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Engaging the Disengaged, Number Eight: Teacher Talk Part One, To Praise or Not to Praise

This is part one of a two-part series on the importance of using teacher talk to engage our students.

During my last and best years of teaching in public schools, I was paid to be delighted by some of my favorite people: adolescents. Because of the emotional nature of these fine middle school friends, I was privileged to learn and grow more than in any other time in my life. Because of their outspoken nature, my teaching techniques were evaluated on a daily basis. I believe that we should truly listen to our students (see my previous blog post on listening), so these suggestions were taken seriously. Therefore, the day Laura whined during a writing conference, Oh, Mrs. D., you always like Emma’s writing better than mine; in fact, Mrs. D., you just like Emma more than me, I had to sincerely consider Laura’s complaint. Did I like Emma better? No. I was absolutely crazy about each of the students in my community of learners. So why did Laura believe this to be true?

student with pencil at desk, talking with her teacher

After much soul-searching and some solid research, I found answers in the words of Peter Johnston, author of Opening Minds: …words change the life of the classroom. They change the worlds the children inhabit, and consequently who they can be, what they will feel, what they can know… and who they will become (Johnston 2012, p. 4). Johnston believes that the way we talk to students can change their lives by sending the message that they are capable and worthy, or that they are worthless and not capable.

However, I was still frustrated. My words with all of my students were consistently positive and encouraging, so why did Laura feel so devalued? The answer started to come while reading about praise. In praising my students, I had somehow honored Emma’s writing over Laura’s. When I laughed at yet another witty quip Emma wrote or had the class stop and listen to one more powerful sensory image, I had made Laura, and probably others, feel less worthy. But why? Didn’t I jump up and down each time any of them wrote something wonderful? Didn’t I try to find something beautiful in every student’s writing?

In order to encourage deeper thinking in discussions about reading, Johnston says rewarding great thoughts with praise can inhibit discussion as much as negative feedback, as it puts the teacher in the role of judge. Students feel inhibited to share their thoughts when they believe they will be judged by the adult in the room. Maintaining a neutral or nonjudgmental stance prevents the students from inferring what the teacher thinks is the “right answer.” It also keeps the students focused on the ideas themselves, rather than on the teacher’s judgment of the ideas (Brunn 2010, p. 89). I began to see that if this were true in reading discussions, it must be the same in all aspects of the curriculum. Maybe when I told one student that her writing made me want to cry and simply said to another, “That was nice,” students were seeing me as the judge finding some more worthy than others.

Of course, as with much knowledge, it often comes too late. I wish that I could have Laura and Emma back for a day. I wish I could play with this idea of being careful with praise. But mostly I wonder if I could do it. Could I really not cry at something one of them wrote, not laugh at another, or not stop the class to hear something amazing?

teacher listening while a student reads aloud

So I leave my readers with a question: How can we show our students that we love their writing, but that we value each student in the room equally? I am waiting expectantly for a response from my fine teaching friends. I know there are some great answers out there; I promise to try not to praise any of them!

Kathy King-Dickman is a consultant at Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

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Comments (4)

Kathy, I think you said it

Kathy, I think you said it well, show them how you care and appreciate them daily!  The respect and nuturing we show is not contingent on praise but our day-to-day interactions, stance of listening and facilitative structure that shows students how we care.  To that end, adults also. 

This was a great article

This was a great article Kathy.  We do have to be very careful about what we say to kids as well as what we don't say to kids.  Do they think they are worthy or worthless depends on our praise or lack of praise.  We need to find praise in every child or you could inhibit others with praising someone else.  As teachers we need to remain neutral and non-judgemental.


During class discussion, I

During class discussion, I try not to comment on their answers.  I continually say to the class, "What do you think?" or "Do you agree?"  Leaving it open helps to get kids to continue sharing and contributing.  I don't tell them if their response is right or wrong.  At this point I am just eliciting responses and all responses are acceptable.  Students learn quickly to listen to others and that my classroom is a safe place to discuss. 

This is tough.  As a teacher

This is tough.  As a teacher I don’t want to be an unfeeling robot but, I also don’t want to unknowingly change the playing field.  I can connect this to a discipline program that I know about.  When a child is behaving the teacher is encouraged to say that that student is doing a good job.  The problem with that is that it is difficult to keep track of and there might be other students who always do a good job and the teacher doesn’t say anything about them. I have also heard that it is better to say, “I’ve noticed” instead of “I like” or “that’s good”.  Would it be better to say something like, “I notice that you included ______ in your writing and that is what is required of this assignment and that is what good writers do.”  Is that something that would allow the student enough information about his/her writing without excluding others?  I don’t know.  Praise can be exclusive and not effective in terms of achievement.  Depending on the students’ life experience, praise could be perceived as manipulative.