Monday, May 25, 2015

Monday Musings: On Encouragement

While it is true that students need to put effort into their work, they will do so far more readily when they receive positive feedback.  Providing positive encouragement is, nowadays, generally accepted to be good teaching practice.

But when I was a graduate student learning about different approaches to teaching English to speakers of other languages, one of the approaches we studied was The Silent Way.  Developed by Caleb Gattegno in the early 1960s, it teaches pronunciation by using charts that display the English sound system in colors.
Image of colored boxes used in Silent Way method, on black background
Sound/Color Chart for The Silent Way; source: Wikimedia Commons
The Silent Way also uses Cuisinaire rods to teach grammar.  In fact, this was how I first learned about using Cuisinaire rods for teaching.  I had no idea they were commonly used to teach math until I began working in a public school years later.

However, the aspect of The Silent Way that made the most impression on me was the idea that students did not need to be verbally rewarded with praise when they did something right.  Instead, students knew when they were doing something correct and that in itself was supposed to be reward enough.  I wasn’t sure if I agreed with this idea but I liked it in theory.  I mean, why should it be necessary for me to tell students they did good when the fact that they did something successfully should give them sufficient satisfaction?

Then reality interfered with theory, as is often does.  A few years after beginning my public school teaching career, I found myself teaching English Language Arts to a class of sixth grade ELLs.  Even though there were only six students, two of whom were identical twin boys, it was difficult keeping control of the class.  Then I attended a workshop and got some advice on how to handle the situation.  What was the solution?  Praise the students when they did something well and focus on the positive instead of harp on the negative.  I starting giving compliments to the students, who earned prizes when they reached a certain number of points on the behavior chart that I created.

What a revelation!  Things began to change for the better fairly quickly.  While this probably seems obvious to most people, to me, with a background in teaching adults at Asian universities, it wasn’t.  It was directly opposite of the premise of The Silent Way, as I’d been taught its core understandings. 

But it worked and ever since then, I have made sure to encourage my students by giving them praise whenever it was warranted.  I have since read up on the importance of motivation and the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, which I believe are intertwined with encouragement.
With ELLs, positive encouragement is especially valuable.  Because they are not fully fluent in English and don’t always understand what is going on, ELLs can often feel as if they are not completely in control during the school day.  Letting ELLs know when they have done something well helps motivate them and encourages them to keep trying to do their best.  A little encouragement will go a long way!