compliment · growth mindset · key beliefs · language · middle school · reflective practice · writer identity

The Power of Language Revisited


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)?


  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!

16 thoughts on “The Power of Language Revisited

  1. When I think about my teaching, I know where I am on this spectrum. You make me see the teacher I could be and I hope to get to where I want to be one day. Thank you for, once again, pushing me past what I previously thought what writing was to what it really should be. These big questions resonate with me and I need to remember them each and every time I step in front of a class to teach writing.


  2. I am constantly mindful of the language and tone I use. I find if I’m not monitoring it (constantly), I shift from being suggestive to instructive. This post is an excellent reminder about ways we can use language that inspires and empowers in our writing workshops. Thanks, Lanny!


  3. Words matter. There is no better example of this than the latest blunder of our President in his not-so-soothing call to a grieving army widow in which he misused language enough to cause her to dissolve into sobs and a fetal position. We all “misuse” words from time to time, and we all need this friendly reminder that we must always be vigilant about how we use them. Thank you for a very useful and carefully constructed post from which we can all benefit.


  4. Lanny, I think that difference between invitational language and assignment language is so important to workshop. On surface, it seems like such a small change. So small it might not even matter. But I know that using invitational language empowers students as writers and transfers ownership of the writing process to them. It’s huge. Your example is spot on. Thanks for another insightful post. I get so excited when I see the email from Two Writing Teachers in my inbox and see that it’s another “Lanny Day”! I know I’m going to learn something every time.


  5. Lanny,

    Thanks again for working with our teachers and supporting them with the “Why” behind workshop…and use of language was a huge revelation to many. Your closing paragraph really gets to the heart of what’s important–kids aren’t going to remember test scores from their 7th grade year, but they will remember the teacher who nurtured their writer identity. I’ll be sending this out to all our peeps!


  6. Your language in this post was powerful, Lanny as you showed us more than one way to respond to students. I love the “Readers”, “Writers”, and especially the “Thank you for coming to school today” that is a natural part of Shana Frazin’s repertoire.

    Being respectful and “inviting” pays off in student engagement, student work completion, and ultimately in student learning. Listening to our own language (or teaching kindergartners) is so eye opening. Reading our own language is even more empowering. 🙂

    Thanks for these reminders!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, Fran! I wholeheartedly agree that respectful and intentional invitation pays dividends in regards to engagement, work completion, and student learning. As adults we know how important the language people use can be; it’s now just about turning the lens on ourselves and how we talk to kids.


  7. Thanks for this post, Lanny. In the literacy coaching part of my job I’ve been struggling with how to nudge a few teachers to shift the language choices they use with students. I tend to lead by example, but I’m also planning to print your post and pop it in to a few mailboxes…


  8. Showing us the two comparisons of language within settings we find ourselves in is so powerful. We can all attach to these statements and see bits of our own words within your examples to push us to question, “where do I fit?” Great post, Lanny. I think many teachers will start their day today reflecting on their words with children and maybe their words with adults too. Language is one of those things that seeps within every step of our day and can have perhaps the biggest impact on how we feel and how others feel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Betsy, thank you so much for your comment. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about language and how it can impact the learning experiences of our kids. It is no small matter. I appreciate your insights!


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