+ Teacher Language Makes a Difference

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From “The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children learn,” by Paula Denton, EdD, here are some “General Guidelines for Teacher Language:”

1. Be direct and authentic — say what you mean, using direct language; “Everyone go back to your seats now”offers no chance for confusion.  Choose an appropriate tone of voice, warm and matter of fact.   Watch out for sarcasm.  Mean what you say, and follow through on your words, since they carry the most weight when students see you backing those words up.  Avoid over-generalizations (“This will be easy/fun…”).  Be aware of your body language: you’re sending signals without necessarily knowing it — do a quick body check before saying “We’re having a good day.”

2. Show faith in children’s abilities and intentions — take time to notice the positives; when children believe you have confidence in them, they’re more likely to believe in themselves and work hard.  Avoid baby talk, since even though such talk may imply affection it assumes that the listener has limited capabilities.  Be aware of language patterns that treat boys and girls differently, so listen to yourself; teachers as a group provide longer wait time for boys, give them more eye contact, and call on them more often than girls. (One way to avoid this is to ask a colleague to observe your teaching for an hour or two.) 

3. Keep it action oriented — connect abstract terms with concrete behaviors — instead of talking about being “disrespectful,” remind the kids about “kind words and a friendly face.”  Describe behavior, not character or attitude:  “I’ve noticed that instead of finishing your work, you wander around the room” can lead to a conversation about why and what to do about it.  Keep the wording non-judgmental (“Why do you always…” or “Why don’t you ever…” are not genuine questions, they are accusations).

4. Keep it brief — lengthy explanations allow time for tuning out.  Children actually understand more when we speak less.  Leave out warnings; they 1) tell children that we think they’re unlikely to behave well; 2) emphasize your power to get them into trouble; and 3) it makes the desired behavior feel like punishment instead of a positive way to learn and grow.  Threats undermine self-confidence and trust.

5. Know when to be silent — provide wait time: when teachers wait five seconds for a response, more students respond.  It tells children you respect them.  Wait time allows for higher level thinking, because when kids have to rush an answer, they skip the thinking and go straight to talking.  Model this patient behavior for your students.  Resist the temptation to use voice overs, for example repeating a student’s response (“365!  That’s right!”)  Students learn to expect you to repeat whatever is important.  And refraining from voice-overs permits the student’s voice to stand out.

The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn,”  by Paula Denton, EdD, Northeast Foundation for Children, 2007, is my source.  ISBN 978-1-892989-18-5.

Chapters include

  • General Guidelines for Teacher Language, (from which this information was gleaned)
  • Envisioning: Language as a Spyglass
  • Open Ended Questions: Stretching Children’s Academic and Social Learning
  • Listening: Understanding the Message in the Words
  • Reinforcing Language: Seeing Children and Naming Their Strengths
  • Reminding language: Helping Students Remember Expectations
  • Redirecting language: Giving Clear Commands When Children Have Gone Off Track
  • Putting It All Together; Examples of Effective Teacher language
  • The Process of Developing More Effective Teacher Language 

Denton is also the author of “Learning Through Academic Choice” and a co-author of “The First Six Weeks of School.”  She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher and is currently manager of program development at Northeast Foundation for Children.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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