How to praise pupils perfectly

Hold off on the banners, sweets and sparklers, says Faye Cargill - students often prefer to receive praise in private

Teachers should think twice about praising a pupil in front of the whole class, writes Faye Cargill

Last year, I spent weeks supporting a somewhat challenging student to craft a speech for his English language GCSE. 

When he performed, I was astounded with his effort and the quality of the final piece. 

But after I enthusiastically announced the merit points I would be logging for him, the pride on his face vanished.


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Instead, he desperately pleaded for me not to award him.

How could it be possible that a student who had worked so hard and achieved so much was so insistent that I didn’t share my praise?

His fear stemmed from the ghastly show his tutor put on, which was made up of celebration songs and forced clapping. He informed me that he would “rather have detention”. 

His aversion made it clear that it was necessary to rethink what praise is and how it was delivered.

As teachers, praise is one of the best tools we have to encourage our students. Carol Dweck , the professor of psychology behind the growth mindset theory, even suggests that praise can help students to enjoy intellectual challenges, appreciate the value of effort and cope with setbacks. 

Praise your pupils properly

However, ways to successfully use praise in the classroom are not often explicitly taught in our training.

Praise is commonly overlooked or taken for granted as something that most competent teachers can all automatically do well.

So what can we do if we are failing to get praise right? 

Here are my five top tips for perfecting praise in your classroom:

Praise in private

Praise is often much more effective when given to the student one-to-one instead of being announced to the whole class.

Too much public praise can actually be a deterrent (particularly at secondary school) as many students would rather fit in with their peers than be in the spotlight.

Make it genuine and meaningful

Showering praise on your students like confetti at first seems like a positive way to celebrate success. But what you are left with is a horrendous mess to clear up. 

Students can see right through fake compliments and can often become indifferent if praise is piled on too much. Keep your positive comments for the moments when students really deserve them, so they retain their meaning.  

Make it specific

“Great job” is vague; make your verbal and written praise much more precise. For example: “Great job using powerful imagery to engage your reader.”

This way students know exactly what they have done well and will know what to keep doing in the future to be successful. 

Praise does not equal prizes

We’ve all whipped out bags of sweets to keep our students engaged, especially at the end of term. But rewards and praise are not the same. 

While treats work in the short-term, effort often declines if they are removed. This can also have a negative impact on those who did try hard but weren’t rewarded.

Students begin to see their effort as pointless when it is not recognised.  

Make praise effort-based

Praise the effort rather than natural ability. For example, “You’re a great storyteller” compliments the student’s talent. Instead, effort-based praise might sound like this: “I’m impressed with the hard work you put in to create an interesting plot.”

Pupils need to know that their effort can improve their attainment. 

Faye Cargill is an English teacher in Dorset

 

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