Principles and Strategies for Inclusive Language in Class Environments
By Amanda Leary
What do we mean by inclusive language?
To use inclusive language is to interact and engage in respectful communication with the goal of cultivating environments that value the different experiences and backgrounds students bring into the classroom. In practice, this can take many forms. Most often, it involves the intentional avoidance of language that can be experienced as harm for certain populations by:
- perpetuating stereotypes;
- marginalizing, misrepresenting, or dismissing lived experiences;
- or ignoring the historical context of particular words and phrases.
Instructors can incorporate inclusive language in in-person classroom discussions, labs, and lectures, as well as in any asynchronous or online course components, course syllabi, policies, and communications (email, Canvas announcements, etc.).
Inclusive language “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” (Linguistic Society of America)
What we don’t mean:
Using inclusive language is not the same as policing or censoring language. Rather, it is operating from an awareness and acknowledgement of how language is experienced differently based on individual differences and cultural history.
When referring to racially or ethnically marginalized communities, inclusive language may include:
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)
Native peoples (use specific designations where possible—e.g., Inuit, Pacific Islander, Aboriginal, First Nations, Choctaw, etc.)
Racially minoritized individuals
When referring to LGBTQIA+ populations, inclusive language may include:
People with minoritized sexual and gender identities
LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual)
When writing case studies, use language that affirms the humanity and dignity of the individual being described.
Person with an opioid/substance dependence vs. addict
Person experiencing homelessness vs. homeless person
Why use inclusive language in the classroom?
Using inclusive language in the classroom is important for cultivating a welcoming and motivating classroom environment where students perceive that their different identities, knowledge and skills are respected and valued by their instructor and peers. Being intentional about the use of inclusive language in the classroom has implications for students’ learning— helping them develop cognitive and affective attitudes, skills and knowledge (e.g. critical thinking and empathy), improving quality in student engagement during classroom activities (e.g. discussions and group projects), as well as building rapport with the instructor and other students.
Mindfully incorporating inclusive language into classroom:
- Transparently communicates expectations and establishes a baseline for engaging in academic discourse, i.e. acknowledging and respecting differences represented in the classroom and broader society;
- Demonstrates that the instructor is mindful and sensitive to the well-being of those in the class as well as individuals in the broader society who would experience hurt or marginalization when non-inclusive language is used;
- Promotes community and belonging for all students;
- Provides an opportunity for instructors to facilitate the development of student academic identity within a discipline by interrogating norms and practices within the discipline and society as whole.
How you can incorporate inclusive language in your classroom:
It is important to remember that language is constantly evolving. What counts as “inclusive” will vary from person to person and will change over time. The five principles below are a foundation of an inclusive mindset. The strategies and examples outlined are not the only way these principles can be enacted in the classroom, but provide a starting point.
Principle #1: Be mindful of individual differences.
We use two main forms of reference for people who identify within or experience some social identities, such as (dis)ability, race, or ethnicity: person-first and identity-first. It is important not to make assumptions about how an individual experiences a particular identity, or what might make someone feel marginalized. And no two people experience identity categories in the same way, it can be helpful to ask what language a person prefers or uses. Where someone might be more comfortable with person-first language (such as “a person with autism”), another may use identity-first language (perhaps they prefer “autistic person”). If you’re ever unsure what language to use, just ask—and if not in a situation to ask, choose language that prioritizes and affirms peoples’ humanity.
When engaging in large group discussions, you may find that some people prefer person-first language, while others prefer identity-first. This is an opportunity to create boundaries and set expectations with students. You may want to consider using both person-first and identity-first language at different times, and clarifying why you’re doing so.
a person with autism
students with disabilities
someone experiencing poverty
Principle #2: Interrogate disciplinary norms.
Introducing students to disciplinary content, developing their knowledge and competence in the subject matter, often takes priority in the classroom. It is important to remember, however, that as instructors we are also helping students develop an academic identity within a discipline. Part of this responsibility includes interrogating the norms and practices of our field by asking ourselves, who is being harmed by the common terms in our field? are these terms perpetuating stereotypes and reproducing structures of marginalization?
Asking these questions–and encouraging students to do so as well—helps us identify where our fields are using outdated language that may not reflect contemporary society. Be transparent with students about the answers; explain why you are or are not choosing to use certain language present in primary sources or other disciplinary content.
What this might look like in practice:
The texts that we will read are a product of their time and may contain derogatory language relating to minoritized identities that we would not use today. We will not speak those terms out loud in this space. Where possible, we will use individuals’ names. Where not, we will use terms that are respectful and affirming of these identities.
For example: Foundational literature, historical records, and case studies may use language that can be considered offensive—racial and ethnic slurs, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, or other derogatory or dehumanizing forms of reference. While such language is an historical reality in many disciplines, setting a boundary between what is used in a text versus what is used in the classroom can mitigate potential harm while acknowledging problematic disciplinary norms.
