Language is powerful and can move our students forward with choice words. Words shape our identity and the identity of our students. As teachers and leaders we speak constantly. The words we choose help our students understand themselves and their abilities.

Scenario 1: You are conferencing with a student about a narrative writing piece. This student has used dialogue in few places. However, the piece is flat and not engaging.

  1. Instead of saying: “Your next step would be to revise some of the dialogue to make it sound realistic.”
  2. You might try: “I wonder if, as a writer, you are ready for more advanced dialogue techniques.”

While the first option is a perfectly fine way to suggest further revision, the second option (*Johnson, p. 25) sets up a growth opportunity and invites the student to 1) see herself as a writer (author) rather than just a student being compelled to complete an assignment. 2) you have suggested a goal in this conference. This can lead to an outcome for the student.

Words can create an environment that allows our students to feel safe and take risks. Teaching and learning is a messy process. We need to invite our students into the complex process.

Scenario 2: You have just modeled a lesson and presented an assignment connected to the strategy lesson.

  1. Instead of saying: “Do you have any questions?”
  2. You might try this:  “What questions do you have?”

We hear the first option in many contexts. It is an acceptable way to solicit questions after presenting information. The difficulty is that it often gets no response. This is because the question is asking for a yes or no answer.

Our students have learned in school that it is safe to remain quiet. By making a small shift in the way you phrase the question, in the second option, you communicate the idea that questions are a natural part of the learning process. Students tend to open up and think through the learning process.

As educators we look to improve our teaching in many ways, we tend to give a lot of attention to the macro-level stuff: curriculum development, teaching strategies, classroom design, and relationship building. To truly master our craft – a craft that requires us to talk. We need to think about the words we use. Over the next few days or weeks, pay careful attention to the words you use (maybe even video tape yourself and listen back to your talk). Your students listen to what you say. You touch their lives and shape and empower their identities.

*Johnston, P. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Article written by Dr. Steven Witt. Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our graduate education programs!

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