How Do You Talk When You Teach?

Whether you’re doing formal teaching in a classroom, or taking part in the learning that is done around the kitchen table, the way you talk when you teach young children can make a big difference.   In fact, predictors of child language and cognition abilities are not only indicated by how much a child is spoken to, but also the types of conversations they have. 

From the beginning, it’s important for me to say, that I don’t intend to vilify any one type of communication.  Each one has its purpose.  My only desire is to point out the different types, and their uses, so that you can be more intentional — and thereby more effective —  as you teach young children.  In truth, you will likely use each type of communication throughout the day, and even within one teaching opportunity. 


Directions tend to be focused primarily on task completion.  “Hang your coat here.”  “Color this one red.”  “Write an ‘s’ there.”  Similar to directions for assembling a bike, everyone who follows those directions should end up with the same outcome, at least the same observable outcome.  In the case of the bike, each person should end up with a bike (unless you’re like me, then you end up with random pieces scattered about and trade it all in for a half  gallon of ice cream).  You may come away with a greater understanding about bikes, or you may have just gone on autopilot as you followed each step.  Directions are helpful in accomplishing observable action.  But when teaching, it is rarely enough to stop there.  Teaching is about more than just correctly filled out worksheets and properly made projects.   Following directions is an act of obedience, not necessarily a display of understanding.


Instruction begins to go beyond directions.  Now you begin to teach why, to explain concepts, and to build knowledge as a foundation for the actions you direct.  Instruction’s Achille’s heel is that it is often only one-way communication.  “This is two.”  “It snows in the winter.”  “The caterpillar turns into a butterfly.”  In and of itself, instruction is not an interactive method of teacher talk.  And as we well know, children learn best through experience.  That includes experiencing an active role in the conversation.


Discussion begins to incorporate the child in that important active role, inviting him to construct knowledge and to attempt to answer the why’s for himself.  It is a dynamic method of teaching that utilizes teaching through questions and building connections.  “What do you think would happen if….?”  “I noticed….Why do you think that is?”  The answers are not always right, but the action of seeking the answer does much to initiate an analysis of what is known and to build connections between old and new information, not to mention the support it gives to developing logic and language skills.  In short, discussion drives active learning.

As I said in the beginning, you will likely use all three types of communication as you interact with the young children that you love and teach, and I don’t intend to say that you shouldn’t use one or the other.  But I will say that discussion is one type that most children could use more of. 

  In fact, predictors of child language and cognition abilities are not only indicated by how much a child is spoken to, but also the types of conversations they have.   Children who are primarily spoken to in directives  (“do this, go here, write that“) show less favorable outcomes than those who are invited into discussions, and challenged to think and to contribute. 

How do you talk when you teach?  What do you discover as you make an effort to invite children to take an active role in thoughtful discussion?

Top photo by Sigurd Decroos.
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5 responses to “How Do You Talk When You Teach?

  1. My son is very curious. and very smart and very advanced verbally for his age but sometimes he would rather joke than answer a question. so when he asks me a question that I think he can answer, I ask “what do you think” or something similar and he’ll say “I think biblibobblygook” and then laugh and laugh and laugh…and I’m thinking “ok I’m being serious here” and am not sure how to get him to actually answer. I worry when he goes to school he won’t answer questions but just joke around. and then when he still won’t even if I re-phrase or repeat, it gets a little irritating and I become more directive and/or instructive than I like. I try to incorporate all three but am probably more directive than anything…gotta work on that!

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  3. In my experience I started out being very instructive and soon started to feel uncomfortable… Something wasn´t working as I expected. Chalk and talk is not my style. So I started looking for other ways of teaching that would fit my own spirit and the interest of my little ones. I found four ways to “talk” to children more effectively than being directive or instructive (which I still use as eventual tools, but not as my intention oriented method). Those four ways are:
    – Translation: I started “translating” from an explaining oriented language into a “learning provoquing” dialogue.
    – Comparison: instead of giving one way answers, I started comparing learning topics to common life situations, well known by kids. When teaching reading and comprehension in a second language to 3rd form children I compared it to the street lights system. You are “driving” your eyes as a nice car on the text “road”. Suddenly you find a red light which makes you stop: you don´t understand that word. It´s new for you. Some other times you find lots of green lights which let you go on and on enjoying your drive: you understand everything you´re reading! But best of all is when you see yellow lights. Those are the words you don´t know for sure but you can imagine the meaning based on the nearby words and the general content of the text. Then, imagine! Dare to give that word a meaning and go on reading. Each child built a little cardboard car and kept it handy. They started underlying words using the green, red and yellow code and the main fun was trying to turn yellow into green buy approaching possible meanings of that particular word. Children learning a second language tend to stop reading at the first word they don´t understand. This comparison helped them a lot to feel confident and helped them to read the whole text and then starting to take a chance to gain a better understanding checking context and imagination as strategy.
    – Experience: I shifted from explaining concepts in the beginning to offering a good deal of experience on the topic first through experiments and games. When everyone in class was completely involved, I would ask: So, what has happened? What have you experienced? I´d love to hear your thoughts. Then, they built their own concepts and in case adjustment was needed sometimes I created new experience opportunities to continue exploring the subject or gave the right conclusion using common sense.
    – Example: this one I love very much and I´m still working hard to conquer this technique. I´m fully aware I do not only talk to my kids and studends through my words. Even my words may be sweet but the tone might be nervous, frightening, directive. That´s not all. My face, body and gestures do talk so loud sometimes kids cannot hear what I say. So I do care a lot about being a good hearted teacher, practicing in my own life what I expect kids to comply.
    Love, Fernanda

    • Thank you for the link to this recording Rhona. It has a special association with an aunt of mine who was my mentor when I was young- now I will associate it with you too, and your birthday. May all the stars and rainbows you wish on grant you your dreams. Thank you for the standard you set in following them- you are an inspiration. Coralatungtions on the fine achievement of the Masters. Well done ( and rare too!)Love, Ruth

    • 607Typical Seattle Recession Type DataEven in the 80s recession the selerls were reluctant to deal, until they had to. It’s totally different this time IMO, the price fixing selerls cannot hold off forever with 0.2% interest on their bank savings, pensions getting eliminated, drawbacks on their Social Security, property taxes eating them alive at old unrealistically higher assessed values and Freddie/Fannie bailouts can’t last forever either.The smart selerls in my book sold last year at 15-20% below today’s holdouts .just wait and see in 2011 and 2012.

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