Motivating Reluctant Learners With Langauge

I have learned many important life lessons from Bert and Ernie. How to sleep better, how to use my imagination… and most important of all, how to do the pigeon. But, the beauty of Sesame Street goes far beyond the fun and engaging sketches. It’s in the depth of thought and research that is carefully crafted into each short segment that the real learning occurs.

After reading Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street I now watch the show with a different set of eyes. Eyes that see the important selections of colour, the precision in timing and the subtle choices of language, that teach, entertain and motivate each young viewer of the show. The below video is one of my favourites, but what is important to note as you watch, is Ernie’s approach and choice of language to motivate Bert.

OK, apart from Bert being distracted from a very admirable pass-time, Ernie’s decision to label Bert as ‘it’ has a very profound effect on his reaction:

ERNIE: But I know reading is good for you, reading is great, and reading is a lot of fun, and all that sort of thing. But, Bert, you need your exercise, too, you know?

BERT: Yeah, I know. I’ll exercise later. I want to read right now, though, OK?

ERNIE: OK, Bert. But incidentally, Bert, you’re it.

By identifying Bert as ‘it’, Ernie has all of a sudden bestowed a virtue upon him. Bert is now responsible for fulfilling the ‘endeavour’ that being ‘it’ demands. This (after a little heckling) proves to be a much more successful method of motivation than simply telling Bert to start exercising.

Yes, it does sound a bit deep for a simple game of tag, but there is some pretty fascinating research behind it. In a recent study by the University of California this concept of language choice is shown to have a very real effect:

If you say something like, “Please help me,” the kids are more likely to keep playing with their Legos. But ask them, “Please be a helper,” and they’ll be more responsive.

Being called a helper makes kids feel like they’re embodying a virtue, says Christopher Bryan, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego and one of the researchers behind the study.

The other key reaction that Ernie’s choice of language generates is a sensation of perplexity:

ERNIE: You’re it, Bert.

BERT: What do you mean I’m it?

ERNIE: Well, you see, that’s the game.

Bert is suddenly engaged in the game. As he puzzles over what ‘being it’ means, he has allowed himself to become curious. Planning to or not, this perplexing idea has meant that Bert is all of a sudden drawn into the very game he was so resistant to playing.

These small choices in language can have a huge impact on how our kids approach their learning. How conscious are you of language when speaking to your kids? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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