Language Moves

Richhart condenses several keys “language moves” that facilitate the creation of a culture of thinking in schools, classrooms, and organizations. They are:

  •  The Language of thinking

  •  The Language of community

  •  The language of identity

  •  The language of initiative

  •  The language of mindfulness

  •  The language of praise and feedback

  •  The language of listening

 Richhart helps us better understand how each operates in context, what it might look like and sound like, and how it can shape the learning of individuals and the group.

Ritchhart shares his understanding of the vocabulary of thinking with his colleagues Shari Tishman and David Perkins suggesting that the language of thinking is sorted by those words defining processes such as justifying, examining, reasoning, products such as hypothesis, a question, a judgment, and epistemic stances that reflect one’s attitude toward a bit of knowledge or an idea such as agreement, doubt, confirmation. Richhart adds states such as confusion, awe, wonderment that describes one’s mental status or state.

Language of Thinking

The language of thinking helps cue action and provides a means to regulate activity in the classroom. Richhart wants our students to consider alternative actions for the characters, not just thinking about the text they read, but to make predictions about what might happen next, raise questions about the characters’ motive, and so on. Ritchhart believes this is helpful to students who are struggling to engage mentally.

The language of thinking supports meta-cognition in both reflective components as well as planning aspects. It helps us examine the processes we used or did not use.

Meta-cognition involves ongoing monitoring and directing of one’s thinking. This is seen in the process of reading. As we read, we monitor our comprehension, and when we notice it flagging, we slow down and direct ourselves to do something about it.

Ritchhart emphasizes that having a language to identify thinking processes is a requirement for us to use and activate them effectively.

Ritchhart examines how do students develop a language of thinking. He notes the main way is by being in situations where others are using the language. Ritchhart believes a key move that teachers, parents, and mentors can use is noticing when and where students are thinking, and specifically naming the thinking being demonstrated.

Ritchhart often shares a practice called noticing and naming with parents as a keyway they can make their child’s thinking visible. When this practice is used in the classroom, it makes the thinking visible to both the child demonstrating the thinking as well as to others.

How does noticing and naming work? Ritchhart says “it starts with us as teachers or leaders of a group, being aware of what it is we want to highlight and reinforce.”(Ritchhart 2015 pg.70) He gives an example of the See-Think-Wonder routine where students are asked to look closely, notice details, observe carefully, make interpretations, build expectations, reason, generate alternatives, provide evidence, make connections, and raise questions. Getting students to do all of this is the key to making See-Think-Wonder a powerful learning opportunity. A teacher can use the language to notice and name something specific that students had done well: observing, rather than just telling the students they had done a good job.

Noticing and naming are likely to be more effective and productive in building a culture of thinking because we are looking for a particular lesson. What kinds of thinking are needed to be successful? What do I want to reinforce? What do I want to call students’ attention? Ritchhart notes “Becoming more aware of thinking ourselves and identifying what is needed to facilitate learning helps us be more responsive teachers.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.71)

See Think Wonder Example Imgage

The Lanugage of Community

Lisa Verkek, a fifth-grade teacher, uses See-Think-Wonder routine throughout the year as a part of a Visible Thinking pilot project. She had volunteered to demonstrate the routine in action so others could see how it worked. Ritchhart captures her teaching on video. His focus is on the activity itself and wants to capture the various aspects of the routine that would help other teachers learn how to use it.

Below is an excerpt of what Lisa’s lesson about:

“Using a photograph of children in a school hall taken at the end of the nineteenth century in America, Lisa modeled and set up the routine easily and effectively for her students. After her quick whole-group introduction, students began using the routine to structure their conversations in pairs as they examined different sets of photographs taken of children from around the world. Each set highlighted some type of hardship or inequity a child might experience, forming a connection to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. As I moved around the room with the cameraman, I was pleased that we were capturing good footage of students talking and sharing their thinking at each step of the routine. We also got ample footage of Lisa as she interacted with the student pairs and discussed their thinking with them. It was a very smooth and productive class. I knew we would be able to use her lesson to showcase the See-Think-Wonder routine effectively, and I left Lisa’s classroom pleased that we had captured on tape a well- executed lesson. It wasn’t until we began the process of turning the raw footage of that hourlong lesson into a six-minute video that the true power of Lisa’s teaching began to emerge, however.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 63)

Ritchhart examines how Lisa’s language served to effectively guide and direct the students’ learning and thinking. He carefully attends to Lisa’s language, so he can begin to understand how all these aspects of expert teaching took shape.

