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The Impact of Teacher Language on Math Engagement (Something to Talk About)

Posted by admin on Feb 17, 2022 8:00:00 AM

In this month's Something To Talk About blog post, math coach Katrina Lindo reflects on the importance of teacher language and shares some strategies for small shifts that make a big impact.


A math classroom has the potential to be a magical place, where teachers are positioned to empower students as leaders, learners, and problem solvers. Unfortunately, this is not the experience for many students. As a middle and high school teacher, I have encountered far too many students who are convinced and openly express that they are not a “math person.” I question, What can we do as educators to change the experience for learners, and begin the work to undo the negative mindset that has developed over time?

Consider the impact a teacher's words have on student experiences and in influencing the beliefs that they have about themselves. Can you recall a moment from your experience as a student where a teacher's words had a lasting impact? I think we all can. These pivotal moments, whether positive or negative, are often brief verbal interactions, yet the impact goes much deeper.

Can you recall a moment from your

experience as a student where

a teacher's words had a lasting impact?

Ghandi said, ​​“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” The actions and behaviors we see in students are shaping their values and ultimately their futures. I believe that everyone is a mathematician, because we all encounter math in some aspect of our daily lives. Being a mathematician is not about being “good” at math, rather simply being willing to engage with and connect math ideas when problem solving and to the world around us. As teachers, we often focus our energies on getting students to “do” the math. I argue that the greater and more impactful work is in shifting students’ thoughts about themselves through the words we use. Let's talk about teacher language, how it can impact student engagement, and ways to encourage more students to engage meaningfully with mathematics discourse.

“Easy” and “Hard” Math

Imagine a seventh-grade class of thirty students all given the same math task with a contextualized problem to solve. As the teacher hands out the task they say, “This problem is similar to one we have done before, it should be easy.” Although the teacher has good intentions and is trying to encourage students to engage with the work, there can be adverse effects with this statement.

What’s the impact for the student that often struggles in math and did not find success with previous work associated with a current problem? There may now be some added pressure that they should already know and be able to do the task without struggling. And if and when students struggle, is there now a safe space for them to express unfinished thinking as they grapple with such an “easy” problem? What about a different student, the student who often finishes quickly and is constantly seeking a challenge? The teacher messaging that the problem is “easy” can have a negative impact on this student’s level of interest and motivation. The student may think, If it is easy, then why bother.

Similar to the use of the word easy to describe math tasks, consider the impact of telling students, before they engage with a problem, that it will be “hard.” A subset of students may be intrigued and welcome the challenge, but for many, “hard” can be a deterrent. When told a task will be hard, students who have not developed a positive disposition towards mathematics may experience difficulty getting started or give up at the first sign of hardship. As students embark on a task that has been publicly named as “hard,” they can experience self doubt, which can stifle thinking and their ability to persevere.

Let Students Decide

It is important for students to know that struggling is often part of the math experience. Furthermore, the opportunity for learning exists in those moments when students are challenged by unfamiliar ideas and ways of thinking. As teachers, we should aim to normalize the notion that challenges are expected and should be welcomed as opportunities for learning. The role of a math teacher, then, becomes to support students in problem solving, especially when they grapple.

It is not our job to label and name difficulty levels of math tasks. Students are capable of doing this on their own when given the opportunity to meaningfully reflect. When teachers name the level of difficulty for students, it is often not an accurate reflection of all student experiences. Instead of describing math tasks as “easy” or “hard,” intentionally allow students space to naturally engage in the work and allow them to reflect on and describe their own experiences.

It is not our job to label and name difficulty

levels of math tasks. Students are capable of

doing this on their own when given the

opportunity to meaningfully reflect.

It might be empowering for a teacher to introduce a task by saying, “I am curious to see how everyone works through today’s task. Remember to use what we know to figure out what we don’t know. It’s all about making sense of all the pieces.” Here, students are not positioned as going up against an impossible task that they will likely fail; instead, they are encouraged to pull upon their existing knowledge bases and perhaps even others, to find success.

“High” and “Low” Students

The language used to talk about students can have an impact on learning and in shaping student identities. Think about all the variety of verbiage that has been used to describe individuals or groups of students that may be struggling: low performing, special needs, tiered, remedial, etc. On the opposite end of the spectrum, students have been described with labels such as gifted and talented, accelerated, honors, and high flyers, among others. And then there is the “regular” student that falls somewhere in the middle. What do these labels do for our students?

