Strength in Small Words

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Over the years I’ve discovered that there’s power in small words. Small words can make such a difference in ethos and class climate, but it’s hard to see this until you deliberately try changing a few you use and become conscious of how these subtle tweaks in language can have far reaching effects .

For example, I now often use the word ‘might’ in questions rather than  ‘is’ or ‘does’ because then children feel more inclined to make suggestions. For example, ‘why might Charlie be scared to open the chocolate bar this time?’ as opposed to ‘Why is Charlie scared …’  You  seem to open up the landscape and children feel more inclined to offer up their ideas because you have implicitly signalled to them that you may not have the right answer (even if you have). That’s the trouble with teaching sometimes, the old ‘guess what I’m thinking’ routine…doesn’t help learning really.

At the same time, teachers also need an open minded attitude to pupil’s answers; they need to be prepared to follow pupils down seemingly dead ends, discuss half-formed ideas and even mull over completely wrong ideas. You learn a lot about misconceptions when you do this, and that can allow pupils to think themselves forward and also help you to get inside what they’re thinking. You have to be prepared to say, ‘Mmm that’s interesting, tell me more…’  For example, ‘Ah interesting,  oh I see, Charlie wants to keep the chocolate wrapper paper nice, he doesn’t want to tear the nice paper.’ You think to yourself, oh no, this child has missed the inferred sense of anticipation and fear of the bar not having a golden ticket. Nevertheless, you probe a bit more. ‘So tell me more about Charlie and the paper then?     …Oh, I see, if there’s a ticket inside he won’t want to tear it – now that’s an interesting idea. Does he know there’s a ticket in there I wonder? No he doesn’t? I see, but there might be. How might that make him feel I wonder? Oh, really scared? What might he be scared of then? Oh I see, scared that it hasn’t got a ticket inside. So is it really about tearing the nice chocolate wrapper paper I wonder or something else? Oh I see, you think it’s more about not getting the ticket… ‘  And so on. Using the words ‘I wonder’ also makes a big difference too;  you’re telling them you’re thinking too, you’re not certain. When there’s too much certainty in a classroom it’s a terrible thing, no room for thinking through uncertainty because someone already knows it all!

Anyway, I find this approach works. It’s only a small tweak, but I’ve seen that it’s changed the way children react to questioning. Which brings me to my next little word that has a big effect. A while ago, I started putting the word ‘yet‘ on the end of some of the things I said to the children and now I hear them saying it too. Where once I might have said, ‘Is that right?’ I now say ‘is that right yet?’ This carries a powerful sense of progress and movement. Even asking a child if they understand it yet seems to change the dynamic a great deal. Or asking them who hasn’t got it yet tells them you’re confident they will soon, you’re saying you see their success ahead. You’re loosening up any ideas of being fixed. It’s even good for behaviour, ‘oh dear, you’re not listening yet’ – give them a chance to look forward.

But there are also plenty more  little words with big effects and these are the ‘goods’ and the ‘well dones’ and even the ‘excellents’ that we might say to children without any real reference to any specific learning. How many times have you walked around the classroom, looked over a piece of work and said ‘good, well done’?  It’s part of our nature to want to praise children, to boost their confidence and make them feel good about themselves, but we need to take care. Too much ‘loose praise,’ as I call it, without reference to exactly what you’re pleased with, means that gradually children get far too involved in ego feelings than acknowledging effective learning. To add to this, most teachers, if they check up, will see that they are praising the same children, in the same way over and over again, while certain children receive very little, in fact maybe they get more frowns than anything else. If you could get someone else to count your ‘praises’ and to whom in a day, I think it would surprise you. So, with those small words of praise, I’ve found it’s important to be clear about what you’re praising and why. ‘Well done, I like the way you’re now remembering the full stops, see?’ If you don’t follow that ‘well done’ with the explanation, it’s likely the child will sit there and just feel good about themselves but not make any reference to the learning task at hand. Again, it’s a subtle point, but some care here  actually helps children invest themselves in their learning in the right way. We spend a lot of time talking about the comments we write in children’s books and how to ask all those higher order questions etc, but it’s also important to think about the day to day more informal ways we talk to children too.

So, something to think about over the summer. We need a break!

Well done to us…for getting through this year of uncertainly and change.

3 thoughts on “Strength in Small Words

    1. Have you tried these small changes then in class? Would be interested to hear what you’re experience of them was. I found there was a difference in how pupils responded to questioning and then overall task focus when praised more specifically, as I explained . These small things add to an overall ethos so that in the end many ‘marginal gains’ create a big gain in class climate.

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