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The Magic Phrase as a Teaching Strategy

Jordan Catapano

If you’re a parent, or have ever even babysat young children, then the following scenario should likely be a familiar one: I used to be convinced that my son was out of control. Right after I would explicitly tell him not to do something, he would always get up and do it anyway. Every. Single. Time. I would muse, “Why can’t he follow a simple instruction, why is he being so defiant?” I was genuinely baffled for a good while. Until one day, I got wise.

I figured out The Magic Phase.

See, as I grew more experienced, the answer became increasingly obvious: There was a meaning behind the madness. He repeated this undesired behavior time and again not because it was a conscious decision to be disobedient, or because he disrespected authority, but instead because I had given him no alternative behavior to perform. Even though he knew he should not do something, he had no idea what he should do instead. So once I told him what positive behavior I expected, and didn’t dwell strictly on what not to do, his behavior improved immediately.

The Magic Phrase as a Teaching Strategy

My lesson from parenthood reverberates just as effectively in my classroom. The story is always the same: Young minds make the same mistakes over and over, no matter how many times I tell them otherwise. Then, suddenly, I tell them what to do instead, and their performance improves.

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Students who consistently procrastinate, who rush through tests, who botch an introduction to an essay, who take shortcuts in their research, who consistently disrespect those around them—any performance or behavioral issue students routinely demonstrated—I addressed the same way: “Don’t do that!”

But it’s not enough to simply tell students not to do something. Even if they want to improve in any regard, it isn’t possible to improve when they’re only told what not to do. So when the situation arises again, the only apparent option available to them is to repeat the previous behavior. They just don’t know what the alternatives are.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Here’s The Magic Phrase that works: “Don’t do that … try this instead next time …”

You’ll find that the results are both startling and immediate. Adding this simple phrase into your teaching strategies and your vernacular gives students the alternative they’re looking for. It tells them exactly what’s expected of them. It doesn’t come off nearly as negative, and it doesn’t simply shut them down. Rather, it gives them a sense of encouraging direction: It explicitly tells them what to avoid, but also what they should strive for.

Better Feedback, Better Outcomes

I used to catch myself breaking this rule when giving feedback to students on their writing—it was littered with “don’ts.” Don’t use commas there. Don’t bore your audience with that intro. Don’t settle for a three-point thesis. Don’t use that quotation there. That’s all they ever heard, and it can be a bit defeating. It’s no wonder that some students slowly recoil into themselves and end up feeling like they’ve failed at the assignment. Wouldn’t you, if all you ever heard were all the mistakes you shouldn’t repeat?

The same thing was true for critiquing their behavior. Don’t say that. Don’t talk out of turn. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t forget your materials. Permitted behaviors seemed to be an ever-dwindling list, a draconian regimen that merely allowed students to sit and stare forward. It’s obvious, now—and it’s no wonder students acted out.

Now, my feedback to students doesn’t just involve telling them where they’re wrong. It might start there, but it ends by setting a target for next time. “Don’t write a generic introduction, write a personal story next time.” “Don’t put commas there, but use Comma Rule #3 we discussed in class next time.” “Don’t shout out the answer, but please raise your hand when you think of something next time and I’ll call on you.”

When you apply The Magic Phrase, then your results are immediately different in a highly positive way. Correct behavior is always reinforced with a “do,” and it tells students that while they may have done something improperly, they can get it right the next time with these directions. Then they aren’t having their options restricted at all; instead, they are only being redirected to the right option.

When you give students a solid idea of what their next target performance or behavior expectation is, then they will have something definitive to strive toward. So, what are you waiting for? Go on ahead and give it a try—I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the positive results it yields.

What do you think of this simple phrase? What other phrases do you use to redirect student performance and behavior in your subject area? Tell us what works for you in the comments area below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website