the language we choose to use matters.

we’re going to say something a little bit controversial. we’re over charts that have titles like, “good readers solve tricky words.”

yes, it’s true. good readers do that. but what of the kids in your class who don’t do it yet? what of the kids in your class who are struggling with doing it, who know that this makes reading hard for them? what message does a chart with that title send to those kids, that this is something good readers do?

what if we removed the judgment words – from our charts and the language we use with kids? wouldn’t the chart have the same power – serve the same purpose, which is to be a resource for strategies students can use when encountering tricky words – with a title like, “readers solve tricky words?”

now, before we go further, it’s important to say that we were once those teachers with the “good readers…” charts. we know it comes from a place of wanting to encourage and reinforce. a good place, you might say. the reality, though, what research shows, is that judgment words like “good” (or “smart”) often have lasting effects, and are mostly negative effects, different from what we intend.

in her book mindset, carol dweck shares the results of a surprising experiment. a group of fifth graders took a non-verbal reasoning test and were told either, “this is your score. it’s a very good score. you must be smart,” or “this is your score. it’s a very good score. you must have worked hard.” the only difference between the two groups is one was told that they must be smart and the other was told that they must have worked hard. the effects of that single piece of feedback were tremendous.

in the “you must be smart” group:

  • 35% chose a challenging task after
  • enjoyed problems less & less likely to take home
  • performed worse on next test
  • 40% lied about score when they had the opportunity to share it with peers

in the “you must have worked hard” group:

  • 90% chose a challenging task after
  • enjoyed problems more & more likely to take home
  • performed better on next test
  • one student lied about score when given the opportunity to share it with peers

this research is particularly exciting to us because we imagine, if a single piece of feedback could have affected students that much, being intentional with the language we use with our kids across an entire year (or even year to year across a school) must have even more profound effects – not only inside our classroom, but also outside of it because our kids will carry the understanding of themselves and how they interact with others with them outside of our classroom.

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peter johnston also advocates using more neutral language with students. we think that a benefit of this type of language is that it’s much more specific while still helping to build students who feel good about themselves. we try to use neutral language when giving our students feedback and also when teaching them to give one another feedback.

imagine, for example, you’re the writer of a narrative and you receive two pieces of feedback about the setting in your story. one is, “you’re so good at writing setting.” the other is, “the setting you wrote helped me picture exactly where you were when the story was happening.” hopefully you’re with us that the second piece of feedback is more valuable (and, for sure, there’s room for that piece of feedback to be even stronger!). notice, though, that it’s neutral. it didn’t use judgement words like “good” or “great.”

just as we work to create an environment in our classroom that fosters grit, we also work to be mindful of the language we use with our students. whenever possible, we try to focus our feedback on the process and effort rather than the person, and we do our best to keep it neutral.

here are some examples of phrases that we’ve worked to include in our classroom as we speak to our students, which we learned from peter johnston’s books:

  • instead of, “wow, great job…” try, “look at how you…”
  • instead of, “you’re good at…” try, “you tried really hard/you found a good way to do it”
  • instead of, “you are…” try, “you did…”
  • instead of, “i’m proud of you…” try “you must feel proud of yourself”

we’d love to hear your thoughts on this type of feedback and how you think about feedback, and create opportunities for it among students, in your classroom.

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3 thoughts on “the language we choose to use matters.

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