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Consider two classrooms: Room 1 and Room 2. The students in both rooms are working in groups on an activity, and in each room, one of the groups has gotten off task.
In Room 1, the teacher approaches the off-task group and says to them, “Get back to work or you’ll be staying in for recess!”
In Room 2, the teacher approaches the off-task group and says, “This is not like you. What’s the problem?” and then, after students explain the problem, follows up with, “Okay, how do we solve that?”
In both cases, the teacher addresses the off-task behavior, but the language each one uses is completely different. The first teacher is threatening a consequence, sending the message that the activity’s only real value is avoiding punishment. By contrast, the second teacher affirms students’ identities as kids who normally behave pretty well, then follows that by inviting them to solve their own problems.
It’s possible that both teachers will get the same result from this interaction and the students in both rooms will get back on task. But the second teacher is likely to get much more than that, shaping students’ self-perception as good kids and problem-solvers, sending the message that their classroom is a respectful place, and fostering a climate where students actively participate in their learning, rather than simply complying with a teacher’s demands.
And if the teacher in Room 2 is consistently crafting language to send these positive, empowering messages, that impact increases exponentially.
When we look at ways to improve our teaching, we tend to give a lot of attention to the macro-level stuff: curriculum development, teaching strategies, classroom design, relationship building. There are so many big things to pay attention to, it’s no wonder we spend very little time on small details like how we ask students to get back to work. But to truly master this craft—a craft that requires us to talk constantly—we need to cultivate our ability to shape language to achieve a desired effect.
Two books that can help with that process are Peter Johnston’s Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning and Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk so Kids Can Learn, which was actually the very first book I ever reviewed on my site in 2013. Both books take a thoughtful look at many of the things teachers say during typical classroom interactions and show us how to reshape these words for more positive and powerful impact.
Doing a true language overhaul would require a long, sustained effort, so what I’d like to do here is give you a quick start, a mini-makeover of four common classroom scenarios where a small change in language can send a completely different message. After each scenario, I’ll offer a question for reflection to help you transfer each concept to your own day-to-day teaching.
What Well-Chosen Words Can Do
1. Shape Student Identity
The words we choose can suggest things to students about their own skills, talents, interests, and character traits, helping them see themselves in new roles.
Scenario: You’re conferencing with a student about a piece of her writing. She’s used dialogue in a few places, but it’s a bit flat.
Instead of saying: “Your next step would be to revise some of the dialogue to make it sound more realistic.”
Try this: “I wonder if, as a writer, you’re ready for more advanced dialogue techniques.”
While the first option is a perfectly fine way to suggest further revision, the second option (Johnston, p. 25) sets up the same task as an opportunity for growth and invites the student to see herself as a writer, rather than just a student completing an assignment. Notice that the teacher in the second option doesn’t try to convince the student that she is a writer; it is simply assumed in the language used.
For reflection: What messages do your words send to students about their identities? Can you tweak those words to help students see themselves in a more expansive light?
2. Boost Academic Safety
In many classrooms, students feel hesitant to ask questions or take risks for fear of looking stupid. Choosing the right words when we invite student questions and respond to student ideas sends the message that learning is a messy process and that the classroom is a place where we can safely engage in that.
Scenario: You’ve just given directions for an assignment and you’re about to release students to begin doing the work.
Instead of saying: “Do you have any questions?”
Try this: “What questions do you have?
We hear the first option all the time; it’s a perfectly reasonable way to solicit questions after presenting information. The problem is, it often gets nothing as a response. That may be because it implies a yes or no answer—that it’s possible that no one has any questions. Many students have learned through experience that it’s safer not to ask anything. By making a small shift in the way you phrase the question in the second option (which I learned about in a video years and years ago and can no longer find online) you communicate the idea that questions are a natural part of the process, and now is the time to ask them.
Another Scenario: During a class discussion, a student makes a comment that’s slightly off topic or takes things in a direction you weren’t prepared to go.
Instead of saying: “That’s not what we’re focusing on right now; let’s stick to the topic.”
Try this: “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about it some more.”
While the first option makes the student feel a little embarrassed, the second (Johnston, p. 57) shows that the teacher values the student’s contribution. And rather than treating the comment as “off topic,” the second option actually holds it up as interesting, and worth further reflection. The student comes away from the interaction thinking of him or herself as someone with unique ideas.
