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3 Essentials To Spark Powerful Teacher Language

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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simple truth:

The words teachers speak can form our students' inner voice.

research tells us:

Our words matter. As educators, our language helps create the unique culture within our classrooms. Our words can inspire greatness. And conversely, our words can deflate a student’s spirit.

We all want our instructional language to be effective. However, it has been my observation that some teachers are more successful in delivering effective messages to students. Wouldn’t you agree? Research recommends direct, clear and concise language, which can positively impact student success.

Though we must ask ourselves, are we deliberate in consistently choosing language that is clear and concise? And better yet, what does this teacher language sound like? After hundreds of classroom observations throughout the years, I’ve identified 3 key components that effective educators often use when speaking with students. I’m calling this language combination "ACT," which stands for Affirmative, Concrete, and Transparent.

Let’s discuss specifics. Affirmative language tells students what they are doing, rather than what they’re not doing.  This is subtle, yet important. Would we want our boss constantly telling us what we shouldn’t do all day? Yet, that’s how our students feel when we overlook using affirmative language. Instead, let's strive to share what students can do in our classroom. For example, when we tell students not to run, we neglect telling them what they should be doing. And what if they then choose to skip or jump? By simply telling them to walk in the classroom, this affirmative language is clear to the learner.

Next up is Concrete language. Our words are Concrete when we provide specific details that can be observed. At times, we use abstract and subjective words such as "be respectful" or "act appropriate in school." While we know exactly what we mean, abstract language can be easily misunderstood by students. For example, what’s “respectful” and “appropriate” often varies from teacher to teacher. Once we share the specific and concrete characteristics, all students have a clearer understanding of our intent. If we want a student to sit still by telling them to sit “appropriately,” what the teacher deems “appropriate” is not clear. Instead, simply tell the student to sit still, which is specific and observable.

Finally, Transparent language provides students the reason why we're sharing this feedback. Explaining our rationale encourages students to think about our words, rather than just react to them. There’s a big difference. Also, understanding a teacher's rationale can help students become more responsible and proactive in meeting our expectations in the future. It’s been my experience that while Transparent language is so important to include for student understanding, it is the most challenging for teachers to remember to express.

Here are some practical examples:

Example 1

Instead of This: “Dylan, you need to stop looking around at your neighbors.”

Try This: “Dylan, please show me eye contact so I know that you’re ready to move to the next station.” 

Here’s the Difference: This is Affirmative language as we’re telling Dylan what to do (show eye contact). It’s Concrete language because we’ve shared the specific details (eye contact). And it’s Transparent language because we’re telling Dylan why we want eye contact (so that we know that he’s ready to move to the next station).

Example #2

Instead of This: “Great job Dylan, you’re such a great writer!”

Try This: "Dylan, I noticed that you included three supporting details after your topic sentence.  Awesome job, this helps the reader understand your thinking!"  

Here’s the Difference: In the ineffective example, what’s “great?” And why is this student such a great writer?  This compliment, while it has good intentions, lacks depth and meaningfulness. In contrast, the recommended teacher statement is Affirmative (you included), Concrete (three supporting details after your topic sentence), and Transparent (this helps the reader understanding your thinking).

Example #3

Instead of This: “Dylan, is that being respectful to your classmates?”

Try This: “Dylan, I need you to be quiet so that your partners can focus on their reading.”

Here’s the Difference: The ineffective example is vague, lacks specifics, and has no transparency. Honestly, all the student hears is “stop.”  Instead, the recommended alternative is Affirmative and Concrete, by telling the student what to be (quiet).  It’s also Transparent by providing why it's important that the student is meeting this expectation (so that the student’s partners can focus).



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As a professor of education, Tony Kline, Ph.D. is always learning. Having taught in rural villages in Africa to urban neighborhoods in the midwest, he has been surrounded by individuals who've dedicated their lives to impacting students. Now as a professor of education who has taught on four continents, he's had the great pleasure to work with colleagues to help prepare over 1,000 current teachers who are passionately serving in today's classrooms. Tony Kline, Ph.D. is an assistant professor for the Franks School of Education at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. He has been honored by Phi Delta Kappa International as an Emerging Leader Under 40 and was the recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award by Ball State University and Trine University. These thoughts and views are personal and do not represent any outside organization.

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Guest Sunday, 20 May 2018