Directly speaking, how INDIRECT is your teaching?

“Boys and girls!”

“I’ll begin when you’re ready.”

“I’m busy.”

“It’s time to do your work.”

If you work with children, you probably have heard teachers or parents make similar comments. I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past! When I first began working with students with language disorders, I quickly realized I’d have to make a conscious effort to change the phrasing of my directions and requests. I learned during my training as a speech-language pathologist about how to help improve inferential language comprehension, but didn’t realize how much of our social and conversational speech is indirect until I began working.

I love learning about what’s relevant in the field of business and brain research and finding ways to apply that to education. As I listened to the Steven Pinker talk about indirect language as a window to social relations, it reminded me of how important it is that teachers, parents and other educators be aware of and make a conscious effort to not use too much indirect speech when giving directions to students. So much meaning can be missed for students with language based learning difficulties.

It’s in our nature to use indirect speech acts as a means to be perceived as polite. For example, in my early years as a speech-language pathologist, I unconsciously asked students, “Are you ready to work?” They often laughed and replied, “No.” I quickly learned to be more direct in my directions and requests. Instead of doing what’s in our nature to be polite, I learned to give direct and simple commands. Instead of asking, “Are you ready to work,” I’d tell them, “Now it’s time to work.”

So enjoy this informative and eye-opening video from RSA ANIMATE that illustrates a section of Steven Pinker’s TED talk “What Our Language Habits Reveal” and, as you get ready to start back school (Where did the summer go?) ask yourself, “How indirect is my teaching?”

Instead of saying:                            Say this instead:

“Boys and girls!”     ——–     “Sit down and stop talking.”

“I’ll begin when you’re ready.”  ——–  “Sit down, get your paper & pencil  and stop talking.”

“I’m busy.”    ——–   “I can’t talk to you right now.”

“It’s time to do your work.”  ——–  “Stop talking and begin working.”


*THERE IS a time for indirect language in education. Indirect language can be a great way to get students thinking for themselves during instruction and when teaching and building critical thinking skills. My point is to reduce indirect language when giving directions and in general consider when speaking to students, “How much of my language is indirect and which students are struggling to read between the lines?”

*ALSO, use indirect language to get a discussion going when working on building social skills. Have students role play different social situations and help students practice observing non-verbal language and tone of voice to determine the speaker’s true intentions and meaning.