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What You Say Matters! The Language of Growing Writers

Updated: May 6

Language is powerful. The words we say create emotions, beliefs, understandings and thoughts, for those who hear them as well as for ourselves. We experience this frequently in many instances throughout our lives in conversations with significant others, situations with colleagues at work, and relationships with family members. What others say to us makes a significant impact on how we portray them, what we decide they believe or feel, and so much more.

The great linguist Noam Chomsky is quoted saying, "The structure of language determines not only thought, but reality itself."

This is a compelling statement that coincides with what I believe to be true about what we say (and how we say it) as teachers of writing.

When we speak to our students about writing, we are showing them what we think, believe and hold valuable. We are shaping the thoughts and opinions students have about their own work as well as about writing altogether. For these reasons, we need to ensure that what we say, and how we say it, is portraying only what is supportive of the growth of the writers in our classroom. We want to show our students that we are invested in their understanding of and progress in becoming successful writers.

Why Is What We Say in Writing So Important?

When I began to teach writing with the writer's workshop model, my initial concerns were mostly about the structure: mini-lesson, independent work with conferring and small group instruction, and a share time. I knew there were aspects of the workshop model such as student choice that were significant, but I mainly thought my biggest shift in learning would be the structure itself; how I would manage my time and the logistics of writing folders and a multitude of student topics.

As I implemented writer's workshop throughout the years, and even more so as I have worked with other teachers to implement it as well, I realized the biggest idea of the workshop model has to do with changing the focus of your instruction from 'teaching the writing, to teaching the writer'. (Lucy Calkins). What I have found to be one of the key components of this transition is the language used in our mini-lessons and conferences. What we say informs what we (and our students) think, do and believe, so it understandably plays an important role in our instruction.

Switching Focus from Writing to Writer

Most often, teachers' writing instruction and therefore, language, is all about the writing being produced. The outcome of the writer's work is the main concern. In this way, every concept taught, or suggestion made is centered around how to get what is expected, whatever that may be, onto the paper. Here are a few examples. Notice the bolded words.

Lesson Language:

This essay should have three paragraphs. The first paragraph will include an opening sentence or hook as well as a thesis statement.

Conference Language:

Your piece is looking great! It has a great hook at the beginning. I'm wondering if there could be more detail explaining your reason in the body paragraph. What could be included to add more detail?


Nathan, what is your writing about?... Ok, let's take a look. I see there is evidence from the text to support your opinion. That's wonderful!

When I consider the focus of the language in these statements and questions, it is clear that the focus is on the writing itself. I believe that most often, the reasoning behind this focus is that teachers have an expectation for what writing should look like for the genre, grade level, etc. and they feel their goal is to get their writers to make that happen. When the final product is the main concern, the instruction will be tailored to >>>>

Let's look at something to help explain the difference in focus. I tend to use sports metaphors (which is interesting considered I am definitely not an athlete!) because they are such an effective comparison to the goal of writing and writing instruction.

Imagine you are on this baseball team and your coach often uses phrases such as:

"We will not make errors."

"You need to put that ball in play."

"That should have been caught."

"Our goal is a perfect season."

"That was a great hit!"

How would you feel as one of the players on this team? What would you understand this coach's goal or focus to be? Getting the job done would be my answer. Winning is his goal.

What he isn't doing is showing them that what they do matters, or even that THEY matter. This does not support their growth as players.

Let's give this coach some help and change his language a bit. What if you were hearing things more like this:

"We will use the basics to make good plays."

"You need to keep your eye on the ball and keep your head down."

"That was a great try, but next time, move back before you move forward."

"Our goal is to try our best and improve a little each game."

"That was great control of the bat with your top hand. That's how you hit!"

How would you feel as one of the players on this team? What would you understand the coach's focus to be? I would feel it was me as a player and what I do!

Notice how the language used is about actions, not outcomes. Knowing what good ballplayers DO and then using language that focuses on those actions is what grows players' skills.

The writers being spoken to in my earlier examples of language in writing lessons and conferences are absorbing this language and beginning to form the idea that the writing on the paper, the end result, is what is most valued. They understand that what they write down should look and sound a certain way. As a result, their purpose begins to center around what they are trying to accomplish, which is often whatever they believe to be what the teacher is looking for.

Instead, we want our writers to know that the goal for them is to grow as writers. We want them to learn the skills needed to independently write well. In order for this to occur, the language we use must be focused on the writer, just as the coach should be focused on the player.

So instead of the statements listed above...We say: (notice bolded words)

Lesson Language:

When writing an essay, writers use a specific structure that makes the piece more clear to their readers. The first part of the essay is the opening paragraph, where the writer will include a "hook" that gets the reader's attention....

Conference Language:

You have been working hard! You wrote a great hook that really grabs my attention. When I read this part, I'm not sure I understand what that was really like. Remember, writers use words that tell about the senses so their readers can imagine things from the story. What could you include to help your reader?


Nathan, what are you working on?... Ok, let's take a look. I see you have included evidence from the text to support your opinion. That's wonderful!

When your writer hears you speaking to them about their actions as writers, and about what good writers do, they know that what they do matters. They will understand that their work is more about decisions and choices then it is about "getting it right". They will know that the goal is to continue to improve their skills as writers.

Listen to Episode 60 below and hear more about how what we say matters in writing instruction.

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