Tone In Teaching: 20 Words That Change How Students Think
by Terry Heick
While I often talk about ‘scale’ as one of the primary challenges in education–and have also wondered about curriculum, too–a more subversive concept constantly at play throughout education is tone.
As an ‘English’ teacher, I always explained tone to students as a kind of ‘attitude’ that can be expressed in a variety of implicit and explicit ways–from words (said and unsaid) and body language to voice tone, timing, irony, and any other modality used to communicate ideas.
Tone As A Cause & Effect
A few key ideas and underlying assumptions about tone in learning:
I. Tone matters. It affects human beings and students are human beings.
II. Tone can be notable in its ‘tenor’ and value as well as in its abundance or absence. That is, tone can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there can be a ‘lot’ or a ‘little’ of it.
III. Tone can be both a cause and an effect. That is to say, tone can cause ‘something’ or be caused by something. For example, a lack of confidence can create an uncertain tone while another tone might create a distinct lack of confidence.
IV. As a factor in ‘climate,’ tone is closely related to mood and together they contribute greatly to that climate.
VI. Any climate created either is or is not intentionally conducive to creativity, collaboration, and learning.
VII. Every interaction students experience some kind of tone (even if that tone seems more or less unremarkable–that’s a ‘clinical’ tone). That is, almost everything a student experiences in the learning process has ‘tone.’
VIII. Having established that tone affects students and is (through our word choice, among other factors) adjustable, that means that as teachers, we can adjust something that affects students.
IX. To make these adjustments, we have to know what tone is and how it’s adjustable.
X. Tone is complex and is explicitly and implicitly created through countless sources above and beyond our words but because our words are so easily adjustable, it makes sense to make that simple adjustment while we sort out the other factors that affect tone in the learning process.
How Students See Themselves Matters
Tone affects how students see themselves and their role in the learning process. In fact, a student’s own ongoing internal dialogue and thoughts about themselves and their self-identity as learners isn’t just a ‘factor’ in learning but one of the single most important factors.
Imagine you were preparing to go on stage to dance in front of some kind of an audience. Consider the possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: You can’t dance and you know you can’t dance
Scenario 2: You can’t dance but believe that you can
Scenario 3: You can dance but believe that you can’t
Scenario 4: You can dance and you know you can dance
How many of these scenarios are likely to yield a ‘good’ dancing performance? In addition to being honest with one’s self, internal ‘self-talk’ and your own perception about yourself matters, too. Without the right tone during the ‘interactions of learning described above, everything feels–and often functions–all wrong.
An Example Of Tone In An Interaction With A Student
Our underlying assumptions (about everything) impact tone greatly and come across plainly in our phrasing and language choice during our interactions with students.
Think about the difference between saying, ‘Tyler, what answer did you have for #3?’ and ‘What are some possible responses for #3 that might make sense?’ Suddenly it’s not a matter of ‘Tyler’ and what he ‘has’ as an answer. Nor does he feel as put on the spot. He still may not feel empowered to answer freely and may not have a clue how to answer. But the tone in the latter is completely different, shifting from a matter of accuracy to a matter of possibility.
Part of this is about using a growth mindset with students so that they are more likely to do so themselves. But while tone is generally a cause, as we stated above, it can also be an effect; that is, the tone of the classroom is created by–in part–the tone and underlying implications of the language used within it. With that in mind, below are some words and phrases that can greatly impact the tone of learning in your classroom.
To have the desired effect (i.e., establishing a tone to the learning process where students feel supported, empowered, safe, and absolutely integral to their own success), context matters, of course. How this does or doesn’t work varies wildly on everything from the age of the students to your own personality and teaching style and so on. The collection below is only meant to introduce you, as a teacher, to the possibility of language that empowers learners.
Further, note that these words aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The point is that tone matters and is hugely adjustable through words and phrases, and some of those words and phrases appear below.
Tone In Teaching And Interactions With Students: 20 Words That Change How Students Think
This one was one of the most useful words I use as a teacher. By disarming the question of outright students and only asking students to surmise, ‘might’ can create a tone of accessibility for many questions.
Consider the difference:
“Why does so much literature depend on symbolism for effect?”
“What might literature depend on symbolism for effect?”
In the latter, you’re not asking for an answer, you’re asking for a hunch.
“I need…” or “You need…” can express a kind of sympathy and utility, but often are used instead to make a specific declaration or even accusation “You need to be…” or “I need you to…” Overall, need is an urgent word that, if overused or imprecisely applied, can create a negative tone that decenters actual learning and inquiry in favor of procedure and compliance.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that using the word ‘need’ is bad. Like any word, its semantic effect varies wildly depending on application. The point here is to be as intentional (not necessarily as ‘careful’) as possible–to use language by design to promote student growth.
