Dr. Connie Hebert helps kids, parents, and teachers by helping them become experts at catching "the teachable minute" anytime, anywhere! My Teachable Minute Blog offers quick tips on how to engage with younger and older kids. Comments, questions, and reflections are always welcome . . . let's catch a million teachable minutes together!

Offering a Pinch of Praise

If you want to make most things taste good, add a pinch of salt or sugar. If you want to help a falling writer, add a pinch of praise.

Praise is a funny thing because if we give too much, it loses its value and power. If we give too little, it fails to serve as a catalyst for motivation and pride. Falling writers benefit most from praise that is ‘just right’ and meaningful. The whole purpose for praise is to help the individual judge when his/her work is on target or not. Otherwise, anything goes and everything would be accepted as grade level writing. We live in a society where there are standards and without some measure by which we can analyze our own work, we have no way of knowing if we are doing what is expected or not.

The best way to get good at offering praise is to develop a repertoire of phrases and behaviors similar to what a spice rack might look like. One has oregano, basil, and parsley for most Italian dishes and cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice for many desserts! Similarly, we want to accumulate verbal and written phases for praising falling kids while also developing a sense of the way we deliver praise through our behaviors.

Let’s start with a list of things we might actually say to a writer as they are writing. Note: These could also be written on a child’s paper or story if it is a more appropriate form of praise, depending on the circumstances for offering feedback.

  •  “I like the way you stopped and really thought about what comes next in your story.”
  •  “Good! You are thinking and writing at the same time.”
  • “You went back and read it over to see if it makes sense. That’s what good writers do!”
  •  “I like the way to fixed that. Good writers fix things along the way.”
  • “Super job of remembering to put an upper-case letter at the beginning of each sentence.”
  •  “Good for you! You are thinking about where to put the punctuation marks in your story.”
  •  “You are staying really focusing on doing your best writing. Keep going!”
  •  “I am amazed at the way you are really thinking about what you are writing. Keep thinking!”
  • “Nice! You underlined words that didn’t look right to you on your first draft. Now what will you do to fix those?”
  • “Good writers reread their stories to see if they make sense. I noticed that you did that. Good for you!”
  •  “You did what good writers do when they get stuck. You stopped to think about what you have already and what more you need.”
  •  “I am so impressed that you asked yourself what else you could do to make your writing better! All good writers do that. Keep it up!”

Now, let’s examine our own behaviors for delivering praise, both orally and in writing. This is an important step to catch falling writers because we must praise them in ways that assist them internalizing writing actions and strategies so that they will employ them on a regular basis. Otherwise, what good is praise and constructive feedback? It is the writer that must be able to ultimately praise him/herself and we can help this along by examining HOW we deliver praise to those who fall. Here are some reflective questions you may want to ask yourself when working with struggling writers:

  • What am I physically doing when I praise kids?
  • Am I standing directly in front of the child looking down on him/her?
  • Am I sitting across from the child engaging in eye contact as I praise him/her?
  • Am I standing behind the child offering quiet feedback into his/her ear?
  • Am I pointing to a specific part of their writing that I am praising them about?
  • What is the child’s physical reaction to my praise?
  • What is the tone in my voice? Is it effective and how do I know?
  • How is the volume and pitch of my voice when I am delivering praise?
  • If I am praising him/her in writing, what color pen am I using?
  • Where have I written the praise, i.e. top of the page, side margins, directly above or below the child’s writing, bottom of the page, end of the story, etc.?
  • Knowing this particular child, what is the best way to deliver praise of his/her writing attempts?
  • What can I do to give praise while simultaneously work to create independence within the falling writer?
  • How is my attempt to praise this child going to actually help this child become a more self-sufficient writer?
  • What does this individual need from me in terms of praise and constructive feedback? Should I say it or write it?
  • How often does this student need praise when writing and how do I know this?

Offering praise is nowhere near as easy as adding a pinch of salt or sugar to something we are cooking! It requires reflection, practice, more practice, trial and error, and student feedback in order to know if what we are offering actually works. The tricky thing is that the type and amount of praise that work for one child may not work for another child. It is what some might call the craft of teaching and it is not easy, but it is essential for catching falling kids. Keep at it until you find just the right pinch of praise for each and every falling writer you work with.



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