Translating Teacher Talk

Interpreting the world of teacher vernacular to improve communication.

By Elijah Ammen


kids in class
It seems counter-intuitive to write about teacher talk on a website for teachers; however, many teachers often forget that they lapse into a slew of vocabulary that carries enormous implied meaning. The longer a teacher is in the education world, the more likely he is to use a teacher dialect composed of words that carry enormous significance that he assumes everyone else knows. If you have been a teacher long enough, you know that there are often even three or four different terms or abbreviations for the exact same thing.
It's important that teachers share these definitions with parents, substitutes, younger teachers, and even their students. If we teachers use vocabulary that our audience misinterprets, we are not being the effective communicators that we could be. Here are some of the most common "teacher talk" examples that we should explain before just throwing them out there. 
If you want an official education definition of each word, feel free to consult any number of education textbooks. The definitions here are worded in a student and parent-friendly format. Often teachers cloak their definitions in so much rhetoric and jargon that the benefit of defining the term in the first place gets lost.


This might simultaneously be a teacher's favorite and least favorite word. New teachers see this word burned in fiery red letters when they close their eyes at night. Essentially it means, "You have to teach differently to different learners." A teacher can't expect to say the same thing and have all students learn equally. An excellent teacher changes his teaching style and the lesson in order to fit the student's learning style. This could mean different levels of complexity within a class where there are different reading levels. This could mean giving your class a choice of projects or assignments. This could mean allowing visual learners to work differently than tactile learners. Different learning styles and different ability levels require different methods of teaching--ergo, differentiation.
For more details, see two excellent Lesson Planet articles, Divide to Differentiate and Meeting Your Student Learning Needs with Differentiated Instruction.

Accommodations and Modification

These two words are most commonly used in an Exceptional Education setting, and often have a lot of emotional baggage along with them. Simply, these two words mean: "Adapting the environment and assignments to promote student growth." Accommodations have to do with changing the environment for a learner. For instance, allowing a test taker to move to a quieter seat, or having a test read aloud, or help with accountability like a homework check list, or a system of incentives. While many teachers assume that accommodations should only be given when legally obligated through an IEP, it is an important strategy for all learners. As a teacher in a Title 1 school, most of my classes are on an educational level where they need extra support and accountability through accommodations.
Modifications are a change to the curriculum or assignment itself. This could be shortening an assignment or providing extra notes to help complete an assignment. It could also mean changing the format of a project; for instance, an essay could be changed to an oral presentation. The tricky part of modifications is that it can often lower the rigor of an assessment, which is why the best modifications are where there are multiple equally rigorous options that allow individuals to choose the assignment most suited to their learning style. 


Failing to scaffold is the most common mistake teachers make. We get so wrapped up on wanting to teach Concept D that we forget to make sure our class understands Concepts A, B, and C. In other words, 
"Build gradually and sequentially on prior knowledge." I adore ancient mythology, as evidenced by previous Lesson Planet articles I have written here, here, and here. However, when I teach a text like The Odyssey, or Antigone, I can't assume that my classes have the skills or historical context to jump straight into that text. For instance, with Antigone, it was necessary to explain Greek religion and mythology, starting with what is already known (usually a conglomeration of Disney movies, 300, and Percy Jackson novels). From that previous knowledge, I establish the actual historical context. The next step in this scaffolding is to explain Greek theatre and the different mechanics of Greek tragedy (such as masks, the chorus, and the tragic hero). Finally, I need to establish that Antigone is the third in a trilogy about Oedipus and his family. 

Only after establishing this extensive background are my learners now prepared to fully analyze Antigone. The level of scaffolding differs based on how much prior knowledge exists, and the complexity of your idea. This is why pre-tests are so useful to gauge the pre-existing familiarity with a subject.

For more scaffolding resources, check out lessons for scaffolding for ELL, a sample scaffolded lesson on the Gettysburg Address, and a scaffolded reading and writing lesson.

Fluency vs. Comprehension vs. Analysis

As a high school English teacher, the most frustrating thing I hear is when someone asks, "So what do you teach? I mean, they know how to read already!" First, that is not always the case, and second, reading goes far beyond a mere recitation of words on a page. These three levels of reading build on each other, but increase in complexity. The three levels mean the following, respectively: "Reading smoothly, understanding the face value of the text, and understanding the deeper or implied meaning."

Fluency is often deceptive. A reader can rattle off a passage aloud, mastering all the pronunciation and pacing of reading. Unfortunately, many readers do this on pure parroting without any comprehension of what a text means. While tools like Running Records can help measure fluency, they don't measure comprehension.

The vast, yet nebulous expanse between comprehension and analysis is where English teachers spend the majority of their time. Comprehension is a low-level skill. Can the reader tell you what happened in what they just read? Analysis, however, requires the reader to make inferences and attach meaning that is not directly stated. For instance, a reader could demonstrate comprehension by telling the basic plot of W. W. Jacob's, "The Monkey's Paw." But in order to show analysis, they have to explain not just what happened, but why it happened. What motivates characters to behave in certain ways? What meaning could the author be communicating through a symbol? What are themes or motifs in the work?
These few terms are a brief foray into the lush jungle of teacher talk. While the ideas may be complex or nuanced, they are not just jargon—they are essential parts of teaching. If you know these terms, it gives you a stronger way to communicate with educators. Inversely, educators need to strive to spread this vocabulary, realizing that common terminology helps us solve common problems.