Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Language Impacts Learning


"...be straight with young children – honest, matter-of-fact, clear, respectful, 
and yes, sometimes humorous too. But not phony" - Lilian Katz

As always my partner, Cheryl, has been challenging me to think critically about the language that I use when supporting and interacting with the children in our classroom.

At the beginning of the year we had a great conversation around the use of the word "friends". I don't know why exactly that I use this term when referring to the children in our classroom. I think I used it as a "term of endearment", yet when Cheryl challenged me to think about why/how I was using it I was quick to recognize that it wasn't the best choice of word.

The children in our classroom are important to me, they do become a second family ... but they are not my "friends". Often I just added the word to the end of a sentence for no reason at all... "Come line up friends". Furthermore, not all children in the classroom are actually friends with each other, nor do we encourage them to be friends with everyone. We have had really honest conversations with children about what being a friend means, what a "best friend" is (a challenging concept at the age of 4!), and how we can still care about people and treat them with respect even if they are not our "friend".

It has grown easier and easier to replace and eliminate the word from my language the more I reflect on it. Friendship can be very confusing to young children - so much of our year is spent developing their understanding of this concept and their social interactions that I wonder how confusing it is when I ask them to "help their friends clean up" or "join their friends in line".

Another word that I overuse is "special". That is not to say this word shouldn't or can't be used, I think for myself personally just reflecting on how and why I am using it ... not everything is special! "You can use the special markers in the art area". Instead I am beginning to slow down my language and substitute different words...interesting, intriguing, new...(or perhaps the language that matches what it is - instead of special markers - permanent markers).

I know how important it is to be real and honest with children, but there are times that I get caught up and need to reign myself in to reflect on the language I use on a daily basis.

During a staff meeting this week we had a discussion around the best strategy we can use in terms of behaviour management and my response was: clear, consistent language that supports children in understanding what we expect and WHY. 

Instead of telling children that during a fire drill we walk quietly and quickly outside - we have a discussion about WHY. The children can then verbalize to others and better understand the importance of why they need to be quiet. We talk about how the firefighters or principals may have a message to share during an emergency.

This brings me back to my favourite intellect... Lilian Katz and reminds me of the messages she shares about being "real" with children. If you don't want them to throw sand, tell them why. Saying "we don't throw sand" is confusing to young children because they definitely DO throw sand, in fact they may have just done it.

I have overhead "we don't hit our friends at school" a few times this year. On so many levels this is a challenging statement. We shouldn't hit people at any time or in any place, but this message could be quite confusing to children. Can we hit our "friends" after school? at home? and it brings back the piece of why....let alone the possible reasons that the student hit in the first place.

Being real with children is probably the best gift that you can give them. Slow down to process what you are going to say to children instead of reactively responding ... something I remind myself more than once on a daily basis! Think critically about all of the language that you use with children and how it is being interpreted, understood, and processed by the young learners we interact with on a daily basis!



10 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very thought provoking post on language. In our classroom we too use the term "friend" all the time! What are you now using as an alternative or how are you wording your comments & greetings to your students?

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    1. I try now to be reflective of what I am saying and the context. For example if asking children to come to the carpet instead of saying "come to the carpet friends", I may just say "come to the carpet". Or when asking children to help tidy up instead of saying "let's help our friends tidy up", I might just rephrase as say "let's see if we can help anyone to tidy".

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  2. Even though I often do take time to explain why (e.g. not throwing sand), sometimes I'm in a hurry or I'm annoyed and I forget. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of using language honestly and carefully.

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    1. Absolutely. I feel the exact same way. With a busy and full classroom while you are in the midst of documenting and learning alongside children it can be frustrating/exhausting as an educator to "press pause" and take the time to talk through things with children. However, the more time we take the more children are able to self regulate and solve problems independently.

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  3. Interesting post, however I was compelled to reply as I found your thoughts on the utilization of the word 'friends' perplexing and unfounded. I think you are overthinking semantics here. The utilization of the word 'friends' is a kind and community driven way to address children. It speaks to the community of friendships that are taking place in a kindergarten class. It also speaks to the 'Alfie Kohn' positive classroom community (or tribe) that we should be building and accentuating. I think K children should learn to accept others uniqueness's and celebrate them. From the Aflie Kohn perspective it is best to help children see the good in all their classmates, yes some are better friends than others....but all should still be able to be friends. Teaching and leading in a way that asserts cooperation, kindness, deep compassion and true respect is paramount in an FDK classroom....and the word utilization of 'friends' by leaders only helps to strengthen these important learning skills.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thinking. I think we learn by challenging each other and your response definitely makes me reflect on my beliefs. My partner and I work very hard to create a classroom community built on trust, respect, celebrating each others strengths/needs. However, I do not think that all children should be referred to as friends because quite simply they are not friends. When reflecting on the "adult/work" world, we are not friends with everyone that we work with or socialize with...but that certainly doesn't mean we don't work hard to create environments built on compassion, respect, and equity.

      I guess my thought process returns to the fact that it can be very confusing to call children "friends" (of each other or yourself) when they are not.

      Most importantly, I think using accurate/real language actually promotes these concepts even further. Although not everyone is a friend of mine, I still need to value who they are, how their contribute to our classroom, and how their fit into my life.

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  4. This is an important issue for teachers to remember. I stopped using "friends" a couple of years ago for the same reason. I wonder about your repeated reference in this and other posts to "children" - if we are speaking as educators, I believe we should be referring to "students" and not "children." Food for thought.

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    1. Good question/wondering. I am not sure I feel the same way about the word children. It is an accurate label. There is a distinction between children and adults. Also do use the word students or boys/girls - all are accurate, real descriptors :)

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  5. Recently I heard the over use of the word friend in a kinder class. It bothered me because it sounded phony and pointless. The children couldn't relate to the teacher or the situation.

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  6. Thank you for such a thought-provoking article. Great reminder to be mindful of how we speak to the children we teach!

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