Read With Me PD: The Power of Our Words (Part 3)

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

This month, I am reading The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton, EdD. This text is recommended reading, as part of the Responsive Classroom Model to teaching. I am reading and reflecting on this book as an SLP working with early elementary-aged children.

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.

The Power of Our Words describes two types of language to help educators focus on actions, not abstractions: Envisioning Language and Reinforcing Language.

 Envisioning Language

In general, when working with children, it is helpful to focus on clear, actionable ideas over abstract ideas. This is especially true for children with language disorders, who often lack the vocabulary and comprehension skills to follow indirect and implicit classroom expectations.

The author of the Power of Our Words recommends using vision statements to help guide students’ behaviors. As SLPs, we write vision statements in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) all the time. An IEP vision statement is a clearly defined future the Team is trying to attain by completing the steps outlined in the IEP. A student vision statement works in the same way. When creating a vision statement, educators draw on the students’ intrinsic values (e.g., to have fun, be safe, feel important, make friends, learn interesting things) to define an accessible future. They complete the vision statement with clear, actionable steps to achieve that future.

 Example of Envisioning Language in Speech Therapy:

 “Today, in speech, I expect everyone will listen to each other and participate in the activities to become better communicators.”

Following vision statements with open-ended questions, which ask the students how they can make this vision come true, is an excellent way to gauge their understanding of expectations, as well as learn their perspective on the vision.

 Reinforcing Language

 “Children need to know their strengths in order to know what to stand on as they reach for the next higher rung. They need our words to help them do this.”

(Denton, 2018 p. 89)

“Children build on their strengths, not their weaknesses” (Denton, 2018 p. 88). Light bulb! How great is that quote?! I was blown away by it. Seriously, I had to put the book down and digest that little sentence. I spend so much time identifying weaknesses and figuring out the best evidence-based way to improve upon those weaknesses, and then I read this book. I have heard of taking a strengths-based perspective before, and I thought that was what I had been doing. I realize now that I had just been documenting strengths and weaknesses and then focusing on the weaknesses.

This links to my previous post about being a genuine listener; what I need to do is pay attention to my students’ interests, and strengths to help build an engaging learning environment. Reinforcing language can help force that perspective for educators.

“Good job!” “Nice work!” “I like your work ethic.”

 What I liked about the Power of Our Words was that the advice and instructions were realistic for educators. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended a two-day Responsive Classroom training and left feeling overwhelmed and leery of the concepts. This book does a much nicer job explaining the ideology.

 The author says that expressing your personal approval has its time and place. If you are genuinely expressing praise and personal approval to celebrate your students’ triumphs, go for it. “Good job” is for celebrating, not for effecting change. If your goal is to help your students grow, then use specific descriptive feedback. By explicitly labeling positive, concrete behaviors, students learn exactly what they are doing well and should continue doing to succeed.

Continuously framing behaviors emphasizing your personal approval sends the “message that the purpose of good behavior is to please us, when what we want is for children to be motivated toward cooperative, careful behaviors for the sake of themselves and the group” (Denton, 2018 p. 97).

Are you a good jobber? I definitely am! One thing the book mentions while you are embarking on this journey of improving your language for behavior management is to practice catching your mistakes and following them up with the appropriate response. In my speech therapy sessions, you will hear me say things like, “Good job! You used the visuals to help you remember the setting of the story that time.” It is a work in progress.

I highly recommend reading The Power of Our Words for yourself! It includes concrete examples of what to say and when to say it, as well as more in-depth information about each of the general guidelines and types of teacher language. It also includes steps to begin practicing teacher language with your students.


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

Thanks for reading!

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