peter h. johnson

The Language We Use When We Teach

I attended a workshop with Peter H. Johnston, Author of Choice Words, over two years ago.  He spoke a lot about the language we use when we teach.  A lot of what he said stuck.  Couple the Johnston Workshop with a week-long Responsive Classroom Training Institute and I have to admit that I needed to overhaul the things I said to my kids.  For example, instead of saying, “I like the way Joe is raising his hand,” I started to say “I notice Joe’s raising a quiet hand.”  Another example is, “I love the way Julie is sitting on the rug,” became “I see that Julie is sitting on the rug giving me her full attention.”  Finally, in lieu of saying, “I like the way Table Three is reading their books,” I’d say, “I observed that Table Three moved quickly to their focus spots and started reading.” I didn’t make these changes overnight, but week-by-week, in the Fall of 2006, I began to change the way I spoke in my classroom.

So how does a teacher’s language usage apply to Writing Workshop?  Let’s go back to Thursday of this past week… One of my students heard back from an art supply store to which she sent her persuasive letter (last month) asking for paint.  I read her the letter from the company’s executive who stated that he was donating two big boxes of tempera paint to our classroom.  The letter said, “It isn’t every day that a child exhibits such determination and desire to make a difference for those around her.  Our company applauds the efforts of ____ to take the time, thoughts, and efforts to compose such a wonderful letter.

My fourth grade student stood next to me and said, “Wow!  My Mom is going to be so proud of me,” when I finished reading the missive from the company.

I immediately said, “How do you feel about yourself?”

“I’m really proud of myself,” she replied with the largest grin I’ve ever seen on her face.

“You should be.  And today, and everyday, I want you to remember to be proud of your own self.  Don’t worry about making others proud of you.  Make yourself proud first.  If you do, other people will likely be proud of you too.”

Going back to Johnston, he explained that the phrase, “I’m proud of you” undermines the resilience in children since this kind of feedback makes children dependent on you to be proud of them.  (That can lead to learned helplessness.)  Instead, a teacher can say something like, “You should be very proud of yourself,” especially when a child accomplishes a writing task in a grand way since this increases increases resilience in children.  So, if there’s just one phrase you want to work on implementing in the upcoming week, try eradicating “I’m proud of you,” and start saying, “You should be proud of yourself.”

Fast-forward to yesterday:  We were making ACEOs (to trade) as our Friday Afternoon Craft Project.  One of my students asked me a question that I’ve worked so hard not to answer ever since 2006.  He said, “Do you like my design?”  One of my other students, who has clearly heard me say, “It doesn’t matter if I like it.  Do you like it?” several times turned to him and said, “It doesn’t matter if Ms. S. likes it or if I like it.  What matters is that you like your design.”  Out of the mouth of babes, right?

Vygotsky said,“Children grow into the intellectual life around them.” Therefore, it’s our job, as educators, to try to employ phrases that will increase our students’ sense of identity, knowing and agency.

3 thoughts on “The Language We Use When We Teach

  1. Thanks for reminding me of Johnson’s great book, Choice Words. Funny since I was just reading book reviews from Franki Sibberson’s article (Books that Invite Thoughtful Conversation in Grades K-2) at Choice Literacy. One of the recommended books, Bear’s Picture (D.Pinkwater) addresses this very issue of kids feeling proud of themselves without looking for approval from others. Such powerful thinking!


  2. I love the way you state “noticing” of student behavior instead of putting a value like “love” on behavior! What a little change , that could mean so much. I reflected on my language in coferences this week because I noticed surprised reactions from students when I said, “Why don’t you share a part of your research you’re really proud of.” and they all looked at me in surprise for a split second before they picked out the best part of their writing to share with me. Here I’d thougt all along I was supporting kids this way….makes you really think about the messages you’re sending with the wording of your statements/questions…


  3. Your language is reminding me of that encouraged by Alfie Kohn in “Punished by Rewards”. He talks about, and provides research about, the way praise, grades and other external rewards ultimately undercut a student’s development of intrinsic motivation.


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