High School Speech Contests

Speech FAQs

FAQs with asterisks (*) pertain to the 2020-21 online/virtual season.

  • High schools (grades 9-12) may participate upon joining the WHSFA.
  • From Jan. 21-Feb. 9, all coaches must register online, with an accurate roster of adjudicators and student names, certifying interscholastic eligibility (usually handled by an athletic/activities director or an administrator), and assigning students to specific category entries. During that window of dates, coaches may log back in and make changes to registration, up until they submit videos of student presentations (due Feb. 17). See SpeechWire registration instructions in the Speech Handbook (linked below). As part of the online registration process, coaches book a State Festival time slot (Friday evening or Saturday morning); these are available on a first come, first served basis.
  • The subdistrict festival will be asynchronously adjudicated (unless a coach opts-in for live adjudication of students in Extemporaneous, Impromptu, or Radio), and over the course of three rounds each entry must earn at least two scores of 16 or better to move on to the district level. This is done automatically through SpeechWire.
  • After subdistrict coaches have a brief window to drop students who have advanced, but will not continue to participate, as well as to confirm or modify the adjudicators they plan to have evaluate the district festival.
  • At the district festival, over the course of three rounds each entry must earn at least two scores of 21 or better to move on to the State level. This is done automatically through SpeechWire.
  • Coaches have a brief window to drop students who have advanced, but will not continue to participate at State, as well as to confirm or modify the adjudicators they plan to have evaluate at State.
  • Each entry presents one round at the State festival. Entries earning 25 points earn a gold medal; entries earning 23-24 points earn a silver medal; entries earning 20-22 points earn a bronze medal; entries earning 5-19 points in a small bronze medal.

The subdistrict and district festivals will be conducted asynchronously, which means coaches will submit pre-recorded videos, which will be adjudicated during a window of dates. The State Festival will have entry options for both live/synchronous presentation, as well as pre-recorded/asynchronous videos, so whatever a school's or student's circumstances with bandwidth and/or scheduling, that will not be a barrier to participation.

No, unfortunately. Every student who participated last year had an opportunity present their speech/material at subdistrict, and we offered the opportunity for any student to have a culminating experience with the Open Virtual Speech Festival in April/May (which they could have done independently of their school if their coach did not organize it). It's unfair to last year's graduating seniors, and unfair to ninth graders, so to ensure an equitable opportunity, encouraging students to address more current issues, pertinent to this school year, keeps with our educational objectives.

WHSFA continues its partnership with SpeechWire, which has been modified for adjudicators to complete online evaluation, linking to videos submitted by coaches for each entry for asynchronous evaluation, as well as to a videoconference "room" for each live/synchronous round (see previous FAQ for details regarding asynchronous vs. synchronous options). For synchronous videoconferences, WHSFA is partnering with the National Speech & Debate Association's platform, NSDA Campus, which works seemlessly with SpeechWire. Both platforms are being thoroughly utilized and improved upon throughout the fall semester, when other states have Speech seasons.

As part of annual update of their student rosters in SpeechWire, coaches will be asked to provide an email address for each participating student. This could be a school-provided email address for students, or a special personal email address created by the student for purposes of participation. SpeechWire will create student accounts linked to those email addresses, which students will use to log in and view asynchronous, pre-recorded video entries of peers assigned to the same "rooms" each round, just as they would see those performances at an in-person festival. For synchronous rounds, the student's SpeechWire account will log them into a videoconference room where they will gather with other contestants and the adjudicator for their round. For safety and security, only contestants and adjudicators will have access to any asynchronous or synchronous rounds; family/friends/other guests will not, unless they watch in the same room with their student when their student is logged on.

One per Subdistrict, District, and State contest (except for Extemporaneous Speech, Impromptu Speech, Radio News Reporting, and Storytelling), and if absolutely necessary, a student may re-submit the same video for different levels, although we hope students take adjudicator feedback to improve their performance for subsequent levels.

