I’ve learned the importance of communicating clearly with students through the Responsive Classroom training I’ve had and books I’ve read about teacher-talk. One book that resonated with me several years ago was Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston. In his book, Johnston made me think deeply about the words I utter and the impact they have on children. As a result of reading his book, I eradicated some common teacher-talk phrases, like “I’m proud of you” and “I like that” from my vocabulary and started using language that would increase my students’ agency and resiliency.
There are several phrases in Johnston’s book that are particularly useful for teachers of writers to infuse into their vocabulary. Those phrases are:
- “I bet you’re proud of yourself.”
- “How are you planning to go about this?”
- “Where are you going with this piece [of writing]?”
- “Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?”
- “How else . . .”
The above-mentioned phrases can be inserted into the conversations you have with students publicly and one-on-one (i.e., during share sessions and during conferring). If you want the rationale behind using each of these phrases, then click on the link that says “Selections from Choice Words” (below) to read excerpts from Choice Words that explains the importance behind each of these phrases in-depth.
If you’re thinking about infusing one or more of these phrases into your teaching, I suggest introducing one phrase per week since changing the way you speak is hard work. I spent much of the 2006-07 school year trying to change the way I talked to students and I found the best way to do it was by introducing a new phrase every week. Anytime I tried to introduce more than that to my repertoire in a given week, I found myself getting bogged down in speech and not paying attention to other things.
Recently, I asked Peter H. Johnston a few questions about the language we use when we teach. Here are his responses to my questions.
SAS: What are six phrases that you think are most important for teachers (of writing) to phase into their repertoire during the first six weeks of school?
PHJ: I don’t think it’s so much specific phrases, although there are some. For example, we want to turn children’s attention to the process, so we say things like, “How did (or could) you figure that out?” We want them to take up noticing as a normal thing to do, so we ask, “What are you noticing?” and say, “I notice that…” We want to have them cross-check, so we regularly ask, “How could you check?” We also want to encourage the engagement of multiple perspectives, so we say things like, “Are there any other ways to think about that? We also want to turn their attention to change and possibility, so we make sure that we point out where they are changing and when they can’t do something that they understand that we expect that this inability is a temporary state – they can’t do it yet.
SAS: It seems easier to develop students’ agency as writers when they’ve been in a writing workshop in the past. Do you have any tips for teachers, with regard to building students’ agency, when their students are engaged in a writing workshop for the first time?
PHJ: Agency is developed by showing children that by acting, they can produce a desired effect. So, in writing, it’s about showing them, even in their spoken language how the choice of a particular word, or topic, or detail, had an impact on you or their peers.
SAS: So often we say “good girl” or “good boy,” as a way to praise children. For teachers who are just beginning to work on the language they use when they teach, are there some phrases you can suggest in lieu of “good girl” or “good boy?”
PHJ: Instead of “Good boy” or “Good girl,” which have the effect of undermining children’s resilience, turn their attention to the process they used – “Look how you figured that out.” Reduce judgment and turn attention to process.
SAS: What are some identity statements teachers can use to help reluctant writers during the first weeks of school? What about kids who refuse to write… how can teachers help those students build an identity as a writer by talking to them?
PHJ: I suppose the first order of business would be to actively listen to what children have say and to remove judgment from your language, particularly judgment that suggests that performance reveals something about permanent qualities of the writer. Another first order of business would be to make sure that interactions engaged the meaning and intentions of the writer. I suppose the short answer would also include starting with oral stories, and other forms of representation (such as illustrations). Beyond that, in order to avoid misinterpretation, my inclination would be to direct people to the writing of authors like Katie Wood Ray (depending on the age level).
SAS: What are you working on now (e.g., books, journal articles, courses)?
PHJ: What am I working on at the minute? I’ve just completed a book for Stenhouse, essentially a sequel to Choice Words, called Opening Minds: Using language to change lives.
I’m currently working on a research project with Gay Ivey looking at the effects of middle school English teachers focusing their attention on engagement before anything else – particularly engagement through individual choice reading of edgy young adult fiction. The effects turn out to be very powerful not only on the volume of reading (an average of over 40 books per year) and state tests (at least 15% more pass the state test), but on the students’ personal, moral and social development.
I also have a video project under way with Maria Nichols, Susie Althof and Jeralyn Johnson that explores productive classroom practices.
Thank you to Stenhouse Publishers for agreeing to giveaway of one copy Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning.
To win a copy of the book please leave a comment about this post, in the comments section of this post, by Sunday, October 2nd at 11:59 p.m. EST. A random drawing will take place on Tuesday, October 4th and the winner’s name will be announced in a blog post later that day.
Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Stenhouse ship the book to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).