Use of Language in the #Healthed Classroom

Sometimes the subtlest of changes in your language can have an effect on your teaching, the classroom environment and the eventual outcomes. I used to ask “Any questions?” and now I ask “What questions do you have?”. A simple change from a closed question to one that, sometimes with ‘wait time’, can elicit a more desirable response from my students.

In this week’s blog I want to suggest three subtleties in language for your consideration.

Who Did What to Who?: Health data is a great way to hook students and justify why we teach certain topics. However, the language that we use to present the data is more powerful than you may think.

I could say in Illinois in 2013, 18,420 girls aged 15-19 got pregnant.

I could say, in the US nearly 23 million have been raped or are victims of attempted rape at some time in their lives.

But, as the powerful TED talk from Jackson Katz suggests, this use of the passive voice shapes the way in which we view those mentioned in the statistics. There is no active agent in the sentences above. Girls don’t just GET pregnant, they are impregnated by males. Girls don’t just happen to get raped, they are assaulted and raped most often by males. If we don’t mention boys and men in our statements they fade into the distance and are taken out of the equation. The message to my students when talking about campus safety has to be as much “Boys, don’t assault others” as it is “Girls, here’s how you can stay safe on campus”. *

Putting People First: When talking about drugs and alcohol, using person first language allows you to frame health behaviors in a different light. Agencies tasked with improving the health and well-being of people view addiction to drugs not as a personal weakness or a criminal behavior but as a mental disorder. As such, it is best to avoid using terms such as addict, drug abuser, substance abuse and drug habit. Each of these terms have negative, shaming connotations and places blame on the individual for their situation and ‘personal failings’. Instead, we should say someone with a drug addiction or a person currently using substances.

For more examples of person first language, read Free Your Mind: Put People Before Problems as you Write About Drugs.

Minority: When discussing issues related to diversity and health we can be guilty of seeking comfort in the use of descriptive terms such minorities, or blue collar as they feel safe, and less likely to offend. However, at times those words can, sometimes intentionally in certain cases, be coded language that reveal how we view ‘others’. Some have even suggested that ‘minority’ is code for everyone else who is not a white male.

Terms such as urban, or inner-city can be considered examples of ‘dog whistling‘. Innocuous on the surface these terms have additional, different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup.  In ‘On Race: The Relevance of Saying Minority‘ Edward Schumacher-Matos states that “…some critics argue that an emphasis on minority status is insulting to blacks, Latinos and Asians and ignores their cultural influence on the mainstream. Others argue that the emphasis encourages victimization, most recently among some whites.”

I have seen the term ‘minority ethnic group’ increasingly used as a preferred replacement for ‘ethnic minority group’. In this article, Barry Cross suggests “I prefer to use the term “People of Color” over the term“minorities” when I describe racial and ethnic groups who are not White. The term “People of Color” is neutral, and does not have the negative implications as the term “minorities,” which seems to imply something “less than” being White.” And there’s the rub. The term minority has implications of ‘less than’ and when we are trying to increase self efficacy in our students, it’s important that ALL students feel empowered and capable of making change.

For more, read The Journey From ‘Colored’ To ‘Minorities’ To ‘People Of Color’.

When I start my school year I go through my R.O.P.E.S activity where each letter of the acronym stands for a word that will allow my class to get the most out of their time together. For ‘O’, I always suggest ‘oops and ouch’. For times when students use language that provokes an ‘ouch’, I encourage them to use that ‘oops’ moment as a learning opportunity.

Considering the power of words, and the fact that we get to choose what words we use, I’ll sign off with the following quote:

You are master of what you say until you utter it, once you deliver it, you are its captive.
― Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu-Talib A.S

Don’t let your choice of words hold you captive.


*I do of course acknowledge that males too can be the subjects of assault and rape, but that statistically it is less likely. We also talk increasingly about the role of bystanders in keeping others safe from harm.

4 thoughts on “Use of Language in the #Healthed Classroom

  1. Patricia Zemke

    Excellent points. Also remember to keep your language gender neutral. Instead of “Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” you can address with “Good morning health students!”


  2. Pingback: Effective Refusal – #slowchathealth

  3. Pingback: Words Matter – #slowchathealth

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