Live/synchronous: virtual prep room, protocol for draw. 30 minutes before speaking, prep begins; contestants move to contest room after.

Asynchronous: WHSFA provides questions to coaches at a specified time within 48 hours of video deadline. Coach arranges time with each contestant (in-person, via videoconference, or via message) to share five questions, of which the contestant will select one. A video of that contestant’s presentation should be recorded and finalized with coach within 45 minutes (to allow time for technical considerations).

Live/synchronous: will run just like in-person events, but SpeechWire will moderate draw of prompts for each contestant.

Asynchronous: WHSFA provides prompts to coaches at specified time within 48 hours of video deadline. Coach will arrange a time to record each contestant (either in-person or via videoconference), present contestant with three prompts, and will begin recording and timing once the contestant selects their prompt, reciting it aloud.

In Informative, Moments in History, Oratory, and Public Address, coaches will upload a list of works cited in MLA or APA format to Google Drive, and share a public link as part of registration.

Students will record a story for each of three areas, submitted by the coach, with each story assigned to a different round for adjudication. For State, students will select one of the three to perform.

Individual students do not need to wear masks when recording videos, though their coach and other students should remain masked, and should not be within 6 feet (preferably, even further away) when recording is being done. Coaches always should check their school/school district protocols and confirm with administrators.

Smaller groups of 2-3 encouraged.

Video files uploaded for adjudication may be:

Recording of videoconference, with students in different locations, no post-production editing other than to piece together separate video files, or to correct audio/video sync or bandwidth issues. Synchronized speaking/choral reading does not work well in video conferences.

Captured in-person video capture, single-take, no post-production editing; all students must be socially distanced (except to move/cross past one another) and wear cloth masks/face coverings with a tight enough fitting to trap droplets and aerosols.

No live option for Group Interpretive Reading nor Play Acting will be offered for the State Festival.

Adjudicators will be instructed to allow students to start over, and if the connection still cannot be remedied, an asynchronous "make-up" option will be available.

Coaches will be expected to review all videos before they are submitted and to work through tech issues with students. Adjudicators also will be told to explicitly NOT take sound/video quality into account in their evaluation, however, if they cannot hear nor see the student, it may be difficult for them to evaluate effectively; in those cases, for Subdistrict and District, coaches will be given an opportunity to resubmit a video; that courtesy will not be extended for the State Festival, because those issues should be figured out by that part of the season.

WHSFA will continue to require certified adjudicators; we also will offer a brief video update for adjudicating virtual festivals, with special instructions on how to use electronic evaluation through SpeechWire, as well as equity concerns for students during this time.

The WHSFA has traditionally not required a minimum time for presentations, although adjudicators are encouraged to evaluate development — or lack thereof — of each presentation. This should be evaluated in the criterion regarding development in speech categories, and in the criterion regarding understanding meaning in interpretive categories.

Material is allowable as long as it fits the literary genre prescribed in the rules for the particular category a contestant is participating in, and it meets content expectations of the contestant’s school/school district administration.  Please note that transcribed media, such as YouTube, are categorized by the genre of the source material being performed, and not by the mode of performance itself. This means if a YouTube performer is presenting a prose narrative, the material is categorized as prose, and NOT as drama. For more details on rules, please see the Speech Handbook on the Categories & Topics page. For contestants in Farrago and Solo Acting (Humorous or Serious), students also are required to perform quality material (see definition below), although this standard could be applied to any interpretive category. A side note: for schools participating in national qualifying contests, such as those offered by the NSDA and NCFL, there are more stringent rules pertaining to how the material is published, and coaches should consult those rules, accordingly. Finally, we annotated the descriptions on the Categories & Topics page to include allowed genre(s) for each category.

Quality material is defined as that which “gives insight into human values, motivations, relationships, problems and understandings and is not characterized by sentimentality, violence for its own sake, unmotivated endings or stereotyped characterizations.” It is recommended that such material be sought for all interpretive categories, even if there is no specific evaluation item related to selection of material.

