Teacher Talk: Whether Giving Instructions, Offering Compliments, or Delivering Discipline, How Teachers Talk Can Make the Difference between Success and Failure

By Prusak, Keven A.; Vincent, Susan D. et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Teacher Talk: Whether Giving Instructions, Offering Compliments, or Delivering Discipline, How Teachers Talk Can Make the Difference between Success and Failure


Prusak, Keven A., Vincent, Susan D., Pangrazi, Robert P., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


A doctoral student, a fine teacher who had taught for more than a decade in the public schools, was sent to work with a renowned elementary physical education specialist. After observing the specialist for several days, the student took over the role of teacher. All seemed to go well; he was engaged and enthusiastic, and the kids kept active and seemed to enjoy the lesson. Following the lesson, the regular teacher produced a note pad and began to review her notes.

Her first comment was "You know when you say things like "Good job!" or "That's great!..."

"Yes. It is positive reinforcement!" he replied, pleased that she would take note of his efforts.

With firmness she said, "No, it is not, and I want you to stop it!" He was shocked, but not offended. He was disturbed and not sure what he had done wrong. Sensing his puzzlement, she went on: "What you did was use positive praise, not positive reinforcement. And while it sounds good, it actually can have some very serious long-term effects on kids and on your ability to communicate." She continued by explaining that positive reinforcement is much more than just saying "Good job!"--that it is a specific skill used in a specific time and place for a specific purpose. She added that what he had engaged in, while it sounded positive, was actually a rhetorical speech pattern that students would eventually tune out--something to be avoided by teachers at all costs.

He was chagrined, even embarrassed; her explanation made perfect sense. It was something he had not even considered before. He thought that after teaching for so long he had learned all there was to know. After all, he was a successful teacher. The only thing he could think to say was "You have thought about this?" She indicated that she had studied not only this issue, but many other aspects of what the authors have come to view as the most difficult of all skills a teacher must learn: teacher talk.

Teacher talk! What is it? What words do you use? How do you use them? When do you say them? How often are they necessary? How do you check for understanding? How do you ensure that your talk suits the situation, be it instruction, management, or discipline?

This article is intended to provide some answers to these questions with examples of specific and effective phrases and speech patterns. These phrases may not "feel" comfortable at first; they might even seem insincere. Some may say that speaking in this way causes them to lose their individual voice and sound phony. However, like an actor learning to deliver lines, effective teachers rehearse until the phrases become a natural part of their teaching persona. Effective teacher talk is seldom an innate quality in new teachers. Almost always it is a skill yet to be learned. Unfortunately, it is a skill that remains overlooked in most teacher preparation programs. Often it is relegated to the mysterious realm of special intangibles that new teachers may or may not possess. The authors of this article assert that by examining the speech patterns of effective teachers and practicing diligently, new teachers can incorporate these patterns into their teaching (Prusak, 2004). Eventually, they too will become masters of effective teacher talk.

Consider Your Audience

Perhaps the most important aspect of communication is to clearly understand the characteristics and capacities of those to whom one is speaking. This determines the vocabulary used, tone of voice, pacing, and length of discourse. Teachers often teach children as if they were little adults, misunderstanding the nature of children and how to best communicate with them so that learning occurs. Activities in the classroom or gym are routinely planned to last 10 to 20 minutes, sometimes more. The instructions for these activities can be lengthy and confusing. However, it is clear that children have short attention spans that many teachers overestimate or ignore. …

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