Intentional Language

“The better you know something, the more risk there is of behaving egocentrically in relation to your knowledge. Thus, the greater the gap between teacher and learner, the harder teaching becomes.” – Peter Johnston


I just finished reading Peter H. Johnston’s book Choice Words. The quote above came from chapter one of the book. After reading these sentences, my mind lingered on them. I returned to read these lines over and over again. My repeated readings were for several reasons. At first I did not grasp the meaning of the words but I was intrigued by the words. With each repeated reading I deepened my understanding of the underlying message in the words. I connected the meaning to events in my teaching. Making the connections allowed me to make the lines meaningful and relevant to my teaching. As I continued to read and go back to reread these lines, I realized that these lines represented a very important message of the book.

Choice Words is about how the language teachers use impact student learning and intellectual growth. Johnston reminds us that not only do teachers have to be intentional in the instructional practices they use; teachers must also be intentional in the language they use as they facilitate instruction. Intentional language will lead to developing students’ critical literacy, which is one of the key elements of the Common Core Standards.

The intentional language that Johnston refers to is language that helps students create a literate identity; such as what have you learned most recently as a reader? Facilitating students’ identity helps to build their competence. Competent readers are engaged in their learning, more likely to take risk, take responsibility for their learning, build stamina and develop strategies for overcoming challenges.

As I was reading this book, I reflected on the language I use to facilitate instruction. Often during instruction, I will catch myself saying something that is teaching as telling rather than teaching for understanding. When this happens, I pause, rethink my statement or question and restate it in a way that encourages the learners to create understanding.

Also as I reflected, I realized that intentional language reflects what teachers believes about the abilities of their students and the goals they have set for who they want their students to become. Because intentional language is grounded in beliefs, it cannot be planned. It is authentic otherwise it sounds contrived and fake. Intentional language closes the gap between teacher and learner. When we use intentional language, we demonstrate an understanding of ourselves as readers and an awareness of how we are similar and different from others.  Intentional language helps students develop the same awareness. It is the understanding of oneself in relation to others that supports the development of critical literacy.

Here are some questions to ponder as you thinking about the choice words you use in your lessons:

Who are you as a reader?

Who are your students as readers?

What do you think you are doing in your reading lessons?

How is the language you use influenced by your thinking about your students and your instruction?


Are there other ways to think about intentional language? I look forward to hearing your ideas!


Johnston, P. 2004. Choice Words. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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