Education, Features, Management, News

Understanding and conveying the power of words


In chapter five of a seven-part series on the characteristics of effective leadership, literacy specialist and THRASS trainer Michelle Tham explains what effective communication is and why it should not be treated as a one-way process.

In the past few months I have collected a number of interesting articles and stories based upon the seven characteristics (listed in Figure 1, in the boxout). However, as I reviewed and discussed the many contributions with the authors, prior to submitting a piece for publication in Quarry each month, it became evident that there are four attributes underpinning the effectiveness of leadership (see Figure 2). 

I am in the process of writing a companion compilation book – Effective Leaders: Four attributes that underpin the core characteristics of effective leadership – which will address:

  • RESPECT:  (Diversity/Gender Equality, Inclusion and Culture).
  • COURAGE: (Personal and Public).
  • INTEGRITY: (Accountability and Transparency/Authenticity).
  • AGILITY:   (Alignment and Agility – Leadership/Emotional/Management).

Take a break, grab a coffee and enjoy reading this month’s article, from Michelle Tham of Wise Owl Learning on one of the core characteristics of effective leadership – Effective Communication – but from a very different perspective, albeit a critical aspect of what should be open and transparent communication.

Words from Mike Cameron.


“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”Friedrich Nietzsche

Effective Leaders understand the power of words and their ability to inspire, support, reassure and direct their people. They communicate with clarity of purpose.

As a literacy educator, I believe it is my role to inspire, support, reassure and direct my students as I coach them to explore and ask questions about the world around them. I hope to stimulate their curiosity. I want them to care, and for those who desire it, set them up with the vocabulary and understanding that will help them to become effective leaders themselves. 

I work with people of all ages: pre-schoolers to adults, and everyone in between. I educate teachers and principals, children and adults with global developmental delay or poor working memory, as well as children and adults with excellent working memory and a thirst for knowledge. 

With all of my clients, I ensure that my goals and expectations are clearly communicated so that they know what to expect from me, avoiding acronyms and teacher-talk that might dilute or confuse my message. Communication is two-way, so I also actively listen to their concerns and expectations of me, allowing space to discuss, clarify and reassure them. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the verb communicate as follows:

Communicate (verb) /kəˈmjuː.nɪ.keɪt/ To share information with others by speaking, writing, moving your body, or using other signals. 

With my young learners, I use all of those modes to help them to express themselves and communicate their needs. When speaking, they need to have an appropriate vocabulary if they are to be able to effectively articulate their feelings, express their dreams, their fears and their goals. If they don’t comprehend the words, then they cannot be expected to include them in their writing, even if they can spell them correctly.

I am aware of what a privileged role I have. I know the power of my words to inspire or shame my charges. My praise and support can offer some students the courage to persevere when things get hard, but careless words can also shame them, crushing their enthusiasm and self-belief.

“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.”-  Yehuda Berg

Many of my students struggle to grasp the written word, purely because of the way their brains process language. As a consequence, they rarely experience the joy of losing themselves in a good book, or of transferring the creative adventures in their heads into the rigid structure required by the school’s curriculum for each text type. 

I can explain how their brain decodes to read and encodes to write, and that poor spelling is not a measure of their worthiness or ability to contribute at school or in society. We can explore other ways of reading and writing to make it more accessible but they still need to comprehend in order for it to be meaningful. If their aim is to persuade, or effect change, they need clear and direct teaching of the process required.

Figure 2. The four core attributes underpinning the Emerging Leader coaching model.

As teachers, we don’t always model effective communication ourselves. We seek considered responses to our questions during discussion, but then hand out worksheets containing spelling rules that just do not work. We teach that letters make sounds but when what we have taught doesn’t follow those rules, we respond by saying: “English is a funny language and you just have to learn it.” 

For example, think about a common word such as “was”. Then try to sound it out using a traditional, letter-sound approach. It does not work, does it? When my learner writes “woz”, she has actually represented all of the sounds in that word, using the most common spelling choice, and in the correct order. She just has not used the correct letters for that word. It is my job, as her teacher, to effectively communicate that the letter “a” can also represent that sound as in “want”, “wash”, “Lachlan” and “s” in “is”, “his”, “bees”. If I start with the premise that letters are just the symbols used to represent the sounds we hear in words, then I can give my student credit for everything she has got right. Like in maths! 

Literacy specialist and THRASS trainer Michelle Tham says communication is not a one-way process.

In fact, I argue that understanding the meaning of a word is actually the most important factor in effective communication. If our students do not have any idea of what the words on their spelling lists or texts even mean, then we are never going to see them being used in their writing. 

“Be mindful when it comes to your words. A string of some that don’t mean much to you may stick with someone else for a lifetime.” – Rachel Wolchin

With my adult learners, I seek to inspire them to learn another approach to supporting their students to read, write and spell. The method that I am encouraging them to adopt is different from the way many of them were taught themselves, and so, as life-long learners, I need to reassure and support them as they try a new way of teaching. 

I need to effectively communicate my message in a way that challenges them to re-think what they have always done. They need to see the purpose of learning a new way and be supported as they learn, question and critically assess this new technique. 

It will take effort on their behalf and so I want to inspire them and help them recognise that the reward is worth it. To succeed, they need to be prepared to be vulnerable in front of their own students by admitting that they might get it wrong at first. In fact, they probably will, because that is where they will learn most. 

As they explore the dictionary and continue with their professional learning, their understanding and confidence will grow. They will be able to apply their knowledge to new circumstances and adapt it to their own unique, teaching goals.


“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa

These teachers are also demonstrating effective leadership by modelling their own commitment to life-long learning, communicating their understanding and applying an inquisitive approach to English. They will also need to use kind words to themselves as they grapple with this new approach that explores words in the context of their meaning, etymology (origin), morphology (word parts) and orthography (spelling patterns in English). 

This is a road that I have also travelled. It took time, and it was scary to try something new. However, now that I have gained that knowledge, I can use and adapt it to pre-school-aged children, primary and secondary school students, and adult learners (LOTE, speech therapists, teachers, teacher aides, parents) and I still get to learn myself. 

For example, one of my students recently wrote a narrative in which he wanted to include the word “pandemonium”. Great word, hey?! We weren’t entirely sure of the spelling, so we looked up the meaning first. 

Pandemonium (noun) /pandɪˈməʊnɪəm/ wild and noisy disorder or confusion; uproar.

Pan – all, demon – hell, ium – a Latin suffix which forms abstract nouns. It literally means, “All hell breaking loose”. 

He wanted to use the word, so I supported him as he applied the process which I had directly taught him. No jargon, no teacher-talk. And I learnt something too. 

So, I contend that effective leaders should be learning from those they teach. All it takes is a little courage to admit that they don’t know it all, while ensuring that they are always learning and practising effective communication.


“I believe that understanding the importance of communication, as a key management competency, is crucial; but mastering and applying the essential fundamentals of effective communication is the key to success in the leadership role.” – Mike Cameron

Michelle Tham is the business owner of Wise Owl Learning and a THRASS trainer at The THRASS Institute. Email:


This article appears in the August issue of Quarry Magazine.

More reading

Chapter 1: Seven characteristics of effective leadership

Chapter 2: Know Yourself: James Rowe – Self-development and personal growth challenges

Chapter 3: Emotional Resilience: Riding bumps, dispelling doubts

Chapter 4: Chasing the bagel: Defining your vision and values

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