Words Matter: Wielding the Power of Language in Education

By Kyra Ostendorf, publisher at Free Spirit Publishing
This post was originally published April 4, 2019 and was updated in March 2022.

Wielding the Power of Language in EducationWhen we ask an adult, “What do you do?” we are generally asking what kind of work the person is in. My answer has changed over time from “preschool teacher” to “curriculum writer” to “educational publishing.” These words matter to me as I label my work to supply a short and specific-yet-general answer. It’s a job category, not a description of my work. Given time for a conversation, words become more descriptive. I can explain the where, who, and what of my work. If I’m lucky, there’s time to talk about the why.

Instead, as Simon Sinek suggests, today let’s Start with Why. My why is social and racial justice. I come to this work as publisher at Free Spirit with a commitment to providing resources to support all children’s well-being and learning and to support educators and caregivers in the pursuit of justice. My what is words. I work with words and the people who write and edit the words that end up in the books we publish. My why informs how I think about words. In education and in social and emotional learning, specifically, I’m intrigued by the words used:

  • achievement gap, opportunity gap, learning gap
  • underserved, underresourced, living in poverty, historically underrepresented
  • friends, peers, classmates, cliques, gangs, groups
  • coworker, colleague, teaching partner, team
  • trauma-informed, healing-informed
  • discipline, behavior guidance, restorative justice
  • day care, child care, early childhood education
  • differentiated, individualized
  • continuous quality improvement plan
  • No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds

The list could go on, but you get the idea. The words we use to talk and write about our work matter. They matter because they reflect and inform how we think and how we position the work of educating young people. Yes, young people—could be kids, students, children. But I use young people here to remind us that they are people learning the world. It feels more respectful in this moment. Which isn’t to say that the other terms shouldn’t be used. Okay, that double negative is me trying to say that it’s okay to use kids, students, or children.

Words matter. A friend’s son’s teacher said to her at a parent conference, “He doesn’t look like he should be smart, but he is.” Are you kidding me? Words matter. What does a smart kid look like? The video “Don’t Label Me” depicts the craziness of stereotypes and the words we use too quickly to label one another.

Words matter. Sure, we all need to let off some steam and might talk with frustration about a colleague, student, or parent. But be mindful of the words you use and show respect. Even when—and especially when—in a disagreement or moment of anger. Be thoughtful about what you say and how you say it; there’s growing evidence that our moods and feelings impact the feelings of those around us.

Words matter. Research shows that having high expectations for students’ learning helps students learn. How we think, talk, and write about what we can do and what students can do matters.

Words matter. Consider a student who is giving you pause—maybe someone who falls asleep or is on her phone or talking with a classmate. What words would you use to describe that student to someone who doesn’t know her? Now think about the words you would use to talk to someone who loves and cares for the student. Are the words different? Why? Which words feel more productive? Which give you hope? Next, name a high expectation for the student. What can you do to help her meet that high expectation? Would it help to build a relationship, to understand, to be positive, to teach? What words will you use next time you talk with the student about her learning?

If this is a new way of thinking about words for you, I encourage you to practice in your mind or whisper to yourself what you will say. Hear the words and think about how they will be received. How do they make you feel?

On a related note, in all languages, words matter. And language matters too. Learn words in the home languages of the young people you teach. At a minimum, you should be able to greet students and their families in their first language. A simple online search for “how to pronounce hello in (name the language)” generates results that include audio of the word spoken in that language. No excuses. Learn how to say hello in the languages your students speak at home.

For more on the impact of language and how language shapes how we think, watch this TED Talk by Lera Boroditsky.

I welcome comments that add to the list of terms and efforts that intrigue or energize you. What words do you prefer and why?

Kyra OstendorfSince January 2019, Kyra Ostendorf has served as publisher at Free Spirit Publishing. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the company and supports its mission to meet kids’ social, emotional, and educational needs. Prior to joining Free Spirit, Kyra was vice president of education at Kaplan Early Learning Company, where she managed the editorial and production work for Connect4Learning®, a comprehensive prekindergarten curriculum. She was also the acquiring editor at Redleaf Press. Kyra has served on the board of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MnAEYC) and the Minnesota School-Age Care Alliance (MnSACA) and was a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) affiliate council’s executive committee. Kyra holds an M.Ed. in early childhood education from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. from Macalester College.

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