary. These conditions vary the way an interpreter sounds to an audience. Thus, students need to be ever mindful of adjusting their volume to match the size of the room. But, over-projecting the voice also can make the performance very uncomfortable for the audience. Size affects performance, as well. Cavernous spaces lack warmth, intimacy. Cramped spaces can be stuffy, with the reader, audience, and judge almost on top of one another. A violation of personal space can make audience members uncomfortable (Lewis, 34). Whatever the environment, it is important for the contestant to adjust.

The rules governing oral interpretation events vary from tournament to tournament, and even between states and national organizations. For this reason, students and coaches must be familiar with the conventions of performing oral interpretations within specific contexts for practical, as well as aesthetic reasons.

The identification of behavioral outcomes and assessment items
For each of the cognitive outcomes identified in this essay, behavioral outcomes can be identified to provide the basis for assessment items to measure if students are meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet the expectations of their critics. While the behavioral outcomes and assessment items are not exhaustive, they do provide a basis for establishing a more consistent measurement of student performance levels in competitive environments. The tables accompanyng this article describe these guidelines in detail.

Two direct benefits result from identifying outcomes and developing assessment items for students in oral interpretation events: (1) Clearer standards for judges; and (2) improved performances by students. First, the behavioral outcomes and assessment items, derived from the cognitive outcomes, provide a means for the critic to determine if students are demonstrating the skills of interpretation that forensic educators have identified in the literature as important. With identifiable outcomes to measure, critics are better able to make comments that are pertinent to objective criteria. These clearer standards should result in more consistent judging at speech tournaments. Similarly, with clearer standards and more specific items for assessment, students of interpretation should be able to focus on specific areas needing improvement. The result should be better student performances.

The indirect benefits are numerous. However, the most significant may come when this attention to assessment is used as reinforcement by teachers and speech coaches who must justify their forensic programs to administrators seeking to reduce spending or reclaim what they consider to be lost “school time” for students involved. By using cognitive and behavioral outcomes, along with measurable assessment items, the link between classroom and speech contest can be supported. By reinforcing the co-curricular, rather than extra-curricular dimension of forensics, there may be more support to retain funding and there may be less opposition to traditional school time lost when students are participating in speech contests.

Whether in the traditional classroom or at the off-site tournament classroom, all participants—students, teachers, coaches, and judges—can benefit from knowing and applying the skills involved with the five cognitive outcomes identified in this essay. By understanding and applying the elements of the genre; understanding and conveying the relationship between the author’s assumed intent and the interpretation the reader conveys; understanding and demonstrating the enhancement of oral interpretation through verbal and physical expression; and understanding and performing an oral interpretation following the conventions of a specific context, judges and coaches can be more helpful and specific in their instruction and students can identify and focus on those aspects of their performance that require the most attention.
The assessment of individual speech events is an important component in the laboratory of forensic tournaments. The next step for forensic educators interested in assessment should be the application of these outcomes and assessment items to determine which areas are being mastered or missed by student competitors in oral interpretation contests.

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* Robert S. Littlefield is a professor of communication at North Dakota State University, Fargo. Collette Canevello, Roberta Egersdorf, Benita Saur, Gwen Stark, and Elizabeth Wynia have received their master’s degrees from, or are currently graduate students in, the communication department at NDSU.

Cognitive Outcomes/Assessment Items

Cognitive Outcome:
Students will understand the necessity for the elements of the genre to be present in their oral interpretation.
Behavioral outcomes
1. Students will present selections that have identifiable themes.
2. Students will present selections that have identifiable characters or persona.
3. Students will present selections that develop in a way that is appropriate to the genre.
4. Students will present texts that have a beginning, middle, and end.

Assessment items
1. The students’ selections have identifiable themes.
2. The students’ selections have identifiable characters or persona.
3. The students’ selections have structure appropriate for the genre.
4. The students’ texts have a beginning, middle, and end.
5. The students’ selections contain tension, conflict, or action.

Cognitive Outcome:
Students will understand the relationship between the author’s assumed intent and the interpretation the reader conveys.

Behavioral Outcomes
1. Students will provide introductions that put the selection into context.
2. Students will provide interpretations of the characters or persona that are credible.
3. Students will demonstrate an awareness of the balance between the author’s intent and the sensibilities of the listeners.

Assessment Items
1. The students’ introductions reflect an understanding of their text materials.
2. The students’ interpretations link their introductions and/or transitions with their texts.
3. The students’ interpretations reflect authentic characterizations and/or persona.
4. The students’ inclusion of potentially offensive language is integral to their interpretations.

Cognitive Outcome:
Students will understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through vocal expression.

Behavioral outcomes
1. Students will demonstrate the use of appropriate vocal expressions when demonstrating rate and pauses.
2. Students will demonstrate the use of appropriate vocal expressions when demonstrating pitch and volume.
3. Students will demonstrate the use of appropriate vocal expressions when demonstrating emphasis, variety, and inflection.
4. Students will demonstrate the use of appropriate vocal expressions when demonstrating clarity of articulation and pronunciation.
5. Students will demonstrate credible vocal characterizations.

Assessment items
1. The students vary their rates and use pauses.
2. The students vary their pitches and volumes.
3. The students use emphasis, vocal variety, and inflections.
4. The students’ words are clearly articulated and appropriately pronounced.
5. The students use voices for the characters or persona that seem believable.
6. The students speak loudly enough to be heard by the entire audience.
7. The students create vocal distinctions between the narrator and the characters.

Cognitive Outcome:
Students will understand the concept of enhancing an oral interpretation through physical expression.

Behavioral outcomes
1. Students will demonstrate the use of eye contact in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
2. Students will demonstrate the use of facial expressions in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
3. Students will demonstrate the use of gestures in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
4. Students will demonstrate the use of posture in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
5. Students will demonstrate the use of attitude in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
6. Students will demonstrate physical energy in keeping with the characters’ or persona’s behaviors.
7. Students will demonstrate a poised physical presence while performing an oral interpretation.

Assessment items
1. The students use their eyes as a way of enhancing their delivery.
2. The students focus their eyes away from their scripts more frequently than at their scripts.
3. The students use facial expressions that enhance their delivery.
4. The students use gestures that are natural.
5. The students use posture to enhance their physical delivery.
6. The students use their bodies to reflect the attitudes or their characters/ persona.
7. The students demonstrate energy through their physical expressions.
8. The students are poised when speaking.
9. The students use focal points/body positions to distinguish between characters and/or persona.


Cognitive Outcome:
Students will understand the convention of performing an oral interpretation within a specific context.

Behavioral outcomes
1. Students will have prepared an introduction for their oral interpretation selection.
2. Students will be free from text in the delivery of their introduction.
3. Students will interpret a selection that is appropriate to the genre.
4. Students will prepare a selection that follows the time limitations of the category.
5. Students will adapt their vocal and physical delivery appropriately to the physical environment.
6. Students will use the oral interpretation script in an unobtrusive manner.
7. Students will select particular texts that are appropriate to the educational context.

Assessment items
1. The students have introductions as part of their presentations.
2. The students are free from their scripts in the delivery of their introductions/ transitions.
3. The students interpret selections that are appropriate to the assigned genre or category.
4. The students prepare selections that adhere to the time limitations of the event.
5. The students adapt their overall style of delivery to the setting where they speak.
6. The students use their script materials unobtrusively.
7. The students’selections are appropriate to the age and experience level of the listener.
8. The students’selections are appropriate to their ages and experience levels.