Four Powerful Ways You Can Shift Your Teacher Language to Welcome Students
Starting the Year With Effective Teacher Language
The skillful use of teacher language has the power to help create and maintain a positive, encouraging, and respectful classroom community, especially in those first weeks when there is so much to model, explain, and encourage! When we focus on using positive language, we convey our faith, enthusiasm, and a sense of order. Every use of teacher language in the classroom can be categorized into one of four main types: redirecting, reminding, reinforcing, and envisioning language. Early in the year, reinforcing and envisioning language can be especially powerful tools for encouraging students and introducing them to new learning possibilities:
- Reinforcing language helps students understand that success is about hard work, persistence, and a positive attitude. We can help students focus on their strengths by moving beyond general praise (“Great job”) and instead name concrete and specific actions that illustrate what students are doing well (“I see you’re checking your work before turning it in”). This allows students to know exactly when they are on the right track and what actions and behaviors are contributing to that.
- Envisioning language can be used to set a positive tone for future work and engage children in problem-solving. This type of positive language is ideal for setting goals, solving problems, and launching new units of study; it can also motivate and encourage. In the early days of school, envisioning language is most effective when it connects the matter at hand (a new assignment, a problem at recess, etc.) to something that the students care deeply about in their larger lives and gives students the opportunity to fill in the details. You might use envisioning language to help the class brainstorm rules or guidelines: “We need to be careful listeners to do our best learning. What do careful listeners do?”
Small Shifts in Your Language
As the school year begins, consider how small shifts in your language can make a powerful impact on establishing your relationships with students and in setting the tone for the school year. Use the first few weeks to notice, reinforce, and convey your faith in students’ abilities, starting with these four shifts:
- Instead of “I like,” try “I notice.” When we say “I notice,” we are naming specific behaviors students are doing well, rather than imposing our own judgment or pleasure with student behavior or performance. Recognize the specific efforts that led to success: “I noticed you worked for ten minutes without stopping, and you have completed your math assignment!” Bonus: when you use the word “notice,” it will guide you to be mindful and notice students’ efforts and behavior!
- Use inclusive language. By using inclusive language such as “second graders,” “students,” “math thinkers,” or “artists,” we are sending the message that everyone belongs. It also builds confidence and self-esteem as we communicate to students that we see them as learners across domains and that we have faith in their abilities.
- Practice nonjudgmental questions. When we convey our faith in students, it builds their confidence and skills, which often leads to a deeper engagement and willingness to cooperate. If students feel intimidated or unvalued, they are more engaged in negative attention-seeking or misbehavior. Open-ended questions—such as “What do you see in our room that makes you wonder?”—make students feel seen and let them know that their opinion matters. It also leaves room for them to ask questions and accept help.
- Practice calm firmness. A neutral tone helps everyone maintain balance, but it is often hard for us if we are feeling frazzled or stressed. When we can use a neutral, respectful, judgment-free tone, we not only foster a positive learning environment and convey trust, but we also keep our own emotions in check. Taking a deep breath or practicing silence allows us to intentionally use a calm tone of voice and maintains the dignity of students.
Changing our teacher language takes time. Rather than feeling like there is more for you to do or learn, start with noticing the positives about yourself and then your students. Articulating what is working or where there is growth is powerful! Set a goal to add a few phrases to your daily conversations that focus on seeing the positives and conveying your faith in students. Our language is one of our most powerful teaching tools, so the time and effort you put into these positive practices will have a significant impact on your students and their learning, especially in the first few weeks of school.
Lisa Dewey Wells is a consultant and coach for Center for Responsive Schools. She is a coauthor of Empowering Educators: A Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Grades K, 1, 2, and she is currently working on a book on language for parents and caregivers that will be released in 2023.