Thinking About Language (or, Getting Your Own Way).
The other week I read an enlightening blog by @HFletcherWood on the importance of thinking about and choosing carefully the language we use in the classroom. It made me realise that I don’t think enough about the specific words that I use and the effect that they have on my students. In fact, I don’t think I or my colleagues ever think specifically about language in our planning other than in the questions that we will ask, which is usually dictated by a link to SOLO taxonomy or Bloom’s taxonomy, not the social consequences of what we say.
As teachers, most of the things we say both in and out of lessons are performative; that is, we expect the things we say to make things happen, to effect changes in the social worlds of our classrooms. With this in mind we have to be very careful about our choice of language; if what we say is misconstrued by our students, our words will not have the desired effect and learning will be hampered. We have to ensure that our locution (what we say) has the correct and appropriate illocutionary force (what we really mean) to ensure that we can cause the perlocutionary changes (the things that people do as a result of hearing or reading language) we had hoped to achieve.
Let me give an example. A former colleague of mine used to burst into the classroom, usually after the students had arrived, clearly with the sole intention of settling the class quickly and getting them on task. To do this said colleague would throw the door open and start screaming at the top of her lungs at the whole class to be quiet, sit down, take coats off, get equipment out etc. The colleague’s purpose was clear, but the perlocutionary effect of what she did had the complete opposite effect from the one desired. Unsurprisingly, the class would become unruly, rude and uncooperative. Because she wanted the whole class to sit down, shut up etc. she took it upon herself to scream at the whole class to do just that, and so they didn’t.
Now, I’m not claiming to be a behaviour expert here, but how much more effective could this colleague have been if she’d taken the time to think about why her language and actions produced the effects that they did? Clearly, it was the belligerent blustering that was causing otherwise biddable students to become filled with animosity and resentment. And who could blame them? Imagine if the head of your school came into briefing on a Monday morning screaming at the staff to shut up, sit still, take coats off, pay attention etc. What would the reaction be? Initially a stunned silence, probably followed by quiet shocked murmuring and eventually probably a full scale walkout. People do not respond well to being shouted at, end of.
So how can this affect how we approach our delivery of language in the classroom? The only thing I want students to do in the classroom is to be engaged in the tasks I give them in order to allow the learning to take place. This involves me communicating what they need to do in a way that makes them want to do it. To achieve this I need to have them onside. I need to establish what the linguists and philosophers of language call a phatic connection. Effectively this is the linguistic equivalent of the handshake. It means establishing an element of common ground which makes the students want to do what I ask them. I can shout and holler and command all I want but this is unlikely to achieve my goals in the classroom; rather it is more likely to alienate me from the students and make them do my bidding, at best, grudgingly.
There are many ways to establish this phatic connection. Greeting students by name around school as well as at the start of lessons is one way to do this. Ensuring that you know something about them so that you can begin a non-learning themed conversation is another. Making sure marking is up to date so that you can mention something you saw in their books when you see them when you’re on playground duty is another. Maintaining a friendly, confident, inquisitive and knowledgeable yet firm reputation is another.
But what about the actual words we use in the classroom? I firmly dislike all the PC wishy washy nonsense of only praising and being positive. Students will respect you for telling them why something isn’t good enough and being straight and honest with them. But this needs to be aimed at the work and not at the student and, most importantly of all, we have to be clear and specific. Ask them what particular technique could be introduced to make an argument more persuasive; ask them why they chose that particular modal verb as opposed to a different one; demand they tell what that adverbial clause is doing exactly at the start of that sentence. We need to move away from the “do you think that maybe we could possibly make this a little bit better?” That leaves too much room for interpretation on their part on whether or not they need to do the improvement or carry out the task. We must plan our use of language in the classroom so that, as far as possible, it leaves no doubt as to what the sociolinguistic context is and who’s wielding the power, otherwise this gives them too much to think about and deters them from concentrating on the learning. I personally intend to think a lot more about the language I use toward students in all elements of my work in the future, just so that what I want them to do can’t be misinterpreted and misconstrued. Let them focus their mental energy on pursuing the learning they need to succeed, not on trying to decode the way we say things to work out whether or not they need to actually do it.