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The Talking Classroom: Building a Bridge to Social-Emotional and Academic Success

National LETRS® trainer and literacy consultant
Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023
  • Literacy

By Judi Dodson, MA, author and literacy expert


There are three ways to ultimate success:  
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.

Mr. Rogers


Language has an important impact on our lives. Positive language lifts us up, while negative language can hurt.

Language can be a powerful tool for teachers. As a teacher, your language creates a climate and culture in your classroom that can change a child’s life. Positive messages to a child can make him feel wonderful and filled with worth, while a negative message, even spoken in an off-handed manner, can be devastating. Next week, on May 15, I will be co-presenting a webinar with Dr. Lucy Hart Paulson on this subject. It’s a useful look at the many ways language is a critical factor in the creation of a classroom climate that supports positive social learning, which in turn can support greater academic learning.

This is a unique time in education. We have moved toward an emphasis on achievement and academic rigor even for our youngest learners. While giving our young learners the advantage of high-quality academics is very important, if it is not balanced with social and emotional supports, it may not produce the results we are seeking. Children learn best and are more willing to take academic risks when they feel safe and engaged and feel like they are an important part of their learning community.

Children do not come into the world with social and communication skills intact. Their experiences will shape those skills. When children are nurtured with love, caring, and positive communication, they develop trust, language, and social skills that will support learning before and after their entrance into school. While we cannot impact the messages children receive before they enter school, we can be intentional about the language we use and the messages we communicate once they are in our classroom.

The creation of classrooms that are safe and caring spaces into which children can come every day will make a significant difference in their learning. It seems every school has more vulnerable children than before. Kindness and communication are at the core of making children feel safe. However, that environment does not just emerge spontaneously, but develops best when it has been cultivated and nurtured with intentionality. Words are loaded with meaning. Kind words teach empathy, acceptance, tolerance and inclusivity, and help children feel safe and engaged at school. We as teachers have the privilege and honor to teach children with positive teacher talk. This positive communication can help support appropriate social behavior from the time they enter our preschool classes to the time they graduate from high school.

Positive teacher talk is critically important. However, it is not our teacher talk alone that makes a difference. While most teachers already have good social and communication skills, our talk must be designed to bring our students into the conversation, giving them words they need plus many opportunities to express themselves throughout the day. The foundational research in the area of child language completed by Hart and Risley* informed us about the connection between the number of words spoken to children and the impact this can have on later learning. Their research also led us to think about implications that relate to the reciprocity of language opportunities. When children are primarily exposed to adult talk with limited chances to respond, the resulting language development is not as great as for those children whose families engaged in chit chat, which provides time for back and forth conversational talk.

Teachers who design instruction and have communication goals informed by this research plan time for students to express themselves throughout the day. Their classrooms are filled with positive talk, questioning, discussions, and conversations that nurture the kind of social communication that makes a difference for students and the climate of the classroom. They give students opportunities to speak in complete sentences, to compliment other students, and to receive compliments themselves. Teachers may ask students to repeat the good sentences produced by other children, as a way of having students practice and learn to internalize what a good sentence sounds like and feels like.

Developing positive language makes a difference in the lives of children. This doesn’t mean to teach children to say nice things. If they are sad, angry, or frustrated, being able to express that in a constructive manner is equally important.

Our bilingual students often are going through many changes in their lives. Some were born in our country, some were immigrants, and some have come from refugee camps or situations of great change and insecurity. Some of the first words they learn in school often are about classroom objects and academic subject words. However, taking time to teach them social-emotional words in their new language may help their social and emotional transition to their new school, teacher, and friends.

There are many concrete ideas and tools that support an environment to help even the most vulnerable children look forward to attending school, feel safe and cared about when they get there, and feel proud of their own strengths and acts of kindness, and caring for others. Teachers can create and nurture a learning environment that generates academic results as well as develops language that helps build a positive social climate filled with engagement, friendship, empathy for others, and kindness. The wonderful aspect of creating such an environment is that it can enhance academic learning and achievement as it nurtures you and your students, all the while building a classroom that everyone is excited to come to every day.

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.”
—Mother Teresa


*Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children by Todd R. Risley, Betty Hart published by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. (1995)

About the Author
Dr. Judi Dodson
Judi Dodson
National LETRS® trainer and literacy consultant

Judi Dodson is a national LETRS® trainer and literacy consultant. She worked for 20 years as a special education teacher and educational consultant. She is the author of 50 Nifty Activities for 5 Components and 3 Tiers of Reading Instruction, 50 Nifty Activities for Speaking and Listening: for Oral Language and Comprehension, and The Literacy Intervention Toolkit. Judi Dodson consults on issues related to school change, teacher knowledge, and literacy achievement. She also is president of Peruvian Hearts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education and development of leadership of young women in Peru, giving them the resources they need to break the cycle of poverty and become leaders in their country. Judi Dodson believes literacy is a social justice, equity, and inclusivity issue, and this adds passion to her work with teachers and students.

Learn more about Judi Dodson