What are the words most frequently used by teachers in the classroom? And what impact do they have? To find out, primary teacher Sally Kawagoe asked her pupils to keep a tally – and the results were surprising
Estimates on the number of words that the average person speaks each day vary widely, with research suggesting we utter anything between 7,000 and 16,000 in our waking hours.
But teachers, of course, are not your average people: the number of words that escape from their mouths in 24 hours will be vastly more than 16,000.
How useful, though, are all of those words? What are we actually saying? What are the most common words that teachers use and what impact are those choices having on children’s learning?
Interested to find out, I asked a group of brave colleagues, from different year groups in our average-sized primary school, to help me gather some data. We asked the children to spend an hour really listening to what we were saying and keep a tally chart of the most common words we used.
It’s fair to say that the staff felt slightly exposed – what if the most common word was something embarrassing? However, the children immediately loved the idea, delighted at the opportunity to reveal our verbal tics.
Let’s be clear: this was not a scientific study. There was inevitable variation depending on individual teachers, the subjects being taught, the age range and the focus of the children collecting the data.
What was interesting, though, was the uniformity of many of our word choices. I’d like to say that there was a proliferation of words like “think”, “challenge”, “question” or even “contemplate”, “stimulate” and “query”. But, in reality, the words the children picked up on were much simpler.
And if we extrapolate this data over longer time periods, we can see how much power that these few words have: with the average school day lasting for five hours, a word spoken perhaps seven times over the course of an hour could potentially be heard 35 times over a day, 175 times over a week, and that’s 6,825 times over the average school year. So what were those frequent words? Here’s the top 10 countdown:
10. ‘Quietly’ – four times per hour
No great surprise here: this is a common classroom management term. But while meek and mild maketh a manageable classroom environment, do they create leaders, thinkers and those who will disrupt the status quo?
Furthermore, does this concept feed into arguably damaging Victorian ideals – that children should be seen but not heard? Perhaps we are silencing students too often, which is a frightening thought.
9. ‘Sanitise’ – five times per hour
Well, it had to be there, didn’t it? In these times of Covid, it’s a term that we have to repeat so often. But are we overdoing it? Is our own anxiety around the virus moving us from cautious to over-cautious?
8. ‘Word’ – seven times per hour
Almost certainly its position is down to the focus on individual words in the primary curriculum – at secondary, you’d expect to hear it much less. Unlike the previous two entries, perhaps the issue here is that we don’t say this one enough.
7. ‘Don’t’ – 11 times per hour
This one is depressingly negative. The implication here is: you must cease something – something that you are doing or about to do is wrong. But what would the impact be if we simply switched this around to the positive and instead said “Do…”? I suddenly want to find out.
6. ‘Books’ – 13 times per hour
I liked this one. We were relieved that it placed so highly. Its appearance in our top 10 shows that books are things of value to us, and thus to our pupils.
5. ‘Well done’ – 15 times per hour
The negative effects of over-praise or inappropriate praise are well documented. However, used sparingly, this phrase can have real impact. So it being placed at number 5 suggests that, maybe, we are getting this just right.
4. ‘Right’ – 18 times per hour
The high position of this word is possibly down to its dual usage – on one hand, it is used to denote something being correct, but, on the other, it is used as a kind of verbal punctuation for a stop or when we want to move on. On the first point of use, perhaps we need to introduce a little more nuance? On the second, we should probably aim for a bit more variation.
3. ‘Stop’ – 19 times per hour
Taking into account the frequent use of “don’t”, all those comments on number 7 suddenly become even more urgent.
2. ‘So’ – 23 times per hour
Another verbal tic? 115 times a day, 575 times a week, 22,425 times in a school year – that’s a lot of “so”. Surely, we can try and broaden our children’s vocabulary a little further…
1. ‘OK’ – 27 times per hour
Initially, this alarmed me. Do we really want our children’s most frequently heard word to be one so staggeringly lacking in ambition?
On the other hand, there’s something both calming and comforting about OK, which is pertinent at the moment. We are OK.
And that’s that. Were the final tallies a surprise? Initially, yes. It would have been wonderful to have a list of words that were complex, imaginative and inspiring, but the most common words in the English language are not the longest or the most thought-provoking. What teachers say inevitably reflects our language as a whole.
And our job is instructional, so we will naturally lean heavily towards instructional words. You can see that clearly here.
That said, this exercise taught us that, even within that context, the words that we choose really can matter. Language is incredibly nuanced; it is also powerful. We need to tread wisely.
Sally Kawagoe is a primary school teacher in the East Midlands
This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline “The impact of teachers’ most common phrases”