The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Summer Reading V: The Power of Our Words

One of the first books that my principal suggested I read after getting hired was The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Dr. Paula Denton, EdD. She knew that I would probably not have time to read through the entire thing while working throughout the school-year, but I was encouraged to skim through it and think about it as I taught.

I did skim parts and I did giving passing thought, but I also had so much going on at once that I didn’t have as much time to reflect, apply, and reflect some more as I would have preferred. So I made sure that this book was near the top of my list of books to read this summer. And it has been. But I’ve also read other books while contemplating this one, primarily because I had been using Post-It Notes to jot down my ideas as I read, which limited the times I could read. For example, I usually read before I go to sleep at night. Trying to jot down notes and reflect on the greater impact of what I am reading when I am trying to fall asleep is not the best combination. Also difficult is reading in the car or when visiting family.

So while this was the first professional book I started reading this summer, it has been the fifth to be blogged about. I actually finished about a week ago, but I have not been as active in blogging as I could be. I’ve been enjoying my summer break and spending time with my wife. Anyway, I am done reading it now, and I definitely have thoughts to share.

First and foremost, I found that The Power of Our Words goes hand-in-hand with Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie, EdD.  Both authors emphasise how important it is to be simple, clear, and direct when speaking to students. The thing that makes this hard is that we have a lot of conventions in our spoken language that, for adults, indicate respect and politeness. For example, if you need a colleague to do something, you may say, “Would you mind running off a few copies of this document for me? Thanks!” While a colleague may say no, most of the time he or she will not mind and will do it since you will probably do a favour in return later. But if you say to a child, “Will you please sit down?” you are actually telling him/her that they have a choice to sit down or not. And since you are giving a choice, it would be wrong to punish the student for not making the choice you wanted him/her to make! Rather, you need to say, in a clear, neutral tone, “Sit down.” It is even better to use the student’s name: “John, sit down.” Best of all, is to be specific: “John, sit down in your seat now.”

Of course, Dr. Denton has much more to say on the matter of teacher language and how it can be used to help students learn, but I think that that is the root of it. Some other ideas that I noted are as follows:

  • It is good to ask open-ended questions, but it is better to ask open-ended questions that have articulated boundaries. (I once had a college instructor who would ask us, “What do you think?” all the time. To which we always responded, “What do we think about what? Please be more specific!” If you ask students what they think about a specific topic, really be interested in what they think and not what you think they should think. (I use the example of J.D. from Scrubs: if I want to know what I think, I’ll look off into space and think on my own. If I ask them, then I really want to know their ideas!)
  • Model, practice, reflect, model, practice, reflect, model, practice, reflect! Don’t assume that having a pretty poster and a single conversation at the beginning of the year will be sufficient for students to remember all of the expectations, routines, and procedures. (This is the one area that I know I can improve in the most!)
  • When giving praise, make sure it is specific, it is meaningful, and it is sincere. There is a practice among teachers that several books I’ve read all discourage. It is this idea that if John is out of his seat, you should acknowledge Sam, Sally, and Jill for being in their seats and this will somehow encourage John to join them in doing what is right. I have seen teachers in four different school districts do this, and I’ve talked with many others teachers. It is something that we all do. But the research says it is a bad idea. All it does is trains Sam, Sally, and Jill to need that constant positive reinforcement; it does nothing to help John.

I am glad that I took the time to read through this book. It reminded me of the need to be consistent in my language, clear in my expectations, and specific in my praise as well as my redirections. There are times when the language may feel unnatural, but that is because we are not naturally clear and direct in our daily language. However, when we use such clear, direct, specific language, we see children respond in more positive ways. Not because they have been manipulated, tricked, or bribed but because we have let them know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of our expectations. I have been using these principles when I work with my Webelos scouts, and my Sunday School class (ages 9-11) and I have already seen some pretty awesome results! I am looking forward to seeing how my improved teacher language will impact my classroom environment this coming year!


One response

  1. Pingback: Summer Reading XI: Teacher Effectiveness Training «

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