Teachers: Are You Exploiting This Powerful Language Skill?

Teachers: Are You Exploiting This Powerful Language Skill? : A Word on Third teaches you how to use Reinforcing Language


There's a powerful tool that builds dynamic learners that we can use about 80 or 90% of our day when we are not directly teaching our mini-lessons, and it's called reinforcing language. This tool has the power to build our community, build our students' confidence and willingness to take risks, and build their knowledge base too. When teachers don't use it, it's usually only because they don't know how to. After all, we probably weren't taught with a ton of the most effective reinforcing language, and there are rarely classroom management classes in our college course catalogue.

All effective language shares these qualities:

  • It's clear and brief. Nobody wants to hear you ramble on forever! Kids lose interest.
  • It's genuine. We know it when you spit out a compliment that you don't mean.
  • Avoids judgement of the child. If a child makes a mistake, make your comment about the behavior or choice, not the child as a person. "You were so mean," is not the same as, "When you took his crayon, it hurt his feelings."
  • Shows faith in the child. Are you begging or threatening your students to behave? We've all been there at one point or another in our careers, but that just doesn't set them up for success. Show your students that you believe in them. If they make a mistake, address it when it happens.
  • It's respectful. It's respectful in word choice, tone, and body language. Most of what we say is interpreted by how we say it. Even if our words are perfect, if our facial expression is snarky, we've conveyed a different meaning than what we intended.

Reinforcing language is simply positive reinforcement that also serves as constructive feedback. There are a few things that bump it up from the typical positive reinforcement we've learned about or tried in our own classrooms. Now... I'm NOT telling you that positive reinforcement is BAD. It's not! It's simply not as effective as it can be at helping your students to grow. 

Here's what makes reinforcing language special:

  • It's specific. Seriously now, what does, "Good job," even mean? What exactly did I do a good job on? Oh, my writing? What in my writing was good?
    • Instead of saying: "Nice job writing!"
      Try saying: "Nice job using your checklist to help you elaborate," or, "Nice job adding commas in your lists!" Now your student can repeat the behavior.
  • It compliments progress, not just the product. Students don't go from no understanding to mastery right away. We need to praise growth, even if it's not the final product we hope for. If we can praise the good behaviors in the middle, it makes it easier to tackle the next behavior.
    • Instead of saying: "Great, now you have to remember to put your backpack away when you unpack."
      Try saying: "I noticed that when you practiced unpacking yesterday, you did not remember to put your backpack away. Today, you did remember! You are moving on the right track. Did you notice all of that extra growth too?"
  • It focuses on intrinsic motivation. We can't rely on motivating students with personal approval. What happens when they have a teacher they don't connect with well? What happens if there aren't exciting prizes in the next classroom? Instead of focusing on our approval, we need to focus on students doing the right thing because it's the right thing.
    • Instead of saying: "I like how you lined up quietly and showed self-control."
      Try saying: "You lined up quietly and showed self-control."
    • If you are someone who relies on saying "I like/love how you..." when reinforcing your students, my favorite way to break that habit is to say the same thing you would normally say without that little beginning part. This was exceptionally hard for me at first, but not having to re-work everything I said helped break this habit quickly.
  • It applies to all students. This is important to remember. Sometimes our most challenging students need the most reinforcement!

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