What’s in a Word? Quite a LOT!

by Kelli Lewis

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How can you improve participation, increase motivation and encourage excitement over learning without expending much effort or spending a dime? Stumped? The answer is actually on the tip of your tongue. Literally.

There’s a lot of power in the way you say things to your students. Here are some simple tips for turning daily classroom discussions into positively-charged learning experiences.

Tone it Down

Opting for normal conversational language, rather than an academic-sounding tone, is more engaging and less intimidating (not to mention less boring!). Opt for an inviting, conversational tone. Directing conversations at students’ lives and feelings can also lead to a surprising amount of  learning. Not everything has to be school-related (gasp!). Showing that you care and are interested in their lives paves the way for open minds and eager learners.

Try This:

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “What did you do this weekend?”

Don’t Pick the Orchid

One of my college professors used to say “don’t pick the orchid”–meaning don’t lead your students to a bed of flowers and then rob them of the joy of picking for themselves. Instead, allow the students to explore, talk it out and come to their own conclusions–without encouraging a certain way of thinking. Try using questions that engage the students to think on their own, instead of questions that seek a particular answer. And, rather than providing further information after a student answers a question, just simply repeat the student’s statement and give him or her time to go further independently.

Try This:

  • “What’s one more thing you could add?”
  • “How are you going to challenge yourself?”
  • “How do you feel about that?”
  • “What do you think about that?”
  • “Imagine what this would look like….”
  • “How did you figure that out?”
  • “What did you notice?”
  • “That’s what readers do!”
  • “What are you doing as a reader today?”
  • “Why do you think a reader would do that?” (OR: mathematicians, scientists, writers, etc.)
  • “What’s your reason for that?”
  • “How could you check?”
  • “What part are you sure about?”

Redirect Behavior

When it comes to addressing negative student behavior, try to phrase your response in a positive way.

Try This:

  • “What does ‘great’ look like to you?”
  • “This isn’t like you; what do you think is the problem?”
  • “How could we address this?”
  • “Is that the right decision?”
  • “Let’s think about how we could do this.”

Talk Like the Glass is Half Full

Using generally positive statements goes a LONG way toward a positive classroom environment. Here are a few to incorporate into your daily dialogue.

Try This:

  • “We get to have Math class, now!” (as opposed to “We have to do Math, now.”)
  • DON’T SAY: “Get your work done, then you can play.” (which implies that school is “work” and not fun)

It takes a little diligence to watch our speech, but the power of our words can be transformational in the classroom!

Kelli Lewis is an Early Childhood Education graduate student at the University of Georgia.



Filed under Academic Success, Classroom Community, Discipline

5 responses to “What’s in a Word? Quite a LOT!

  1. Kristin

    You’ve provided some excellent ideas for “discovery” learning and for promoting a positive learning environment. I can’t wait to try many of your great suggestions! Great article, Kelly… keep up the great writing!

  2. Jennifer Nuss

    I have found by being interested in students outside school as well can help. I always tell students to bring me their activity calendars and try to attend an event and show I support them. It gives you a great rapport with parents and students. Also makes a classroom a little more like family.

  3. April A.

    Enthusiasm and showing interest goes a long way with kids. I agree totally on watching your words and staying away from the statement “have to do this”.

    My goal as a teacher (besides teaching of course) is to inspire an interest in learning and this article has great points in that regard.

  4. Rachel

    Great ideas, Kelli! I like to speak to my students as if they are the ones in charge, as if they are going to be the ones to teach me something. I have seen students leave class with such excitement and feeling of achievement after they have figured something out on their own instead of me telling them how to do something. Students usually understand concepts better when they work them out on their own. One of my favorite phrases that I try to use regularly in the classroom is “What questions do you have?” instead of “Who has a question?”. This assumes that someone in the classroom has a question and that it is okay to ask the questions because I am expecting them.

  5. ecossick

    Wow- what GREAT ideas and insights everyone added in their comments. You all deserve a gift card! The lucky duck winner this go-round is Jennifer Nuss– love the idea of having students bring in their activity calendars!