As teachers, we speak all day. We know how much words can do, or we wouldn’t be teaching. Right?

But we’re human (even though our students don’t realize it…), and sometimes we forget the remarkable power of words.

The Bible says that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” —Prov. 25:11 and that “pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” —Prov. 16:24.

How can your words be, in their way, beautiful and sweet? How can they help your students reach their God-given potential?

Steps of growth

Inspire the right actions with growing words.

Working with children means LOTS of guidance—day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute. Do you ever feel discouraged by how often you find yourself saying “no” and “don’t”?

While we know directions like that are necessary to keep our students safe and on the right track, we can brighten our own perspective as well as our students’ perspective by sprinkling in some positive instruction along the way. In many cases, telling them what they should do is even more instructive that telling them what they shouldn't do. Let’s look at some common correction that we give and see how we can state the same thing in a positive, growing way.

Positive words

Think about the situations that happen every day in your classroom.

What words do you use now? What growing words could you add?

You’ll notice a change when you use growing words that go beyond saying no to clarify what you expect.

Instill a growth mindset by praising effort and progress (not intelligence).

Simple words you choose every day can help your students face up to challenges throughout their lives.

Simple words can also subtly do the opposite. Resist the oh-so-tempting “You’re so smart!”

It seems natural, and it feels good to hear it. However, praise for being smart limits the growth mindset you want to create. Instead, it contributes to a fear of failure and an avoidance of challenges.

According to study results reported in “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” in New York magazine, children told they’re smart believe it’s a part of who they are. When they encounter something challenging, it feels like failure because it’s not easy.

The article cited this example: two groups of fifth-grade students were given the same test. After the test, one group was complimented for their intelligence. The other group was complimented for their effort.

Then these fifth graders were given a choice.

For the next test, they could choose a simpler puzzle that would be easy for them to solve. Or they could choose a harder puzzle that would help them to learn.


What happened? A majority of the students praised for being smart chose the easy puzzle. They could’ve grown with the hard puzzle! But they were afraid of the challenge. In their minds, they might fail and no longer be seen as smart.

A whopping 90% of students praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle.

In another test, all students were given a test too difficult for them. The group complimented for their effort embraced the challenge—even enjoyed it. The group complimented for their intelligence shrank from it, visibly miserable during the test.

These studies by Columbia and Stanford faculty Carol Dweck prove that students achieve more with an emphasis on effort instead of on self-esteem.

But really, they just illustrate what the Bible was already telling us—that work is valuable, and learning is a continual pursuit.

  • If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. —James 1:5
  • Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might. —Eccles. 9:10a
  • And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. —Col. 3:23
  • Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning. —Prov. 9:9
  • Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. —Prov. 4:5
  • A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels. —Prov. 1:5

Greek dramatist Aeschylus is said to have written, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.” With simple but well-chosen words, you can help impart this powerful perspective.

Increase your praise’s value and effectiveness by encouraging sincerely and specifically.

One kind word can change someones entire day

Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

Good compliments really are like a great meal—they keep you going. You savor them.

But there’s a catch if you compliment only struggling students. Your class starts to think encouragement is tied only to poor performance. Your students needing improvement feel singled out, and not in a good way.

Besides that, your students doing well can feel unrewarded, less noticed.

How do you avoid that?

Praise students for those areas where they excel and for right answers (e.g., “Good thinking!”).

Encourage by sincerely emphasizing strengths.

Also give specific praise that tells something. Instead of saying “Good job!” give specifics like “You followed directions perfectly!” or “Your multiplication is getting much faster!” or “That’s a great example of how to perform a poem with expression.”

And of course, encourage for effort! Encourage students who try to answer, even if it’s not correct. Encourage for increased focus, even if it’s still not where it needs to be.

Robert Frost wrote, “There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.”

The right kind of encouragement goes a long way toward seeing your students jump to the skies.