By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
Yes, students need to know where to put commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks. Of course it is important that they learn the correct usage of there, their, and they’re. And who would take the position that it doesn’t matter if high school graduates say "I seen" or "I saw?" No one. These skills are all valuable parts of a quality language arts program.
We know that.
We also know that writing an attention-getting sentence at the beginning of an essay, one that invites the reader to keep reading, is a useful skill. So is learning how to listen respectfully. And we would never diminish the value of reading and discussing To Kill a Mockingbird.
Yet, with all the important concepts being taught in language arts programs around the country, there appears to be a hole in what is being delivered to students K-12. That gap is not significantly addressed by the Common Core, and we do not find it in curriculum guides we have examined. That oversight is what we call Verbal Empowerment Skills.
Verbal Empowerment Skills are made up of language patterns—everyday words and phrases that help students increase their sense of personal power, increase their confidence, and build beliefs in themselves as capable, responsible, and valuable. Some examples follow.
1. You often hear the language of "unableism."
"I can't find any."
"I'm not good with fractions."
"I don't understand it."
These are critical opportunities to teach students the most valuable use of yet, so far, and at this time. Invite them to add one of these qualifying language pieces to the end of their sentence. Now their communication becomes:
"I can't find any yet."
"I'm not good with fractions so far."
"I don't understand it at this time."
These additions increase possibility in their lives and invite students to see themselves as more than "that way." It is the initial language arts step to help them move from an "I can't" belief to one of "I can."
2. Another often overlooked Verbal Empowerment Skill is the elimination of the inaccurate and destructive use of makes me and made me.
"He made me do it."
"You’re gonna make me get in trouble."
"That makes me angry."
Makes me is language that tricks students into seeing someone or something else as being in control of their responses to life. Repetitious use of this inappropriate language pattern creates the belief that outside forces or people are responsible for their reactions. Once a student has internalized that belief, her behaviors flow from it.
Help students rid themselves of erroneous debilitating language by eliminating that phrase in your own speech and in the verbalization of others in your classroom. Teach language lessons that contain emotionally and mentally healthy communication. Help them learn to say, "I chose to do it," "I'm gonna get myself in trouble," and "I am angry." A quality language arts program helps students use language that shows ownership of their feelings and behaviors and leaves them with an increased sense of personal power.
3. Teach students another important Verbal Empowerment Skill by helping them learn appropriate language options to "shoulding" on themselves and on others.
"My mother should have reminded me."
"We ought to apologize to him."
"I should do neater work."
Should and ought to are thinly disguised ways to get after students, shame them, and encourage them to feel bad. The use of those words is an invitation for them to put pressure on themselves and increase their anxiety. Students have learned this language lesson well and now use it to do guilt to themselves.
To help students reduce anxiety and pressure, help them learn to say could instead of should. Could is a word that describes the situation. It implies no evaluation. "I could do neater work" tells what is possible in the here and now. It helps illuminate the choice that is at hand. When you see yourself at choice, you have a greater sense of personal power.
4. Verbally empower your students by helping them get attribute theory working in their lives. Students who feel unempowered and don't often succeed attribute the things that happen to them in their lives to luck, magic, circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or no cause of their own. They make statements such as:
"She gave me a D."
"I sure was fortunate."
"My teacher doesn't like athletes."
"She has brains."
"His dad's a teacher."
Students who talk this way would benefit from a language arts program that includes learning the Verbal Empowerment Skill of attribute awareness.
Students with a strong inner sense of personal power and who often experience success attribute the things that happen to them to effort, energy, persistence, study, commitment, and behaviors over which they have some control. They make statements such as:
"I chose a C."
"He studied harder than I did."
"My preparation was thorough."
"I'll stick to it until I get it."
These students have learned and internalized a style of speaking that helps them see and feel the role they play in creating their own outcomes.
5. So you teach students about rhyme, synonyms, contractions, metaphors and the like. All well and good. But does your language arts program contain information and skill practice on the primary preventer of personal power in the English language? Too.
"It was too late to begin my report."
"This chapter is too boring."
Your students are using too to prevent seeing themselves as able.
"My foot hurt too much to come to school."
They use it to prevent themselves from taking full responsibility for how they act.
"I was too mad to apologize."
They use it as an excuse to justify actions or inactions.
"There was too much noise in the media center."
They use it to rationalize a result.
"My teachers assigned too much work for one weekend."
The five language concepts above could make useful additions to your language arts program and to the lives of your students. Unless, of course, you have too many things to teach already. Or you didn’t have any luck changing the curriculum. That can really make a person mad. The committee should have listened to you. I guess you can't. Yet.
Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for their newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: www.chickmoorman.com and www.thomashaller.com.