The power of words

Student attitudes to learning are shaped by the language we – and they – use in the classroom.

For instance, if we talk about the ‘work’ that they have to do, then that’s exactly how they’ll view the activities we ask them to undertake as part of their learning.  Abolish ‘work’ and replace it with ‘learning’.

When we say things like “If you’re good, I’ll let you …. (eg have some free time)”,  we’re using language that focuses on the fact that students need our permission and approval – that they are reliant on us.  We can encourage student ownership and responsibility by changing the language to something like this: “Would you like to have some free time? Well, what if you … (eg, finish off that activity)?”  This puts the onus back onto the student and gives him or her the ‘power’ to choose.

We also move responsibility to the students if we stop saying ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought’.  Instead of “I think you should ….” we can say Have you thought about …..?  And instead of  “You really ought to ….”  we can say  “My advice is to …..”

Avoiding the use of ‘but’ when we’re giving feedback – and encouraging students to avoid its use when they’re giving peer feedback – is a way of emphasising the next step without taking away from what has already been achieved.  So, instead of saying

“Well done!  You’ve written a long and detailed answer … but it’s not very neat.”

perhaps we could say

“Well done!  You’ve written a long and detailed answer, and now what can you do to make it neater?”

Encouraging students to use language that acknowledges their own responsibility for learning – and their behaviour – is a key way to promote learning.

  • Don’t let students get away with saying  “I’ll try …..”  This really amounts to providing an excuse in advance.  Follow up such comments by asking them, for example, what strategies they might use to help them be successful.
  • Ask students to use ‘won’t’ instead of ‘can’t’.  For example, “I can’t do this” becomes “I won’t do this” .  If students are encouraged to say ‘won’t’, they are being asked to acknowledge that they’re making a choice, and that success is likely to be the result of trying harder and perhaps asking for assistance from their teacher or peers.
  • Ask students to start sentences with ‘I’.  Instead of saying “This is boring”, ask them to say “I am bored with this”.  Or instead of  “This is a waste of time”, they might say “I don’t think this is worthwhile”.  When they make the ‘I’ statement they can be asked to explain their reasons, and learning can occur in the dialogue that results.

If you’re interested in the power of language in your classroom you might like to read Choice WordsHow our language affects children’s learning by Peter H. Johnston.  Thomson explores how the language we use in the classroom helps shape students as literacy learners, in particular. His other book, also highly recommended, is Opening Minds – Using language to change lives.

“Introducing a spelling test to a student by saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know,’ is different from saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know already.’ It is only one word, but the already suggests that any words the child knows are ahead of expectation and, most important, that there is nothing permanent about what is known and not known.”
— Peter Johnston

 

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