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Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning

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In productive classrooms, teachers don't just teach children skills: they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities. Teachers create intellectual environments that produce not only technically competent students, but also caring, secure, actively literate human beings. Choice Words shows how teachers accomplish this using their most powerful teaching t In productive classrooms, teachers don't just teach children skills: they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities. Teachers create intellectual environments that produce not only technically competent students, but also caring, secure, actively literate human beings. Choice Words shows how teachers accomplish this using their most powerful teaching tool: language. Throughout, Peter Johnston provides examples of apparently ordinary words, phrases, and uses of language that are pivotal in the orchestration of the classroom. Grounded in a study by accomplished literacy teachers, the book demonstrates how the things we say (and don't say) have surprising consequences for what children learn and for who they become as literate people. Through language, children learn how to become strategic thinkers, not merely learning the literacy strategies. In addition, Johnston examines the complex learning that teachers produce in classrooms that is hard to name and thus is not recognized by tests, by policy-makers, by the general public, and often by teachers themselves, yet is vitally important. This book will be enlightening for any teacher who wishes to be more conscious of the many ways their language helps children acquire literacy skills and view the world, their peers, and themselves in new ways.


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In productive classrooms, teachers don't just teach children skills: they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities. Teachers create intellectual environments that produce not only technically competent students, but also caring, secure, actively literate human beings. Choice Words shows how teachers accomplish this using their most powerful teaching t In productive classrooms, teachers don't just teach children skills: they build emotionally and relationally healthy learning communities. Teachers create intellectual environments that produce not only technically competent students, but also caring, secure, actively literate human beings. Choice Words shows how teachers accomplish this using their most powerful teaching tool: language. Throughout, Peter Johnston provides examples of apparently ordinary words, phrases, and uses of language that are pivotal in the orchestration of the classroom. Grounded in a study by accomplished literacy teachers, the book demonstrates how the things we say (and don't say) have surprising consequences for what children learn and for who they become as literate people. Through language, children learn how to become strategic thinkers, not merely learning the literacy strategies. In addition, Johnston examines the complex learning that teachers produce in classrooms that is hard to name and thus is not recognized by tests, by policy-makers, by the general public, and often by teachers themselves, yet is vitally important. This book will be enlightening for any teacher who wishes to be more conscious of the many ways their language helps children acquire literacy skills and view the world, their peers, and themselves in new ways.

30 review for Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning

  1. 4 out of 5

    Donalyn

    Some education books add to my toolbox-- giving me management techniques, lesson ideas, or assessment tips. Other books are game-changers-- profoundly changing my view of teaching and learning. Choice Words is a paradigm stretching book about how we can change the dynamics of our classrooms and guide students toward their independence and agency. I've read Johnston's book 5 times at least and it definitely helps remind me of what matters. Some education books add to my toolbox-- giving me management techniques, lesson ideas, or assessment tips. Other books are game-changers-- profoundly changing my view of teaching and learning. Choice Words is a paradigm stretching book about how we can change the dynamics of our classrooms and guide students toward their independence and agency. I've read Johnston's book 5 times at least and it definitely helps remind me of what matters.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Ken Rideout

    I really wanted to give this book 4 or 5 stars because I think the underlying idea is so important for teachers and parents. But like so many education oriented books, the whole thing can be collapsed into a short paper. Be careful about how you communicate, the words you use, the tone you set - all these "intangibles" really do define and set expectations for students' (childrens') self perception, role as a learner, relationship to teacher and each other, etc. Think of word choices as importan I really wanted to give this book 4 or 5 stars because I think the underlying idea is so important for teachers and parents. But like so many education oriented books, the whole thing can be collapsed into a short paper. Be careful about how you communicate, the words you use, the tone you set - all these "intangibles" really do define and set expectations for students' (childrens') self perception, role as a learner, relationship to teacher and each other, etc. Think of word choices as important as actions you take with your classroom/children. Contrast "you are so smart" with "you are so thoughtful" or "we have to ____" with "we get to ____". Words are constitutive as well as representational. Like many ideas in education, I wouldn't have been ready to process this early in my teaching career as the ideas are so nebulous and "fluffy" - but, now, I get it and see exemplary teachers do this intuitively all the time.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nichole

