Teacher Language: Reinforcing, Reminding, Redirecting, and Envisioning
Teacher language refers to the professional use of words, phrases, tone, and pace to enable students to engage in active, interested learning; be contributing members of a positive learning community; and develop positive behaviors. Language—our words, tone of voice, and pacing— is one of the most powerful tools available to teachers. What we say and how we say it permeates every aspect of teaching and learning. Effective teacher language conveys faith in students’ good intentions, and our tone and choice of words can let students know we believe in them and their ability to succeed. A teacher’s words can help students understand how they think and work, giving them insight into what they are capable of and how they can articulate and achieve academic, social and behavioral goals.
In the Responsive Classroom approach, there are four types of teacher language: reinforcing language, reminding language, redirecting language, and envisioning language.
Children build on their strengths, not their weaknesses. This is one of the most important things to keep in mind when teaching. It’s vital for teachers to see and name what students are doing well, and reinforcing language allows us to do that. It highlights students’ skills, positive efforts and attitudes, and quality work so that they know what to stand on as they reach for the next higher rung in their learning.
It can take time to shift your language to focus more on what students are doing well than on what they need to improve. But once you’ve gotten comfortable with this powerful tool, you’ll find yourself consistently acknowledging students’ positives.
Keys to Effective Reinforcing Language
Name concrete and specific behaviors. Rather than saying a global “Good job!” or “Nice work,” tell students what they specifically did well so they know what to keep doing and build upon.
- Instead of: “Your spelling shows progress.”
- Try: “You remembered to change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ when adding ‘ed.’ “
De-emphasize your personal approval. Emphasize what the student did. Otherwise, students may focus more on pleasing you than on improving their skills.
- Instead of: “I’m so pleased with the way you added key details to your main point.”
- Try: “You added key details to your main point. That helps your audience understand and be persuaded.”
Avoid holding one student up as an example for others. The student held up may feel triumphant, but the others are likely to feel devalued or criticized. And the student held up may even feel embarrassed.
- Instead of: “Notice how Glenda used four sources for her research project. Let’s see all of you do that.”
- Try: To Glenda privately: “You used at least three sources as we learned to do. That makes your research credible.”
Find positives to reinforce in all students. Every child has strengths. Over time, every child should feel that we see and appreciate their positive actions and attitudes.
- Instead of: Using reinforcing language with only the students who do proficient work, are the first to get organized, or are otherwise the “best”
- Try: To a student who struggles but made a strong effort: “You read three pages during readers’ workshop today. What helped you concentrate?”
Just as we all need reminders to stay organized in our everyday lives, children need reminders in school to keep their work and behavior on track. By using reminding language before students start a possibly challenging task, or right when they start to make a mistake, teachers help them stay on task, organized, responsible, and safe.
Before using reminders, be sure to teach students what the expectations are and how to meet them, as children can only be reminded of what they already know. Also, keep in mind that reminders are most effective when both the student and teacher feel calm. That’s why it’s so important to give reminders early, before students’ behavior has gone on long enough for frustration to build.
Keys to Effective Reminding Language
Prompt children to remember for themselves what they should be doing. This shows faith in their competence and builds their autonomy.
- Instead of: “Sit alone or next to someone you won’t be tempted to talk to. Put away everything you don’t need. If your mind wanders, take a few deep breaths and tell your mind to come back to your reading.”
- Try: “Think about what you can do to help yourself concentrate.”
Use neutral tone and body language. Giving a reminder as a matter-of-fact piece of guidance shows respect for the student. It also helps her focus on what she needs to do rather than on what we think of her.
- Instead of: “What did we say is the next step in making these kinds of graphs?” said with a singsong voice, arms crossed, and rolling eyes. (Even if meant to be humorous, implies the student isn’t very smart.)
- Try: “What did we say is the next step in making these kinds of graphs?” said with a matter-of-fact voice, neutral body position, and a neutral gaze. (Implies student can remember and directs his attention to doing so.)
Be brief. Students tend to tune out of long strings of words.
- Instead of: “I’m hearing people starting to sound disrespectful when they disagree. Everyone, remember to say ‘I hear your point, but I have a different idea’ or ask a clarifying question the way we learned. If we interrupt and say things like ‘No, that’s not true,’ or ‘You’re wrong,’ we’ll shut down discussion.”
- Try: “What did we learn about disagreeing honestly and respectfully?”
Watch for follow-through. After giving a reminder, take a moment to see if the child acts. If we don’t do this, children may learn that we don’t mean what we say.
- Instead of: Giving a reminder and then turning away immediately to tend to something else
- Try: Watching, and then acknowledging the child’s action with a nod or a smile. No words are needed.
A third grade class is working on an art project. Macy waves her scissors in the air, the point coming perilously close to a tablemate’s face. Down the hall, a class of fifth graders is doing some science experiments when a small group starts playing games with the materials, games that quickly have the children laughing and scuttling about, the science experiment completely forgotten.
When students are doing something harmful to themselves or others, are too far into a mistake to correct themselves, or are too emotional to think reasonably about what they’re supposed to be doing, teachers need to redirect them with clear words. Skillfully used, redirecting language lets teachers provide wise external control to keep children safe and productive when their self-control is failing them.
As with reminding language, it’s important to be brief and to use a neutral tone and neutral body language when giving a redirection. Here are other essentials to keep in mind.
Keys to Effective Redirecting Language
Be direct and specific. When children are far enough into a mistake to need a redirection, they need to hear exactly what you want them to do differently.
- Instead of: “Casey, you need to work harder.”
- Try: “Casey, put your watch away and continue with your assignment right now.”
Say what to do, instead of what not to do. Saying what not to do may sound like a complaint or an attack on students’ character, and many students may miss what we’re wanting them to do. Naming the desired behavior is clear and respectful of children.
- Instead of: “Class, stop wasting everyone’s time.”
- Try: “Freeze. Everyone return to your seat with your folder. Then we’ll start.”
State a redirection as a statement, not a question. A question gives the illusion of choice and can confuse children. It’s more respectful to calmly give a statement that tells children exactly what we want them to do.
Instead of: “Anna, could you refocus on your math?”
Try: “Anna, refocus on your math.”
Follow up with action if necessary. Watch to see if the student follows your redirection. If not, give a clearer redirection or take action that helps her return to positive behavior.
- Instead of: Redirecting Anna and then turning away immediately to tend to something else
- Try: Directing Anna to move to a seat close to you (if sitting near classmates seemed to be pulling her off task).
Directing Anna to “take a break” (take a positive time-out) in a place away from the action so she can regain her focus.
Envisioning language is a type of language that gives children a vision of what is possible. Teachers can use envisioning language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality. Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this. This envisioning is so important because for children as well as adults, success doesn’t always come easily. To be inspired to do the hard work, children need a clear and engaging picture of what is possible, a new and exciting picture of themselves.
Keys to Effective Envisioning Language
Believe your own words. Naming students as good thinkers, or offering them any other positive identity, works only if your words are backed by deep conviction—if, in the preceding example, you truly believe that all children are good thinkers in different ways and begin school eager to succeed as learners.
For another example, suppose your sixth grade students have formed their project teams and are raring to go on their DNA extraction projects. “Teams that collaborate well,” you remind them, “will be able to make the most of our work time. Talk in your groups for a minute about what you’ll do to be effective collaborators.” You’ve set a clear and positive goal for the class by identifying them as potential “effective collaborators,” but they’ll want to live up to this positive image of themselves only if they sense that you truly believe they can.
Avoid naming negative identities. Sometimes, without thinking, we name a negative identity along with a positive one, like this: “I’m hoping for hard workers instead of lazy workers.” That statement could imply that we currently see students as lazy. And once students hear a negative identity, they may have a hard time imagining themselves with the positive one. Or they may become resentful and unwilling to work toward the positive vision. A straightforward positive statement works much better: “I know that you can all work hard and learn a lot, and I’m here to help you do that.”
Be inclusive. Imagine a fifth grade teacher who shares a vision of gym class as “Boys and girls, skaters and jocks, all being friendly to each other.” The intention—to reassure students that everyone has an equal place in the school community—is positive, but the words reinforce the very divisions and stereotypes the teacher wants to overcome. Far more effective is a simple sentence such as “In this class and in this school, everybody will feel welcomed and included by everybody else.”
Keep trying. Learning how to name positive identities for students takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and persist, even when you make mistakes—just as you encourage students to do. You’ll soon find yourself using these envisioning statements fluently and frequently.
For a more in-depth look at every type of Responsive Classroom teacher language, check out For more on changing your teacher language, elementary school students can check out The Power of Our Words, while middle school teachers can explore The Power of Our Words for Middle School.
Additionally, K-8 teachers can learn the most effective teacher language for deepening students’ learning with Make Learning Meaningful.
Interested in professional development opportunities to build and strengthen your teacher language? See our four-day courses for elementary and middle school educators and our one-day workshop Improving Teacher and Student Language.Tags: Encouragement, Misbehavior, Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language