What Students Hear

We all have funny stories about things children say as they try to make sense of what they’re learning in school, such as this one a teacher shared with me recently:

The teacher and one of her students were looking at a book about animals. The child pointed to a picture of an elephant and said, “It’s a frickin’ elephant.”

The teacher took a deep breath and said, “What did you call it?”

The child responded, “It’s a frickin’ elephant! It says so on the picture!” Then he pointed to the caption, which said “African elephant.”

However, there can also be a serious side to the difference between what we think we’re saying and what children hear. A few days ago, on her blog, “The Dream Teacher,” Cindi Rigsbee wrote eloquently about the negative messages a teacher’s choice of words can mistakenly send. Here’s a snippet from her post:

“Recently I watched a class of third graders read together. It was a Halloween story, spooky and scary, and they loved it! They read together, a chorus of ghouls, and on the scary parts, they got louder and louder! There was an energy in the room as they got more and more excited. They started squirming in their seats, wiggling and shouting . . . it looked as if the room would erupt at any second.

And then the teacher said, “Calm down. If you get out of control, we won’t be able to do fun things like this any more. Instead, you’ll have to read to yourself.”

(Insert here the sound of a needle scratching across a record.)


Okay, you know what she literally said. But what those kids heard was that if they didn’t behave they would have to read for punishment. . . .” Read the whole post, called “Think Before You Speak,” on Cindi’s blog.

Tina Valentine worked as a Responsive Classroom consultant from 2009 to 2012. Before that, she served in the Springfield, Massachusetts public schools as an administrator, special education teacher, and test coordinator.


Tags: Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language