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Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Choice of Words

This is my review of the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston. Each teacher at our school was given a choice of books for summer reading as part of our ongoing professional development. I chose to read this book, as I had heard a lot about it and am always (obsessively?) interested in the development of literacy in all its dimensions.

Although Choice Words, by Peter Johnston, is ostensibly about basic (reading and writing) literacy, its message, about the language teachers use and how it shapes what students learn, is relevant for all teachers. We all use language as a primary shaper of classroom activities, environments and direct instruction. Some of the implications are subtle, but powerful.

For example, he talks about teachers' use of  the word "good" to describe readers and writers. This is something I've regularly done, trying to clarify for students what "good" readers and writers do as a means of giving direction (i.e.: these are the things we should all be doing when reading or writing). According to Johnston, use of the word "good" implies that some of the students in the class are those "good readers and writers," and, therefore, others in the class are not. He asks us to think about the subtle shift in intent that occurs by simply removing the word "good."
Here's an example. I like this poster that outlines the work of writing.

But after reading Choice Words, I would probably, if I were to use such a poster in my classroom, cover the word "good." We are all writers. These are the steps of writing. Do you see the difference? 

Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of thought about "who we are and what we are doing" because those thoughts that ground us and impact the way we teach and the language we use. We can't plan every linguistic interaction in advance, so we must have a pervasive sense of the work we're doing with students and the kinds of communities we hope to create. 


I thought the book was a worthwhile read. It validated my overall approach and  goals. If you are interested, but don't want to read the whole book, I would recommend reading the appendices at the end. In those, Johnston shares interviews with students from different classrooms talking about themselves and others as readers and writers. It is so telling to hear what they absorb  from subtle classroom messages, and it will really make you think (I think it could easily be applied to other subjects as well). 

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