Encouragement in the EFL Classroom

  September 13, 2021 | Posted By Rachel Laycook

What type of encouragement works best in the EFL classroom?  The truth is there’s no standard answer. In and of itself, encouragement is essential to the learning process, but there are tons of factors that go into choosing how, when, and why you cheer students on or praise them.  Let’s look at some of the things a seasoned teacher takes into consideration.

Be authentic. 

One of the most important parts of offering encouragement or praise to students is making sure it’s authentic.  Students, no matter their age or language, can sniff out when you’re not being genuine, or when you’re acting.  That said, steer away from over-praising or from any type of excited praise that doesn’t seem natural for you.  In previous teacher training, I was told to always be loud, authoritative, and exaggerated while teaching.  I’ve seen some amazing teachers use those qualities to great effect, but it doesn’t come across the same way when I do it, because that’s not who I am (and it’s also not who I’d like to have as a teacher, to be honest).  I’ve found that although I have a bit of a more reserved personality, I’m still able to connect really well with my students.  A big smile, expressive face, hand gestures, and the tone of my voice can come across just as powerfully as the loud, excited, authoritative character I was initially instructed to personify.  There’s a lot to be said for moving out of your comfort zone in the classroom, but how you interact with your students on a human level is something you can’t fake without it being detected, so find the approach that you’re comfortable with and use it to encourage your students.

Be specific.  

A really easy habit to build as an EFL teacher, although not a good one, is to use praise words like “great”, “good”, “excellent”, and “perfect” without much enthusiasm during an exercise, almost as confirmation to a student that they’ve gotten the right answer in an exercise and it’s time to go to the next question or the next person’s turn.  In effect, we’re using those words as connectors or fillers.  Challenge yourself to distinguish between moments when a cheerful “yes” or a “correct” will do, and when there’s a great moment to praise a student.  When you find that great moment to praise a student, make sure you tell them WHAT it is that they’re doing so well.  Things like:

  • Your pronunciation was perfect! That word is very difficult to say.
  • Great job remembering (X vocabulary word) from last week!
  • Excellent sentence structure!
  • Fantastic job using (X Rule).
  • That is such a creative answer!
  • Interesting perspective, thank you for sharing!
  • You always try the hardest question first! What a great attitude.
  • Did you study at home?  I can tell you have improved since last week!
  • I love how you made your sentence flow.  It sounds very natural!

Be animated. 

The example I mentioned before about being exaggerated and loud?  That’s not necessarily what I mean when I say animated.  However, it is important to remember that you have a whole body to communicate with (even if you’re teaching online)!  Using your body, face, and tone of your voice is a great way to express A LOT while keeping your TTT down and focusing on student production. Your students might not understand every word you say when you give them praise, but there are plenty of other ways to express how pleased, impressed, or proud you feel about their work. For example,

  • Arch your eyebrows and smile like you’re being surprised with something great when you’re telling a student how happy you are with their speaking progress.
  • Raise the tone of your voice when praising a student, smile, and give them a thumbs up to help them understand that you’re directing praise at them.
  • Use your hands– mime that they’ve just blown your mind, pump your fist, or use them to add emphasis to what you’re saying.  I’m personally fond of the chef’s kiss when they’ve said something great that I want to highlight because it lightens the mood and makes them laugh while also separating the moment from the rest of the lesson to let them know how well they’ve done.
  • Use a rolling hand motion and nod while smiling to keep your students speaking– you know when students aren’t sure if their sentence is going in the right direction or they’re hesitating before saying the next word?  Doing this combo without saying anything works wonders in helping a student know that they’re doing alright and should keep going!

Be purposeful. 

Once you’ve gotten to know your students, you’ll have a better idea of who in a group is shy, has a lower level of English, is less motivated, etc.  Praising these students when they do make an effort, take a risk, or get something right (or nearly right) is a great tactic to motivate and validate their efforts.  You’ll also start to see who’s hardest on themselves (they need some praise, too!) and who thrives on recognition (most people, if we’re honest).  If you know a certain skill is difficult for a student, focusing encouragement and praise on their efforts with that skill is a great way to keep them motivated while working on something that is more challenging for them than for others.  In fact, purposeful encouragement and praise is not only a great student motivator.  It’s also a great classroom management skill.  Praising the conduct you want to see more of in class is a great way to communicate to others that if they’re seeking attention, doing the things you praise others for is a clear path to getting it.

Be honest. 

Sometimes your students, especially adults, might express to you what their standards are for themselves in learning English, and these standards can frequently be unrealistic.  Perhaps it’s the years of being out of school that have fogged their brain’s understanding of the learning process, or perhaps it’s the unrealistic expectations that have been handed down from their manager to speak English perfectly as of yesterday. Either way, it’s important to level with students when they show that their expectation of themselves is perfection.

Taking some time at the end of a lesson to tell students where you’re noticing improvement is a great way to remind them that language learning is a process, not a list of clear-cut checkboxes, and that they ARE progressing, even if it doesn’t always feel evident.  Additionally, and this goes back to my point about being specific, telling students that they need more work and more focus on a specific area is a valuable form of encouragement because most adults understand that everyone will have weak points here or there.  Helping them identify where to focus more effort is a solution to a problem– just like you hope for SOME diagnosis when you go to the doctor for a mystery health problem, because a diagnosis leads to a treatment!

Finally, you might find that some students, especially adults, hate making mistakes.  In fact, most people do– we live in a world where mistakes bring consequences so of course we are mistake-averse, even in areas where mistakes are truly helpful (ahem: the English classroom).  When you’re building rapport with your students and creating your classroom environment, a great thing to communicate up front is that you, the teacher, NEED your students to make mistakes.  The mistakes are there, inside your students’ brains, just hanging out.  You can’t see them until they verbalize them, though.  Once you can see the mistakes, you know exactly how to clarify the problem and course-correct!  I tell my students “when you make mistakes, it makes it easier for me to find ways to help you improve!”.  Reframing mistakes as an essential step in the learning process is a long-game approach to encouragement, but it’s encouragement nonetheless, and your students will benefit from you pushing them to always take risks. The teachable moments that will result from this approach are unpredictable, countless, and exactly what you’re looking for in the classroom because it helps you plot your course for the students in question.

Receiving encouragement and praise is an essential component of the human learning experience.  It plays an even greater role when it comes to language learning, because students who are just getting started are truly limited in their knowledge and there’s a lot of experimenting and risk-taking involved.  Honing your own skill and confidence in timing your praise or encouragement, and how to go about the delivery, will make a world of difference in managing students’ motivation to participate, confidence to take risks, and overall demeanor in class (and outside of class, too)!

What’s your go-to strategy for implementing praise in the classroom?  When is it challenging for you to implement praise and encouragement with your students? Let’s chat about it in the comments!

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