Language in class: why a teacher is as good as their words

Teacher development should focus on what we say and how it’s understood in the classroom, argues Megan Dixon – and lesson observations are the place to start
7th February 2020, 12:04am
Language Makes A Big Difference

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Language in class: why a teacher is as good as their words

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/language-class-why-teacher-good-their-words

In 2014, Professor Robert Coe and colleagues suggested that if we are going to develop great teachers, it would be worth focusing our efforts on the aspects of teaching and learning where we might make the biggest difference.

What could those areas be? The top three interventions in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit are feedback; developing metacognition and self-regulation; and developing reading comprehension strategies. Fortunately, all three have an important and interesting strand running through them: the importance of words - the language we use, the way we use it and how it is understood.

So would it not make sense, if we are looking to develop great teachers, for us to focus on developing our use of language, how we communicate verbally and non-verbally with our students and how they understand our communication?

We need to ask: how can we, as teachers, become better at communicating with our students? How does our use of language support learning? How does our physical, non-verbal communication help or hinder? What are the implicit, subconscious and unintentional messages we give to our students through our words and deeds?

The lesson observation is an obvious place to begin exploring this. It might be that senior leaders, through the lesson observation process, become another pair of eyes to observe the complex and nuanced interactions that take place and to help each of us understand the pinch points of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

But becoming another pair of eyes demands a different approach to lesson observation; a coaching approach seeking to explore effective practices and build on the strengths of each teacher as a communicator.

Individualised coaching has long been recognised as an effective CPD tool for teachers. Kraft et al (2018) reported an effect size of 0.58 (so worth thinking about), when individualised coaching was used to help teachers implement and change their habits in the classroom.

Teachers and leaders read research evidence to explore what effective communication looks like and how this might translate into their practice. Together, the teachers and leaders identify a particular area to focus on.

During the observation, the leader records what happens - ready to play the lesson back to the teacher - collectively, they are looking to understand and design an evidence-informed response.

The senior leader carefully plans how they will use “language of ongoing regard” (Knight, 2014) to ensure the dialogue is collaborative, tentative - a provisional interpretation. They identify one or two places in the evidence to draw the teacher’s attention to. The meeting is collaborative and collegiate. Both senior leader and teacher agree on the next steps.

Megan Dixon is director of English for the Aspire Educational Trust and co-director of Aspirer Research School

This article originally appeared in the 7 February 2020 issue under the headline “Let’s not mince words: language makes a big difference”

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