The power of words: Improving learning through teacher-led discussions

A group of middle school students sitting at a table talking with their teacher

Words are powerful tools for teaching and learning. Whether planning lessons with colleagues or explaining key concepts to students, the choice of words can either enlighten or confuse understanding, advance or inhibit communication.

Words are also problematic. Some terms are so overused they lose all meaning. In other cases, the meaning appears familiar and obvious, yet can be interpreted differently by professionals in the same field working in different contexts.

In an article we published this month in Learning Forward’s JSD, we describe how the subtle but pivotal nuances of teaching and learning lie beneath these words. Below are two examples:Words such as “emphasize,” “model,” “explain,” “demonstrate,” are all words educators use on daily basis, but in practice, each of these words carries multiple interpretations and presumed meanings.

Elementary Example

A group of elementary school teachers, working on reading fluency, elected to use some weekly collaboration time to discuss challenges with student mastery of decodables. Each teacher assumed the group had a common understanding of how to “practice decodables,” but further discussion revealed that some members of the group were making a subtle, but critical mistake in the sequence of instruction. By showing a high frequency word and asking students to repeat sounds, rather than allowing students to first pronounce each word themselves, teachers were short-circuiting the opportunity for learning. With facilitation from the literacy coach, the group developed a new shared understanding of how to “practice decodables.”

Secondary Example

At the secondary level, a group of Algebra teachers were collaboratively planning a lesson on systems of equations and working to engage students in a rich conceptual problem. Toward the end of the lesson, the team jotted down in their planning notes, “Share, discuss, analyze, with the whole class: Choose several groups as time permits. (Approx. 15 minutes).” The teachers were prepared to finish up and move on to other agenda items, when the facilitator asked, “What does that discussion look like? How will we connect back to the core concept?” This led to a detailed exchange of ideas and more specific set of teaching notes for the final lesson segment. One member shared a critical suggestion of deliberately circulating during pair work and identifying one student pair to present on each primary solution method (table, graph, and equation). This idea set the stage for a culminating class discussion–providing students with an opportunity to learn from the full range of examples, compare and discuss the advantages of each method.

Unpacking Words

The article also provides four suggestions for principals and instructional coaches to help teachers recognize and address the surplus meaning of words:

  • Provide opportunities to practice identifying and unpacking familiar teaching terms.
  • Add a deliberate step in lesson planning to unpack words with surplus meaning.
  • Foster a habit of asking probing questions when discussing instructional practices with colleagues.
  • Become the novice and ask teachers to explain their ideas.

See our full article from Learning Forward for more details and examples of how well-defined language can pave the way for teaching and learning.

For a full set of case studies and resources to support the study of teaching and learning, see Teaching Better: Igniting and Sustaining Instructional Improvement.


This article was originally published on Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network’s website and was re-posted here with permission. 


About Brad Ermeling
Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Bradley Ermeling, is a former research scientist with Pearson. He spent seven years working as an educator in Japan developing first-hand knowledge and expertise with Japanese Lesson Study and has published numerous articles on developing and supporting systems for collaborative inquiry and continuous learning. Dr. Ermeling was a recipient of the 2010 Best Research Award from Learning Forward along with Ron Gallimore, Claude Goldenberg, and Bill Saunders for their published studies on instructional improvement through learning teams. While at Pearson, he conducted qualitative studies on blended and virtual assistance models to guide school and instructional improvement efforts and also investigated methods for measuring and facilitating teacher reflective practice. Prior to his research career, Dr. Ermeling taught high school English and special education for 11 years and holds teaching credentials in both Japan and the United States. He also holds a government issued certificate for Japanese language proficiency. He earned his doctorate from UCLA in Educational Leadership and his bachelor’s in English literature from Concordia University, Irvine.