    I actually ended up abandoning this book many, many times. My dept head bought if for us several years ago, and being the dutiful teacher I was, I wanted to read the book quickly and gather up all of it's wisdom. I tried exceptionally hard, but I found the book to be extremely dry and long winded. Recently, I tried for the third or fourth time to try and read it, determined to get through it. It's only 100 pages after all. But I dreaded reading time in class, and I was constantly frustrated by t I actually ended up abandoning this book many, many times. My dept head bought if for us several years ago, and being the dutiful teacher I was, I wanted to read the book quickly and gather up all of it's wisdom. I tried exceptionally hard, but I found the book to be extremely dry and long winded. Recently, I tried for the third or fourth time to try and read it, determined to get through it. It's only 100 pages after all. But I dreaded reading time in class, and I was constantly frustrated by the book. I found the vocabulary to be too pretentious, without good reason. The author uses words like "agentive" and "discursive" a LOT, and in doing so, adds more confusion and less understanding. I found the idea of this book insightful, and I was able to gain some helpful phrases. However, I found the actual writing to be less than helpful.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    A strip of a book at 83 pp. All about agency. And about what you say (and how you say it). Of course, just reading the expressions won't help if you don't mean it or if your whole approach to teaching isn't reflected in this kind of talk, so really it's a little book that would require a major adjustment. Some of the lines recommended for disputes reek a bit of PC, but whatever. Written in 2002 or so. Aimed at elementary, but applies at all levels. Nice add for any teacher trying to shift the un A strip of a book at 83 pp. All about agency. And about what you say (and how you say it). Of course, just reading the expressions won't help if you don't mean it or if your whole approach to teaching isn't reflected in this kind of talk, so really it's a little book that would require a major adjustment. Some of the lines recommended for disputes reek a bit of PC, but whatever. Written in 2002 or so. Aimed at elementary, but applies at all levels. Nice add for any teacher trying to shift the unequal ratio of speaking and listening between teachers and students.

  5. 4 out of 5

    katsok

    first read 4/20/10 1/16/12: Interesting how perspective can change a book. I read this over a year and 1/2 ago and thought it was ok. Upon reread I think Johnston is so wise and that this is one amazing book. I'm not sure what was going on during that first read but am I glad I reread it. This is one to read again and again to remind us, as teachers, what is important. reread 8/9/13 = brilliant first read 4/20/10 1/16/12: Interesting how perspective can change a book. I read this over a year and 1/2 ago and thought it was ok. Upon reread I think Johnston is so wise and that this is one amazing book. I'm not sure what was going on during that first read but am I glad I reread it. This is one to read again and again to remind us, as teachers, what is important. reread 8/9/13 = brilliant

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kylie

    An informative and practical book. "Choice Words" is great for the teacher who is working to inspire a struggling reader and enhance language arts instruction. An informative and practical book. "Choice Words" is great for the teacher who is working to inspire a struggling reader and enhance language arts instruction.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Tuggle

    Choice Words is full of helpful tips for teachers (or teachers in training) who value professional development and are accepting to advice on classroom management. For me, this book opened my eyes to the impact my language can have on my students. It is all too easy for us, as educators, to harp on the value of our students voice and language, yet forget about the power of our own language.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Desi

    Great book for teachers to really dive in and have a deeper understanding on how our language in the classroom can truly affect students responses, views on learning and views of themselves.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ian Tymms

    What a gem of a book. At its core is a profound and basic humanism that sees students as deserving of our respect and learning as an act of identity formation. One of the most important and impressive education books I have read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    J-Lynn Van Pelt

