Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook
On Becoming an Effective Praiser
As a tutor assisting first graders with their writing, one of the difficulties I experienced is not knowing how and what to praise. Previously, I offered general praises for a variety of purposes: to encourage or motivate a child, to express admiration for a piece of work, to recognize a child's efforts, or to draw a child's attention to the useful strategies that he or she used. Consequently, I felt it was necessary to expand my vocabulary of praises to go beyond the usual "good job" and "well done." In fact, I have observed that general praises are well-received by children in many instances. In this tutoring position, however, I sometimes felt that I was giving empty praises. By reflecting on two incidents where the children I have worked with led me to reexamine my ideas about praise, I hope to underline some important considerations that would help tutors refine their skills in delivering effective praise. Also, in the last section, I highlight some additional guidelines which I have found useful in my own fieldwork experience.
Incident 1: An unexpected rejection
On one occasion, my tutee rejected my praise about her writing. When I said, "You are getting good at this," Lena replied, "That's not true." I was taken aback by her blatant objection, which also made me feel like a liar. I expected the child to savor, rather than reject, my praise. Prior to this incident, I assumed that my praises would achieve their desired positive effect and that the recipient would not question my intentions. I also expected the recipient to beam with joy upon receiving praise and experience an elevation of self-confidence. Naively, I thought praise could only induce good feelings in children.
Tip 1: Before you praise a learner, be aware of your specific reasons for offering praise
If I had meant to acknowledge Lena's effort and provide encouragement, then my praise must be more specific, referring to particular aspects of the child's performance (Brophy, 275). If I had wanted Lena to be aware that she is showing improvement and making progress towards mastery, then my praise should contain these elements: the standards which I use to evaluate the child, the things she did that define or promote performing well and thus her attainment of those standards, and my expectations for the child in that particular context (Henderlong & Lepper, 786). For example, I could say to Lena, "I am glad that you remember to capitalize the first word of your sentence and leave a space after each word."
Tip 2: Avoid praise that refers to progress unless you are familiar with the leaner
As I did not know Lena well enough, I should not have alluded to her progress. Consequently, my praise was interpreted as an evaluation. Brophy proposes that one should praise children only when it is likely that they view their accomplishments as deserving of praise, or when they could recognize their performance when it is pointed out (276). Assuming that children are capable of appraising their own accomplishments, Lena might view me as a tutor who has made a disingenuous attempt to make her feel good about herself, especially if she is aware that she does not write as easily and as well as others. This could hurt my credibility with the child.
Tip 3: Offer praise that is sincere and specific
If my remark was intended as a sincere observation of Lena's progress, then the child's rejection might reflect her existing view of herself as a writer. According to Henderlong & Lepper, children's response to praise may depend on whether the praise is consistent with their views and beliefs of themselves (779). If Lena held the belief that she is an incompetent writer, then she is likely to reject a praise intended to help enhance her confidence in writing. However, praise can still be effective if it is specific, genuine, and given sparingly (Henderlong & Lepper, 779). Damon believes that children are also sensitive to empty flattery and like adults, they are capable of asking themselves these questions: "Why do people feel they need to make up things about me? What is wrong with me that people need to cover up? (74)"
Tip 4: Monitor how the learner is responding to praise
While effective praise is beneficial, tutors must not be overly anxious to deliver praise, especially when they are still getting acquainted with the learner. I noticed that when Lena is working with her teacher, she seems to respond well to both general and specific praises. Lena's close relationship with her teacher might have also led the child to perceive the praises as genuine and helpful. When I first began working with Lena, I used praise to open conversations because I thought that would be a good way to build rapport with her. Lena, however, remained aloof and withdrawn. Henderlong & Lepper explicate the importance of a learner's relationship with the educator, "[T]he same praise statement given in the context of a more conflict-ridden or less-secure relationship may be perceived as manipulative, controlling, or as a sign that the teacher feels sorry for the student" (779).
Incident 2: An excellent occasion for praise?
