Shifting Teacher Language to Communicate Effectively and Respectfully

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Recall a time when an educator said something impactful to you. Was it positive or negative? How did it make you feel? Chances are, you not only can recall what was said to you—perhaps even from long ago—but also recall how it made you feel.

In her book The Power of Our Words, Paula Denton explains how the language used in a learning environment can impact a student:

Language is one of the most powerful tools available to teachers. It permeates every aspect of teaching and learning. We cannot engage children in learning, welcome a child into the room, or handle a classroom conflict without using words. Children cannot do a science observation or reading assignment or learn a classroom routine without listening to and interpreting their teacher’s words. And what they hear and interpret—the message they get from their teacher—has a huge impact on how they think and act, and ultimately how they learn. (2016, p. 1)

Because of the profound impact a teacher’s language can have on students’ learning, identity, and behaviors, effective teacher language needs to be encouraging, respectful, and genuine, model patience and trust, and provide specific feedback. Effective teacher language is not sarcastic (“Was it a good idea to throw that pencil?”) or diminishing (“This book report looks like it was written by a three-year-old”), nor should it be manipulative or promote unhealthy competition (“It is nice to see that at least Rachel is coming to the rug—I wish others would be more like her”).

Just as regular exercise builds a stronger body, practicing effective teacher language techniques will strengthen and improve interactions between educators and students. Here are five effective ways teacher language can foster respectful, encouraging interactions.

Just as regular exercise builds a stronger body, practicing effective teacher language techniques will strengthen and improve interactions between educators and students.

  1. Shift from “I like” to “I notice”

The phrase “I notice” highlights and reinforces the specific behaviors students are doing well, such as displaying effort and perseverance and maintaining focus. The phrase “I like” is often misused and can manipulate students to behave in a way that pleases a teacher: “I like how Chris is doing his math work.” Instead, when observing a student working diligently, say, “I notice how focused you are on your math work!” or “I notice you spent ten minutes completely engaged in your work, and you were able to complete the whole assignment because you were focused and persevered through distractions.”

2. Shift from “boys and girls” to “students”

Using inclusive language such as “students” or “second graders” helps to ensure all students feel they belong in the group while also building their confidence and self-esteem. Using envisioning language such as readers, writers, mathematicians, artists, or scientists also conveys your faith in students’ abilities. For example, say, “You implemented such descriptive language today, Writers!” or “Mathematicians, you are ready to take on these problems with your new strategies!” Use inclusive language when referring to students’ caretakers, too. For example, instead of saying, “Ask your dad to help you with your homework,” shift to, “Ask your grown-up to help you with your homework.” This conveys and normalizes an understanding that family structures vary.

3. Shift from judgmental questioning to nonjudgmental questioning

Conveying faith in students’ abilities will help them feel confident, capable, and more willing to cooperate and produce quality work. Avoid judgmental questioning such as “Why aren’t you doing your assignment?” Students will often avoid work when they are feeling insecure or intimidated. Instead, use nonjudgmental, open-ended questions to help students formulate and implement an effective plan of action and address any distractions: “What is your plan for getting started?” This respectful prompt will help students develop a road map or plan for completing their work.

4. Shift to a neutral tone

Utilizing a sarcastic tone, baby talk, or fake questioning techniques when interacting with students can damage a relationship. Use a neutral, respectful tone that is free of judgment and that fosters a positive learning environment and at the same time conveys trust and respect. You can check your tone by asking yourself, “Is this how I would like to be treated? Would I speak to another colleague this way?”

Using silence skillfully can be just as powerful as language.

5. Shift to knowing when to be silent

Using silence skillfully can be just as powerful as language: “Silence allows for children’s voices. It provides time for thinking, rehearsing what to say, and sometimes for gathering the courage to speak at all” (Denton, 2016, p. 27). One way to utilize the power of silence is to leave a silent space for thinking time after asking a question instead of calling on students who quickly raise their hands in response. Allowing a silent space conveys the value of thought, reflection, and evaluation over the value of being quick with an answer. For example, after posing a question, count silently to 10 before calling on a  student, or allow students 30 seconds to respond using whiteboards or sticky notes. This will provide students with ample time to show what they know. Allowing a silent space is also important when listening to students’ responses to questions. After listening to a student respond to a question, avoid doing a voiceover or a rephrasing of the response for the group. This diminishes the student’s response and takes up valuable learning time. Here are a few other ways to move toward more effective teacher language:

Make a video of yourself teaching, then watch it and evaluate your tone, your body language, and the words you used with students.

Ask a colleague to observe you teaching and provide feedback on your use of language.

Create a book club with colleagues to discuss books and articles regarding the use of effective teacher language.

Post sticky notes or create short lists of respectful teacher language and sentence starters to help you practice implementing language shifts. For example:

To reinforce what students are doing well:

  • “I see that you . . .”
  • “I noticed . . .”
  • “You showed [perseverance/ responsibility/empathy] when you . . .”
  • “The way you helped to   .”

To help remind students before they engage in transitions:

  • “What is going to make this go well?”
  • “What is important to remember when we . . .?”
  • “How will you practice self-control as you . . .?”

To redirect student behavior:

  • “It is time to . . .”
  • Pause.
  • “Stop.” “Walk.”

Melissa Shoup Gheen is an educator in Los Angeles, California, and has been in the field of education since 2005. She has taught kindergarten and first and second grades in independent schools in the Los Angeles area, and has been practicing the Responsive Classroom approach since 2008. Melissa received her master’s degree in child and adolescent literacy in 2011.