Sunday, March 21, 2010

In Praise of Praise

Dorothy ZemachBy Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

My son is a good writer. I remember when he became one, back in 6th grade—when his teacher told him he was one. He hadn’t really written much at that point, so she was just going on her instincts—she could see he loved to read, and his spelling and grammar were decent, and he did have a tendency to ramble on, when writing as well as when speaking.

He’d never minded writing before, but equally didn’t find it especially appealing; it was just something one did in school. However, once his teacher told him he was a good writer, he took that on. He spent more time on his assignments and he tried harder. He even said he felt he had to do better than the other kids in his class “because she expects it of me. I’m a good writer.” Not surprisingly, through increased effort, he really did become a good writer, a skill that stayed with him throughout high school.

Such a simple thing to say to a child: “You’re a good writer.” And yet what an impact it had. A well-placed comment like that can change the shape of someone’s education, and, by extension, their career and their future.

Of course, we can’t just tell all of the learners in our classroom that they are good writers and then stand back and watch it come true. For praise to be meaningful, it has to be said 1) with sincerity and 2) at the right time.

Praise that rings false is worse than no praise at all, and students are adept at knowing when you’re saying something you don’t really believe. Even if false praise is believed, it isn’t helpful because it gives students inaccurate information. Telling a student her pronunciation is excellent when actually she is practically unintelligible will (if she doesn’t believe you) lead her to think you’re making fun of her or don’t believe she can ever get any better, or (if she believes you) keep her from working towards necessary improvements.

Praise at the right time means praise when a student is open to hearing it and could use an affirmation or an encouragement. I think there’s something special about anticipatory praise, too, like my son got—he hadn’t won a Pulitzer prize for writing at that time, and in fact, being 11, hadn’t done much writing at all. But his teacher sensed his potential, and, in effect, praised that—creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think a lot of us can remember a time in our academic lives when we were feeling just a bit uncertain about our talents or unsure of ourselves and someone we looked up to gave us the right words of encouragement.

It’s not always easy to praise students. Sometimes we don’t know them very well. Sometimes they’re actually not doing very well. Sometimes other students demand more of our time.

I’ve found that many teachers, being compassionate and nurturing, actually pay more attention to those students who are struggling. Of course, this is a wonderful thing to do. And yet—I think it’s important not to overlook the students who are doing well. It’s shortchanging them to think that good test scores and grades are reward enough. Remember that “good” students can have as many insecurities and moments of self-doubt as the outwardly less successful.

I’ll close by describing an activity I’ve often done with classes at the end of a semester or term—although there’s no reason you couldn’t do it in the middle of a course either.

Have students sit in a circle, if your numbers and room space allow; otherwise, they can keep their regular seats, but a circle where they can all make eye contact is nice. Choose one student to start, and have her (or him) thank the person on her left for something concrete. Give a few examples at the start so students get the idea—

     “Thank you for giving me the homework assignments when I forgot to copy them down” or
     “Thank you for making me laugh in class” or
     “Thank you for letting me use your dictionary.”

The person receiving the compliment says “You’re welcome,” and turns to the person on his left and gives a compliment, and so on around the circle. Note that everyone gives and receives a compliment, and that students don’t choose whom they speak to (it’s just determined by seating order).

I promise that you will be amazed, as well as touched, by the things students mention! I’ve done this with high school students, university students, businessmen, mixed groups of adults and teens… and there are always a few people moved to tears. If you can’t always praise your students, then, let them praise each other.

Leave a comment on this post