In defense of praise

Hello, dear readers! After a lengthy and unintentional vacation from blogging, I finally found a topic that kept my spark burning long enough to say, ‘I really should blog about that.’ That topic is praise and criticism.

My school district has been out for exactly a month now. But like all teachers, just because it’s summer doesn’t mean I stop thinking about my work. In a twisted sort of way, I probably spend more time thinking about my job in the summer since I’m spending less time actually doing it. Go figure. (I’m also headed to a TPRS conference in Council Bluffs next week, and I’m very excited about that.) Anyway, in the summer, when I’m not thinking about work (or thinking about not thinking about it) I’ve been focusing on roller derby. My team has a game on Saturday, and last night I had to leave our weekly #langchat to go to practice.

Practice is hard most days. Last night it was easily 90-100 uncirculated, unairconditioned degrees inside the Pershing Auditorium where we practice and host our games. We were soaked in sweat by the time we had our gear on, and ready to melt by the time we finished our warmup drills. We took to the track to work on some final strategy cleanup while our captains directed the practice. In one drill, I was out of position (and knew it) and that let the jammer (the point scorer) through without taking a hit. One of my captains reprimanded me in a sharp tone as I returned to the jammer line. Derby has helped me develop the valuable skill of deciding when to let a remark go, and when to address it, which is also very useful as a teacher. I chose to let it go – she wasn’t intending to sound rude to me. She was being nitpicky because she wants us to be the best. I lined back up and we went again.

So what does that story have to do with teaching? If you ever visit my classroom, one thing you will hear me say when I give criticism to students is, ‘I am being nitpicky because I know you can handle it.’ There are some sources that denounce the use of empty praise as it pumps up a child’s ego to unrealistic expectations. Alfie Kohn, the controversial researcher, argues that praise is a form of increasing compliance, not achievement, and we shouldn’t use it at all. With apologies to Mr. Kohn, the two most common words you will hear from me in my classroom will always be muy bien! My passion for my subject and my students is one of my strengths, and my students grow like crazy little Spanish-speaking weeds under my care. It always blows my mind at the end of the year when I have students who came in at novice low in Spanish 1, and leave at novice high. A few outliers might even be touching intermediate low (within the areas we’ve studied). All I did was give them the tools – they’re the ones who have to use the tools to put a sentence together.

In any case, I do think there is some merit to praise. When I say muy bien to my students, that is my way of affirming that their work is at an acceptable level of proficiency. I always tell them, if I fixed every error you ever made, you wouldn’t make it past the first day! But when I give praise, I do try to model it in a specific way. ‘You did a great job matching your subjects and describing words with the o/a’ or ‘Wow, look at those connecting words! They really make your writing clear.’ When giving constructive criticism, I might say ‘You have the right words, but the order they’re in doesn’t make sense in Spanish. Where does the [whatever] need to go?’ or ‘If this has an s on the end, and this has an s on the end, what do I need to put on the end of this word?’ I want to lead my students to the answer, not give it to them. I already know how to speak Spanish; they’re the ones who need to do the work!

I find that with 90% of my students, many of the errors they make are just because they missed a minor detail – very rarely do we have full communication breakdown in writing. They often know exactly how to fix their mistake the second I point it out. This is is also a chance for me to be a little tougher on my advanced students. I might ask them to add details to a simple sentence to make it a fully fleshed, detailed sentence. I might ask them to check for accent marks. When it comes to interpersonal tasks, I only correct something if their error makes their sentence unintelligible. This happens more with speaking since they can’t rely as much on their written resources, but I would rather have them make 100 mistakes a day because they’re talking so much, than make zero because they aren’t talking at all.

Sometimes I think it’s hard to walk the fine line between empty praise and helpful correction. My personality errs on the side of excess. I’m that crazy teacher who will jump up and shout about the amazing sentence my student just wrote or high-five for work well done. Learning a second language is not easy or fast, and anyone who is learning one should have the chance to feel proud of themselves for accomplishing a task. That is the real goal of praise.

For more on corrective feedback, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell recently made a podcast on her blog, Musicuentos (where I went to find a different link and it happened to be a post I hadn’t read yet – double link bonus!) which you might also find interesting. I know I did!

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2 thoughts on “In defense of praise

  1. OMG praise is an absolutely essential part of thr language classroom, but you know what? I don’t think a “muy bien” is EVER empty, of it is encouraging RISK-TAKING. Maybe Kohn would chide it as a “compliance” behavior, but getting kids to put themselves out there is the ONLY way language is ever going to be produced. So don’t think of it as empty, think of it as praising their COURAGE. I think your point is more applicable.

  2. Thanks for posting this Courtney! From all the research it seems that what really matters is not praise vs. no praise but rather what KIND of praise – and if what you just heard was MUY BIEN what’s wrong with giving kids a heartfelt MUY BIEN!! 🙂

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