George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Language That Encourages Learning

Rather than telling students the work they’re about to do will be ‘easy,’ be honest about some difficulties they may face and how you’ll support them.

November 1, 2022
Photo of high school students and teacher in science class
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

I recently observed a teacher introducing an upcoming heart rate lab by telling the students how “easy” the lab would be. She reiterated her point several times, explaining that they would “get it right away” and “really, this is so easy,” with extra verbal and physical emphasis on “so.”

As I listened to the words she chose, I was struck by the immense weight of those words and how small shifts in teacher language might have changed the metaphorical temperature of the room and the literal emotions of her students. 

I’m sure her goal of using the word “easy” was to lower any anxiety or trepidation these freshmen students might have felt going into this new lab in their new school year. I’m sure she wanted them to feel empowered in knowing they would be successful in this task. 

However, as I listened to her talk about the ease of the lab, I thought, what happens if students don’t “get it right away” and the lab is not as “easy” as the teacher says it will be? What happens if students feel “dumb” because something that is “so easy” really wasn’t? Youki Terada, research and standards editor for Edutopia, explains, “The fear of being outed as incompetent can lead to a downward spiral of inadequacy, nervous fretting, and further mistakes.”  

Language that promotes learning growth

When we use such intensive language in our classroom, and our students aren’t able to meet the expectations of that language—at least not initially—will our students feel “incompetent,” unable to overcome perceived mistakes that might not even occur?

We know the value of teacher language in our classrooms. According to Amanda Heyn, “Language permeates everything we do in the classroom, from giving directions to demonstrating techniques to critiquing student work. Learning how to change your language to help students develop a growth mindset can be a game changer.”

Teacher language is a critical part of a student’s success. It can create a classroom community of curious, inspired learners ready to tackle the learning, or it can create a classroom of fearful, anxious students who are afraid to take risks and of being perceived as failures. 

Changing our language to empower our students is vital to student success in and out of the classroom. In my book Not Yet… And That’s OK: How Productive Struggle Fosters Student Learning, I explain numerous ways teachers can use language to inspire students in the classroom. I’ve chosen four to share with you.

Be transparent: Tell your students that parts of the learning task will be challenging, but you have chosen this work because you know that with time and support, they’ll be successful. We don’t want to make it sound as if the learning will be easy;  instead, explain to students that they’ll have access to you, their peers, and resources that will support them as they engage in productive struggle that demonstrates what they know and are able to do. By being honest with your students, you’re creating an authentic and trusting classroom community.

Be supportive: Let your students know that you won’t help them; rather, you will support them. “Help” construes that you are there to rescue them or save them. Instead, explain to your students that you’ll support them in becoming critical thinkers and problem solvers by offering scaffolds—steps of support—to their learning. Tell them they will encounter obstacles and setbacks as a natural part of the learning process, but the scaffolds will support them in moving forward.

Be flexible: Tell your students that you’ll give them time to reflect upon their learning as a way to continue their academic growth. We want our students to be cognizant of their own learning process—what works for them and what doesn’t. Let students know there will be time set aside during and after a lesson, unit, or project to engage in self-reflection. Give students a chance to determine what they need to be successful without necessarily relying on only the teacher for critique or evaluation.

Be inclusive: Tell your students that you want to create a positive relationship with them. We know that if students don’t trust their teachers or think their teachers don’t care about them, they won’t have any incentive or reason to want to persist when learning becomes difficult.

When we offer choice opportunities of learning, or give students a chance to connect with each other, or show empathy in understanding students’ feelings, we create a classroom of tolerance where students can ultimately be themselves.

We all want the very best for our students—academically and personally. Consider your language as you reflect upon today’s classes—were you transparent, supportive, flexible, and inclusive? Applying the above suggestions might give your students the opportunity to overcome feelings of inadequacy or worries about future mistakes. Implementing these tips might help them develop a growth mindset meant to inspire and encourage as they overcome obstacles and setbacks in the classroom and beyond.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Formative Assessment
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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