Ritchhart shows the subtleties and power about language that shapes our behavior, interaction, thinking, attention, and feelings by analyzing how Lisa introduced the lesson:

“To model for her students, she holds up the photograph of schoolchildren from the late 1800s and asks, “What do we see?” Students identify several concrete things they notice in the picture, such as children, flags, desks, people standing, chalkboards, and so on. Lisa then asks the class, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” Students immediately begin to offer possibilities and alternatives: “They’re singing,” “Maybe they are in an assembly,” “Maybe they are singing the national anthem because of the flag.” Students put forth possibilities, add on to one another’s ideas, and connect to things that had been seen. Good responses. Good engagement. Good collective sense making. But what did language have to do with this?” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart analyzes Lisa’s choice of pronoun when she asks, “What do we see?”. Ritchhart notes the pronoun “we” sends a subtle signal to students that the group is working on this together and that the activity is a cooperative endeavor rather than a competitive one. He states “Students respond accordingly and find it easy to build on others’ ideas. When Lisa asks, “What do you think might be going on with those children?” her choice to use the words “might be” rather than “is” cues students that they are seeking alternatives, possibilities, and options rather than trying to definitely name the activity of the picture. Consequently, we notice students responding in this open manner. Furthermore, students build on one another’s ideas without anyone complaining, “That was my idea!” Thus, the spirit of cooperation and collective sense making continues.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.64)


Ritchhart has a clear sense of Lisa’s classroom being a learning community. He listens closely to the talk of both students and the teacher and finds it is peppered with the use of words like “we,” “our,” and “us.” Look at the example below:

“LISA: Folks, thank you very much for sitting so quietly. What we’re going to do is: you’re going to come with your table and your photograph, your recording sheet,

and the “Rights of the Child” [handout]. Come with all three pieces of paper. Come and sit up at the board. And we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures, and you’ll get a chance to look at each other’s pictures as well.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pgs. 71-72)


Ritchhart examines Lisa’s use of the pronoun “you” to praise students and then to indicate exactly what they are going to do. He believes this allows students to recognize that there are directions for them to attend to individually. Next, Ritchhart states in his examination of Lisa switches to the pronoun “we”:

“This shift places the next endeavor as a collaborative one and signals to the students that Lisa is now a part of the new endeavor as well. Notice that she also makes explicit the thinking that students will be doing: “we’re going to see what conclusions we can draw about the pictures.”” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg.72)

Language of Identity

Ritchhart believes that there are expert teachers who help their students come to see themselves not as an outsider looking in on a subject but as members of it. He states “

 They help their students not only to see the whole game, as Perkins describes it, but also to play the game.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 74) Ritchhart emphasizes that rather than learning history, students become historians; rather than learning about science, students become scientists; etc.

The language of identity is one tool to help students come to see themselves as members of a field. It goes beyond merely having a certain knowledge base but to help students engage in thinking and the key processes that are important in literature, science, social studies etc. When using the language of identity in the classroom, it signals to students that they need to activate certain applicable ways of thinking.

For example, Ritchhart provides two alternative ways of learning an identical hands-on lesson in science: (1) “Today we are going to learn about chemical reactions.” And (2) “Today as scientists, we are going to be investigating how chemical react under various circumstances.” Ritchhart asks Does one of the framings prompt a more active response and engage a different set of mental processes? Does one framing feel more exciting than the others to you? What roles do you imagine for both the teacher and students under each framing? I think you know the answers to these questions.

Ritchhart believes to reject the role of teacher as deliverer of information and student as passive receivers, we need to help students envision and take on a new role: Process-based roles such as thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like.

