“Student-First” Language: How the Words We Use Impact Our Mindsets and Our Students

I think we would all agree that our end-goal with the Wolfpack WORKS program is to improve the literacy achievement of children. Yes, we are supporting school districts, principals, and teachers in their literacy instruction as we work through the 10 Wolfpack WORKS Literacy Practices and Indicators (see link)  but, at the end of the day,  our work directly affects children. Our goal is ultimately to help students be successful in all areas of literacy.  But, as a coach, I think our job shouldn’t stop there. As a coach with Wolfpack WORKS, I think we should model using positive language to describe our children.

What does that mean?  So often, when we as literacy coaches and teachers sit down to analyze data, we put children into categories. We have the “low students” or “high fliers” or students who fall somewhere in-between. Occasionally, these labels come up in conversations with other teachers and sometimes in front of students. I often wonder what it must be like to hear this type of talk from a child’s perspective? We all know they are listening! What if we said, “Students who are approaching grade level” or “Students who have exceeded grade level expectations” or use some other language where the student is named first?  After all, they are students first! This is using “student-first” language and using this language could change the mindsets of teachers and students.

Additionally, what if we used this language when a child has been identified as needing special education services? What if we said, “My student who is identified as learning disabled…” rather than “my learning-disabled student” or “my student on the autism spectrum” rather than “my autistic student?”  After all, a child’s differing ability often only matters in the context of a school building. That label doesn’t really matter at the playground, movie theater, or restaurant, for example.

Putting students first in our discussions about students could change the way teachers see students, and the way students see themselves and others. Won’t you join me in modeling this “student-first” language? It could have a bigger impact than we know!

Dawn Holland, Wolfpack WORKS Literacy Coach


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