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Alluring Language, by Susan Mandel Glazer

Manage the classroom with language that entices kids to learn

In Anya's Bell, a made-for-television movie, the main character is a vision-impaired woman who never leaves her house out of fear of doing so. Her friendship with a 10-year-old boy with dyslexia who is determined to help her take on the world outside her home results in a two-way deal. The woman will permit the child to guide her, but only if he lets her teach him to read braille. The respectful reciprocity between the two friends predictably – this is TV, after all – yet warmly results in his learning to read and her finally venturing out of her home.

Relevant for teachers
This sensitive film includes its distressing moments. The boy is victim to peers calling him names like "retard" and "dummy." His teacher lacks knowledge about children who learn differently, and uses embarrassment tactics and punishment. In one scene the teacher reports to the boy's mother, "I kept him in the dunce corner for weeks. He failed both his spelling and reading tests. His lack of respect for authority is intolerable." His mother protests that the child studies diligently every night, but the teacher dismisses this claim, saying it can't possibly be true given his poor performance. The conference ends with a distraught parent shouting that the teacher is not competent to work with children.

Uneasy learning
Television programs like this make a difference in guiding the public to understand a bit more about special needs kids. But it is you, the teacher, who is most responsible for coaxing colleagues and caregivers to recognize how they may be negatively interacting with these children.

Schools are filled with kids who learn differently. Lack of understanding about how these children learn leads to inappropriate treatment of them by the people in their lives.

My experience working with children, their parents and teachers has convinced me that those who easily learn cannot possibly understand the anxiety, pain and stress experienced by those who don't. I know that for me and likely for others who guide these special kids, negative interactions result in feelings of guilt and of having fallen short, for it is certain that our discouragement is felt by the children.

Examining verbal habits
Only when teachers and parents gain self-awareness about their interactions with students can they begin to change their behaviors. For most of us, that means becoming aware of some of the bad habits we've developed and finding strategies for breaking them. This is especially hard with verbal habits. How many times, for example, have you heard a well-meaning adult say to a child, "Oh, you can do better than that!" or, "I'm surprised you didn't include all the things you know in your answer."

Children's desire to learn is largely dependent upon their trust in those responsible for their education. Trust is built through language. How we speak to children, interact and negotiate with them plays a large part in their academic lives.

Language that works
Over the years, we at the Center for Reading and Writing at Rider University have discovered ways to say things to learners that boost rather than discourage their self-esteem. The difference is sometimes subtle. This chart illustrates phrases teachers can adopt in various situations to better lure their students into learning.

Notice that all of the phrases on the left are directives, not suggestions. The pronoun "I" is used, often making the teacher rather than the learner the focus of attention. This suggests that the teacher is more important than the student, and it can rob the child of a sense of pride in, and sovereignty of, their learning process.

A fresh start
The language we use from day one determines the tone of the classroom. Everything we say to our students has meaning for each, and in different ways. Perhaps begin your year by reading Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Language by Peter Johnston (Stenhouse, 2004). Dr. Johnston is a professor at the University at Albany-SUNY and the author of several books about literacy assessment. Choice Words profiles examples from classrooms of several literacy teachers who Johnston studied. It is a wonderful guide for choosing your words wisely in order to set the stage for a flourishing learning environment.

Influential Classroom Language Comparison Chart
NOT HelpfulHelpful

Recognition "Oh, you did that better yesterday." "You finally got it right!"

"So glad you're doing that again. Doing things again and again is how you learn." "Your hard work was worth it. You did the work just right!"

Solving problems "I know you really didn't try hard enough. You know better than that."

"I'll start the five times table with you. Ready...5...10..." (Stop when the child picks up on his or her own.)

Praising "You finally did your work on time!" "I think that's wonderful."

"You finished all your work in the allotted time. That's great!" "It's wonderful that you decided to work with John. You can learn from each other."

Collegial environment "I selected those books for you to read. They're not too hard." "You can't seem to get it. I'll show you how to do it."

"There are several books that you might like to read. They're on the library table." "We can learn this together."

Making suggestions "You've written the same word 10 times. Can't you think of another word?"

"'Happy.' That's a good word. You could also pick 'cheerful,' 'jolly' and 'glad.' They all mean the same thing."

Susan Mandel Glazer is the Director of the Center for Reading and Writing at Rider University in Lawrence, NJ.