Words have power.
We know this as teachers—especially teachers of literacy. Reading, writing, and speaking are built on the foundation of words to summon feelings, thoughts, and ultimately meaning. We may start with phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships, but what is stated on a college entrance essay, doctoral thesis, or letter to the local planning board demands a variety of reading and writing strategies developed and honed over the course of any student’s literacy journey.
For our students’ words to take hold, we must start with our words. How do you coach a child who dares not to take pencil to paper? What encouraging words do you use when a student drops her head in frustration and says, “I’ll never learn to read.” Whose words do we want to dominate a paper to express an individual voice—the teacher’s or the student’s? When do you stop, reframe the task, or present a new strategy for improved learning?
These are not easy questions, but they arise in classrooms each day in need of responses. It is the teacher’s intentional planning for such dilemmas and practice providing the most effective feedback possible that ultimately motivates students to learn and excel. From struggling to achieving, children need to know the adults in charge are ready for them and will teach skills and use words marked for improvement—not regression.
It’s been said that teachers create the weather in their classrooms. Expressing uncertainty, frustration, and even anger about a child’s struggles can create a student reaction for not working hard, responding in kind, or giving up. The storm clouds rise and learning takes a back seat. In contrast, lessons presented with appropriate follow-up work – re-teaching through challenges for each level of understanding – equipped with the right words to build skill and confidence is when the sun shines, even if students suffer from some drizzle while they learn.
A Growth Mindset
Just as you prepare your lessons, prepare your words. Ready yourself when students fail to get started, get stuck while working hard, breeze through grade-level work, or need a new way to look at an assignment. Understanding a growth mindset is different from internalizing it and putting it into play in your classroom. I came to understand this during my teaching and leadership days while learning to live through the lumps of my own failures. Consider two important questions for yourself:
- What is something you learned, even though it was hard?
- What is something you gave up on and wish you hadn’t?
Encapsulated in each question are growth-minded tendencies and fix-minded ones. How did you overcome being afraid of swimming in the deep end of the pool, or why did you put down your flute never to play again? Your students have similar stories both in school and out. Not only is their skill development in your hands, but so is the foundation of their self worth. Share what you struggled or still struggle with or how you overcame something hard to learn. In doing so, you humanize the learning and create a model for students to follow.
Then work to provide helpful words like, “Let’s take a look back at your lead sentence and discuss another strategy like asking a question, starting with a quote, or using a dramatic statistic—that may work for you.” This is far more inviting then saying something like, “I see you haven’t started on your lead. What’s wrong?” In both instances you notice a struggle. In the first response you offer help; in the second you offer an opportunity to blame—you to student or even, student to you.
The language we use with students then creates a feedback loop in their heads from, “I can’t do this and will never be good at it,” to “I know I can’t do this yet, but my teacher is not giving up on me. I can do it with the right help.” Our students’ self-talk builds inside their heads with messages of hope or harbingers of failure.
How Teachers Influence the Outcome
Teachers have incredible influence on these thoughts, which eventually lead to outcomes. Starting with a belief that every child can read and write and armed with growth-minded praise and feedback, teachers teach more than the words; they teach the magic of words and how each student can develop his unique voice in a world that desperately needs him.
Here are some ways to use the more effective feedback with your students:
- Tell students what you’re “noticing.” When you “notice” something, you’re not applying a judgment. This provides the student with control to place value on what is being said and what will come next.
- Start with an outcome. If you want a student to try harder, you’re going to have say something besides, “Please try again.” Ask yourself what strategy a student has tried and then offer or develop a few other strategies the student can try for success.
- If a student complains, saying she can’t do something, respond, “Not yet.” Yet conveys hope. It says we are not done here and you’re not a completed work. Then it’s time to seek the source of frustration and offer words, skills, and strategies marked for improvement.
- Show students where they started and where they are now. Growth doesn’t have to be a C to A grade at the end of a term. In fact, most growth is incremental in fashion. Showing students this kind of growth in the moment reminds them how far they have come and what they have learned.
These are just a few of the suggestions to reaffirm, help you tweak, or make changes in your feedback to students. Please use your words wisely because the power to stunt or to grow is in your hands.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Blog contributor and thought leader Anthony Colannino recently discussed providing feedback to students to foster a growth mindset in a webinar as part of the Lead the Way to Literacy series. View the recording here.
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