First, review the definition above for quality material. This is a great standard to apply to literary material in all interpretive categories. Start by asking students books they’ve read (on their own and/or in classes) or movies/television shows they’ve viewed that resonated with them. Ask what current issues in society are important to them. Knowing students’ interests helps you find material they can be passionate about, which will come through in their performance. The school library is a great place to start. In fact, some librarians have a limited budget for acquiring new materials, so they may have a catalogue of plays and other materials. The public library is another place to look, and asking English and theatre teachers for ideas can be helpful. Be wary of vendors who publish literature for “contest” or “classroom” performance, since these often lack the depth of what can be found in other works of literature the student would need to cut to contest length. The process of cutting can be a tremendous learning experience for students, as they determine what themes and character qualities they wish to cultivate in their performances.

No. A transcription not provided by the originator of the material is a violation of copyright law.

In Solo Acting Humorous/Serious, "material shall be a cutting from serious or humorous drama or other literature adapted to the dramatic format with brief narrative transitions…” Stand-up comedy is often not published in print form, and students should not transcribe directly from a performance.

In Farrago and Solo Acting Humorous/Serious, quality material is required, which “gives insight into human values, motivations, relationships, problems and understandings and is not characterized by sentimentality, violence for its own sake, unmotivated endings or stereotyped characterizations.” It is recommended that such material be sought for all performance of literature categories, even if there is no specific evaluation item related to selection of material.

Drama is literature with line attributions to particular characters and with stage directions, such as a play. Dramatic literature is not allowed in Group Interpretive Reading, and is required in Play Acting.

No. Adapting other genres of literature (such as novels or poetry) abuses copyright/intellectual property rights of the material’s original author. We have been asked if an adaptation of another’s work fits the definition of “original,” and the answer is no. Those concepts and ideas are still the intellectual property of the original author. Fortunately, we have a Group Interpretive Reading category, where works of literature that are not drama are perfectly suitable for performance.

Song lyrics are poetry, unless the song comes from a stage or film musical (e.g., Hamilton, or The Greatest Showman) -- then they're considered drama (dramatic literature). The exception would be a song that existed prior to its incorporation in a musical (e.g., "Dancing Queen" in Mamma Mia! or "Rhythm of the Night" in Moulin Rouge).

Plays written in dramatic verse (such as Shakespeare's or Sophocles') are dramatic literature, and as such, must be performed in categories where drama/plays are allowed. They are not considered poems, per se, even though they are written in meter/verse. Therefore, they should not be performed in high school Group Interpretive Reading, but may be used in Middle Level Readers Theatre, since that category allows for dramatic literature.

The rules are silent with regard to touching the floor or lying on the floor. It is a choice performers may make. Although students may not be disqualified for touching the floor, judges can take movement into consideration in the overall evaluation of a student’s performance.

In interpretive categories, if contestants wear clothing implied for a particular character or described in the script, that is a costume. In group categories, merely dressing alike does not constitute a costume, unless the script calls for it (such as characters who are twins). In speech categories, if a student is wearing the attire called for by a particular occasion or topic, that is a costume. However, in Demonstration Speaking, students should wear attire appropriate to what is being demonstrated.

When initial Speech registration opens on SpeechWire (see the Speech Contests page), coaches will be able to immediately book a State Speech slot for Friday or Saturday, on a first come, first served basis. This is to allow planning and ensure enough classrooms for each contest round at the UW-Madison campus. Schools who plan to have more than 4 entries combined between Group Interpretive Reading and Play Acting must book a Saturday slot (not a requirement for the virtual 2021 season).

