08.Speaking Learnish

“Learnish” – Developing a language for learning

Guy Claxton neatly coined the term speaking “Learnish” to encompass the language of learning used in the classroom. Just like learning any language, it takes time to build up a range of vocabulary and a fluency with the children; and just like anything else you model in the classroom, students are quick to pick up on and use the language you model as a teacher. The language adults use and the way they use it is the backbone of classroom ethos and creates the “depths of the learning culture” in a classroom (see the diagram on this page). In order to strive to harness the power language can have in the classroom, it’s really worth examining.

Ways to develop and integrate “Learnish”

In a staff meeting in our school, we discussed ways to build up a language for learning. We thought of ways to remind ourselves to begin to use and develop a language of learning with the children. Staff had suggestions, such as writing the words you wanted to use on the class whiteboard to remind yourself to use them as well as asking support staff to help you thread those words into your day-to-day teaching.

Changing language is a habit change and changing habits require conscious effort! However, I can promise you the effort will quickly pay off and you will reap the rewards of this habit change quickly. As the children were beginning to build these habits, teachers in our school commented on how quick children were to pick up on and use words modelled by the teacher. They reported that this had a positive effect on their approach to learning (for example, by using the word “collaboration” regularly the children began to understand that collaboration was a useful learning tool and part of the classroom ethos). For this to really have an effect, you need to thread the Learnish you are using in as much as possible AND you need to create opportunities that will give the children to chance to use this learning habit. For example, if you are developing the value of learning from mistakes, you will need to create opportunities to learn from mistakes (such as redrafting and editing) as well as using positive language around making mistakes (such as commentating and using specific praise, like, “I love the way you noticed you’d misspelt that word and found a way to correct it.”)

A working dictionary of “Learnish”

Below is my dictionary of “Learnish” that I now use (fairly!) fluently and consistently in the classroom. The key words here are fluent and consistent. By constantly using these words, the language of learning is threaded into everything we do and isn’t a “bolted on” idea – this is when I feel speaking Learnish has a real impact (just like when you become fluent in a foreign language and suddenly find you can hold a conversation!). I know I am always learning and can always build an ever-wider vocabulary. For example, I heard the inspiring Hywel Roberts (@hywel_roberts) and Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) using the phrase, “Let’s say …” as an invitation for children to go on a journey with them and use their imaginations. I loved this – another phrase for me to thread in! You can read more about Hywel and Debra’s dilemma-led learning and how it can be blended with Learning Power in this blog.

Here are some other “learnish” words and phrases you could begin to use:

“Could be” vs “is”

I’ve put this first because it is probably my favourite phrase. This is because it opens up possibilities to the children and invites them to engage. This comes from Guy Claxton’s work with Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard. They suggest that by telling students this “is” how you work out a sum, or this “is” how you read a map, you shut down any other possibilities. By using “is” language you spoon feed information with little encouragement for other possibilities or critical thinking.

On the other hand, if you change the “is” to a “could be”, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. If you say, “yes, that’s one way you could work out that sum …” it opens up ideas for other ways to solve it, which can then create a discussion about the most effective methods to work out that sum. Incidentally, I think this is especially important in maths; I think a lot of children become scared of maths because of being told “this is how you do it”. I try to use “could be” language as much as possible to open up their minds, engage them as learners and open up critical debate and discussion.

“learning” vs “work”

The idea behind this switch in language is that “work” sounds boring and like something you have to do. “Learning” sounds more fun and engaging. I often talk to the children in my class about why we are in school and centre everything around “learning”. We talk a lot about enjoying the struggle of learning and that exciting feel when you “get it”. The children then have a positive attitude to learning and the process of improving and getting better. We often use the Learning Ladder to reflect on the process of learning.

“Collaboration”, “Perseverance”, “Mimicking”, “Cooperating”, “Planning”, “noticing, “Revising/editing” 

These are all words I would thread into day-to-day teaching, highlighting when we are applying these skills and why they are important. Whilst sharing learning objectives or activities, I would highlight which ones stretched each skill. For example, when building 3D shapes in maths by using Polydron, I would talk to the children about how this would build perseverance; or when reviewing learning, I would talk about how two children had done a great job of mimicking one another’s ideas. In this way, learning is continually linked with the learning dispositions I am trying to develop in the children and they are beginning to build up a picture of what they would look like.

Superpower Learners wall

Our Superpower Learners wall develops a language of learning with the children, which comes from them. This is more of a working language – I tend to wait for them to come up with great “Learnish” and take it from them. I think this really empowers them as learners and when it comes from them it means even more. Some examples we have this year are:

  • I wonder …” – encouraging curiosity and playfulness with ideas.
  • I imagine …” as above!
  • I’m not the best at this but I’ll try!” Encouraging perseverance and taking risks in learning; having a go!
  • I wonder how I can help my friends.” Encouraging cooperation and collaboration; creating a supportive atmosphere in the classroom. Developing an understanding that all of us have learning we find easier and learning we find harder. We’re in this together!
  • I wonder how I can make this even better ..” Encouraging reflection, always improving and craftsmanship

We refer back to these quotes as often as possible/when they are relevant. This also makes these ideas and attitudes integral to the classroom ethos and not bolted on.

Incidentally, if all of these attitudes become embedded (which they do if you refer back to them as regularly as possible AND create a classroom culture that encourages them), behaviour improves and your job gets easier! Much better to have a class of 30 children who want to help one another and constantly seek to improve themselves, than a class of 30 children who rely on you for support and wait for you to give them the answers …

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