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Like, Raise the Bar Yourself

Raise the bar on your
day-to-day classroom vocabulary, and your students will follow course.
Do you want to improve the vocabulary, grammar, and eloquence of your students? Of course, we all do. So it has to start with ourselves. Raise the bar on your day-to-day classroom vocabulary, and your students will follow course.

At the outset of each academic year, as part of our orientation, I explain to the students that, as with most spoken languages, there are three different forms of American English:

vulgar colloquial formal

As part of our Christian lifestyle and our school’s conduct code, we avoid using the vulgar form (expletives, inappropriate words, put-downs, insults, etc.) and should do our best not to use it at all. It is contrary to our Christian witness. Everyday colloquial is the level of language we use with our family and friends, and it includes slang. We use formal language in our classes, our work, our worship, and on special occasions.

Increasing our own vocabulary helps us to expand our understanding of this higher [formal] level and makes us better communicators as a whole. vocabularyConcerning the formal level, I explain that variations of formal language use specialized vocabularies, e.g., medical, legal, scientific, mechanics, sports, religious, professional, and many more. Increasing our own vocabulary helps us to expand our understanding of this higher level and makes us better communicators as a whole. An extension of this lesson is to have the students talk to their parents and ascertain if they use specialized vocabulary in what they do and to provide a few examples for the student. This helps to involve the parents with the program. As a follow-up, in the next class session we share the parents’ responses and incorporate them into our vocabulary as well (age appropriateness is considered).

yeahI do ban and restrict certain words. Since we are in an academic setting, I explain that just as we would not use “yeah,” in our written work, we do not use it in our verbal communication. The restricted words are “like” and “get/got”. The students have to substitute synonyms for get/got such as retrieve, receive, obtain, procure, and others. Like is tougher. It has permeated our colloquial language culture and has become a buzz word. I explain that in formal language, we restrict like to its use as a noun, verb, or adverb.

getOne word that has permeated our language is not a word at all. It is a disfluency or filler. “Uhhh” or “uhm” can be heard everywhere from kids to politicians, and it is universal (with some variations). In my speech stuttering therapy when I was young, the pathologist talked about this. Part of her explanation was that the word-thought processing center in our brain is faster than the speaking-processing center. So we utter a stand-by signal before the words come forth. In other words, the brain tries to have us say the words before the mouth is ready. This explanation was simplistic and not wholly correct, but it worked for me, and it works for most of the students. One way to help overcome this habit is taking a short quick breath before speaking, similar to a breath when playing an instrument.

uhmmmmAgain, to introduce this concept to the students I use a humorous story: “The Fall of the Planet of Uhm-dit.” In this story, the population was quite advanced except for their language. It seems the language consisted of two syllables: “uhm” and “dit.” As you can imagine, it took a very long time to say anything in this binary form. For instance, to say hello would be “uhm, uhm, dit, dit, uhm, dit, uhm, uhm, dit, uhm, uhm.” In the climax of the story, the planet is threatened by a trasheroid that was created by their orbiting trash. The trasheroid’s orbit decays, and, as it plunges to the surface, an astronomer calls the planet defense system to destroy the trasheroid but is limited by the uhm dits, and the planet is destroyed.

likeThe students enjoy the story and are more comfortable with overcoming the habit of using “uhm.” Into the year, as a reinforcement, if a student raises their hand for a question and begins with “uhm,” I will respond, “That is spelled u-h-m; do you have another question?” Of course, it works both ways. The students can correct me if I use it. ( I let one slip now and then to see if they are paying attention—and they are). I always take into consideration any special needs or pathologies.

eloquenceAs a little bit of levity, one word we have fun with is “bathroom.” If a student asks if they can go to the bathroom, I remind them that our school has no rooms with bathtubs. After a snicker, they ask about “restrooms.” Another teacher and I have been in search of a word that describes that room in a simple and discreet manner. “Lavatory” and “restroom” are not wholly inclusive, but “water closet” comes close, if not for the misleading reference to size.

I often remind the older students that as they go into the job market, small points can make or break a possible position, and we are often judged by our speech.Another sometimes problematic word is “can.” I am sure many of you correct them with the word “may.” At this point, some may roll their eyes and think, “How old school!”, but I often remind the older students that as they go into the job market, small points such as this can make or break a possible position, and we are often judged by our speech.

The explanation of all this is much more complex than the practice. In 34 years of employing these rubrics, the improvement curve has always been upward, there has been an increase in standardized test scores, feedback compliments from alumni and parents, and, more important, the strengthening of the vocabulary, composition skills, eloquence, and confidence of each student.

The bottom line is that it starts with us as educators, and just as in our evangelization, so too our own lived and spoken example is the best teacher.

J.W. Snyder is a composer, author, story teller, and senior educator of more than 30 years. He is currently serving at Redeemer Lutheran School in Penn Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh.