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Three Ways Teachers Can Use Language More Effectively

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Reinforcing, Reminding, and Redirecting: The ‘3 Rs’ of Teacher Language” by Paula Denton in Responsive Classroom, Winter 2014 (pp. 1-5); (excerpted from Ms. Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words, 2nd Ed., 2013).
In this thoughtful article in Responsive Classroom, author Paula Denton says that teachers’ choice of words, tone of voice, and pacing have a big influence on how students think, act, and learn. She identifies “3 Rs” and describes ineffective and effective strategies in each area:
• Reinforcing language
Effective teachers notice and highlight students’ accomplishments, effort, and attitudes:
- They name concrete, specific behaviors so students will know what to keep doing. Instead of saying, “Good job” or “Your spelling shows progress,” say “You remembered to change the ‘y’ to ‘i’ when adding ‘ed.’”
- They de-emphasize personal approval so the focus is on improving skills, not pleasing the teacher. Instead of saying “I am so pleased with the way you added key details to your main point,” say “You added key details to your main point. That helps your audience understand and be persuaded.”
- They avoid holding up one student as an example to others. “The student held up may feel triumphant, but others are likely to feel devalued or criticized,” says Ms. Denton. “And the student held up may even feel embarrassed. Instead of saying, “Notice how Glenda used four sources for her research project. Let’s see all of you do that,” say privately to Glenda, “You used at least three sources as we learned to do. That makes your research credible.”
- Find positives to reinforce in all students so that, over time, every child has his or her strengths appreciated.
• Reminding language
“By using reminding language before students start a possibly challenging task, or right when they start to make a mistake, teachers help them stay on task, organized, responsible, and safe,” says Ms. Denton. “Also, keep in mind that reminders are most effective when both the student and teacher feel calm.”
- Prompt children to remember for themselves, showing your belief in their competence and helping build autonomy. Instead of saying, “Sit alone or next to someone you will not be tempted to talk to,” say, “Think about what you can do to help yourself concentrate.”
- Use matter-of-fact tone and body language, helping students focus on what needs to be done rather than what the teacher thinks of them. Instead of saying, “What did we say is the next step in making these kinds of graphs?” in a singsong voice, arms crossed, eyes rolling, say, “What did we say is the next step in making these kinds of graphs?” with neutral body language.
- Be brief; students tune out long directives. Instead of saying, “I am hearing people starting to sound disrespectful when they disagree. Everyone, remember to say ‘I hear your point, but I have a different idea’ or ask a clarifying question the way we learned. If we interrupt and say things like ‘No, that is not true,’ or ‘You are wrong,’ we will shut down discussion,” say “What did we learn about disagreeing honestly and respectfully?”
- Watch for follow-through, because if we do not, children may learn that the teacher’s words can be ignored. Instead of giving a reminder and immediately turning to something else, watch and acknowledge the child’s action with a nod or a smile.
• Redirecting language
“When students are doing something harmful to themselves or others, are too far into a mistake to correct themselves, or are too emotional to think reasonably about what they are supposed to be doing, teachers need to redirect them,” says Ms. Denton. Her suggestions:
- Be direct and specific. Instead of saying, “Casey, you need to work harder,” say, “Casey, put your watch away and continue with your assignment right now.”
- Say what to do instead of what not to do. The latter can sound like a complaint or an attack on a student’s character. Instead of saying, “Class, stop wasting everyone’s time,” say, “Freeze. Everyone return to your seat with your folder. Then we will start.”
- Redirect with a statement, not a question. Questions give the illusion of choice and can confuse students. Instead of saying, “Anna, could you refocus on your math?” say, “Anna, refocus on your math.”
- Follow up if necessary. Instead of redirecting a student and turning away to deal with something else, watch to see if the student complies, and if not, move the student to a seat closer to you or have the student take a time-out away from other students.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 520, 20 January 2014.

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