If you shift from ‘you’ to ‘we,’ the burden and possibility and work of learning also shift, from singular to ‘all of us.’
By talking about yourself–or encouraging students to talk about themselves and their role in the learning process–students are better to see those roles while also hearing others discuss how they see their own role, performance, anxieties, goals, habits, preferences, etc. For example, a teacher saying “For me, being on time gives me extra time to organize myself and settle in to new environments” can help students see the teacher reflecting on themselves, their choices, and their preferences.
In short, the word ‘me’ personalizes thinking–for better or for worse.
The word ‘you’ immediately centers the student and their role, responsibility, etc. It is not ambiguous or unclear, it creates a tone of specificity and accountability.
‘What if we…’ vs ‘What if you…’ vs ‘What if (no pronoun)…’?
Whether you use a singular or personal pronoun–or personal or indefinite pronoun–affects tone. Even choosing to use no pronoun at all matters.
Consider a situation where you’re discussing an upcoming unit and say “We are going to learn how the environment is impacted by…” Saying, “You are going to learn how the environment is impacted by…” is a bit different–more immediate. If you choose no personal pronoun at all by saying, “How the environment is impacted by…is going to be learned,” it sounds funny and likely wouldn’t be used that way, but it’s clear how pronouns affect tone.
Why is a great probing, clarifying, and critical thinking question useful in almost any assessment or line of questioning. Why asks the students to consider macro ideas like purpose and function–not just “When was immigration…” but “Why was immigration…”
Even prefacing the word ‘Why’ with the word ‘But’ creates a slightly more playful tone. “But why?” is a bit more playful than the blank “Why?” If you want that playfulness depends on the desired effect of the question.
The tone established by the word ‘Why’ is one of inquiry and understanding and also makes room for much of the subjectivity inherent in knowledge. ‘When’ is, more or less, objective; ‘Why’ is, more or less, subjective.
Cause and Effect
Using the words ’cause’ and ‘effect’ can impose objectivity and analysis on a situation that’s otherwise emotionally charged. If a student is anxious or overly-confident or confused, by focusing on the cause and effect of a context, it’s easier to remove the emotion and see what’s going on and why. In that why, ’cause’ and ‘effect’ can create a tone that leads to clinical (and sometimes ‘cold’) analysis.
An example? “The project running six days behind schedules was, in part, caused by…”
Also, “The effect of your keeping up with your reading journal was…”
Both emphasize process, while creating an analytical tone, can be useful in helping students develop an understanding of process and procedure.
Discussing ‘love’ and affections don’t always have a place in academic learning. They’re also overused (“I love your writing!”) and so become emptied of meaning. But if students are able to talk about what they genuinely love, the classroom, at worst, becomes a warmer place.
The shift from ‘know’ to ‘think’ is similar to the shift from ‘Why did…?” to “why might…?”
It doesn’t ask students to ‘know’ but rather to simply ‘think’: “Why do you think that might have happened?”
As with many other words on this list, it makes the learning–and any answers, for example–feel more accessible.
‘If…then…’ phrasing can help students see the conditional circumstances–cause and effect, for example. You might say, “If you ask for help and work hard, then you’ll have a greater chance of doing well during this course,” or “If you assume the best in others, then you’ll have a better chance of making friends.”
‘If you had to guess, what would you say?’
‘What’s your hunch?’
What’s possible in this class? What’s possible with gifts like yours? What’s possible with your project?
‘What’s possible’ asks students to imagine and dream and think forward–ideally with hope and positive presuppositions. It’s different than ‘What are…’ and ‘What will…’ and other more concrete phrasing that asks students to know rather than speculate or wonder.
Might can also work together with possible to great effect: “What’s possible…” might works to help the student wonder: “What might happen if…”
An extreme example of this? “I’m not sure but if I had to guess I might say that…”
Though uncertain, this approach provides a kind of rope or ladder to a student willing to try in lieu of confidence or certainty. Model this throughout the year and you just might find students using it as well–thus coming to see knowledge as inherently uncertain.
As with all of the words on this list, the tone established by the word ‘tomorrow’ depends greatly on timing and context–and even the tone of voice used to vocalize the word. Ideally, the word ‘tomorrow’ is used to frame today’s learning and tomorrow’s possibility. It asks students to consider what may come and what their role may be in that, not to mention the further-off ‘tomorrow’ of the future.
This one’s pretty obvious. If you want a certain and unambiguous tone, use the word ‘no’ firmly. There are times where boundaries need to be set and clarity is necessary. This isn’t ‘bad’–just be aware that a tone is being established with all of your language and use it as mindfully as possible.
Other common words that contribute greatly to tone in learning: Improvement, But, Because, Need, Hello, Good, Bad, Always, Never, Stop, Interesting, Maybe, I wonder…, Next time, Trouble, Help, Believe.
Tone In Teaching: 20 Words That Change How Students Think