Depending on what part of the state a high school is in, it may have a number of types of Speech (forensics) contests for students to participate in:


  • WHSFA Subdistrict, District, and State. This is the official qualification series for Wisconsin's oldest and largest -- by far -- contest. Each year, 5,000+ students (grades 9-12) perform in three rounds at one of 55 subdistrict contests around the state (each subdistrict has about 5-12 schools). Students need at least two scores of 16 or better to qualify from subdistrict to district. At district, students perform in three rounds at one of 12 district contests (some of the twelve are split into two contests for the sake of logistics and geographic accessibility), where they must earn at least two scores of 20 or better to qualify from district to State. At State, students perform in one around at UW-Madison, and the score they earn determines the medal they are awarded. The vast majority of Wisconsin schools who participate in forensic Speech activities participate in just these three contests.
  • Conference. Some (not all) of the athletic conferences around the state run their own conference meet, where the same schools who compete with one another in athletic sports also compete in Speech. Many of these use accumulated points by students to determine a school's overall standing amongst its peers, while others run a full competitive tournament, where students are comparatively ranked against one another, rather than assessed on their own merits.
  • Invitational. This is an independent contest put on by the school hosting it, or in partnership with a school administering the contest at a nearby school. While the name implies it is by "invitation only," in most cases, any school who wishes to participate is invited to bring students. When a coach notifies the WHSFA State Office, we are happy to post the contest on our calendar, provided it uses WHSFA rules (limited deviations are allowed). The Wisconsin Forensic Coaches' Association (WFCA) is a volunteer-run league with separate dues, which offers an organized circuit of weekly invitational Speech tournaments that follow a set of rules originally adopted from WHSFA (which, over the years, has evolved independently); these tournaments have no bearing on qualification to the WFCA's open-invitational state tournament.
  • NSDA District Qualifier. The National Speech & Debate Association (previously, National Forensic League) was founded in Wisconsin as an honorary society, later adding a national tournament. Top-placing students from 100+ geographic districts across the United States as well as internationally qualify to participate in the world's largest academic competition, held over the course of a week in mid-June. The tournament is considered the Olympics of speech and debate, and its gala awards ceremony is considered the Oscars of our activity.
  • NCFL Diocesan Qualifier. The National Catholic Forensic League offers an additional competition experience of national caliber -- held over a condensed but grueling schedule during the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Local leagues and their qualifying tournaments are loosely arranged by Catholic diocesan boundaries, though the vast majority of membership is comprised of public schools (non-Catholic/other private schools may belong, as well). Each diocesan league sets its own qualification requirements.

As stated above, while there may be various opportunities in a particular area, a school may just participate in subdistrict, district, and State, and still offer students a robust experience. Confused as to how to get started in any of these, or who to contact? Contact the WHSFA State Office, and we'll help you get connected!

This rule applies to in-person seasons, and has been suspended for the virtual 2021 season.

A school may register up to 30 entries overall, for their squad, with up to four (4) entries in any category (including four in each of Farrago, Poetry, and Prose), with the following additional limitations:


  • No more than four (4) entries in Solo Acting Humorous and Serious, combined.
  • No more than six (6) entries in Group Interpretive Reading and Play Acting (and no more than four in each). If a school brings 5 or 6 group entries to the State Festival, it must attend on Saturday.

Visit the Speech Contests, Theatre Contests, or Debate Contests pages for a button/link that will take you to the online registration platform for registering. Each of those pages also will contain tutorial information on how to register. Most Middle Level contests handle registration directly through email, although some have moved to using SpeechWire; contact the host for more information (host contact information is available when clicking a particular contest in the Middle Level upcoming dates calendar.

Visit the Speech Contests, Theatre Contests, Debate Contests, or Middle Level contests pages for a list by date, including locations. Please note: each local area sets its own schedules, so the State Office posts these on our website only when we have been notified.

Can a team or individual entries attend a different festival?
All these steps must be followed, for legal/liability reasons, as well as to ensure students do not fall through the cracks for tracking advancement through the festival series.


