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Virginia Journal of Education

Your Classroom

'American-Speak': Like, What are You Trying to Say, You Know?

by Stephen Keith

Many of our politicians, athletes, teachers and students appear to have misplaced the ability to formulate a coherent verbal thought without frequently inserting an unrelated phrase. The more common pause of “uh” or “um” now has been augmented by conversational placeholders or fillers, sometimes called tics by the media. These often take the form of “OK,” “like,” “you know” or the extended form “you know what I mean?” or the more recent “yeah” in the middle or end of sentences. These can happen as often as every other sentence or several in one sentence. Have you recently heard something similar to, “If everyone would just like be more civil in like what they say, you know what I mean, then perhaps some of this violent behavior might like decrease, yeah”? While not well researched, I call the behavior “American-Speak” because, based on my international travels and consulting, it seems to have originated in the United States.

There appear to be no rules for inserting these unneeded words or phrases. Instead, it’s related to an unconscious speaking style that is perhaps indicative of insufficient vocabulary or experience in formulating a complete thought. Some forms, such as “you know what I mean,” may be seeking validation of the thought or the person.

While it’s tempting to attribute this behavior primarily to the less educated, we need to remember the short 2008 New York Senatorial campaign of Caroline Kennedy, in which she was criticized for using the phrase “ you know “ 30 times in 147 seconds. As a professor of teacher education and educational leadership, I’ve heard it often during class discussions, as well as during lessons in K-12 classrooms. One student-teacher used “OK” about 80 times in one 50-minute lesson. Undergraduate and graduate students use it as much as every other sentence. Even professors and doctoral level professionals can exhibit this disconcerting verbal behavior. This is not a behavior that should be modeled by people who might be considered leaders or for whom appropriate communication is critical.

What does “American speak” convey to listeners? If frequent enough it can convey timidity, lack of academic or intellectual ability, and poor interpersonal communication skills. If frequent enough in extended discourse, the listener becomes fixated on the inappropriate behavior rather than the content of the message. Listeners start to wait for like the next social filler rather than listening to, you know, what the speaker means to say, yeah. You know what I mean?

Is this just “different” or a “disorder” that can be treated by a speech/language pathologist? I think it can be treated, and it probably doesn’t matter who does so, whether it’s a teacher, parent or speech/language pathologist. The treatment is the same: making the speaker aware of the behavior, determining if the speaker sees it as a problem, designing a system of increasing self-awareness of the behavior, and substituting a more controlled and fluent speaking style. One graduate student who is a teacher uses her students to count the number of times “you know” is used in the classroom. The teacher reports that the “treatment” has decreased the behavior and increased student attention on the lesson.

I include the phenomena in my curriculum in teacher and principal-to-be education classes and have private discussions with students who exhibit inappropriate use. The key to successful change in behavior, like all inappropriate behaviors, is that the individual has to see that it is inappropriate and be willing to invest the energy and personal commitment to change.

Keith is an assistant professor in the Education and Educational Leadership programs at Longwood University. He is also a licensed speech/language pathologist and faculty advisor for the Longwood SVEA chapter.

Presidential Award
Deadline Approaching

Know a colleague who is doing outstanding work in the teaching of math or science? How about yourself? Maybe some recognition is in order. The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) celebrate and honor teachers for their contributions in the classroom and to their profession.

Honorees receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and also get an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony and several days of events.

You’ll have to move quickly, though—online nominations for teachers in grades 7-12 must be made by April 1, 2011. Completed applications are due May 2. For more information, visit

Check Out Costa Rica?

The 2011 Toyota International Teacher Program is going to take an expedition to Costa Rica this November and December, and full-time classroom teachers (in all subjects) and librarians in grades 7-12 are encouraged to apply.

Toyota covers the expenses for the program, which is administered by the Institute of International Education. The Costa Rica trip will focus on environmental and cultural preservation, biodiversity and sustainability, and will offer participants a firsthand rainforest experience. Trip dates are November 19-December 3.

Deadline to apply is May 4, 2011. For more information, visit

Laugh Your Way to
Better Literacy

Who knew? The age-old comic book turns out to be an effective literacy-building tool. Through the Comic Book Project, an arts-based initiative hosted by the nonprofit Center for Education Pathways, students can follow an alternative path to strengthening literacy skills by writing, designing and publishing original comic books.

The Comic Book Project puts students into the role of creator, writing and drawing about their personal interests and experiences, thereby engaging them in the learning process and helping to boost motivation.

For more information, visit

DVD Can Help Your School Go Green

“Growing Greener Schools,” a PBS-produced DVD dealing with best practices for creating sustainable schools and integrating environmental education into the curriculum for both urban and rural students, is now being made available through the PBS website. In the program, educators and students discuss the effects of “green schools” on areas such as student health, attendance, achievement and readiness for green jobs in the future.

Also included are tips for writing successful grants and information on how to build eco-friendly school buildings, retrofitting older classrooms to new green standards, and operating green campuses.

To get the DVD, which costs $29.99, go to, click on Shop PBS, and then click on “Growing Greener Schools” under DVDs.


Teachers: Don’t Stop Believing
As an instructional assistant, I get to see two sides to the stories that unfold in our classrooms. I see so many power struggles. The one that often seems to be the strongest is the struggle between a teacher and herself. A good teacher wants to create the best atmosphere possible for both the students and herself. However, with the pressures of standards, difficult student behaviors and yes, peer pressure, some teachers lose themselves.

I saw an excellent teacher come in the beginning of the year with great motives, awesome skills, ambition and a wonderful approach to students. She gained respect so easily from her students. However, by second semester, that teacher was nowhere to be found. She had let others dictate how to run her classroom and, unfortunately, the end result for the students was that the teacher they first liked could no longer reach them. The teacher they first met could no longer teach them. She was gone. Therefore, there was no desire to learn. As for the teacher, she didn’t want to teach anymore. She doubted herself, questioned her career, gave up on that year and started planning for the next year.

I must say I was very disappointed that she reacted that way. That’s what led me to try to help her. I encouraged her to take back her job, and give the students the teacher they first met. I know they missed her. I encouraged her to not let negative talk about the students or the classroom drive her off the path. With a different outlook, and positive encouragement, she has new goals. I urge every teacher to please stay encouraged. It is OK to be a little transparent with your students, to show that you care and love, with barriers. In order to have a successful classroom and achieve your academic goals with your students, you must first gain a rapport with them. If you don’t, you will lose it all. It is OK to be different from your peers when it brings peace and happiness to your classroom. You will have challenging students, parents, peers and principals, all demanding different things from you. But when you can get positive results from your students, you’ll remember it was all worth it. Just remember why you were sent to teach. And you were sent to teach; you were chosen for this work. These young people are your passion and, in the end, the tears, heartache, struggles and pain are all worth it.

--by Tanya Liverman, a member of the Hampton Education Association



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