Language of Initiative

A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology refer to as “agency” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise according to Ritchhart. He says “This entails thinking about the world not as something that unfolds separate and apart from us but as a field of action that we can potentially direct and influence. As a person develops initiative, she comes to see the world as responsive to her actions. This direction and influence involve identifying possible actions, weighing their potential, directing attention, understanding causal relationships, and setting goals, among other things.” Ritchhart believes it demands learning to be strategic and planful. He cites Peter Johnson (2004) “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals” (p. 29).” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart answers the question of how language relates to the development of initiative. He believes in our interactions and questioning of learners, teachers, leaders, or mentors can use language to direct a learner’s attention. Teachers help students identify, weigh, and plan potential courses of action. Ritchhart notes that our language can draw students’ attention to the strategies being deployed and their consequences, whether students are aware of them or not.

Ritchhart gives examples from Lisa’s questions:

“What do you think you were basing that idea on?” or the frequently used “What makes you say that?” asks students to identify their reasoning and make their thinking visible. In doing so, students come to see that ideas don’t merely pop into one’s head but are under one’s control and influence and act to shape one’s reasoning.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 76)

Ritchhart (2015) suggests the following:

“One way to know that we are using the language of initiative and independence, rather than rescuing students and furthering their dependence on us, is to ask ourselves, “Who is doing the thinking?” Reviewing the snippets of language from Lisa’s class, we see that in each instance, Lisa frames her contributions to ensure that students are doing the thinking. Our goal as educators, parents, and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and to see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (pg. 78)

Language of Mindfulness

Ritchhart uses experiments to prove that conditional words help keep the mind open and flexible. 

He cites Ellen Langer’s ground breaking research (1989) on mindfulness. Langer’s definition of mindfulness is an open, flexible state in which new categories and possibilities can be created.

Here is how Langer sets up her experiment and the results:

 “Langer sought to identify what types of environmental cues might cause someone to remain more open and mindful versus those that might produce more rote, fixed, and mindless kinds of behavior. In an early study (Langer & Piper, 1987), she set up an experiment in which subjects casually encounter a rubber object in a room where they are working with an experimenter. The experimenter comments to some subjects that the object before them could be a dog’s chew toy (conditional language) and to others that this is a dog’s chew toy (absolute language). The experimenter then sets the object aside and begins to interview the subjects, writing down their responses with a pencil. At some point, the experimenter claims that she has made a mistake and needs to erase what she has written. When this happened, subjects who heard the conditional language (this might be a dog’s chew toy) were much more likely than their counterparts to consider using the rubber object as an eraser. By hearing that the object could be a dog’s chew toy, the participants were able to remain mentally open and consider using the object in a new way once the conditions changed. In contrast, labeling the object definitively tended to produce cognitive closure.” (Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78-79)

Ritchhart conducted another experiment, where he and his teams designed an experiment to teach university students an invented mathematical concept and procedure called “pairwise”. Here is the procedure and results for “pairwise”:

“The procedure didn’t involve more than the use of basic operations with integers. Some of the students were introduced to the new procedure by hearing the statement, “One way to solve a pairwise equation is… (conditional language) and then shown the designed method. Another group was told, “This is how you solve a pairwise equation” (absolute language), and the same method was shown. In a posttest, students who received the conditional instruction were more accurate in solving pairwise problems, used more workable methods likely to yield accurate results, were more able to produce accurate workable alternative methods for solving the problems, and were less likely to misapply the pairwise procedure in circumstances where it didn’t apply. In this scenario of learning a new bit of mathematics, we theorized that participants receiving instruction using absolute language were more likely to turn off their prior knowledge and frame their task as trying to memorize a procedure that might not have made sense. They became passive recipients of information. In contrast, the conditional language allowed students to integrate their prior knowledge and seek to understand the mathematics, rather than simply try to learn a procedure.” Ritchhart, 2015 pg. 78)

Ritchhart concludes that conditional language almost invites others into the conversation to offer their opinion, and the group begins to pool information and make sense of the situation. Conditional language is not about forgoing answers: it is about forgoing early closure to the process of finding answers.