Principle #3: Refer to students by their chosen name and pronouns with correct pronunciation.
Names are an essential part of our identity, and using a student’s chosen name and proper pronunciation is a simple way to cultivate belonging in the classroom. Using students’ chosen pronouns is also a significant way to cultivate belonging for students who may be transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. Switching to gender-inclusive language, such as “folks” or “everyone” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” and “you guys” likewise communicates that students’ gender identities will be respected. Respect and value students’ identities by using their name, pronouns, and pronunciation as they’ve shared it and set the expectation that students will use each other’s names and pronouns as well.
Be mindful, however, that gender expression can be a vulnerable topic for many students depending on where they are in their personal journey and may not be comfortable using their pronouns publicly. Invite students to share their pronouns if they are comfortable doing so. Research shows that students respond positively even to the attempt of using chosen names and pronouns, so don’t be afraid of alienating students by making a mistake. And when you do, correct yourself, apologize, and move on. If students mispronounce a name or misgender a classmate, ask the affected student privately how they would like you to respond.
For example: Name tents or a similar display are an easy way to promote using students’ names, even in large lecture classrooms. Provide students with a large enough surface to include their pronouns and a phonetic pronunciation if they wish.
Principle #4: Set clear expectations and boundaries.
Adopting inclusive language is a first step toward cultivating an inclusive environment that supports students’ academic and social development. But as instructors, we also set the tone for other classroom interactions. Communicating the expectation that the classroom will be respectful, mindful of difference and potential harm, begins with the syllabus. Consider incorporating policies that signal this intention to students, such as anti-trolling policies for online courses or a civility clause for classroom discussion, into your syllabus.
You can also invite students to contribute to these policies and co-create community guidelines for how they want to engage in the classroom. In addition to setting these guidelines, it is equally important to communicate what happens when they are violated. How will incivility be handled? Ask for students to provide input on how you and they should respond to tension or harm, both in the moment and after.
For example: Consider the following sample policy:
This class is a community of learners, which means we will depend upon each other to support and inform one another. When debating issues in class, be careful to maintain a professional demeanor and to present reasoned and balanced arguments that are supported by evidence either from the readings, from lecture, or from your personal experience. Since everyone is different, everyone will have different perceptions of what is civil and uncivil behavior, so if you are offended by something that either another student does or says, please let me know. In the same way, please let me know if you are offended by something I say or do. It is my intention to ensure this classroom is a safe place for all to voice their opinions and present cases. Please help me to do that! [Examples of Syllabus Policies, Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis]
Principle #5: Acknowledge intent, but own your impact.
It is possible to cause harm with language that unconsciously communicates bias against historically marginalized groups. Every instructor will likely encounter microaggressions, microinsults, or microinvalidations and stereotypes at some point in their classroom. It is important to have a plan for how to respond when these moments happen, and to acknowledge and take responsibility when you yourself use language that causes unintentional harm. A key element of this mindset is recognizing the difference between intent and impact. While you or a student may not have intended to cause harm, the reality remains that someone may be harmed by our language.
In classroom discussions, helping students realize when their words might have been harmful to someone else and providing ways for them to reflect on different perspectives is an effective way to build critical thinking skills and empathy. Similarly, if you as the instructor are responsible, model for students how to apologize and learn from the experience. This will communicate to students that the classroom environment is a place where people can make and learn from mistakes without being ostracized.
Provide students guidelines and model effective and appropriate ways of talking about their own experiences, as well as issues that relate to specific groups of people and raising questions about important issues. Consider using phrases like:
“According to the reading…”
“In my experience…”
“I have observed…”
These phrases give all students the opportunity to share their experiences and opinions without making gross generalizations or perpetuating stereotypes and provides the groundwork for a dialogue about the limitations and opportunities of a particular experience.
If a comment is made that could be insensitive or dismissive of groups (whether represented in the class or not), ask questions that prompt reflection:
- How might that way of framing the issue misrepresent a particular group of people?
- How might that framing activate negative feelings about their identity for people from that specific group?
Intentionally using inclusive language sets the tone and expectation that all voices—both those represented in the room and those in larger society—have a place in our classrooms. The principles and strategies discussed above invite everyone to participate in dialogue that encourages critical reflection and thinking while also being attentive to the different experiences students and instructors bring into the classroom.
Note: We recognize that using inclusive language is context-dependent, ever-evolving, and will vary based on discipline and audience. If you would like to talk about your specific classroom context, please reach out to email@example.com to schedule a consultation.
Inclusive Language Guide, OHSU Center for Diversity and Inclusion
Guidelines for Inclusive Language, Linguistic Society of America
Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism
The Impact of Words and Tips for Using Appropriate Terminology, National Museum of the American Indian
Racial Equity Tools Glossary, Racial Equity Tools
Racial and Ethnic Identity, APA Style Guide
LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary, University of California, Davis
Facilitating Inclusive Dialogues, University of Notre Dame
Calling In and Calling Out Guide, Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging