The Power of Language

A teacher’s language is a powerful teaching tool. Our language can build children up or tear them down. It can model respectful and caring social interactions or just the opposite. Effective language encourages and supports students in their learning, rather than criticizing them for their mistakes. As child psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs writes, “Each child needs continuous encouragement just as a plant needs water.” Effective teacher language also:

  • Is clear, simple, and direct
  • Is genuine and respectful
  • Gives specific positive feedback rather than general praise
  • Focuses on the child’s action or behavior rather than generalizing about the child’s whole person
  • Avoids qualitative or personal judgment
  • Shows faith in children’s abilities and potential

Language guidelines

Improving teacher language is an ongoing challenge for many teachers, especially language related to classroom management and discipline issues. But teachers can successfully meet this challenge with time and practice. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when working on improving your use of language in these areas:

Be direct; don’t use praise to manipulate

It’s easy to say we need to avoid manipulative language. It’s much harder to actually do it when we’re trying to keep a group of twenty-five students safe and orderly. To break out of the manipulation mode, be direct when you want children to do something. Instead of “I see Josh has finished cleaning up his table,” use the established signal to get everyone’s attention, then say “Time to finish cleaning up and get in line. One minute to go.”

Even “I see four people ready . . . I see half of us ready . . . I see everyone ready” is better than “I see Josh is ready.” If you truly want to acknowledge Josh for being so efficient and thorough, make your comment to him at another time, directly and privately. (For example, “Josh, I noticed you cleaned up quickly and thoroughly after art today.”)

Pay attention to the small things

Students will be most receptive to your words when the classroom is calm and in control. So, at the first hint that the noise is beginning to rise above a productive level, ring the bell and remind students to use softer voices. Or when you notice a group about to get off task, step in and say “Remind us what you’re supposed to be doing right now.” If you wait until the noise level has become raucous or until the group has been off task for ten minutes, your words will have less impact.

Keep it simple and clear

Children are masterful at tuning out adults, especially those who go on and on. When we talk too much, children get confused and overwhelmed; eventually, they stop listening. The most effective teacher language is simple and clear. Say what you mean and say it concisely. If you know that students understand the rules, a single phrase or directive is all that’s needed as a reminder.

Instead of “Class, remember how we talked about how hard it is to hear each other when everyone is calling out at once. It’s really important that you raise your hand if you have something to say. All of your ideas are important and I want everyone to be heard,” try “Meeting rules” or “Remember to raise your hand to speak.”

Be firm when needed

Too often we confuse being firm with being mean. And in an effort to avoid being mean, we shy away from being firm. As a result, students grow uncertain about limits, and we lose our authority to establish them. Students follow the rules when they feel like it; we enforce them when it’s easy to do so. Generally, this creates an atmosphere of confusion and anxiety.

A simple guideline to keep in mind is “If you mean no, then say no.” No hedging, no beating around the bush. Say “No, you may not use the materials in that closet” instead of “I’d rather you didn’t use the materials in that closet, okay?”

Also, it’s important not to ask a question when you mean to give a command. For instance, you want children to put their brushes down and look at you. Instead of “Could you please put your brushes down and look at me?” try “Put your brushes down and look at me.” The tone of voice is direct and firm, not harsh or sarcastic. It does not put children down, scold, or pass judgment. Instead, it lets children know exactly what you expect from them.

Expect the best

Research on the relationship between teachers’ expectations and children’s academic performance has shown that if a teacher believes a child will succeed, the child has a greater chance of doing so than if the teacher believes the child will fail.

The same holds true for children’s behavior. Most children will try to live up to adult expectations. If we expect that children will be respectful and responsible, they will strive to be. If we expect that children will be disrespectful and irresponsible, then that’s what they most likely will be.

Language is one key way we communicate our expectations. Through our language we let children know that we have confidence in their ability to meet high expectations. We tell them, even when things have gone awry, “I believe you can do this. Now show me.”

Here are two examples of language that effectively communicates expectations:

  • Two children are arguing over who gets to use the hole puncher first. Rather than solving the problem for them or taking away the hole puncher, the teacher says, “I know the two of you can figure out a fair way to solve this problem. I’ll give you two minutes. Let me know what you decide.”
  • Students are waiting in line to go to lunch. There is a lot of poking, pushing, and cutting going on. The teacher rings the bell, then focuses on what the students can do right. She says, “You all know what to do when you’re waiting in line. When I ring the bell again I expect you to do it.”
Invite cooperation

There are many situations in the course of a school day when inviting cooperation is what’s most appropriate. Teachers can do this by creating group challenges, offering choices, or just bringing a playful spirit to the task at hand.

Here are some examples of inviting cooperation:

  • It’s time to clean up. The teacher rings the bell and says, “Here’s a challenge. Let’s see if we can do a thorough job of cleaning up the entire room in less than two minutes. If you finish your area early, you can help clean another area. The two minutes start now.
  • During writing period, there are many side conversations and several students are wandering about the room. The teacher rings the bell and says, “I see lots of people having a hard time concentrating. This writing work needs to get done. You can choose to focus on it for the next twenty minutes or you can do it this afternoon instead of choice time. Your decision.”
Pay attention to tone, volume, and body language

Consider the many different ways of saying “Come over here and sit down, Danny.” The tone could be neutral, loaded with exasperation, or sound more like a plea than a directive. It could be said in a whisper (for only Danny to hear), in a medium volume, or in an all-out scream.

Most children are keenly aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle alterations in meaning caused by tone and volume. While we may not always be able to control the negative tone that slyly slips in or the raised volume that makes a directive sound more like a threat, we can continue to pay attention to our tone and volume and strive to match them to the message we want to send.

Students also pay attention to other nonverbal cues such as that powerful language known as a teacher’s “looks.” We often need to use our eyes as silent reminders to children to stay on track—that “No, that’s not okay” look or “Come on, stay with us” look. But it’s important to be aware of how powerful these signals can be. There is often a fine line between the reminding or redirecting look and the “dirty” look.

Keep your sense of humor

A teacher might give literally hundreds of reminders and redirections in the course of a normal school day. If you’re beginning to feel like a broken record, it might be time to infuse some humor into the situation, as in the following example:

A teacher has stepped out of the classroom for a few minutes to speak to the principal, leaving the class in the care of an instructional assistant. When the teacher returns, the classroom is noisy and chaotic. He turns off the light, signaling students to stop what they’re doing and look at him, then says, “This couldn’t possibly be the same class that I left a few minutes ago. I think we need some magic to get the real class back. I’m going to close my eyes for a minute. When I say ‘poof’ I want the classroom to magically change back to how it was when I left.”

A conscious process

Often teachers who want to change their language go through a conscious process. Some of the strategies that seem to help are tape recording and listening to yourself for a short period of time; having a colleague observe you for fifteen minutes and record the words and phrases you use most frequently; focusing on changing one phrase at a time; and pausing before speaking to give yourself a chance to think. Some teachers also post a list of desirable words and phrases in their classroom for easy reference. Through all of this, remember that change takes time. Be patient with yourself and celebrate the incremental improvements you make along the way.

Adapted from Rules in School, a Responsive Classroom Strategies for Teachers series book

Further Resources

Brady, Kathryn; Mary Beth Forton; Deborah Porter; Chip Wood. 2003. Rules in School. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children

Learn a positive approach for helping students become invested in creating and living by classroom rules. Includes information about effective teacher language and examples of teacher language at different grade levels.

Charney, Ruth Sidney. 2002. Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K–8. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

This definitive work about classroom management includes chapters on the importance of teacher language and tone.

Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish. 1995. How to Talk So Kids Can Learn at Home and in School. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Shows parents and teachers how to help children succeed, including information about a “dialogue” technique.

Tags: Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language

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