Educator Insights

Language That Can Change Lives

Just a few days ago I was part of a book club with a group of young teachers. Over the past few years I have worked as a learning support facilitator in their classrooms and developed valuable friendships with them. I admire them for working hard alongside their students in creating safe and inspiring learning environments.

Our discussion focused on the most powerful teaching tool in the classroom: language. We came together to discuss the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter Johnston (2004, Stenhouse Publishers).

Johnston talks about the power of language – how it can empower students and give them a sense of agency – a sense of imagining that they can do something. However it can also have the opposite effect of shutting down the will to participate. As teachers, through our interactions with children, we model language that will become part of their discourse history. As we respond to children, we are also teaching them how to respond to others.

It is interesting to go into classrooms and observe children’s language. Although their language is influenced by many outside-of-school factors, there is much to be learned about the classroom culture by listening to students. Discourse within a constructivist approach results in different relationships within the classroom than within a transmission approach, and results in a different depth of knowledge gained. Of course we all have our moments when we think back to things we have said, should have said or didn’t say. Could it have changed someone’s life?

The reading of this book was very timely because we have just been through a federal election in our country. I thought about listening to people’s thoughts in the news or conversations that I had been a part of recently as our country prepared for this election. There were those who seemed relatively comfortable in explaining their positions on issues and yet tolerant of uncertainty and other perspectives.

Then there were those who tended to stereotype and fear diverse perspectives. There were also those who seemed quite apathetic. If the goal of education is to develop engaged citizens with a sense of self, community and place who are lifelong learners, and who contribute to the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of local and global communities, we must look beyond the technical skills of reading and writing and engage children in meaningful literacy experiences.

They need to experience talking about these issues and develop the vocabulary necessary to discuss complex issues.  Doing so can help develop a sense of agency within children – the sense that they can do and say something to make the world a better place.

My teacher friends continue to grapple with ways to do this in their classrooms in spite of pressures from the outside to focus more on the technical skills of reading and writing. I look forward to a continued conversation of Johnston’s book and would encourage readers to find this book.

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Contributing Author

Marg Epp (MEd, University of Saskatchewan) has over 30 years of teaching preschool to middle years and undergraduate education students. She continues to work with teacher candidates and professional development opportunities for K-12 classroom teachers. She is particularly interested in the area of students and teachers creating caring classroom environments conducive to learning and peacebuilding.

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