The Language We Use

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

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Jeanne Slattery and Melissa Downes

Words matter. Words can hurt another person’s feelings. The words we use and the words we hear can hide people’s strengths or help people recognize their abilities (e.g., pathology-focused vs. Person First Language). Sometimes we “don’t mean” what is heard – we don’t intend to hurt the other person – but bottom line, we still did.

Because our job includes serving as mentors, guides, coaches, and advisors, we need to be thoughtful with our language. We can’t perform these tasks effectively when we allow our students to believe that they can’t learn or that they have little responsibility for the learning process, or that learning, when it happens, is done to them. While we need to help our students listen better – and we need to listen better ourselves – the words we use when we evaluate and respond to to our students can either hinder growth or open new possibilities.

Here is a common example of poor language: “How could you give me that grade?” We don’t give our students grades, they earn them. We don’t fail our students, they fail to do the work (or fail to show us the work). We aren’t hurting our students’ futures when we assign particular grades, as grades reflect the skills they failed to learn

When we write syllabi and assignments and when we talk with our students, both of us try to communicate that our students are active contributors to their learning and the way the class goes. We also want them to know that we’re with them in this endeavor. For example, in Jeanne’s classroom, instead of hearing her say, “I’m going to discuss…” you’d hear her say “We’re going to discuss…” (Melissa does this, too.)

Both students and teachers need to investigate the terms they use and the assumptions behind them. When students say they didn’t learn anything or that they’re bored in class, whose responsibility is that? Boredom is mostly internally generated. Of course, we contribute to their learning process with our passion, by choosing examples and metaphors that help them understand ideas better, but we can’t make them learn. Going to class every day helps, but students need to actively engage to learn.

Just as we ask our students to think critically, define their terms, and be aware of the assumptions behind their words, we too need to be conscious of our language and its impact. What do we mean when we say that something is unacceptable or is not quality work?

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Table 1. Fixed vs. growth mindset (Dweck, 2006)

We need to be aware of our language as well as theirs: When students say they “can’t write well,” both of us frequently tag their complaints with “yet”: You can’t write well yet. Professors can hurt students when they let them believe that they aren’t good at writing or math or whatever and that they can’t get better. What’s the largest difference between “good students” and those who aren’t? It’s what they believe about themselves (fixed vs. growth mindset; Dweck, 2006) and what they do (e.g, time invested, strategies used; McGuire, 2012). See Table 1. Given this, we need to talk about the things they can do to learn how to write well or master other challenging skills. Both of us sometimes describe the difficulties we had when we first started seriously writing.

You can’t write well yet.

You’re not good at math yet.

You don’t have effective study habits yet.

While Dweck (2006) argues that we hurt our students when we say or let them say that they aren’t good at math (or writing or whatever), we can also hurt our “A students” when we say that they are “smart,” or “good at math.” Such language helps create a fixed mindset and undermines grit when the going gets tough (and it always does). Emphasizing the work they’ve put in – You really worked hard on this paper! – creates a growth mindset and builds grit, persistence, and resilience. We want our students to recognize the necessity of hard work and to persevere even when an assignment is “hard.”

Sometimes our culture belittles careful or inclusive language as “politically correct,” perhaps suggesting that such language obfuscates a situation or out-and-out lies. The statement, You can’t write well yet, would be inappropriate if it were untrue. We should be genuine and truthful.

We need to be careful how we talk to students about their learning, but we also need to be careful in how we think about them and this process. If we don’t really believe that our students can learn – when they put the work in – they will recognize the lie for what it is.


Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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