For reflection: When you invite questions or respond to comments, are you sending a message that all ideas are welcome, or are you communicating to students that only certain contributions are acceptable?
3. Build Student Agency
If our goal is to help students become more self-directed learners, we need to build their sense of agency, the belief that they are capable of making their own decisions.
Scenario: You’ve had students working in groups on a task that took most of a class period. Although some groups followed directions and worked well together, some fooled around and ran out of time, and others got stuck because they disagreed on how to complete the assignment. At the end of class, you have everyone go back to their seats for a debriefing. You’re frustrated by how things went and you want things to go better next time.
Instead of saying: “Some groups did very well today, but I was very disappointed by what I saw in other groups. Tomorrow I need to see a big improvement.”
Try this: “What problems did you come across today?”
And then: “How did you solve them?”
And then: “What will you do differently tomorrow?”
The first option prioritizes the teacher’s feelings over the learning process, and it communicates the belief that working as a group should be easy: Any problems that occurred were simply due to bad behavior. By contrast, the second option (Johnston, p. 32) sends the message that problems are a normal part of learning, especially in groups, and that students are capable of solving those problems. By inviting students to consider ways they can troubleshoot, the teacher not only gives them the time and space to find creative solutions, but also increases their sense of agency over their own challenges.
For reflection: When you talk to students, what message do you send about who is in control of the learning?
4. Invite Self-Discipline and Prevent Escalation
Dealing with off-task or disruptive behavior is a normal part of teaching, but how we respond to it makes all the difference.
Scenario: While your class is doing some silent reading, you hear a commotion from down the hall. Peeking out, you see a group of boys sitting outside a classroom a few doors down. They appear to be working on some kind of project, but they are also pretty loud, and they look like they may be goofing around a little.
Instead of saying: “Boys! Stop making all that noise! If you can’t work quietly I’m going to have to ask your teacher to bring you back inside.”
Try this: “Boys, you can be heard clear down the hall.”
In the first version, students are given a directive, then threatened with a consequence if they don’t comply. The exclamation points also suggest that these lines are delivered with some anger. This type of response is not at all unusual, but it’s not the most effective way to handle a problem like this. “Making all that noise” sounds like they’re just out there having a party with no regard for anyone else’s needs, and the threat suggests that the only reason they would quiet down is to avoid punishment.
In the second version (Faber & Mazlish, p. 68), the teacher simply gives information. This neutral response takes the emotion out of the situation and positions the boys as people who would normally not want to cause problems. Especially if the line is delivered in a calm, neutral tone, its message is, “We’re all trying to learn here and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to make that hard for others.” Handling things this way, rather than with a more confrontational style, has the added benefit of preventing the situation from escalating into an even larger discipline problem, because the students will have no reason to argue back or get defensive.
For reflection: When you redirect students, what else are you communicating? Are you sending a message that students are misbehaving on purpose, that they are bad kids, or that they feel no innate sense of personal responsibility? If so, how can you change your phrasing to convey a higher regard for student intentions?
Suggestions for Long-Term Study
These examples are a good start, but old habits are hard to break. If your goal is deeper, more sustained change in your language choices, you’ll need a long-term plan. Here are a few ideas:
- Form a study group. I’m only scratching the surface of all the ways you can refine your language. Reading Choice Words or How to Talk So Kids Can Learn—or better yet, both—will give you a much more thorough examination of your language and many more options for how to revise it. Find a group of teachers to take it on with you and meet to discuss what you’re learning. If you don’t have time to meet in person, try an app like Voxer to have an ongoing group discussion right on your phone.
- Keep a list. As you start to find new ways to phrase things, write them down to remind yourself and revisit the list regularly.
- Language spotlights: If you’re working on this as a staff, you could dedicate 3 minutes of every faculty meeting to sharing a single language makeover teachers can try in the upcoming weeks. To lighten the load, teachers can take turns being the one who brings a spotlight to share.
- Video: Few tools are more powerful than video for finding ways to improve your teaching. If you really want to find places where your word choice can be improved, record yourself teaching, then watch with a focus on language.
Fine-tuning your classroom talk isn’t something that happens overnight, and once you’ve begun the process, you’ll probably never feel done. But just being aware of the impact is a huge first step, and with every small tweak you make, you’ll get closer to true mastery and more satisfying, powerful teaching.
Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1995). How to talk so kids can learn: At home and in school. New York: Scribner.
Johnston, P. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.