  1. The head coach must request permission of the district chair.
  2. Inquire with the different festival manager/host if they have space.
  3. Enter the request for a different festival in SpeechWire.
  4. Whether the coach is requesting for the whole team, or for individual entry(ies), the coach is required to accompany students -- or another school district employee or vetted school district volunteer may go in the coach's place. Contestants will NOT be allowed to perform without a school official present. Parents are not allowed to fulfill this role unless they have gone through a background check and been vetted by the school as a recognized volunteer. The person accompanying students also should serve as an adjudicator, and as such, must be certified. It is considered rude to request to bring entries to a different festival, but not serve as an adjudicator.

Generally speaking, contests ask for one adjudicator for every five entries, or fraction thereof. Some contests require fewer or more. This means that if a school has 7 entries, it should bring two adjudicators. Some contests will allow schools to pay a fee for uncovered adjudicators, not because they have extras they can hire for a school, but to incentivize schools to bring their own adjudicators. It is a burden on any host when schools do not provide all of the adjudicators they are expected to. The State Festival requires one adjudicator for 1-8 entries, two adjudicators for 9-19 entries, and three adjudicators for 20-25 entries.

See the Districts/Sections page for a list of contacts, along with a map showing the geographic regions of the state.

Please review the PDF handbook for your particular activity, which has a number of resources and suggestions. We also compiled a Speech Festival Manager Info page, with instructions on using the SpeechWire contest management website/software.

Homeschool students may either participate with an area public or private school,** or as part of a homeschool association that joins the WHSFA.

**WHSFA supports the local school district policy for interscholastic athletics/academic contests. For example, if a home-schooled student is allowed to join the basketball team, a home-schooled student may participate in Theatre, Speech, and Debate activities.

Here is the official policy from the WHSFA’s Constitution/Bylaws:

SECTION III: Membership

Wisconsin homeschooled/online/virtual school students:

  1. Conditions: Students must be members of a homeschool association or enrolled full time in an online school. They cannot participate individually, unless as part of their attendance-area school district, if the school district allows participation.
  2. Procedures:
    1. Homeschooling associations may apply for membership by registering and paying the yearly dues. Online/virtual schools headquartered in Wisconsin may apply under the same conditions.
    2. As members, their students are eligible to participate in all WHSFA events in the District/Section where the homeschool association is located. Students living in Wisconsin who are enrolled in online/virtual schools that are members of WHSFA may participate in the subdistrict and district festivals in which the online/virtual school is located.

If you're not affiliated with a particular school, or would like to offer your adjudicating services to additional schools and contests, please join our statewide email list. We do not have lists for specific regions of the state, because there's too much overlap between areas with contests schools attend.

Each summer, advisory committees for each activity meet to review the previous contest season and propose changes to the Board of Control. Contact us with concerns and/or suggestions, and we will forward these to the respective committee(s).

Handbook updated Jan. 21, 2021 with instructions for registration and information on virtual videos.

Speech Handbook

Coaches are responsible for collecting and filing the forms below; do not submit to the State Office.

Permission-Release Forms

2021 State Time Slots

For synchronous/live participation

Friday 4/16 Saturday 4/17

Important Dates 2021

Registration OpensJan. 21
Registration DueFeb. 9
Subdist Videos DueFeb. 17
Subdist AdjudicationFeb. 19-24
Sub Ext/Radio/Imp AFeb. 20
Sub Ext/Radio/Imp BFeb. 22
District Videos DueMar. 16
District AdjudicationMar. 18-24
Dist Ext/Radio/Imp AMar. 13
Dist Ext/Radio/Imp BMar. 15
Dist Ext/Radio/Imp CMar. 22
Async State Videos DueApr. 8
Async State Adjudic.Apr. 10-14
State Live RoundsApr. 16-17

Online Winter-Spring Season

WHSFA has consulted the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, as well as DPI, WIAA, WSMA, NFHS, and similar organizations. All 2020-21 contests will be online, with run as mostly asynchronous, statewide options (no schools will host). See specific guidance, FAQs on the Speech Contests and/or Middle Level Contests pages.

Recognize Colleagues

Leadership/new coach awards.

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