History of Speech Communication Essay

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The field of Speech emerged out of changing teaching practices in US higher education in the early twentieth century. Before 1900, speech instruction had traditionally been integrated into the general, liberal education of the private colleges. The relationship between speech teachers and English departments was generally unstable. At the 1914 meeting of the public speaking section of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) speech teachers decided to create a new association, the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (NAATPS), along with a journal, the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking. The first years of the NAATPS saw the widespread change in universities from departments of ‘Oratory’ and ‘Elocution’ to departments of ‘Speech.’

The new field was more than public speaking. The most common pattern for Speech departments and courses included public speaking, debate, persuasion, physiology of the voice, diction and vocal expression, theater, and interpretation (of literature), the new name for what had been called ‘reading.’ The early field did not view these as separate areas simply thrown into a department (as had been the case with speech in English departments) but as a unified course of study, beginning with the voice mechanism and proceeding to the various uses of human speech. The curriculum also included some novel areas. Rhetoric became a standard part of the curriculum  due to the many PhDs produced by the program at Cornell University; sometimes the focus was classical, sometimes on the emerging idea of ‘rhetorical criticism,’ but most often it involved a study of British and American public address of the last two hundred years. Speech pathology became a staple of the field. Consistent with the unified vision of the field, improvement of speech by addressing lisping or stuttering was of a piece with improving speech by ‘normalizing’ students’ accents, and improving his or her interpersonal skills. This last function was often glossed as ‘speech hygiene.’ Teachers by the late 1920s assumed that there was a normal, ‘healthy’ function of individuals in social groups. Rather than conformity, they posited a kind of civic humanism inspired by John Dewey, where the democratic functioning of groups (large or small) required individuals who possessed the skills of both contributing their individual points of view and helping the group to function overall.

The NAATPS changed its name in 1920 to the National Association of Teachers of Speech (NATS), which conserved the pedagogic focus that defined the early field while accommodating the move to teaching the full range of courses involving speech. In 1947, they changed the name to the Speech Association of America, recognizing the growing research component of the field, demonstrated in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Speech Monographs (now Communication Monographs), established in 1934. The Speech Teacher (now Communication Education) began in 1952 as a forum for teaching methods, and later published mainly social scientific work on communication pedagogy.

 In the post-World-War II era, the Speech discipline began, slowly but steadily, to lose the integrated structure that had characterized its early years, in several ways. In departments with components of mass media, radio, television, or film, the level of student interest and increasing scholarly and professional profile for media scholars and practitioners, led in many cases to the formation of a separate department in cases where there wasn’t already one.

On the social science side of the field, the quickly growing body of research on persuasion and influence in psychology and sociology stimulated parallel lines of research for Speech Communication scholars. Expanding on the Yale studies of persuasion, communication research, both in Speech and media departments, began to take a variable-centered approach to studying interpersonal and public influence. As more and diverse topics were included in the curriculum, the term ‘speech’ began to seem restrictive, and the more general term ‘communication’ seemed more appropriate. In 1968, a conference sponsored by the US Office of Education and the Speech Association of America resulted in a paper, Conceptual Frontiers in Speech-Communication, which recommended changing the name of the field, resulting in the Speech Communication Association (SCA).

Speech Communication as a field of undergraduate instruction underwent explosive growth in the 1970s (Craig & Carlone 1998). Students wanted to study in the many ‘new’ areas of communication: interpersonal, organizational, group, and others. In fact, the diversity began, gradually, to outgrow the bounds of the term ‘speech’ as cultural studies and media studies became integrated into the field’s teaching and research. So, despite being shared by other departments, including media and speech pathology, ‘communication’ seemed increasingly a better fit. Another name change, based on the results of a vote by the membership, created the current National Communication Association in 1997.


  1. Bitzer, L. & Black, E. (eds.) (1971). The prospect of rhetoric: Report of the National Developmental Project, sponsored by the Speech Communication Association. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  2. Cohen, H. (1994). The history of speech communication: The emergence of a discipline, 1914–1945. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.
  3. Corbett, E. P. J. (1985). The Cornell School of Rhetoric. Rhetoric Review, 4, 4–14.
  4. Keith, W. M. (2007). Democracy as discussion: Civic education and the American forum movement. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
  5. Oliver, R. T. & M. G. Bauer. (1959). Re-establishing the speech profession: The first fifty years. University Park, PA: Speech Association of the Eastern States.
  6. Wallace, K. (ed.) (1953). The history of speech education in America: Background studies. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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