Katherine Bilsborough - Building confidence through praise

As with most good teaching practice, using activities to promote a student's confidence is a simple matter of common sense.

As with most good teaching practice, using activities to promote a student's confidence is a simple matter of common sense. Confident students make the best language learners. By creating a classroom in which your students have the confidence to learn, to speak, to make mistakes and ask questions – you are providing them with an environment in which to flourish.

In recent years I have done more teacher training than teaching but when it comes to confidence, the basic philosophy is the same. I’d like to share an activity that has worked well with many groups of teachers and (with a bit of adaptation) with classes of young learners, teenagers and adults - from Beginners to Advanced. As is the case with most of my favourite activities, this one was born from necessity. I was training a group of 20 primary school teachers who had varying levels of English but who all felt embarrassed about the poor quality of their English pronunciation. In most cases, they had a too-negative perception of their pronunciation skills.

At the beginning of the course I wrote a letter to the teachers and invited them to communicate with me by letter or email throughout the course. I suggested they use the opportunity to practise their writing skills and to ask me questions or make observations about the course. I replied to every letter (briefly!) and built up a relationship with individual students. I could write a whole blog post about the advantages of this kind of communication (which far outweigh the extra work involved) but for today it is enough to say that as the course progressed two things became clear. The first thing was that all of the teachers told me how happy and encouraged they felt when I praised their efforts in class. Prompted by this, we spoke about the importance of praise and encouragement and how easy it would be to implement more of it into their own teaching. From this discussion, we got talking about the words and expressions we use to give praise. The teachers mostly used the same three or four expressions – well done, good work, very nice drawing, etc. When I asked them why they weren’t more creative with their praise, it became apparent that (a) the expressions they used were a force of habit and (b) they didn’t always know how to pronounce some of the less familiar expressions. The pronunciation problem was usually related to word stress. Note the word stress in super (Oo) and superb (oO). This confusion was making the teachers lack the confidence they needed to vary their own language in the classroom. After the following lesson, teachers learnt lots of new praise words and, more-importantly, felt confident about using them with their own students.

Praise words – a vocabulary and pronunciation lesson for teachers

  1. Put teachers into groups and give them 5 minutes to brainstorm words and expressions for giving praise.
  2. Give a teacher in one of the groups a coloured pen and ask her to copy the list onto the board or onto a big sheet of paper.
  3. Ask a teacher from each of the other groups to add any other words and phrases that aren’t on the board.
  4. Point to the first word or phrase and say it aloud, making sure the teachers hear the word stress. Then draw word stress bubbles above the word to indicate the stress pattern. E.g. Super Oo, Superb oO.
  5. Ask teachers to work in groups, saying each word or phrase aloud, writing it and then adding the stress bubbles.
  6. Encourage teachers to check the pronunciation of any words that are unclear. They can do this by (a) looking in a dictionary, (b) clicking on the listen icon on an online dictionary or (c) asking you.

Most teachers find this activity useful and motivating. They also like its simplicity. It can be adapted for any class and one ideal time to use it, is when students are seeing new vocabulary for the first time. Most course books have vocabulary lists. Why not get your students to work in pairs and draw word stress bubbles for every new word they meet? A few minutes spent focusing on word stress patterns now might give them a bit more confidence when they need to use the word in a speaking context. And don’t forget – never underestimate the value of praise and not just for the end results but also for every effort along the way.

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