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How to use the right combination of words when teaching

Posted by Paul Boyd on Thursday, 1 November 2018
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In the folktale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the magic words ‘open sesame’ open the enchanted cave that is filled with treasure and riches.

When we hear ‘abracadabra’ we think of something magical happening; indeed, the word has been used throughout history as a sort of mystical talisman, thought to aid curing and healing.

‘Hocus pocus’ used to be heard as a form of enchantment, used by conjurers, and although it was merely a distraction, it still enabled observers to imagine something mystical or special was happening.

In our practice as teachers, using the right combination of words in our classrooms can make the difference between unlocking the ‘treasure’ of potential within a child, or blocking their access to new ideas and learning.

We’re often told about the difference between asking open questions, e.g. "What do you think of the weather today?" or closed questions such as, "It’s a lovely sunny day today, isn’t it?".

As educators, we will spend a lot of time developing this skill to avoid simple yes/no responses.

However, it also manifests in other, often more subtle ways, that you might not always notice. I have made the mistake in the past of writing what I think is an instructional question in a student’s book, "Can you tell me how this character is feeling?". This lead to the instruction being misinterpreted and I received a very literal response of "Yes, I can".

teacher in group of students

At primary level, we spend time teaching children about the different forms of a sentence (question, command, statement and exclamation), but it’s useful to bear grammatical structures in mind ourselves when speaking to students and eliciting information.

"Can you write about the theme of love in this poem" is not the same as "Write about the theme of love in this poem".  Also, if a student is demonstrating inappropriate behaviour, asking "What are you doing!" may create a very different reaction than "Why are you doing that?".

The order in which you give information will also have varying effects on learning. For example, verbally giving students a list of step-by-step instructions at once may prove confusing and distracting, whereas providing them one at a time may be more accessible.


The simple act of restructuring a sentence could make the difference between a student going with you on an educational journey or getting left behind.

Similarly, when explaining concepts or ideas to students, we shouldn’t just assume that our natural explanations will make sense to students.

Another example: is it the same to say "Photosynthesis is the process by which plants turn light energy into chemical energy" as it is to say "The process by which plants turn light energy into photo energy is called photosynthesis"?

So, if you have a student or class that is struggling with an idea or concept, remember to consider what you are saying along with how you are saying it.  Good luck!


About our Community Expert


Paul Boyd
Community Expert

Paul is an actor and English teacher from Northern Ireland. Alongside his acting career working in theatre, film and television across the UK, he also teaches in primary and secondary schools throughout London.

Paul provides performance coaching to both individual clients and businesses.


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