The Power of Language Revisited

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It was the year 2015.  Pulling my car to the side of the road, I answered my ringing phone.  It was my business partner. “Check out your feedback!  Especially the comment from Marjorie [not her real name].”  “Oh, okay. Yeah, I’ll do that,” I responded.  Having just finished teaching a week-long writing workshop class in my hometown, I re-entered traffic and headed back home. Both excited and curious, I entered my house to read the feedback left by my class participants on a Google form.  And there it was (I’ll paraphrase Marjorie’s feedback here):

“After this week, I see now how much the words we use as teachers matter.  I always thought calling my students ‘writers’ was silly; but after Lanny called us ‘writers’ all week, I found myself feeling more like a writer at the end of the week. Thank you for showing us how much words matter!”

Working with a group of teachers recently, the subject of language and its power emerged in our debrief meeting.  It seemed this topic, the topic of language, and how it serves to either empower and inspire or to control and compel, had made its way to the present consciousness of our group, overtaking all other topics.  After observing a demonstration lesson, the teachers in the room wanted to talk about what they’d noticed about language and its impact on both student learning and behaviors in the room.

When it comes to the teaching of writing in a writing workshop, language is everything.  It is through the words we teachers choose that writers are created, built up, encouraged, and inspired.  As Peter Johnston writes in his seminal book Choice Words, (2004), “Language…is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive.  It actually creates realities and invites identities” (Stenhouse, p. 9).  Ask anyone about the teacher who made a difference for them.  Do this, and you will likely find that the teacher that really made a difference was able to make them feel they could ‘do it’, that they could learn.  Individuals may not recount specifics as to the underlying power of language; but intrinsic to the power of teaching-that-makes-a-difference is the judicious selection of words.  When used in a positive and precise manner, this selection can serve to create worlds of new possibilities for young learners.

So knowing that language matters, where might be some distinct and specific places in our teaching where we could look to see if our language matches the broader intents of workshop teaching (namely, independence, writerly identity, growth mindset, and a belief in the power of the written word)?

BIG QUESTIONS:

  1. Assigning or inviting?  My wonderful Teachers College Reading and Writing Project colleague Shana Frazin used to say, “Invitations always feel better than assignments.”  After teaching a minilesson, I’ll often use the language of invitation to send students off to independent writing time, positioning today’s lesson within a repertoire of strategies.  This, of course, is in service of fostering independence, engagement, and agency.  Within the language of invitation, it often sounds something like, “Writers, I’m imagining some of you are pretty excited to go try this [insert strategy] today!  I’m also imagining that some of you really found yesterday’s strategy helpful, so you’ll likely set a goal to continue that work today.  Still others of you know there are other things you know how to do to push your writing forward today!  So I want to invite all of you to make an ambitious plan for your writing work…what work will you go try in your writing today?  Let’s make a plan!”

This is quite different from this language:  “Now your task is to go do this strategy today.  And if you do not finish in class today, it will be homework.  There will be no talking.”

Peter Johnston would likely acknowledge that one of the two examples provided here invites “agentive narratives”, which in writing workshop is a key implicit objective.  Notice the invitation versus the threat of noncompliance.

2. Acknowledging what writers are doing– or NOT doing?  When conferring with writers, most of us know that an important element in a conference is the compliment.  For it is through the compliment that we call attention to the budding strength(s) of each of the writers in our classes.  This is crucial, as it reinforces not only a writing strategy or behavior that is working (or almost working), but also the identity of that writer.  Thinking specifically about language choices, I often work to strike the tone of co-practitioner the classrooms in which I work, sometimes saying something like, “You know, this is something I’m trying in my writing, too.  And look at the way you’re doing this…it’s really effective!  It’s working because…[name the reason].  Now, I think I know what might be next for you…can I give you a tip?”

Compare this language with, “One thing you need to start doing is…” or “You have too many run-ons here.  Those need to be fixed.”

By striking the tone of co-practitioner, we can position ourselves alongside writers in such a way that they begin to grow their identity as a writer.  As American author William Arthur Ward is credited as saying, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” Language can make the difference in kids imagining themselves as writers.

3. Are we employing growth mindset language imbued with invented optimism?  If we believe everything exists inside language, then consider that optimism can be manufactured from nothing.  And it begins with language.  Does the language we are using with kids focus on effort, efforts that will eventually pay off?  Do our words imply a belief that each writer is capable and will grow?  This can be challenging, especially with more resistant students.  But consider the following language used with a more reluctant writer.  “Hey, I know you may not see yourself as a writer yet.  But I want you to know that one of my big goals for you as a teacher is for you to love writing this year.  Your ideas are amazing, and I know that once others are able to read them and learn about them, they’ll agree with me.  We’ll get there, I know we will.”

Know that these words can be spoken with no reason to say them or believe them. It is manufactured optimism. These words may not be “true” – yet.  But they are essential for inventing optimism.  And for some of our writers, they need us to invent some optimism in their lives.

4.  Do we believe language actually matters?

Stacey Shubitz wrote a great post on the power of language back in 2013.  In that post she suggests that it takes courage to change the way we speak with students.  And for some of us, changing our language can feel like a relinquishing of control.  But consider that by giving up some control, we make space for something else.  Oftentimes, language shifts begin with a shift in our beliefs about what is possible and what students are capable of as writers.  As the old adage goes, “People may not remember what you taught, but they will definitely remember how you made them feel.”  I would argue that language is the primary vehicle within that affective domain.

What language do you use to empower students as writers?  I’d love to hear from you!