A Letter to Peter Johnston

Coaching Articles - Essays for coaches

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Our language is key to teaching and learning. This week, read a letter to Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words. If you are mindful of how your language impacts those about whom you care, read this letter and the book that inspired it.

A Letter to Peter Johnston

A Letter to Peter Johnston

by Jan Burkins


Dear Dr. Johnston,

Recently, while facilitating a study group with a community of literacy coaches, I read again from your book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Poring over the dear pages, which are highlighted in different colors representing the various times I have read them, I suddenly realized that this is the book for me. Choice Words, your deceptively slim volume with its idea-dense text, has influenced my thinking, speaking, and living in and out of schools more than any other piece of print. At that very moment, I decided I would write you this letter.

As cliche as it may sound, I have never written an author, although I read almost as constantly as I breathe and have been touched and influenced by any number of writers. But I have four sons, a relentless work life, and specific writing priorities consuming what little writing time I have. Forgive me, but I was waiting for the book, and I didn't even realize I was waiting until I began rereading Choice Words that day.

I have studied Choice Words and explored it with teachers, coaches, and graduate students. I have participated in myriad conversations about your book, some tender, some emotional, some revealing, some motivating, and all very important. Whether I am employing reciprocal teaching with teachers, engaging coaches in text protocols, or reading portions aloud to my husband as we are thinking about the people we want our children to grow into, Choice Words's profound influence on my thinking is constant.

I am not really sure how many times I have read Choice Words--four times at least--yet I never tire of it. It customizes itself to every reading. No matter where I am on my never-ending journey toward "perfectly" choice language, there is something in your book that meets me right where I next need to think and grow.

There has not been a single day in the last seven years or so (I can't remember exactly when I first read it; I know it was the text for a study group in which I participated as a new literacy coach) that I have not consciously accessed what I am learning from you. I literally think of your book, visual image of the cover and all, every single day. I'm sure that, even more frequently, I subconsciously access many of your observations and challenges. I hope some of the language patterns you describe are becoming automatic for me.

Now, when someone asks me "What is your favorite book?" I must say, "Considering all the fiction, nonfiction, books, articles, children's books, magazines, and professional texts I have read over almost forty years, my favorite piece of writing is Choice Words." Thank you for your tiny yet tremendous book. It has become for me a way of thinking.

Jan Burkins