Choice Words

Peter Johnston

Peter Johnston is professor and Chair in the Reading Department at SUNY Albany.  He has worked as an elementary classroom teacher and as a reading teacher.  He has published eight books, including Choice Words, and numerous articles. His current work investigates literacy assessment, the consequences of teaching practices for the kind of literacy children acquire, and how teachers and students build productive learning communities.

On the very first page of the book Choice Words he states that "some of us have to think more carefully about the language we use to offer our students the best learning environment we can."  Then on the next page, "if we have learned anything from Vygotsky (1978), it is that 'children grow into the intellectual life around them' "

What did I learn?

   The way that we, as adults talk to children affects the way that they view us, and the language that we use to describe their actions can really affect the way that they see themselves.  Especially as teachers.  As I have learned through personal experience, the things that are said to a student can be interpreted differently through tone of voice.  But as Johnston describes throughout the book, even one word difference can change the meaning of a whole sentence, therefore changing the way the student takes the statement.  This can mean the difference between doubting themselves and their competence and setting low future goals, to, believing in themselves to choose challenging tasks and set high goals.
   In chapter two, he discusses the two topics, noticing and naming.  I learned that these two things are crucial to a students pattern of learning, because it invites children to notice if they notice, practice noticing and trying to notice details, and to realize that others can notice different things too.  Focus on the positive.  "Much more important is noticing-and helping the students notice-what they are doing well."  The main point of this chapter is that, to install the habit of paying attention and noticing through the question, 'what are you noticing?' will prepare students for the future when they can no longer afford to be dependent on the teacher for everything that needs to be noticed.
   I really felt the importance of chapter three as I was reading through it.  I loved his examples of statements that give the child an opportunity for an identity.  By saying things like, "what a talented young poet you are," the student now begins to explore with poetry and begins noticing other things that he/she might believe they do well.  Even if they decide that they do not belong with this identity, they are now more aware of their abilities and are more willing to identify themselves in another way.  I definitely learned from this chapter that finding ways to get children to think about internally praising themselves which is not only healthier for their emotional ego, it also in turn attaches an internal motivation to the act of writing(whatever they are feeling praised for).

The fourth chapter Johnstons' opinion that "when people feel there is no relationship between what they do and what happens, they become upset and helpless."  He describes this feeling as needing a sense of agency.  I learned that in order to develop this within the child, it can come from questions like, "How did you figure that out?" requiring the student to position himself as a storyteller with himself as the protagonist.  Also, "what problems did you come across?" "how are you planning to go about fixing them?" and "which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?".  This chapter is also the chapter that everyone talked about in my book club discussion because of its examples of words that can be used to replace words in sentences that are said to students like, and instead of but, and adding if into the sentence.  Just by these two small revisions to a statement, it can; de-undermine the first piece of the feedback, set up a future of possibilities, and opens the door for more activities for feedback using the if to not force the student through it.
   Chapter six taught me valuable lesson as I read through it.  If this chapter would not have been here, I would have taken the other chapters discussions, and topics, and alternative phrasing options into mind; but I still would have most likely been using the IRE interaction without a clue of its existence or effect.  Initiating, Responding, and Evaluating, while it gets to the point, it is very controlling because "the underlying premise is that the teacher already knows what needs to be known and therefore takes the role of judging the quality of the student's response."  I did get to learn of alternative epistemologies to this approach; for example, leading a shared inquiry, playing around with an idea together, or closely following other people's lines of thought.  I really love how in each chapter he gives examples for what he means and gives a detailed description of how and why he believes it to be the more accomplishing way.  Like for this chapter, I already knew about 'wait time' but he goes into greater detail of its benefits; or if the teacher says "thanks for straightening me out" it tells the student that not only is it acceptable to evaluate teachers comments, it is welcomed to help others correct misconceptions.

In chapter seven the discussion is mostly an in depth look at all of the missed teaching opportunities mentioned from before and more recommendations  of better things to say to students whether individually or whole group.  My favorites being; using "we" as much as possible, asking the class if they have "any compliments?", requiring that the class mention what they were thing to their neighbor, and asking "how did you manage to figure that out together?"  I did not notice it until I read this chapter, but Johnston has been calling the reader We throughout the whole book, "we" relating the readers as teachers, tying back into his entire idea that "we" are teachers and therefore we act like teachers and do what teachers do.  "The way WE interact with children..."
   Chapter eight discusses the ways that we interact with children and how the way we arrange for them to interact  shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.  A teacher who has a different view of herself, her students, and what she is doing will us a different language than say the more authoritarian teacher.