How’s Your Reinforcing Language?

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Once June arrives, it’s tempting to focus on the more leisurely days ahead. That’s important to do—we all need rest and rejuvenation. But before you begin that well-earned downtime, pause for a moment to bring closure to your year of teaching—to consider what went well in your teaching and how you’d like to up your game next year.

And because your language—words, tone, and pacing—is such a powerful teaching tool, it’s important to include it in your end-of-year reflections. In particular, reinforcing language is one of the teaching tools we most often underuse because we naturally tend to focus our attention and our tightly scheduled time on what students can do to improve. Yet this language is easy and quick to use once you get the hang of it and is enormously effective because it helps children recognize exactly what they’re doing well. The result: They build on their successes and grow faster and further.

First, let’s take a closer look at just what reinforcing language is. Then we’ll move on to a simple chart that will help you look back at your use of this powerful language during the past year. Finally, you’ll find some tips to help you along if you want to change your use of reinforcing language next year.

Reinforcing Language: Noticing and Naming Positives

Reinforcing language is one of several types of positive teacher talk used by Responsive Classroom practitioners. Teachers use reinforcing language to show that they see students’ positive academic and behavioral efforts and accomplishments. Their words are specific and descriptive; their tone is upbeat and encouraging, as in the following examples:

“So many people shared thoughtful questions about our solar system model! That kind of thinking and sharing helps everyone learn more. And many listeners gave respectful attention to speakers. That also helps our learning.”

“I see lots of people putting the tablets away carefully. That will keep them safe and ready for the next class.”

“I know today’s math was tough for you, but you kept trying! That persistence will help you solve all kinds of problems.”

“Wow, you did so many things well today! You filed quickly and safely onto the risers, kept hands and bodies under control, focused on my directions, and projected your voices during each song. Those skills will help us give a terrific performance.”

“Today you read for 15 straight minutes; you’re really getting close to your 20-minute goal! What helped you read longer today?”

Below, listen to three teachers using reinforcing language in their classrooms.

Why does reinforcing language work?

The very specific noticing and naming of children’s efforts and accomplishments at the heart of reinforcing language recognizes the fact that children build on their strengths, not their weaknesses. That means it’s as important for us to see and name what children are doing well as to identify how they can improve. Think of reinforcing language as a ladder for children to climb up. Your words form the rungs they stand on as they reach for the next higher level of learning.

Keys to effective reinforcing language

Following are seven key characteristics of effective reinforcing language, along with an illustration of how each might look in practice. Because we all have typical speech patterns that reflect, among other things, our personalities, the suggested words might not sound like ones you would normally use. With practice, though, you’ll find that you can incorporate all of these key characteristics of reinforcing language without losing your personal style.

1. Instead of giving global praise ("Great job!"), name concrete, specific behaviors so students know exactly what they're doing that's helping them learn.
Instead of...Try...
What a great piece of writing!You used lots of describing words. That will really help readers "see" your story!
2. Speak in a tone that's warm and encouraging, but professional.
Instead of...Try...
Ooh, Liam, you did such a nice, nice job with your writing today!I noticed that you worked really hard on your writing today, Liam, and your audience responded with enthusiasm when you read it aloud.
3. Grant children dignity by addressing them respectfully.
Instead of...Try...
Ok, [my little ducks, sweeties...]Ok, [students, learners, writers, mathematicians...]
4. Emphasize students' actions and accomplishments over our personal approval.
Instead of...Try...
I really like all the adjectives you used in your writing!I see that you used lots of adjectives in your writing.
5. Add a question to extend student thinking.
Instead of...Try...
I see that you used lots of adjectives
in your writing.
I see that you used lots of adjectives in your writing.
Why did you decide to do that?
6. Find positives to name in all students - including those who are struggling.
Instead of...Try...
You need to work harder at your writing, Mia. You just don't stick with it long enough.You worked longer at your writing today, Mia. What helped you to do that?
7. Avoid naming individual students as examples for others.
Instead of...Try...
Marley, Max, Juan, and JD have already put away their writing
supplies and taken their seats in the circle!
I see more and more people putting away their writing
supplies and taking their seats in the circle.
Looking Back: How Did You Use Reinforcing Language This Year?

With a simple chart like the one shown here, you can sum up your language use this past year (and also use it to check yourself as the next year progresses). As you get used to reflecting, you’ll likely find yourself adding more situations in which you’ve used (or could use) reinforcing language to help students learn. You can print a blank Teacher Language Chart out at the end of the article.

Planning Ahead: Tips for Using Reinforcing Language Next Year

As adults, we often forget that the process for acquiring or improving skills is much the same for us as for students: It takes time, patience, and practice. Here are some tips to help you improve your use of reinforcing language.

  • Set high but realistic expectations. For example, “When students make an effort to help each other, I’ll try to notice and name exactly what they did to be helpful, and I’ll try to do this at least twice a week” is a reasonable goal that still challenges you to stretch and grow.
  • Take small steps. Using new words may feel awkward at first. To help yourself along, consider choosing one situation or area you think will come easily for you—perhaps eliminating your use of “I like”—so that you’ll experience success early on. Or you might choose a situation that you think will make a significant difference in your students’ success, such as recognizing their efforts to transition quickly and efficiently. As you see the results of your efforts, take on the next challenge.
  • Use aids and prompts. Make yourself an anchor chart or tape up sample reinforcing language around the classroom. You might also keep a journal or a chart like the one shown in this article to give yourself both a tangible reminder to use reinforcing language and a record of your growth.
  • Share your efforts with children. If students ask about your prompting signs, you might say, “I’m working on using more positive language to help you in your learning. These signs remind me to do that.” Or, in the moment, you could say, “Wait. I’m going to try that again with more positive teacher language.” You’ll be modeling for students what effortful, independent learning looks like.
  • Stay with it. Changing language habits does take effort, but the benefits are enormous: enhanced learning for students and more satisfying, less stressful teaching for you—a real win-win.

Click here to download the blank Teacher Language Chart. To learn more about positive teacher language, see The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn.

Tags: Last Weeks of School, Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language

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