Dear Parents,

How many acronyms does it take to educate a child?  S.A.T.’s…I.E.P.’s… A.C.Ts?  P.T.O.’s?  I.L.P.s?  Each industry has its own “industry talk,” and it’s important to “talk the talk” when conversing with someone in that field.  The over-reliance on acronyms in education, though, can be dizzying for parents – and teachers.  It often seems as if educators and policy makers concerned with education started texting long before teenagers started hiding cell phones under their desks, typing away!

I teach a course at the University of Colorado, for example, on D.I.  In that course, the students learn about instructional strategies for E.L.L.s using a research-proven model called the S.I.O.P..  They also learn the ins & outs of SPED programs, including the recent adoption of R.T.I. in secondary schools, and practice effective strategies for teaching students with L.D.,  R.D., ADHD, and a myriad of other high-incidence and low-incidence disabilities.  Huh?

Educational jargon includes more than just multi-lettered terminology, too.  One of my favorite stories about this topic is told in William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well.  (As a side note, he was my writing instructor in New York…a few years after he had left his post at Yale).  A wealthy school district in Connecticut had hired him to ‘dejargonize’ the materials schools sent out to parents.  The superintendent sent Zinsser samples of letters and memos, and Zinsser started the sorting process of good and bad examples.  Overly wordy, dehumanized language…the bad pile had it all.  “Enhanced learning environments,” for example.  What the heck are those? And “modified departmentalized schedule.”  Why not just say a modified schedule?  Zinsser then asked the teachers, curriculum coordinators, and principals to re-write some of the samples.  They scribbled, tore up paper, sat in silence, tried again.  As Zinsser puts it, they were beginning to look and sound a lot like writers.

I applaud those teachers, principals, and curriculum coordinators who had the guts to think through the words they use when communicating with families.  The language we use to talk about our children is important; it frames how we want others to see and thus interact with our sons and daughters.  How would you prefer to be talked about – as a daydreamer or as someone who is creative, innovative and imaginative?  As hyperactive or as energetic?  As aggressive or as an assertive person who won’t let others take advantage of you? The first options shed people in a negative light while the second options have a positive tone to them.

Educational jargon is no different.  It has the power to frame or reframe how we think about and interact with children in school.  Using acronyms that parents do not use in their daily lexicon can also create a distance between a teacher and a parent.  It’s as if the parents are not “in the know” when, in actuality, they know their child better than any teacher ever will – or at least they know their child in a different way than a teacher ever will know him or her (or them!).

The teachers, principals, and curriculum coordinators at Zinsser’s finally got it.  They wrote in the first person.  They used active verbs.  They replaced long words and vague nouns with a description of what they were really trying to say.  For one group, “Evaluative procedures for the objectives were also established based on acceptable criteria” became “At the end of the year, we will evaluate our progress.”  Another group wrote, “We will see how well we have succeeded.”  The writing – and thus the talk – was clearer, more personable, more real.

How well is your child’s school succeeding at de-jargonizing its communication to you?  What are terms you can’t stand since they are so vague and don’t really tell you anything about your child, his school, the curriculum?  Which words paint your child and his or her school in a positive light?  Which ones are negative?  Let’s pay attention…together, we can work toward humanizing the educational system in which our children (and we!) are a part.

Take care,

Dr. K