In the classroom, the words we use have unprecedented power.
The right phrase at the right time means that a student may overcome a misconception, or be motivated to push themselves that bit harder.
But equally, the wrong phrase at the wrong time can have hugely detrimental effects on a student’s learning and, more importantly, their wellbeing.
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With GCSE and A-level exams looming, there are a few phrases that we can avoid using to ensure that we keep students engaged and not give them the chance to divert their attention.
1. 'If you do that again…'
Any conditional phrase can be interpreted as a challenge. To avoid conflict, try not to use sentences that begin with words like “if” and “unless” as these phrases imply a consequence or ultimatum.
Instead, consider using words that are more reflective like “what do you think….?”
This approach builds a sense of responsibility and ownership over behaviour and avoids further inflaming tensions that ultimatums may create.
It’s hard to avoid sometimes, but an outright “no” in a feedback context can absolutely crush a child.
With the time pressures during feedback phrases, it’s easy to forget that "no" links directly to failure and often, no matter how we dress it, the word has hugely negative connotations for students.
Finding merit in responses (no matter how small) is a nice way to ensure that face isn’t lost and confidence isn’t dented.
Experiment with different ways of highlighting positives in an incorrect answer. Often drilling down shows that there are gaps in the learning and understanding of others, too – something that can be beneficial before exams.
3. 'Top of the class'
The concept of being top of the class implies heavily that there is also a bottom of the class. Research suggests that feedback such as this can be damaging to students as they have a reduced sense of self-worth.
Pitching student results against each other in a ranking means that, often, students are made to feel inferior. Instead of a ranking, try to focus on individual merits – not only does this boost confidence, it also models good practice in terms of the task completed.
4. 'Act your age'
Teenagers are teenagers: most of the time, they behave the way they do because they are acting their age!
References to maturity can result in sarcasm or conflict.
Another approach is to build on the idea of responsibility – asking them to think about their behaviour or to reflect on the impact of their behaviour might be more beneficial than a whimsical remark. It can be difficult, but sometimes it’s a better way.
Inevitably, you’ll always get nods and “yes” from a class when you ask this. Do they understand? They might, but quite often, it’s an empty question.
Of course, as their teacher, your intent is genuine, but it’s not an efficient way of ascertaining if the students actually understand what you’ve explained or asked them to do.
6. 'Naturally talented'
Quite often, this is misinterpreted by students. Some think that it translates to “you don’t need to try” and others take it as “this wasn’t hard for you”.
Both can be quite damaging (for obvious reasons) and, actually, the concept of being naturally talented is completely intangible...is anyone born with a natural talent for an AQA English Language Paper 1 Question 3? I don’t know, but I’m assuming it isn’t something that’s hereditary.
Consider carefully how you give praise to avoid it being demotivating.
7. 'This should be easy for you'
The idea of ease shouldn’t really be a factor in classroom talk – nothing is easy in education really.
It also implies a level of failure if something isn’t achieved or correct.
Multiple-choice questions are a favourite – "Oh, these are easy – they’re only multiple choice…"
Instead of referring to the relative difficulty, think about implying the importance of ensuring that these topics or these questions are answered in line with the rigour that others are.
Comments like “it’s impossible to get this wrong” and “nobody will lose marks here” aren’t helpful
8. 'You don’t need to revise for this question'
Championing parts of exams over others needs to be handled carefully. We all know that some questions are better to focus on earlier in the exam than others.
There are certain approaches and mystical witchcraft suggested online, but these should be delivered with caution. The trick is in the wording. Any hint that a teacher doesn’t value a question (or even a whole paper) is quickly assimilated by a class.
Of course, this isn’t the intention, but their interpretation of your words can be a long way from what you intended.
Adam Riches is a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English