Language is Powerful

Placing my parents’ phone down on the cradle, I could feel the smile creep across my face.  Immediately I grabbed the phone again and dialed up my friend, Eric.  “You’ll never believe this!” I began excitedly.  “I just got a call to play keyboards for one of Portland’s top bands!”  Silence.  Pause.  Suddenly, it hit me.  “Wait, did you give them my name?” I asked.  This was the year 1990 and I had just graduated college.  Eric’s response that day has stayed with me ever since.  “Yes, I did,” he answered.  I knew Eric, along with some college classmates, had recently opened an events planning company and was now in the business of hiring live music.  “You’re going to be a successful musician, Lanny.  And I’m going to be part of making sure that happens.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of language on my blog for teachers, Two Writing Teachers, for which I am a co-author.  In that post, I work to make the point that when it comes supporting young writers – and, I would add, readers! – language really matters.  A lot! As parents, mentors, and people of influence in the lives of kids, we are able to harness language to a number of different ends.  One of those important ends, I believe, is creating, building up, encouraging, and inspiring readers and writers.  As Peter Johnston writes in his incredible book, Choice Words (2004), “Language is not merely representational (though it is that); it is also constitutive.  It actually creates realities and invites identities” (Stenhouse, p. 9).  It is interesting to think, when it comes to supporting our kids as writers and readers, are we using language to empower and inspire? Or control and compel?

If we can agree that language invites identities, how might we think about using it to nurture the readerly and writerly identities of our middle school kids?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Hold conversations for enrollment.  For some of us, recruiting our kids into the ranks of readership and authorship is a tall order.  Sometimes it helps to presence possibility; in other words, what if we worked to support our kids in seeing what could be possible when it comes to reading and writing?  After a brief conversation that connects the two of you, try beginning a conversation with, “Hey, what would be possible if…?”  We can ask our kids to dream big…be creative…invent possibilities!  We might say enthusiastically, “If you were to become a huge, voracious reader, what would become possible?!”  Or share examples of how writing has changed the course of world events.  We might say, “Did you know our country began when a few people went into a small room and wrote something down (The Constitution)?  Writing can change the world! You have so much to say that’s worth reading- what would be possible if you became an even stronger writer?”

Contrast the above language with, “You need to read more, it’s good for you”; or, “How come you’re still not using capitals at the beginnings of sentences? You’re in middle school now, so you need to remember that.”

Of course, we may not see the instant effects of such a course of action.  But more than anything, if we begin to use language in service of nurturing an identity of literacy, positive effects are likely to sprout eventually.

  • Acknowledge what he or she is already doing well.  This is sometimes called a “lens of strengths.” When we work to build on what our kids are already doing well, versus pointing out what they are NOT doing, we shift the dynamic of influence.  As a reader, what is s/he doing well?  What can you compliment him or her on?  We might say, “I’ve noticed when I ask you about what you read, you really have a way of making me want to read the book, too!  Not everyone can talk about what they are reading that way.  That’s so cool!”  Or perhaps more specific language might sound like, “I always love asking you about what you’re reading because the insights you share about the characters make me wish I could read people like that.  That’s such an important skill!”
  • Invite a growth mindset when it comes to literacy. Many of us are now familiar with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research out of Stanford University on growth mindset.  The basic premise of her work focuses on the concept that two mindsets exist within the human mind:  the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  When it comes to talking with our kids, it is important to couch conversation, particularly feedback, in language that nurtures a growth mindset.  That is to say, we want to praise effort, not so much end products, because in doing so we draw attention to a factor they can control- their effort.  Kids don’t feel they can control if they’re “smart” or “not smart”; but they do have control over their efforts.

Check out this version of what I posted a few weeks back.  “Hey, I know you may not see yourself as a writer yet.  But I want you to know that one of my big goals for you is for you to love writing this year.  Your ideas are amazing, and I know that once others are able to read them and learn about them, they’ll agree with me.  We’ll get there, I know we will.”

Bring intentional about language can have a subtle but powerful effect. When my friend Eric told me I would be a successful musician, I wasn’t sure what he meant. But somehow I believed him. And that belief in myself is something I would wish for all the kids we work with.

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 23 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy and reading consultant in Northwestern Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on Twitter @LannyBall, as well as his literacy blog: lannyball.com or lannyball.blog.

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