Curbing Bad Language


How can we teach students to be more reflective and respectful in their use of language?

Seven Promising Practices

Teach Why Language Matters

An Atlanta high school teacher posts the following sign in her room, gives a copy to every student, and discusses it with each of her classes: Language is an index of civilization. It impacts others. It can affirm and inspire, or disturb and denigrate. It can set a good example or a bad one. It influences how others thing of us. It reveals — and shapes — our character.

Establish Language Expectations

A California high school teacher says to his students, "Are there any places you go where you don't swear?" Students answer yes. He responds, "Well, now you have another one — my classroom."

Use the Leverage of a Relationship

Teachers who build rapport with students can use that relationship to elicit respectful behavior. A high school biology teacher said he had a boy who used the "f-word" during group work. The teacher spoke to him after class: "Mike, I can't let you use that language in here. It's just not respectful. Could you try to work on that for me?" Mike made a sincere effort, and by the end of the quarter his language was no longer a problem.

Help Students Reflect on Language's Impact

In his book, Powerful Words, Positive Results, former high school history teacher Hal Urban says he ould write the following questions on the board and use them as a springboard for a class discussion of language:

Would you think differently of me if I constantly used swear words? Why are some persons offended by swear words? Are people who use foul language in public polite or rude? What do you reveal about yourself when you swear a lot?

"What really helped them were their own answers to that last question," Urban says. "People who swear a lot, they realize, may come across as angry, uneducated, rude, inconsiderate, having a limited vocabulary, or trying to be cool. Even kids who admitted to swearing a lot said this exercise got them to think about what they were conveying by their language."

Get a Class Agreement to Prohibit Bad Language

When one class developed its "social contract" specifying how they would treat each other (with respect), the teacher asked, "What aout bad language; does it show respect?" They agreed that it did not show respect since some people might be offended by such language, and it should be prohibited in their class. They also agreed on a consequence: If you used bad language, you had to come up with two respectful replacement words.

Teach Media Literacy

One teacher, as a homework assignment, had her students watch a sit-com and keep a running tally of insults vs. positive comments in the show. The next day, the teacher asked: "What did you find?" "What would happen in real life if people insulted each other this often?" Students concluded that in real life, such remarks would damage or even destroy relationships.

Implement a Schoolwide Strategy

Typically, school expectations regarding appropriate language aren't enforced consistently because staff haven't made a commiment to respond to inappropriate language in the same way. In one school that had a problem with language, staff agreed that whenever they heard a student using unacceptable language, they would approach the student, say, "In this school, we don't talk like that," and then walk away. After this new approach was implemented, the level of student profanity dropped noticeably.




Thomas Lickona & Matthew Davidson. "Curbing Bad Language." excerpted from Smart & Good High Schools: Developing Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work, and Beyond.

For a free copy of Smart & Good High Schools: Developing Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work, and Beyond, go to

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson.


Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He is the author of Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues (Touchstone, 2004) and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character (Bantam Books, 1992). He has also written Raising Good Children (Bantam Doubleday 1994) and co-authored Sex, Love and You (Ave Maria Press, March 2003). Thomas Lickona was instrumental in development of the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Matthew L. Davidson, Ph.D. is Research Director for the Templeton Grant Award Project at the Center for the 4th & 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) in the School of Education at SUNY Cortland. A frequent national presenter, Dr. Davidson is a Site Visitor for the National Schools of Character Awards Program and co-author of Evaluation Toolkit, published by the Character Education Partnership as well as Character Quotations; Activities That Build Character and Community co-authored with Thomas Lickona.

Copyright © 2004 Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs

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