    Johnston states the purpose of the book simply; “I focus on those things teachers say (and don’t say) whose combined effect changes the literate lives of their students.” (p.2) When discussing teachers, Johnston says “Talk is the central tool of their trade. With it they mediate children’s activity and experience, and help them make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves.” (p. 4) Johnston believes that speech is an active process, “Speaking is as much an action as hitting someone with Johnston states the purpose of the book simply; “I focus on those things teachers say (and don’t say) whose combined effect changes the literate lives of their students.” (p.2) When discussing teachers, Johnston says “Talk is the central tool of their trade. With it they mediate children’s activity and experience, and help them make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves.” (p. 4) Johnston believes that speech is an active process, “Speaking is as much an action as hitting someone with a stick, or hugging them.” (p. 8) Language can be used to teach explicit skills like vocabulary acquisition or encourage meaningful social development so that students go beyond self confidence to agency which Johnston defines as “a sense that if [students] act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.” (p. 29) He argues that classrooms can become “intellectual environments that produce not mere technical competence, but caring, secure, actively literate human beings.” (p. 2) With all of these concepts in mind, Johnston looks at teachers’ use of strategic and empowering vocabulary and how that language can forward social justice. Johnston advocates a change from traditional instruction. He notes that the common teaching approach is called IRE because the “teacher Initiates, student Responds, and teacher Evaluates.” (p. 53) This approach can be summarized by the following: “knowledge is composed of facts possessed by teachers, who have the authority to transmit it to children, and children know about the world only through the knowledge that is transmitted to them.” (p.54) Johnston argues that this approach is flawed; it is up to the teachers to create a “community of inquiry” that values the students’ input as much as the teachers. (p. 57) Teachers can develop this community by allowing for student choice; “Choice is central to agency. Making a choice requires one to act—preferably to deliberate and act.” (p. 36) Teachers can also encourage students to ask why questions which Johnston argues are “the essence of inquiry” and help to “develop children’s persuasion and argumentation abilities, and logical thinking.” (p. 37) But, the main approach that Johnston advocates is using powerful vocabulary and motivating language to encourage student learning; as teachers model this throughout the year, students will start to incorporate positive language into their own vocabulary. Once language is modeled and becomes “natural in the classroom…[it also becomes] part of children’s conversations.” (p. 50) Throughout the book, Johnston provides fifty-two classroom interactions that are evaluated in depth so that, by the end of the book, the reader clearly understands Johnston’s message of the power of language and the positive impact that encouraging vocabulary has on the learning environment. “Children, just like adults, learn better in a supportive environment in which they can risk trying out new strategies and concepts and stretching themselves intellectually.” (p. 65) Johnston wants teachers to always remember that “The way we interact with children and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.” (p. 79) Johnston’s book is a unique look at the power of words. If teachers want to create a rich classroom environment that promotes word conciousness and a love of vocabulary, the first thing that needs to be evaluated is how teachers use words in the classroom. Johnston reminds the reader that “Children in our classrooms are becoming literate. They are not simply learning the skills of literacy. They are developing personal and social identities…” (p. 22) It is not enough for us to use language to teach words, we must use our words to teach the whole child.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sunday

    I've read this book three or four times. My copy of this book is filled with underlined text, notes in the margins and post-it notes. It reveals the complexity of teaching that is not made clear in most professional books or in "research-based" approaches. It reveals the power of a teacher's language to nurture students' ability to notice and name what they are doing as strategic readers/writers, to nurture their sense of identity as readers/writers, to build on their sense of agency ("I can do I've read this book three or four times. My copy of this book is filled with underlined text, notes in the margins and post-it notes. It reveals the complexity of teaching that is not made clear in most professional books or in "research-based" approaches. It reveals the power of a teacher's language to nurture students' ability to notice and name what they are doing as strategic readers/writers, to nurture their sense of identity as readers/writers, to build on their sense of agency ("I can do this and I have a repertoire of strategies to do this"), to add to their knowledge, and to their flexibility in use of this knowledge. Johnston's ideas are gleaned from his extensive research into best practices of exemplary teachers - so, in a sense, what this text says about teaching IS research-based.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    I carried Choice Words to a department meeting, and a young teacher asked me if I like it. I hadn't read much yet, but I said yes. He told me that he thought it was "too young" since it was written for younger grades than high school. How wrong that young teacher is. This book will enlighten and teach every educator about the importance of the language we use with our students. Every teacher, every administrator, every parent should read this book. I wish I had when my children were small. I wou I carried Choice Words to a department meeting, and a young teacher asked me if I like it. I hadn't read much yet, but I said yes. He told me that he thought it was "too young" since it was written for younger grades than high school. How wrong that young teacher is. This book will enlighten and teach every educator about the importance of the language we use with our students. Every teacher, every administrator, every parent should read this book. I wish I had when my children were small. I would have talked with my children differently -- better, using Choice Words.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nikku