Language of Praise and Feedback

Ritchhart (2015) writes “Praise is not feedback, as Harris and Rosenthal note. This is in part due to the lack of information praise typically conveys. “Good job” hardly gives one much to go on. To truly be considered feedback, our words have to take on an instructional role, providing the learner with information related directly to the learning task at hand (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Furthermore, this information has to be received and actionable, guiding future learning. This suggests that our comments should identify what has been done well as much as what still needs improvement and then give guidance in helping the student achieve that improvement. If our words don’t achieve this, then our comments are probably best understood as evaluation rather than feedback.” (Pg. 81)

Ritchhart believes it is important for the language to be specific, descriptive, and informative so that it tells learners about what they did correctly and should continue to do so in the future. He (2015) cites examples from Lisa, a fifth-grade teacher:

“Lisa’s words to students Andrea and Miran after they had conducted their See-Think-Wonder routine convey these qualities as she comments, “You’ve done a really good job of looking at those pictures. I can see you’ve really tried to find an explanation for what’s going on. And I really like the way that you used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen, maybe on television or news reports.”

(pg. 82)

”Lisa then directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done: “So, now you can turn over to the other side, and you can find out what’s going on with these pictures. And then, when you know that, you can carry on down here [points to the lower half of the recording sheet] and look at the rights, yes? And see what rights might be being respected and which ones might be being neglected. And what makes you say that?”

(pg. 82)

“Notice that Lisa begins with global praise to assure the students, “You’ve done a really good job,” but then quickly moves to specifics. She notices and names the thinking they did (“tried to find an explanation”) and then goes on to name several other specific actions they undertook (“[using] what you already know”). Lisa then connects what the students have done already to the next learning task: “So, now you can turn over to the other side . . .” All of this is offered in a sincere tone and demonstrates that Lisa has really attended to what the students have been doing and where they need to go next in their learning.” (pg. 82)

Language of Listening

Ritchhart (2015) states “listening is one of the powerful ways we show respect for and interest in our people’s thinking.” (pg. 82)

He believes listening starts with genuine interest in others. It means we must pause our own talk and give students time and space to air their thoughts. Ritchhart notes there are specific skills and actions we can learn and a language of listening we can use to demonstrate out interest.

Ritchhart captures the sentiment of Stephen Covey’s expression “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” which is a common linguistic move made by the listeners: clarification. Ritchhart (2015) gives example of this from Lisa’s class:

“We witnessed this when Lisa probed Alex and Hung-Joon about their statement, “I wonder if the kids are working for their families.” Good listeners ask authentic questions to clarify points, unearth any assumptions they may be bringing to the situation, and be sure of the speaker’s intent. To verify their understanding, good listeners may paraphrase what speakers have said and ask speakers to verify that they have correctly represented their ideas” (pg. 83)

Ritchhart says once the clarification is achieved, a teacher or leader may want to connect what was said to other points people have made or to other ideas being discussed. He believes these connections help to thread various ideas together and to facilitate a conversation. Ritchhart believes threading is important for anyone in the role of facilitating learning in groups because it builds coherence and move the agenda of learning forward. He notes threading requires us to listen for the expression of key ideas, questions, or issues that might not yet be well formed in the speaker’s mind. By highlighting these ideas for the group and by noticing and naming them, we bring them forward for further discussion.

Ritchhart (2015) highlights a couple more language moves such as the following:

“Challenge ideas being presented, not in terms of correctness or accuracy, but in the exploratory sense, as in a Socratic dialogue: “How do you think that idea would play out in another context?” “Let’s follow that line of thinking; what’s the action that might follow from it?” In addition, we can advance the discussion further by inviting others in: “Joaquin, what do you think about what Marcy just said?” “Kate, how does Clinton’s idea connect with yours?” Questions such as these don’t come from some preplanned lesson; they emerge from our careful listening to students.”

(pg. 83)