Small Shifts in Language Yield Big Rewards

As soon as I spoke the word “story” in the minilesson to fourth graders in a public school in NYC, I knew it was the wrong word to use.  When the staff developer from the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project gave me feedback, I learned a lasting lesson.  The lesson wasn’t just to use “story” only when talking about fiction and “text” when using non-fiction, but more importantly, it was to be precise and purposeful with our language in workshop.  I keep that idea in mind when coaching teachers in workshop.  Today I am sharing some of the small shifts in language that I have found to yield big rewards with our students.

“Tell me about your decision to…”

Jeff Anderson, author of Everyday Editing, shared this phrase that I have incorporated into my practice.  Sometimes we make assumptions that a student made an error, when in reality they were attempting to use something they learned from a mentor text. This phrase opens up a conversation without imposing judgment on the student.  You may learn that your student was trying something rather sophisticated, and now that concept is in the zone of proximal development.  You just discovered a great teaching point for your conference. I find myself using this phrase not only with students, but also with teachers when debriefing a lesson.

“I want to compliment you on …. AND now I want to teach you…”

I have been working on this one as a personal goal since I first learned it at TCRWP.  It is just a natural inclination to give the compliment and follow it with “but now I want to teach you”.  What happens in the writer’s mind when you use “but”?  Yes, it negates the compliment and all the student hears is the teaching point as a criticism instead of an opportunity for growth.  Just a small shift to using “and” allows the compliment to be heard and processed and motivates the student to want to hear the teaching point.  I have almost eliminated “but” from my language in conferences thanks to the feedback I have received on this goal from other coaches and teachers.

“Readers and Writers…”

     For years I had been taught to use “Good Readers…” or “Good writers…”, although now I have learned to drop the “good” qualifier.  Peter Johnson has done groundbreaking research about using precise language and the difference it makes for learners.  His work prompted TCRWP to drop the good qualifier as some students will turn off from the rest of the statement because they don’t see themselves as good readers and writers.  This is true for our spoken and written language on charts.  Although we want all our students to realize they are good readers and writers, some do not see themselves that way.

“Let me admire you while you…”

Often transitions are an area that can go awry in workshop.  Mary Ehrenworth of TCRWP used this phrase that has become a standard procedure for me when conducting a workshop lesson.  Before students transition remind them of your expectations and let them know you will be providing feedback in the form of a 1-10 rating. It may go like this, “Readers, let me admire you while you transition into your book clubs quickly and quietly with all your materials.  Remember I will be rating your transition on a scale of 1-10.”  During the transition watch for things to compliment them on and areas they can improve on.  The students really respond to the number rating and work hard to improve that rating each time.  It is imperative to give the compliments, “You all earned a rating of 8.  I admire how you all have your materials ready and how you moved quietly,” and the areas to improve, “in order to earn a higher rating next time, you should watch out for each other as a community.  Help your book club members if they need to move chairs and be sure to use your kind manners when passing in the same area.  I am confident you can earn an even higher rating next time.”  I assure you this is an amazing phrase.  As adults we worked all week to earn that higher rating.

I know you all have other examples of how precise language choices can yield big results.  Please feel free to comment below to share with others.

Make it a reading and writing-tastic week!

Melissa Jones

Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic

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5 thoughts on “Small Shifts in Language Yield Big Rewards

  1. Thank you for the ideas Melissa. I never thought about the importance of using precise language during readers and writer’s workshop. I love the idea of using 1-10 rating during transitions!

    Liked by 1 person

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