Using Language to Maximize Learning
Educators often worry that what they teach goes in one ear and out the other, but the right language can help produce a more engaged and efficient classroom, said Jenny Edwards in her session “How to Talk So Students Learn.”
Creating a learning environment that conveys excitement, relates content to students’ lives, and makes students feel comfortable and intelligent will engage students in the lesson and help them internalize the information.
Edwards, a faculty member at the Fielding Graduate University for the doctoral program in education, leadership, and change, knows firsthand that a teacher’s enthusiasm can change students’ attitudes about a class and leave them inspired.
She described her experience teaching an introductory statistics course where, on the first day, students walked in dreading the class. She countered by sharing her zeal for the content: “This is so much fun!”
Teachers can also engage students by relating the content to their lives. Daniel Reyes and Homero Gonzales, partners at Fifth Freedom Educational Consultants, suggest having students write about their countries of origin to integrate their culture into the classroom.
“In that manner, the students feel safe and they feel welcome,” Gonzales said.
Fostering students’ feelings of intelligence is another engagement strategy, Edwards noted. Giving a brief overview of a coming topic a week before the unit begins, and offering additional resources on the subject, helps students feel like they know more about the topic when the lesson rolls around.
“We can only learn what we almost know,” Edwards said.
Language is a major factor in classroom dynamics, and “continuing” phrases—such as “We are working together” as opposed to “We work together”—let students know that learning is an ongoing process and can help them feel and be more involved, Edwards said.
She also encourages instructors to use invitational questions that contain tentative language. Asking questions like, “What could be…?” lets students know that there are multiple possibilities, rather than one right answer. When asking students questions, there are several benefits to waiting longer to call on a student and then giving that student more time to answer.
Teachers who waited 2.7 seconds or more before calling on a student and before asking another question heard longer student responses, as well as more answers supported by logical arguments, according to research by late Mary Budd Rowe.
Paraphrasing what students say is also an effective communication tool, because it reinforces to students that teachers are really listening to them. Referencing Arthur L. Costa and Robert J. Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, Edwards suggests keeping the focus on students by responding, “So you are feeling frustrated because….” Teachers can also help students organize their thoughts by communicating, “So you have three ideas….”
Edwards also emphasized the importance of sharing with students the next step in the learning process so that they understand how completing a specific task today relates to something they will do next week.
“It’s really helpful to tell learners where they’re going,” she concluded.