Seven Language Moves for Learning

Language unsurprisingly is a powerful force in education. As Ron Ritchhart notes in ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, language “is at once ubiquitous, surrounding us constantly, yet we hardly take notice of its subtleties and power.” If we wish to maximise the impact we have, if we hope to achieve particular goals, and if we wish to shape the culture of our classrooms, we must consider the role that language plays. 

Our language choices communicate both intended and unintended messages. In the choices we make, in the subtlety of these choices, lies a truth more powerful than that conveyed by a literal reading of our words. When we look closely and critically at our use of language, we begin to see particular patterns which reveal much about what we genuinely value and expect from our learners. 

There are words which we use with high frequency. Work is one such word. We remind our classes to get back to work, to start their work, to work carefully, to finish all their work. We should not then be surprised that students imagine their role in the classroom is to do the work. This might not be the message we had hoped to convey about learning. Once you notice the number of times that you use the word work, you become open to the idea of using alternatives. In recognising the overuse of this word, we see the possibility that a more deliberate approach to our language choices might have. 

If we are going to leverage language to achieve our goals, we need to become aware of its subtle power. Ron Ritchhart identifies seven language moves that teachers make. Awareness of these seven moves can be the first step towards more facilitative language choices. 

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The first is a language of thinking. The teacher who is aware of this language move will utilise questions which engage their students in thinking. Often the most powerful change we can make to our teaching is the addition of one simple question: What makes you say that? By asking this question, I invite my students to move beyond providing what they imagine to be an accurate answer. By asking ‘What makes you say that?’ I require that my students offer a reasoned logic for the responses they provide. By asking this question often, I send the message that I value their thinking. When I then notice and name the thinking moves made by my students, I reinforce this message. If I praise a student for their critical thinking, for their efforts to make connections or to reason with evidence, I send clear signals that learning requires thinking. 

My language choices can build community. Noticing that we are a class of learners and that we have exciting learning to engage with today reflects a subtle choice of language. I might have stated this differently. You are learners, and you have much learning to do is much less inclusive than the first telling of the same set of facts. Use of the words we, and us and our indicate community in ways that you, I and my or mine do not. When the teacher talks about the learning that we are doing the message is clear that the community of learners includes the teacher as a member and that we are all learning together. 

Do we do mathematics or are we mathematicians? Do we study writing, or are we authors? Do we learn about places and spaces or do we think like geographers. By utilising a language of identity, we bring a new mindset to our classrooms. We empower our students to step into the shoes of the expert. When we use a language of identity, we invite our learners to become active participants in a discipline rather than temporary visitors, just passing through. 

When I outline the steps to be taken in a project or activity, I remove opportunities for students to demonstrate initiative. When I ask them to describe their plan, I allow them to take initiative. When a student comes to me because they don’t know what to do, I have a choice to make in how I respond. If I rescue them and show them how to proceed, I promote dependence. If I ask them to describe the steps they have already taken and then prompt them to think of what else they might try, I allow them to retain ownership of the process. Powerful questions such as ‘How might you see this differently?’, ‘What do you think is going on here?’ and ‘What parts of this do you understand?’ are supportive of student initiative. 

In some instances, the power of language is so subtle that it comes down to the choice of one word. If I ask the question “What can we do about this?” my language choice has unconsciously restricted the responses I will receive to those that are imagined to be possible. I have limited the scope of options I will receive back simply because I selected the word ‘can’ instead of more open and inviting ‘might’. When I ask ‘What might we do about this?’ I indicate that I am open to any and all suggestions. The responses offered to questions using a mindful ‘might’ are shown to be more diverse and more creative than those elicited by the use of ‘can’ or ‘could’ or ‘should.’

We might like to be told that we have done a good job. It might be nice to be told we are intelligent and talented. The trouble is that as feedback, this sort of praise is practically useless. More useful is feedback that provides me with specific and actionable detail of what I have done well and what I might want to do less of in the future. In place of praising a student for a great piece of writing, we can notice their choice of discipline-specific vocabulary, their effective paragraph structure and their clear opening sentence which made their argument apparent and understandable. 

The final language move requires us to become skilled listeners. Sometimes this means saying nothing. If we are talking all the time, what space do we leave for other voices to be heard? When we are listening, we make choices about how we respond that indicate how we value the role of listening. Reflective questions which show we desire to clarify our understanding of what the speaker has shared suggest that we appreciate what they have to say. Questions which encourage the speaker to reflect on their understanding or that invite an alternate perspective, allow us to become a valued participant in the speakers thinking.

Becoming aware of the seven language moves might serve to enhance the impact that our language choices have. As with each of the eight cultural forces, language is an inescapable part of our classroom culture. We can leave it to chance and hope for the best or we can practice noticing the choices we make and become more deliberate with the language moves we make.

By Nigel Coutts