By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
The words students put in a term paper or book report are important words.
The words students write in their journals are important words.
The words bystanders say when they see someone being bullied are important words.
The words students articulate when desiring help or understanding are important words.
The words youngsters use to respond to an essay question are important words.
The words students utter when delivering a seven-minute speech on a topic they feel passionate about are important words.
The words a student selects to put on a poster that announces her candidacy for a class office are important words.
The words young people use when apologizing and informing the injured party what they learned and intend to do next time are important words.
OK, by now you get it. There are a lot of important words that students write or verbalize during the day. Many of these important words are words that educators have helped students learn and use appropriately. Educators generally love important words and relish the opportunity to share that love and those important words with the students they serve. Helping students learn to speak and write accurate, helpful, powerful words is a mission that many teachers embrace and enjoy. It's an art. That’s probably why it's called Language Arts.
There is one situation, one important time, however, when we don’t get to read the words or hear the words students use. We believe that important time is a critical one and is comprised of the most important words students use during the day. That time and those words are called self-talk.
Yes, students talk aloud a lot during the day. They often write multiple paragraphs and pages filled with words. They text words. They type words on a computer. They print or use cursive. As they use any of those ways to communicate with words, they are regularly getting an earful of words from themselves, an earful of words from their inner voice, an earful of words called self-talk. That earful of words can take the form of nagging, motivating, warning, cheerleading, criticizing, evaluating, sabotaging, approving, dismissing and more.
Do your students talk to themselves? Of course they do. All students talk to themselves, and they do it often. Eighty percent of talk is self-talk. The remaining twenty percent is directed at others. Since all students talk to themselves, it seems it would be beneficial to help them become conscious of what their internal talk is and the effect it's having on their school performance and their lives.
It appears that in many schools teachers invest more time in getting students to stop talking aloud than in helping them examine how they talk to themselves when they're not talking aloud.
As educators, we often design lessons to teach students what to say when they are giving their speech to others. Rarely do we help them learn how to talk to themselves before, during, and after their speech. We teach them what to say in writing their book report but not what to say to themselves while they are constructing a book report. We teach them words of influence to put on their poster but not words to influence themselves while constructing the poster.
If you help students become aware of, take charge of, and construct helpful self-talk, you are a rare adult in their lives. Please keep on keeping on. And consider using the tips that follow.
1. Teach students to talk to themselves as they would to a good friend. Negative talk to a friend creates distance and resistance. The same happens when they use negative self-talk on themselves. They wouldn't tell a friend, "You're not very good at math. You probably won't do well." They would council that person with "You've got this. Lighten up. You are prepared." Encourage them to use the same compassion with themselves they would use when talking to a friend.
2. Teach students to eliminate permanence from their self-talk language patterns. This can be done as simply as adding the words "yet," "so far," "at this time," or "right now" to their sentence.
"I can't understand fractions” then becomes "I can't understand fractions yet." Feel the difference? "I don't understand this" is now changed to "I don't understand this at this time." "I can't get my papers in on time” is altered to "I can't get my papers in on time so far."
3. Teach students to keep their goal in mind. Challenge them to determine where they want to go and what they want to accomplish before they talk to themselves. If their goal is to master a technique, invite them to use reminder language. "Look at your audience first," "Stand up straight," "Use hand gestures," and "Vary your volume" work well for giving an effective speech. If self-motivation is the goal, "Act as if you can," "Just take the next step," "Keep on keeping on," and "You've got this" are helpful.
4. Teach students to speak of behaviors instead of inferences. "I'm a klutz" is an inference. "I was uncoordinated with that move" is a behavior. Notice the difference in the following sentences. In each case the inference comes first. "I'm a liar" or "I wasn't truthful that time." "I'm a slow learner" or "It took me a week to understand dividing fractions." "I'm a loser" or "I failed the chemistry test."
5. Teach students to distance themselves from their own self–talk. This can be accomplished by replacing "I" with "you" and by adding their own name. Self-talk that asks "Why am I so upset?" is language that invites students to take the circumstance personally. "Why are you so upset, Yolanda?" is self-talk that creates psychological distance and leaves the student in a better space to handle their emotions. "How can I improve?" can add pressure. "What could you do to improve, Willy?" is self-talk that is more likely to be received as a challenge.
6. Teach students to replace evaluation with description. "Lousy," "messy," "sloppy," "disgusting," "terrible," "poorly done" and "boring" are words that evaluate. They are often taken as criticism and in not being instructive, they are nonproductive. What was terrible about it? What was boring? What is lousy? Descriptive comments, on the other hand, are often received as constructive feedback. "Sloppy" is evaluative. "My paper has a rip on it, three smudge marks and an eraser hole" is descriptive. It provides useful information. "Messy" evaluates my science notebook and fails to point to possible corrective action. "There are several loose papers that haven't been filed yet and a couple of papers that I filed but haven't been able to find" is descriptive and points toward improvement.
7. Teach students to remove "should" from their self-talk repertoire. "Should" creates anxiety about what is to come, as in, "I should study harder." "Should have" produces guilt about the past, as in, "I should have studied harder." Encourage students to replace "should" with "could." "I could study harder" and "I could have studied harder" are void of guilt and anxiety and help the student see studying harder as a choice they can make. Or not.
Chances are you are presently talking to yourself about the ideas above. If so, play with them a bit. Pick a couple of the suggestions and put them into practice with your most important words right now. See what happens. If you like the results you get, pass them on to others. You know who.
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.