Be lavish and specific with your praise
“Good job”, “well done”, and “nice work” are phrases that I regularly use with my learners for positive reinforcement. I really believe that praising learners on a regular basis is a good strategy. I have always been a firm believer that recognizing my learners’ efforts and contributions to class can certainly help the student grow in confidence and feel more at ease in the classroom. I am also pretty sure that almost all learners look to their teacher for this kind of positive reinforcement, and when they get it they are likely to feel that their efforts are worthwhile.
However, I am not entirely sure that this is enough. I was guided as a younger teacher by an awesome teacher trainer who pushed me to be lavish and specific with my praise. I was observed whilst teaching a class of young learners in my early career and I was shocked to hear after the class had finished that he thought I could improve in the way I praised effort from learners in the class. His advice was rather than just giving a simple well done, something far less general is much more worthwhile. He suggested that I should praise individually and use the learner’s name, be more specific with my praise and show the learner exactly what they did well, and not to overly praise learners. Over the years I have tried to put this in practice as I am pretty sure my mentor was right. I am however, still probably guilty of handing out far too many “great work” comments. I don’t mean to be lazy, but it is so easy to say something like “that’s great” rather than take the time to explain why it is great.
Anyway, the reason I am writing this blog is because of an interaction I had with a learner recently that reminded me of the importance of lavish specific praise. I had a learner who had spent some time studying abroad visit my office. This particular learner had been in several of my classes prior to her study abroad and had dropped by to share some of her experiences. I couldn’t help notice how this students had matured in her thinking and attitudes since I had last spoken with her so I told her. I was specific in highlighting exactly how I thought she had grown as a person and told her I was proud of how she had taken all these new experiences in her stride.
The reaction I got was amazing. It was one of those moments which remind you why you do this job! I could see in her face that this small comment meant so much to her. Later that afternoon, I got an incredible message thanking me for taking the time to chat and saying how I motivate her more to keep pushing forward and studying more. Needless to say, I was really happy. It also made me pause for thought and write this blog. I realized how many opportunities I had missed to encourage and motivate my other learners.
In a period of reflection, I thought back to how many “good jobs” I had dished out that week alone. I’m sure these comments didn’t do any harm, but how much more would they have meant if I had been more lavish and specific with my praise? My final thoughts are that this next semester is going to be one of praise with reasons. I am going to try to make sure I stop just patting my learners on the back and show them why they are doing things well.
Having thought this through, I intend to praise efforts and specific study strategies rather than just single achievements. I will also endeavor to make sure that my praise is targeted rather than general. I would love to hear about other strategies you have for praising learners. I specialize in language learning motivation, but this area is something I haven’t read a great deal about. I would love to hear any ideas you have.