I recently watched an interview with the wonderful Carol Read on the subject of praise. Carol is in my opinion THE authority on young (primary age) learners and so when I saw her name on the interviewees list, I clicked straight on the video link (http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2010/sessions/2010-04-09/interview-carol-read-spain).
Carol focuses on the use of praise with young learners, explaining about how to use praise in order to give encouragement and to build up children's self esteem as well as to help with classroom management and deal with behavioural problems, without going overboard and using too much praise, making it empty and meaningless. I don't want to go into too much detail, as you can see the video for yourselves.
However, this interview got me thinking about the use of praise with teenagers and adults. When we think about praise, we automatically think of children, since they seem to need a certain amount of praise and they are constantly demanding it, by asking the teacher if their work is OK, if they can have a tick and so on. But what about older students? You will rarely find a sixteen-year-old directly asking for praise, but there may be indirect signs which we as teachers must learn to interpret. For example, a teenager who answers questions when no-one else does may secretly be hoping for a "good" from the teacher. I find my FCE students looking for a "well done" when I give them back their writing tasks, and see their disappointment when they see a "good effort" which they interpret to be a mediocre result. Most teenagers have many insecurities and lack self-esteem and confidence in their abilities and therefore maybe need some sort of praise more than any other age group. Nevertheless, we must be very careful not to make the praise too obvious or selective since this can have the opposite effect. Peer pressure may make it uncool to be a model student, so I think private praise could be the solution. On written work, think carefully about the comments you write as using the right words can be an excellent method of encouragment. However, as Carol mentions in her interview, it can be much more effective to praise the different elements of a piece of work such as the planning and ideas, as well as the linguistic aspects. Give praise for good paragraphing, or the use of different vocabulary and structures. Notice the work that has gone into the piece; with practise you will be able to quickly tell when an essay has been rushed and when some thought has gone into it at the planning stage. As for other types of work, if you do not want to openly praise your students, write them little notes at the end of the lesson mentioning anything they did especially well. They will probably want to compare them with their classmates but if everyone gets one, there should be no problem with this.
Now, what about adults? I feel that we neglect adults because we think that they don't need praise, but surely this isn't true. I am convinced, when I think about it, that adults need just as much praise as younger learners, they just don't show it. Think of an elementary group of adults. These learners don't have enough English to express themselves well; they get stuck, they get frustrated when they can't understand or make themselves understood, and all we do is tell them not to worry, we try to encourage and motivate them to keep trying and we may even put words in their mouths for them, but how often do we say "excellent" or "you are doing really well!"? And as we go up through the levels, we give less and less praise. With an advanced class, we already have high expectations (maybe too high) and assume that these learners know how well they are doing and don't need to be told so.
Adults are actually the biggest drop outs of evening classes. We must understand that they have many other commitments like work and families and they could be making sacrifices to come to their English lessons. When these people feel that they are not progressing enough, or that they are simply not good language learners, they drop out. It is then, more important than ever to show learners how they are doing and give them support and praise when necessary.