The father of William Hogarth, the celebrated engraver, Richard Hogarth was a teacher and textbook writer, penning a combined introduction to Latin, Greek and English.  He also established a coffee house in St John’s Gate, near Smithfield, in 1703, with an unusual concept:

There will meet daily some learned gentlemen, who speak Latin readily, where any Gentleman that is either skilled in that Language, or desirous to perfect himself in speaking thereof will be welcome. The Master of the House, in the absence of others, being always ready to entertain Gentlemen in the Latin Tongue.”

Insisting that only Latin should be spoken, by staff and customers alike, he saw this coffee house as a retreat for gentlemen (and possibly as a source of new pupils).  I like to imagine that he thought a place where conversation was held entirely in Latin would be a site of more erudite and thoughtful conversation.

The Roast Beef of Old England, 1748; my favourite Hogarth pictureThe Roast Beef of Old England, 1748; my favourite Hogarth picture

Unfortunately for Hogarth, the people of London failed to see the attraction, not long afterwards, he was incarcerated for five years, for debt, in Fleet Prison.  Nonetheless, this disappointed teacher’s belief in the importance of language offers some inspiration for today’s post.

I’m increasingly convinced skilled teachers use language in powerful ways, but thinking back I can recall no training or CPD on this question – only off-hand tips and the awareness that it’s something good teachers just do; an innate skill perhaps?  It is commonplace to challenge the use of the word ‘try,’ famous from such phrases as “I’ll try to do better.”

An example – getting students learning in as little time as possible

When I start a lesson, I stand at the door, getting students in while giving a selective, ongoing, public narration of what I’m seeking, that sounds something like this:

“Good start Nawaal, good Ismael, I see Ronnie’s got some great ideas written down already…”

You’d be forgiven, from the transcript alone, for imagining  that I teach angels whose immediate instinct is to rush for a pen and start learning – casting cares and woes aside in their haste.

Contrast this though, with what I’d have said two or three years ago, with very similar students – a series of requests, instructions or complaints: “Could you sit down please…  where’s your pen…  you know where your seat is…”

Arguably, this is as much ‘classroom management’ as ‘use of language.’  It’s an interesting example though, because here, more than anywhere else, I am conscious of having committed an ‘act of will’ to change the way that I think (and therefore speak).  I read once that the eye is drawn to things which do not fit a pattern – the single brick out of place in a wall, for example.  Likewise, in my classroom, my attention was drawn to what I did not want to see.  It was an effort to identify and highlight the things which were working and praise them…  while verbally overlooking (and simultaneously mentally noting) those who were taking things more slowly.

This may sound like liberalism gone mad (or something) – but, in projecting this optimistic image of the classroom, I feel that I am ‘guiding reality:’ the real classroom quickly adapts to reflect what I am narrating.  Some students want to be praised, so they settle down (and wait to be noticed, sometimes less patiently than others).  Others conclude that, given the majority of their peers are doing it, they should probably catch up.  Perhaps one or two students are left faffing or trying to have a chat – but they are isolated and can be easily identified and dealt with.  Chaos becomes order, in as little time as possible, through a little optimism and some good choices of language.

Some teachers are suspicious of this kind of language use: “Why should I thank them for something they should be doing anyway?” I think it’s justified on a number of grounds. Firstly, when I ask students to do something, I may expect them to do it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not polite to thank them. Secondly, given their compliance, my authority rests undiminished (extended, arguably). Thirdly, this kind of language can actually act as a strong reinforcement as to the necessity of compliance; the words ‘Thank you’ at the end of an instruction like this: “I’d like you to take all your stuff and go and sit over there, right now, thank you,” make it clear that there isn’t going to be a debate. I think this language makes us stronger teachers, not weaker.