    I really appreciated this book for A.> Validating what I already know and treasure about "right speech" and how it relates to the education of children and B.> being a concrete way to start conversations with colleagues about how much what you say and how you say it affects the students' experience of you as the teacher and of school as a whole. I really appreciated this book for A.> Validating what I already know and treasure about "right speech" and how it relates to the education of children and B.> being a concrete way to start conversations with colleagues about how much what you say and how you say it affects the students' experience of you as the teacher and of school as a whole.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Julie Gardner

    Love-love-love As it turns out, the words we say reflect our perspective; the way we talk about our classrooms/students/kids shows how we see ourselves in relation to others. Am I the giver of knowledge? The doler-out of rules and allowance? The facilitator? A collaborator? Choice Words is short, but intense-a must read that combines pedagogy with classroom management.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Heidi

    I should have read this one when I was teaching high school--it would have helped me think more carefully about how I positioned myself as a teacher and my students as learners. Excellent ideas for how to "say" things so that students take more ownership of their own learning. I should have read this one when I was teaching high school--it would have helped me think more carefully about how I positioned myself as a teacher and my students as learners. Excellent ideas for how to "say" things so that students take more ownership of their own learning.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Shira Reiss

    I am an educator and this book was given to all teachers to make us more aware of the words we use with our students. I read it once and then read it again writing down notes that I posted around my desk to remind me how to be aware of the words I use with my students.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Justin Price

    It was interesting what messages you can discover through the careful analysis of language. It really struck me how much weight phrasing something a certain way can carry. I found myself freezing mid-sentence in front of my class and thinking through how I wanted to say it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shana Karnes

    About half of this book was good; the other half seemed to regress in intellectual difficulty and I kept wanting more from it.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    What we say to students matters. This book is a good reminder of how to speak carefully and consciously to students.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea Courtois

    A lot of what's in this book seems like common sense. At the same time, Johnston makes me reconsider effective dialogue practices. A lot of what's in this book seems like common sense. At the same time, Johnston makes me reconsider effective dialogue practices.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    Game-changer. For teachers and literacy educators, obvi.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    Twice I tried reading this book, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe the third time is the charm...? Twice I tried reading this book, but I just couldn't get into it. Maybe the third time is the charm...?

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kev Willoughby

    A short book, but not a quick read. Very wordy, and unnecessarily so. I found it ironic that the name of the book and the theme of the book seem to be targeted to helping teachers improve the reading comprehension and writing skills of their students; especially since so much of the book is written using words that are difficult to understand and have no meaning to the target audience for this book. It defeats the purpose. I am an avid reader, but I was frustrated continuously throughout the book A short book, but not a quick read. Very wordy, and unnecessarily so. I found it ironic that the name of the book and the theme of the book seem to be targeted to helping teachers improve the reading comprehension and writing skills of their students; especially since so much of the book is written using words that are difficult to understand and have no meaning to the target audience for this book. It defeats the purpose. I am an avid reader, but I was frustrated continuously throughout the book, as I found myself distracted and trying to discern the meaning of words such as "agentive," which I would venture to guess was used at least 100 times (no exaggeration). I don't understand the author's fascination with that one particular word, but regardless, the entire book begs the question, "Why not write the book in a way that is easy to understand, seeing that the purpose is intended to ultimately help students read books in a way that is easy to understand?" I could easily see many teachers giving up in the middle of this book and not even finishing it, and that is unfortunate because there are some good tools and techniques demonstrated within the pages of this book. With that said, I do like the layout of the book. Each chapter has paragraph headings that are questions that teachers can use in formative assessment to help students begin to learn how to learn. If someone took this book and just studied some of those questions and immediately put them into practice, it could make a difference in the growth of their students, and it would go a long way toward improving someone's teaching skills.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stacy Natal

