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Words Matter

Unpack the language of teaching to create shared understanding

By Learning Forward
December 2015
Words matter. They are principal vehicles of classroom instruction and lesson planning. The more clearly teachers articulate what is to be learned and the instructional practices to be used, the better they teach and the more likely students develop knowledge and skills. Words can be enigmatic. In education, many words have accumulated so many meanings that people interpret them differently. Sincere professionals might believe they are in agreement and engaged in complementary action for students’ benefit. But closer examination reveals that the specific actions they take vary so much that they rarely achieve shared goals. For example, there is evidence that a little struggle helps students better learn scientific or mathematical concepts and transfer them to new problems. In joint planning, teachers might agree on

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Genevieve Graff-Ermeling, Bradley A. Ermeling, and Ronald Gallimore

Genevieve Graff-Ermeling ( is chief academic officer at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, California. Bradley A. Ermeling ( is principal research scientist at Pearson Research and Innovation Network. Ronald Gallimore ( is distinguished professor emeritus at University of California, Los Angeles.

Well-defined and specified language paves the way for purposeful classroom interaction, minimizes unproductive struggle, and creates opportunities to learn.


Atkinson, C. (2003, April 22). Bullet points kill (effective communication) [Web log post]. Available at

Ermeling, B.A. & Graff-Ermeling, G. (in press). Teaching better: Igniting and sustaining instructional improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Learning Forward is the only professional association devoted exclusively to those who work in educator professional development. We help our members plan, implement, and measure high-quality professional learning so they can achieve success with their systems, schools, and students.

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