language · peter h. johnson · responsive classroom

The Power of Language

Two things changed the way I spoke to children: attending Peter Johnston’s Calendar Days through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and participating in the week-long Responsive Classroom I training. Both Johnston and Responsive Classroom made me realize I could use language to empower my students, praise specifically, and provide genuine feedback.

A Real Life Example of the Power of Reinforcement: My parents’ hybrid car praises at the end of a drive that results in good gas mileage. While the praise, “Excellent!” seems general, it instructs since it provides a bit of information about how many MPG you went in the drive. (And while you’re driving the car, it always tells you how many MPG you’re getting while you’re in motion.) As a result, when I borrow their car, I try to drive in an eco-friendly way so I can get this message at the end of my trip.

“Naming What Children Can Do” appears in the Summer 2013 issue of the Responsive Classroom Newsletter. The article deals with the importance of reinforcing language in the classroom. It’s a great place to help you think about the kind of language you use. For instance, do you praise kids in a way that emphasizes your personal approval or do you praise them for behaviors you value and want to reinforce? It’ll get you thinking about the way you use language to celebrate with children vs. the ways you use language to instruct and foster change. (Click here to read examples of reinforcing language.)

Now that I’m a parent, I try to praise my daughter for what she’s doing and positive behaviors I want to see repeated. I recently read an article, “10 Things to Stop Saying to Your Kids (and What to Say Instead)”, that reminded me I still have work to do when it comes to empowering my daughter through language.  I had been telling her “great job” when she pronounced a word clearly.  After reading the article, I started saying, “I understood what you said because you spoke clearly.”  Now she knows what she did well so she can replicate it again.  And quite frankly, I think she was more proud of herself when I used specific praise.

It takes courage to change the way you speak to students. Once I realized telling my students “I’m proud of you” would make them dependent on my praise, I began saying, “You should be proud of yourself.” It took me an entire year to transform from a teacher who said things like, “I like the way you’re sitting on the rug,” to a teacher who stated, “I notice everyone came prepared with their notebooks and is ready to begin the minilesson.”

Finally, if transforming your language is a goal you have for the upcoming school year, put Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston on your summer reading list.

5 thoughts on “The Power of Language

  1. “It takes courage to change the way you speak to students” – absolutely! It’s hard to change habits, and sometimes I think we offer praise reflexively as opposed to specifically. Johnston’s works are a real reminder to practice this every day. Thanks for this post, Stacey!


  2. Peter Johnston is coming to Denver and a colleague and I are going to do the day’s workshop, Stacey! His books are such a pleasure to read, and helpful, I agree. It is so important to use the words that empower, rather than enable. Sorry I’m so late reading this, trying to catch up!


  3. I read and discussed Choice Words with one of my grad school classes last fall and even though it was not the first read of the text, I found myself VERY sensitive to how I talk to ALL people. It’s hard not to fall into the “that’s great” response; however, the “That paragraph has 5 great detail – wow” is a far more valuable praise because the recipient knows what they did well! My car, a Jetta diesel, also praises me with ongoing MPG awareness. I too smile and think I “achieved” something special when I hit 50MPG on my morning commute!


  4. This is a fabulous topic to think about! My elementary school did a PD series on TALK last fall to introduce the Common Core speaking and listening standards and how kids’ conversational skills are strengthened through partner talk, conferring, book clubs, and interactive read-alouds. When preparing for all this, we were reminded that the foundation for all these profitable structures is how we, as teachers, communicate in the classroom…so teacher talk became part of session one. Touchstone professional texts used were “Choie Words”, “Comprehension Through Conversation” by Maria Nichols and “Talk About Understanding” by Ellin Keene. Guess what? Conversational patterns have totally changed since and our students’ are following suit. :). Talk isn’t cheap!


  5. Yes that reinforcement is powerful, like the little “ding-ding” when you get in the right lane after your direction voice tells you to turn right at the next corner. We laugh but soon we come to expect it. Like the nuns with their little clickers back in the olden days. I want to read more about this.


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