Choosing the right word for every occasion

11th November 2011 at 00:00

"Never say `I love you, but .'" a relative once advised me. "Always say `I love you and .'".

Swapping one short word, the "but" for an "and", defused the negative in the sentence. It turned a rebuke ("I love you, but your clothes are weird") into acceptance ("I love you and your clothes are weird").

Small changes to the words we use can make a difference to how people respond to us. There are few places where this is more true than in the classroom. After all, a room full of pupils should be hanging on your every word - or at least pretending they are.

How your choice of words can influence your students is the focus of this edition's special report (pages 4-7) by Professor Guy Claxton and Professor Bill Lucas of the Centre for Real-World Learning at Winchester University. As the research they cover suggests, something as small as talking about "learning" instead of "work" can alter how pupils respond to a task. Choice of words is a small but significant part of their Building Learning Power programme, which we will examine more broadly in a future TESpro.

However, teachers can be rightly cynical about educational crazes for certain words. Some words have seen their meaning distorted: "standards" has been reduced to signify "exam results", while "exclusion" has morphed into "expulsion". Other favoured phrases smack horribly of jargon: "lead learner" can have the same effect on sceptical teachers as nails on a blackboard.

Claxton and Lucas's own favoured words - resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity - may sound at first like the kind of "core values" list that businesses love to spend time on when they are not inventing a new corporate mission statement.

So some scepticism is understandable. But it doesn't cost anything to try different words. It is up to you whether your preferred response is "This sounds wacky, but I'll try it", or "This sounds wacky and I'll try it".

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

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