Some teachers might argue that using labeling language while discussing students with colleagues is acceptable as long as it is not done in the presence of students. They may even go as far as say labeling is necessary to be able to talk about students and plan for instructional scaffolding. I question, How do these labels help us to identify and plan for specific learning needs of students?

When a teacher strategically groups students based on labels, for example, groups of “low” and “high” students—even if they do not publicly say how the groups were determined—the students know. It is at this point students begin to internalize labels and associate levels of perceived status with themselves and others. The classroom climate can then become imbalanced, and students may be reluctant to share mathematical thinking, which directly impacts learning.

Describing the Need Not the Student

A student may struggle with a particular concept but can shine on another. For example, a student whose algebraic reasoning has yet to develop and who often makes errors when solving equations could also be the same student that shows strength with constructing geometric figures, which calls upon a different skill set of spatial and visual reasoning. Labeling this student as “high” or “low” does not speak to all their strengths and areas of need. It also does not indicate the specific support the student may need to progress in their learning.

Giving students general labels such as “low” or “high” not only feels permanent, but subjective. There is no common threshold for determining what constitutes a “low” student or when a student is no longer considered “low.” Students are not low, but rather there is some understanding or learning yet to be achieved. It is important that we stop putting labels on students and shift to describing what they know and understand relative to learning goals. Once this shift has taken place, then we can plan more intentionally for instruction.

How we talk about and describe students impacts our actions and interactions, but also our expectations. Learning expectations are specific, therefore our instructional strategies also need to be specific in order to impact learning. Consider talking about students based on similar errors made, misconceptions, or ways of thinking. Creating small groups with this lens opens the opportunity to address and advance student thinking. Another intentional option is to group students that have exhibited different ways of thinking. This supports students in making connections as well as deepening their understanding.

“I” and “We”

Now let’s take a shift from how we talk about a task and students to how we engage with a class. Consider the following statements often said by teachers:

  • I want to know what you are thinking.
  • I can't hear you, repeat that again.
  • Tell me the strategy you used to find a solution.

On one hand, it can be argued that these statements communicate a teacher's interest in what students have to say, which admittedly is important. But what message do we communicate to students when we consistently use “I” and “me” during instruction? Now consider the statements below and how they might communicate a different message:

  • We want to know what you are thinking.
  • Your ideas are important—share again so that everyone can hear.
  • Tell us the strategy you used to find a solution.

But what message do we communicate

to students when we consistently

use “I” and “me” during instruction?

The first set of statements direct a student to speak to the teacher. Although unintentional, they also communicate little to no expectation for other students to be active listeners to peers. The second set of statements, which use the words “we”, “everyone,” and “us,” communicate inclusivity. The intentional use of such words sends the message that everyone is invited and expected to be part of the conversation.

This shift toward using more inclusive pronouns can have an impact on whole class discourse, but also on interactions that take place in small group settings. I invite all teachers to reflect on language used with students, and, when possible, lean toward using more inclusive language. Not only does inclusive language support teachers' efforts in establishing and maintaining a learning community, but also students in developing increased agency and ownership of learning.

Making the Shift

Our teaching habits develop over time, but as humans we are also evolving. Being intentional with our words will cause our actions to shift, which relate back to our habits. But it all begins with our beliefs. Do you believe a teacher's words can leave a lasting impact on students and in shaping their identities? I do. If you agree, then the first step is self-reflection. Begin by increasing your awareness of whether and to what extent you use inclusive and labeling language.

In making the shift to more intentional language, focus on consistently using “I” and “We” during instruction and more specifically, discourse. Work to alleviate performance pressure by inviting students to engage in mathematics without naming the difficulty level and when students do struggle, remind them of strategies for making sense of problems.

Provide opportunities for students to express and reflect on learning experiences by asking questions such as, “What part of our work today was challenging, and how did you work through it? Tell us a strategy you used.” This prompt invites students to name challenges and offers inclusivity without generalizing students with labels. The result is elevated discourse where a student's struggle becomes an asset for learning while promoting active engagement for all.

About the Author

Lindo Head ShotKatrina Lindo is a math instructional coach for Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware. She supports middle and high school math teachers through coaching, professional development, and curriculum planning. Katrina has been a math educator since 2010. You can connect with Katrina on Twitter and Instagram @klindo1586.





Topics: Something to Talk About