Read With Me PD: The Power of Our Words (Part 1)

Read With Me PD: The Power of Our Words Reflection Series

Photo of cover of The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, EdD

My PD read for the month of June is The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton, EdD. The Power of Our Words is published by The Center for Responsive Schools, Inc. It is recommended reading as part of their Responsive Classroom Model. Every educator, related service provider, and support staff member in my school district attended a Responsive Classroom training at the start of the 2018 school year. The training and information disseminated largely pertained to the general education classroom setting. However, I was able to walk away from the training with with game changing behavior management ideas that I felt I could adapt to my speech therapy room. I am ashamed to say that I actually bought this book back in September 2018 and am only now getting around to reading it, but at least I am reading it!

I was drawn to this book, because of the subtitle, Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn. In almost every IEP meeting I attend, I try to convey to parents and educators the huge role language plays in learning and all of life really. Classroom lessons and social interactions are mediated through language. Having a good grasp of language skills and an thorough understanding of how others comprehend you is essential to academic and social success. Too often I walk into a classroom and hear a well-meaning educator give a five-step direction with negation, conditional commands, temporal concepts, and figurative language, and I primarily work in the kindergarten wing. Even as an SLP, I sometimes stumble into using complex, complicated, convoluted language with my students. Understanding how your students understand you is integral to your ability to provide adequate instruction. Enter: The Power of Our Words.

General Guidelines for Teacher Language:

1. Be Direct.

2. Convey Faith in Students’ Abilities and Intentions.

3. Focus on Actions, Not Abstractions.

4. Keep It Brief.

5. Know When to Be Silent.

Denton, P. (2018). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Today, I want to discuss the Be Direct part, because when I first heard of it I thought it sounded insincere. The book framed the idea better than the trainer had.

Being direct with children is respectful.

When you are direct with children, you clearly tell them your expectations. When children understand your expectations, they are (a) able to rise to the occasion and (b) more likely to trust you. Reciprocal trust and respect are invaluable in creating a learning atmosphere.

The book reminded me of the first lesson I thought I learned, but apparently forgot, from grad school–don’t ask, tell. When you ask a student to complete a direction, you are giving them options. For example, I often say things like, “Could you come sit down at the table?” The could implies that there are two options in this situation: sit down at the table or don’t. When the child chooses not to sit at the table, because he thought there was a choice in the matter, and I become upset that he is not sitting at the table with me, he feels confused. Confusion leads to distrust and does not foster a learning environment. It is much more respectful and effective for me to say, “Sit down at the speech table, we are ready to begin.”

I have also fallen into the trap of comparing students, by praising the ones who are doing what is expected. “I like how Johnny is sitting at the table.” The author of the book says something along the lines of, well that’s great for the two of you, but it is completely useless information to the other children (Denton, 2018 p. 14). Saying that you like how another child is behaving, does nothing to explain what that child is doing to meet your expectations. Instead, try describing the behaviors you would like to see. In the example above, I should say, “Come sit down at the table and show me whole body listening.” Use clear, easy to follow expectations that children are able to execute to direct their behavior.

The next, be direct no-no that I absolutely struggle with, is avoiding sarcasm. When I am becoming frustrated by bad behaviors it is easy for me to slip into sarcasm for some comedic relief. During a recent, particularly terrible teletherapy session, a student paused his maladaptive behavior to say, “Did you just roll your eyes at me.” Yehp! I did…

There are two problems with sarcasm:

-It is confusing to children, especially those with language disorders.

-It is also damaging to your role as a compassionate, caring adult in your students’ lives. The author wrote, “[When a teacher uses sarcasm, students] no longer see the teacher as an authority who protects their emotional safety but someone who freely uses the currency of insult” (Denton, 2018 p. 16). Sarcasm, like indirect language, is damaging to the trust you are trying to build with your students.

When you are feeling frustrated, don’t deflect. That is exactly the moment to define your expectations clearly to improve the situation.

Do you struggle with being direct in your directions and expectations? Stay tuned for more insight from this month’s PD read: The Power of Our Words.

Thanks for reading!


Denton, P. (2018). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

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