    So wish that I would have read this at the beginning of my teaching career. I feel as though after learning about growth mindset and collaborative classroom in recent years, that I have to "fix" ingrained habits. This book has so many amazing examples of how to get children talking and growing as learners by choosing our words carefully. Favorites: Naming and noticing: Did anyone notice... Remember when we had to work so hard at ___, and now it's automatic You know what I heard you doing as a reader So wish that I would have read this at the beginning of my teaching career. I feel as though after learning about growth mindset and collaborative classroom in recent years, that I have to "fix" ingrained habits. This book has so many amazing examples of how to get children talking and growing as learners by choosing our words carefully. Favorites: Naming and noticing: Did anyone notice... Remember when we had to work so hard at ___, and now it's automatic You know what I heard you doing as a reader? Putting yourself in her place. Write down a line you wished you had written Are there any patterns you are noticing? Identity: That's not like you What are you doing as a reader today? I bet you are proud of yourself Agency: How did you figure that out? What problems did you come across? How are you going to solve that? Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about Did anyone try any new and difficult words in their writing today? Knowing: Let's see if I've got this right wait time That's a very interesting way of looking at it, I hadn't thought about it that way How could we check? Would you agree with that? The adults aren't always right, form your own conclusions Learning Community: We... Who else would like that book? I wonder Any compliments? Other opinions? Stop and talk to your neighbor about what you are thinking

  25. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Johnston focuses on teaching elementary school children, but his observations and conclusions have significance for all human interactions. He analyzes the language that teachers use toward students as individuals and collectively and the kind of community that grows from these comments. I particularly appreciate the last chapter, in which he recognizes that "teaching ... is, for much of the day, automatic" (76) -- that is, that we don't have the leisure in the moment to carefully craft comments Johnston focuses on teaching elementary school children, but his observations and conclusions have significance for all human interactions. He analyzes the language that teachers use toward students as individuals and collectively and the kind of community that grows from these comments. I particularly appreciate the last chapter, in which he recognizes that "teaching ... is, for much of the day, automatic" (76) -- that is, that we don't have the leisure in the moment to carefully craft comments according to what we know we should be doing. He says that this rhetoric has to be genuine and that "the messages we convey about noticing, identity, agency, and epistemology have to be consistent conversational threads. We can't get away with isolated words, phrases, and sentences, no matter how wonderful they might appear" and "The pauses, coughs, sighs, frowns, postures, and so forth are all part of our language, along with the way we organize the classroom, the activities we design, the resources we make available, and so forth" (76).

  26. 4 out of 5

    BookChampions

    "Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them." -Lev Vygotsky If children, indeed, grow into the intellectual life of those around them, as Johnston quotes in the beginning of Choice Words, then the language we use with our students and children plays an integral role in how students come to see themselves as learners, readers, writers, and creators of ideas. I was impressed with Johnston's discussion of subtext and what is implied by a teacher's statements, direction and repriman "Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them." -Lev Vygotsky If children, indeed, grow into the intellectual life of those around them, as Johnston quotes in the beginning of Choice Words, then the language we use with our students and children plays an integral role in how students come to see themselves as learners, readers, writers, and creators of ideas. I was impressed with Johnston's discussion of subtext and what is implied by a teacher's statements, direction and reprimands. Five stars for the content here. The writing style isn't the most engaging and feels straight to the point. If the book was much longer than its not-quite-100 pages, I may have taken a break to get to something new. But at 86 pages plus appendicies, it was easy to get through (and will be easy to return to for reminders of how to speak with and write to my students—and surprisingly, my son as he learns to read).