Back to the broader point…

I think good teachers use language effectively to ensure compliance while maintaining a positive and uplifting classroom climate. Indeed, this choice of language and manner is a major contributor to this positive climate.  No matter what school we teach in, from time to time, some students are going to question our authority as teachers.  By minimising ‘transaction cost,’ how much authority, time and effort teachers expend in gaining students’ acquiescence, we are ensuring our classrooms run smoothly and the most possible time is spent on learning.  So, here is a short collection of language choices I’ve been seeking to apply over the last year or so:

‘Ask, tell, order’

This was how one former colleague described the process of getting something done for you. Starting with a non-verbal instruction if possible, the sentence will go something like this:

1) “Would you mind moving and sitting over there where you can focus better?”

(or) “Could you do me a favour and take your stuff and sit over there?”

2) “I’d like you sit over there now…”

3) “I need you to move and sit over there now or [either something even less appealing or some kind of consequence].”

There are many ways around this of course – I might start with a bit of humour: “Is there a reason why you’re leaning over that way? …Right, maybe it’s time to…”

By the time you get to stage three, the students has pretty much made their mind up that they’re not following instructions – so then there’s no more space for being nice.

Cutting the ‘but’

I stole this idea from Paul Ginnis’s Teacher’s Toolkit – consider this sentence:

I know you’re finding this difficult, but you need to get it done, because…”

The ‘but’ here does not deny the difficulty, it almost reaffirms it.

On the other hand, if you say something like:

I know you’re finding this difficult and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you can achieve.”

Or “I know you’re finding this difficult and that’s what will make you feel really proud when you complete the task.”

This fits into a growth mindset/grit-type approach – where we embrace difficulty, rather than shrink from it. Clearly, you could change the second half of the sentence and keep the ‘but.’  However, making it into ‘and’ means the first half of the sentence justifies and upholds the latter half – rather than clashing with it.

Reading Harry Webb’s excellent recent piece ‘How to teach’ reminds me that an ‘and’ is part of another effective technique – the broken record.  “I understand you’re angry, and I’d like you to get on with this now and we’ll sort it out later.”

Personal pronouns:

First person singular

I try to remind myself that ‘I’ is the only person about whom I can speak with any degree of authority. Anything beyond this risks inaccuracy, arrogance or both. “I find this works,” is true, whereas to claim “this works” is pretty tricky, “you should do this,” even more so. This also works in discussions with students about behaviour: “I saw you doing this,” deflects a tedious conversation as to what else may have been going on (what another student was doing) and also avoids discussion of motives or impact. Others are then free to share my feelings, disagree with them or move on. (NB- this strategy also helps during twitter debates).

Third person singular

This is something I try to get students to avoid. When I hear “He keeps annoying me,” my first response is to ask “Who’s he?” Somehow, “Jake keeps annoying me,” seems a useful, humanising step towards dealing with the annoyance.

First person plural

This seems a powerful way of expressing collective will. When I’m discussing my students’ achievements, or the struggles we have had as a class, I find I sometimes slip into “We’ve worked really hard on this.” This is one I would like to use more – but it will take more effort on my part – as I find I slip into and out of it depending on some intangible quality of how hard a class have worked and how I feel about them as a group.


In a sense, the conclusions were set out at the beginning of this post: how we use language matters, it takes conscious effort to sustain changes in our use of it and these changes pay dividends in managing classrooms well.  On a bad day, I struggle to apply these – I need to improve the way I catch myself mis-using language and consider the impact of my words more closely.

Every year I promise again to myself that I will make my behavioural corrections more affirmative – I’m particularly keen to apply Doug Lemov’s ‘lighting quick individual correction,’ closing on a positive: ‘Terry, I’d like you sit up as straight as Richard is,’ drawing attention to good examples rather than poor ones.  While doing some teacher training this summer, I was also reminded of a tip from Laura McInerney, which she shared years ago and I’ve only ever used sporadically: praising a student for a behaviour while looking at another student who is not demonstrating that behaviour.  Perhaps this year I’ll apply it consistently.

Further reading

I recently came across interesting post here on this from Mr Dolan, with a top ten list of things not to say as a teacher.

The use of language is also a small part of the answer to question five of Laura McInerney’s Touchpaper Problems, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?”