A student, Bel, once came up to me with her journal to share a new story. While reading, I was actively searching for praiseworthy details. I responded, "Good job!" and praised the child about the content and her ability to write long sentences. There was an awkward moment when Bel looked up at me, as if expecting me to ramble on, and I thought to myself that I had run out of things to praise. With a shy smile, Bel said, "And I remember to leave a space between the sentences and put in the periods." Her simple remark made me realized that Bel wanted me to be the audience of her story, not a reader who assesses its merits. As a writer, she recognized some of the things that she did well and was probably more aware of her accomplishments. In a sense, my praise was unnecessary unless it conveyed that I enjoyed the story or admired her work.
Tip 5: Balance praise with efforts to help the learner appreciate his or her own work
After this incident, it occurred to me that tutors should also help children appreciate their work. It is possible for regular praise to diminish a child's ownership of his or her work. Consequently, children may measure the value of their work by the praises they receive, and become motivated solely for the sake of receiving praise, rather than for the purpose of the task or the enjoyment that may be derived from it (Persaud, 2004; Cleary, 1990). After reading Bel's story, I could invite her to share the writing process: Did she enjoy writing the story? Which is her favorite part of the story? Also, it would be beneficial to obtain Bel's opinion regarding to her writing: What did she think she has done well? Are there any areas to which she wants me to pay special attention? In some cases, praise could be more informative and effective when it is given after one has solicited the child's opinion, especially when one does not already have a good gauge of the child’s abilities.
Other advice which I have found useful in practice
Tip 6: Avoid social comparison when offering praise
In my interactions with children in other social contexts, I have found myself unconsciously offering praise that encouraged social comparison, especially when I intended to motivate the child or shape his or her behavior. Henderlong & Lepper caution that praise which is meant to convey competence, if not carefully offered, may encourage children to compare their own performance with that of their peers (785). Children as young as 7 or 8 are capable of using normative information to draw inferences about their individual competence (785). Although social-comparison praise is more likely to negatively impact older children's intrinsic motivation and response to challenge (Henderlong & Lepper, 785), social-comparison praise may possibly affect a child's developing perception of success.
Tip 7: Praise sparingly to avoid creating undue stress for the learner
Praise is often assumed to have positive effects on the recipient. Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to think that more praise is always better. However, one should be aware that children who receive continual praise may feel undue pressure to repeat their praiseworthy accomplishments (Cleary, 25). This could take the enjoyment and challenge out of learning and hurt a child’s subsequent performance.
Tip 8: Acknowledge both the learner's effort and ability
Geneyrally, one should praise children for both their effort and ability to perform well (Brophy, 276). Compared with children who are praised for effort, children praised for ability are more concerned with performance goals, tend to attribute their successes and failures to ability, and are less likely to persist at a task after experiencing failure (Henderlong & Lepper, 781). However, one should not overemphasize the amount of effort expended by the child to achieve success, as the child may interpret this as an indication of his or her lack of ability (Brophy, 276).
Tip 9: Add variety to your praise
Previously, I might have overpraised a child for his or her effort because I had not known how to add variety to my praises. According to Henderlong & Lepper, one should also praise children for other process-oriented factors as well, such as "the sorts of strategies, self-corrections, or thoughtful concentration underlying children’s achievements" (781). In my fieldwork, I found this advice to be useful and observed that children seem to respond well to such praises.
Be mindful, but do not forget to be natural
Brophy states, "[n]o teacher will be able to praise effectively on a continuing basis and yet simultaneously accomplish all the other tasks of teaching" because of the factors—time, focused attention, and effort to individualize comments—involved (277). I believe that this is where tutors could come in useful, especially if they work one-on-one with a child or with a small group of children. To become effective praisers, tutors must be conscious of their intentions before praising a learner, and thoughtful about the words they use. Effective praise, when offered at the right time and in the right words, could serve to empower the learner.
Brophy, Jere. On Praising Effectively. The Elementary School Journal 81 (1981): 268-278.
Cleary, Linda M. The Fragile Inclination to Write: Praise and Criticism in the Classroom. The English Journal 79 (1990): 22-28.
Damon, William. Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools. New York: The Free Press, 1995. 74.
Henderlong, Jennifer, and Lepper, Mark R. The Effects of Praise on Children's Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin 128 (2002): 774-795.
Persaud, Raj. Overdose of Praise Can be Toxic. The Times Educational Supplement 24 Sep. 2004: 20.