Learning Materials

Read the materials under "Choice Words" and then either "Choice Words for Teachers of Older Students" or "Choice Words for Teachers of Younger Students."

Choice Words

The things we say without thinking to children can have a profound effect not just on their learning but also on their senses of themselves. It stands to reason that there would be many facets to this. For example, in counseling we learned that we should never use the word "why" in asking a question, such as "why did you and your brother get into a fight?" The problem with "why" in this instance is that it puts people in the position of being defensive. They start focusing on how to assure you it wasn't their fault instead of how they could be part of solving a problem.

Instead of "why," we were told to use "how is it that." This puts the question in passive voice as in "how is it that you and your brother got into a fight?" Passive voice (using the verb to be, as in "is") does not assign blame for an event. It recognizes the event as having happened, but it does not jump to a conclusion or express a conclusion about how the event got started. When you use this phrase, people tend to be less defensive and you can make more progress on dealing with the problem directly. When people are in some kind of trouble and your language adds on a layer of defensiveness, then you are making solving the problem doubly hard and maybe even impossible.

Another aspect of being sensitive to the use of language has to do with how we recognize accomplishments. Praise is okay, but praise keeps the judgment of quality in the hands of the teacher solely. We really want kids to judge their own quality accurately because that is how self-directed learning takes place.

The alternative to praise is to point out characteristics (informational feedback) and how it is that those characteristics are positive. For example, when a student starts off a story with "once upon a time," and is able to carry through the fairy tale genre to the end of the story, no matter how bad the grammar or spelling, they have done what professional authors do. Professional authors know the rules of genre. They know that a story beginning with once upon a time is not supposed to have contemporary problems as in contemporary realistic fiction, for example, unless the writer is deliberately breaking the rules (to break the rules you have to know them). So telling a student, "I see you have cast your story into this genre and have kept the genre going throughout; that's what professional authors do," does a number of positive things. First of all there is a positive comparison between the student and what professional people do. Secondly, the standards are not the teacher's taste but rather what it takes to succeed as a professional in an area. Finally, focusing on what the student did puts agency in the hands of the student. The student did this him or herself.

It is also important to avoid the language of deficiency. If we use language like, "I'm going to have to reteach this to you because you didn't get it" puts the blame on the student when in reality it may be a teaching problem instead of a learning problem (you forgot how this particular person learns so the process naturally didn't work for him or her). Instead of the language of deficiency, we need to use the language of moving forward. The language of moving forward says, "you are ready for the next step." The next step is to understand whatever that concept is and it doesn't matter how many times you have tried to teach it. They are still ready for the next step, which might be making sure their schemas about things do not lead them to conclusions that are false.

In a classroom, it is important to introduce the word "support" to your students. Support is similar to "help", but has a less negative connotation. When a child is struggling and has to ask for help, they may feel self-conscious and as if you are at a higher level or above them in some way. Introducing the word support can be helpful, because asking for support means that both the person asking and the person providing support are on a similar level and guiding each other or problem solving together. Providing support in a classroom can go a variety of ways, from you as the teacher giving support, to students supporting each other, to even students supporting you at times!

Here are some excerpts from the book Choice Words on using language to help children learn.


Choice Words for Teachers of Older Students

Here is an article about trying to deal with the negative feelings of words and a creative alternative to words that produce a negative response in the classroom.

Choice Words for Teachers of Younger Students

Here is an article about using language to support learning:

Discussion Post

What influence has this information (on the page and also through the links) on your thoughts about teaching? What are some examples of situations you have been in or know about where poor word choice made things worse? Conversely, what are some situations where thoughtful words were used to mend or heal a situation?