Small Language Shifts, Big Classroom Difference

When Kari Yates and I were collaborating to write To Know and Nurture a Reader (Stenhouse, 2018), we engaged in many long conversations around the idea of rethinking how our teacher language impacts students in different ways. We often referenced the work of Peter Johnston during these discussions, always reminding ourselves that our words in the classroom must have intention and center students, not ourselves. In his book, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2011), Johnston tells us

“The purpose of feedback is to improve conceptual understanding or increase strategic options while developing stamina, resilience, and motivation—expanding the vision of what is possible and how to get there.” (pg 48).

If we really think about it, everything we say to students can be considered feedback of sorts. Our language choices are a source of ongoing feedback for every single one of our students each day they are in our classrooms. These choices have the power to affect student motivation, understanding, and more.

If this idea is new to you, a few simple language swaps are all that’s needed to get you started in applying this thinking. Once you more consistently start considering the language you use in the classroom, incredible things start to happen. More often than not, small language shifts can make a huge difference. Consider these three language swaps below.

Swap #1Next Steps Rather than telling students what they are not doing, offer a next step to help them grow.

Instead of “You’re not indenting your paragraphs. You need to do that.” Try “You’re ready for a next step as a writer. Would you like to hear it?” “Each time you start a new paragraph, either indent it or skip a line to give your reader thinking space.”

Swap #2Redirection If a student’s chatting with a friend is keeping them from their reading or other classroom learning, and the chatting is not productive, consider using empowering rather than condemning language.

Instead of “Stop talking to your friend. Get back to reading.” Try “You deserve to lose yourself in this story. What is something you might try to support yourself to really get into this book you picked?”

Swap #3Decentering Ourselves Our classroom language can also send messages about pleasing the teacher or supporting one’s self to work toward solving problems. After all, a student’s education is about them, not about us.

Instead of “I like how you used a different strategy to solve that problem.” Try “You used a different strategy to solve this math problem. Perhaps you can try this strategy each time you come to a problem like this.”

Our language choices matter. They can determine the difference between a student centered or adult centered classroom. They also impact motivation, learning, and the overall school experience of our students. I’d love to hear some of your language swaps that have improved your students’ school experience!

Kari Yates and I have talked and written a lot about language! If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out our book To Know and Nurture a Reader at Stenhouse or visit our blog series from 2018 around Power Language.