Deliberate, meaningful words can lead to deliberate, meaningful actions.
research tells us:
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to observe thousands of K-12 classroom lessons. It's a great privilege to see the dedicated work that we as teachers do in schools every day. From public, private, and charter schools serving rural, suburban, and urban youth, I've been able to witness many of our nation's talented educators strive to change the lives of their students through powerful, relevant teaching.
During these observations and in my own teaching, I try to pay close attention to teacher communication and how words are used to set and reinforce student expectations. Dr. Linda Nilson, an accomplished author and educational scholar, notes research that suggests that meaningful teacher communication can help motivate students to learn. In addition, Andrea Guillaume, esteemed pedagogy author, shares research indicating when teachers emphasize proactive language towards discipline, student engagement rates can rise. In short, our deliberate teacher language should be meaningful, motivating, and pro-active.
But, do the words we use meet this standard? We need to assess our instructional language by asking some difficult questions. Do we have a handful of go-to phrases that we use in class? And if so, how effective are they? Do students simply react to our words rather than think them through? Or in contrast, do our words cause them to truly pause, reflect, and adjust their behaviors? The answer is simple: if we often use the same phrases to correct the same student misbehavior every day, then the lack of behavior change would indicate that our words are not effective.
Let's take a look at some commonly overused teacher language:
"Is that respectful?" Or "Is that appropriate in school?" Students, usually the same ones, have heard these same questions countless times each and every school year. During my observations, when a student hears these common teacher comments, they rarely "hear" the teacher's actual words. Instead, the only message communicated is "stop." Usually, their behavior shortly thereafter would indicate that little learning has occurred, as these students often continue with their original behavior later in class.
"Shhh!" When was the last time that we've been "shhh'ed" and have appreciated it? And when's the last time that we've been "shhh'ed" and it's led to long-term behavior change? These questions may almost seem rhetorical in nature, as most of us would never "shhh" an adult. Yet why do many teachers do this to students each day? As mentioned above, be sure to monitor how effective "shhh'ing" is, as it's been my common observation that students merely stop momentarily, soon returning to their original behaviors.
"You just need to learn to work together." I agree, we do need students to learn to work collaboratively. Though are we subconsciously just hoping that if we continue to group students together, they will magically figure out how to be a helpful team member, respectfully voice their opinion, and complete an equitable amount of the group work? We know from personal experience that often those with the strongest personalities control the direction of the group and a member or two does the majority of the work. Yet, when's the last time we've taken serious time in class to proactively teach, model, and role play effective teamwork strategies?
"You'll need to know this when you get older." When students ask why they need to learn certain material and we give this response, we're basically telling them to just memorize the content even though it's not relevant to their current lives. Research tells us that "many students will still fail to engage with the content for a very simple reason: they don't care" (Allen, 2010). Some teachers may believe that students just need to realize that some information will not be relevant to their lives, they just need to learn it. However, effective teachers often look past the rhetoric and strive to make student connections, however creative, to all of their lessons.
Strive to include more affirmative language. This language reinforces what our students "can do" rather than what they "can't do." Click here for examples.
Be intentional with expectations by including more concrete wording rather than abstract terms. Concrete language examples include: "Show me eye contact," which is much more meaningful than "show me respect."
Always try to include transparency in our language by sharing with students the reason why. Transparent language examples include: "I'm asking you to do this because...; I appreciate your hard work because...; We need to work together because..."
Refrain from "shhh'ing" our students. Our words are always more meaningful than simply making noises. And our words lead to longer lasting behavior change.
All of our lessons need to be relevant to students. We should make lessons applicable to students' current lives or when this is difficult, put them in professional roles. Examples include designing activities where they work as a writer, book editor, producer, zoologist, business owner, etc.