  27. 5 out of 5

    Heather Carreiro

    A solid synthesis of research about how teachers speak in the classroom, as well as analysis of specific word choices and questioning techniques. Most of the examples are focused on early primary / reading & pre-reading skills. As a secondary teacher, I would have liked to see more examples from higher-level courses. However, each chapter contains bold phrases which have been shown to be successful and encouraging to students. One phrase that I've taken from the book is "That's not like you," wh A solid synthesis of research about how teachers speak in the classroom, as well as analysis of specific word choices and questioning techniques. Most of the examples are focused on early primary / reading & pre-reading skills. As a secondary teacher, I would have liked to see more examples from higher-level courses. However, each chapter contains bold phrases which have been shown to be successful and encouraging to students. One phrase that I've taken from the book is "That's not like you," which I can use when I need to admonish a student or a class rather than generalizing their negative behaviors. By the second half, I was mostly skimming, as the ideas were repeated. I would still recommend this book to any educator as the point is that your language has power, and it encourages the audience (teachers) to be aware of that fact and see their language as powerful.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    The reason I read this book is because I need help using my words with more wisdom and love. The author of this book has transcribed the everyday conversations that occur in the classroom between students and teacher. She categorizes the questions and responses to help the reader reflect on the effects our words have on others as well as analyzes the beliefs that drive teacher talk. There are many valuable questions and responses in this book that I resolve to put into practice. These are words The reason I read this book is because I need help using my words with more wisdom and love. The author of this book has transcribed the everyday conversations that occur in the classroom between students and teacher. She categorizes the questions and responses to help the reader reflect on the effects our words have on others as well as analyzes the beliefs that drive teacher talk. There are many valuable questions and responses in this book that I resolve to put into practice. These are words that are helpful for building up instead of beating up, motivating instead of coercing, correcting instead of punishing. Although these conversations are situated in the primary grades, they can easily be adapted to middle school (which is what I teach), upper school, adult-education and even talk within your own home.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alisha Fish

    I feel like Peter H. Johnston's book Choice Words is something that every educator needs to read. He addresses how teachers words can impact their student's thought processes. Also, he describes how it's important that every teacher instills agency within their students. Pushing students to do their very best is something every teacher is responsible for. In addition, he also advocates for a community within the classroom. This is a brilliant book, that describes situations that could appear in I feel like Peter H. Johnston's book Choice Words is something that every educator needs to read. He addresses how teachers words can impact their student's thought processes. Also, he describes how it's important that every teacher instills agency within their students. Pushing students to do their very best is something every teacher is responsible for. In addition, he also advocates for a community within the classroom. This is a brilliant book, that describes situations that could appear in your very own classroom. It's important that teachers are aware of how they are saying things to their students. Therefore, Peter H. Johnston's book makes teachers aware of the appropriate way to behave around students. Everyone should pick up a copy and read! :)

  30. 4 out of 5

    Matt Myers

    In actuality, I read this book in college. I had forgotten about it until my principal required us to read it this summer. Johnston has some wonderful ideas, and has some amazing strategies that I look forward to bringing into my classroom. However, the book is heavy. For a 100 page book to take two weeks for me to read, it has to be challenging. Johnston seems to use weighty words just for the sake of creating a tone of academia. He also prattles on with superfluous examples. This book has grea In actuality, I read this book in college. I had forgotten about it until my principal required us to read it this summer. Johnston has some wonderful ideas, and has some amazing strategies that I look forward to bringing into my classroom. However, the book is heavy. For a 100 page book to take two weeks for me to read, it has to be challenging. Johnston seems to use weighty words just for the sake of creating a tone of academia. He also prattles on with superfluous examples. This book has great, wonderful, and exciting tools to bring into the classroom. However, he could contain most of the useful information in a pamphlet rather than a 100 page, barely readable book.

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