In Our Words

The Language of Learning: Little words have big impacts
The Language of Learning: Little words have big impacts

The Language of Learning: Little words have big impacts

by Andrew Hutton, English Team Leader

Many years ago, when I began learning Japanese and started forming my first Japanese sentences, I realised how big a difference a couple of small words could make. For example, in English we quite commonly begin a sentence with the subject "I" or "you". I found it interesting that beginning a sentence in Japanese with the equivalent "anata ga" was considered rude, and I often had to check myself to stop using this impolite way of speaking that came quite naturally to me. If little pronouns like this could have such an effect on how one might perceive courtesy, what effect might such seemingly innocuous word use have on other areas of our lives as well?

As it turns out, quite a lot! One day, years later, I sat for two whole days in a professional development workshop, gradually becoming more irritated with each successive use of the pronouns "I" and "you" that were spoken by the facilitator. I later wondered what was it that had annoyed me so much, and realised that it wasn't the issue of Japanese cultural context coming into play this time.

The language of community vs. distance

Rather, these words immediately set up a dichotomy between the workshop facilitator and participants. Instead of creating a sense of inclusiveness, collaboration, and community, it created a feeling of distance, separateness, and control. Ron Ritchart, in his work with Harvard Project Zero and the Making Thinking Visible program, has himself identified such language use as one of the cultural forces that define learning. He calls this the language of community vs. distance. Instead of the divisive 'I' and 'you', the facilitator should have been using 'we', 'us' and 'our'. With learning being such a social, collaborative endeavour, we could all enhance learning by adopting the language of community. So what other types of language could facilitate enhanced learning, helpful to all of us as parents and teachers? Ron Ritchart breaks down another five types.

The language of personal agency vs. rescuing

When students who we care about struggle, family, friends and teachers tend to jump in and rescue them. They might say something like: "What you need to do here is..." or "Try doing it this way...". In order to foster active decision-makers who have agency, we would do better to ask questions that encourage the students to solve their own problems. For example: "How are you planning on..." or "What are you going to do to address that issue?"

The language of knowing (conditional vs. absolute)

Everyone with children knows how inquisitive they are, constantly asking questions about how the world around them works. Often, we leap to offer definitive, objective facts in answer. However, this might encourage rigid thinkers who tend to consider knowledge as fixed and absolute rather than conditional. Open-minded thinkers, on the other hand, are more receptive to new ideas and information. We can foster the latter mindset by using language such as "It might be that..." rather than the more definitive "It is...".

The language of identity

As we learn more about various disciplines, we adopt new identities as writers, mathematicians, scientists, actors, and so on. This sense of identity is important for learning, and we can foster this by starting sentences with phrases such as: "As an athlete..." or "As a writer...". As Ritchart states, "These words communicate that it is learning to do and act authentically that matters, not just learning about the subject."

The language of noticing and naming

Education researchers have frequently noticed the importance of metacognitive awareness, and the language of noticing and naming provides students with sophisticated language to define their learning. For example: "That is a perceptive observation" or "That is critical evaluation". When students have the vocabulary to describe the thinking that is happening, it consolidates and reinforces that mental process. So instead of saying something general like: "That's a great idea!", identify what sort of thinking is happening with a more specific observation, like: "That's an interesting connection."

The language of feedback and praise

Finally, the language of feedback and praise has received much attention in the media lately. Have you heard about the 'praise effort, not ability' mantra? This relates to the language of feedback and praise. Ritchart states that effective learning aims to "guide future learning and is specific, descriptive, informative, sincere, and action-oriented, as opposed to global, judgmental, reflexive, and purely evaluative." So instead of saying: "That was really good batting", we could use something like: "You really kept your eye on the ball, shifted your weight well, and had a really smooth swing."

I keep these guidelines pinned above my desk in my classroom to remind me about the big impact of little words I use on a daily basis. Even so, when I step away from my desk and out of the school, I find myself sometimes falling back into the habit of using language that divides, rescues, and judges, because it is quite natural to do so. (Take a walk around the park on the weekend, and I would wager you would hear such language there as well!) It is part of our everyday parlance and requires an effort to overcome, but the benefits of careful language use with our students, our sons and daughters will be well worth it.

N.B. The six categories are taken from Ron Ritchart's "Cultures of Thinking" (2010).