“You are doing such nice work!”
Empty praise. When I became a Reading Recovery teacher in the early 2000’s, for the first time I saw how empty that praise was. I grew up as a child, as a mother and as a teacher believing that it was my job to praise a child and to let them know that they were doing a good job. In my training as a Reading Recovery teacher, I began to see that this praise was empty—in fact, this praise could be perilous.
Praise that doesn’t add specificity is empty. This kind of praise lets the recipient know nothing about what is positive in what was done or what needs to occur again to grow skills. There is an old quote that goes, “You can give the child a fish or you can teach them to fish.” Praising children with phrases such as “Beautiful job!” gives the child the fish and often leaves the child wondering what they did to get the fish. In Reading Recovery I experienced how to teach the child to fish through praise with specificity.
“I like how when you got stuck you went back and reread and got your mouth ready for that first letter ‘h’. Do you see how ‘house’ fell out of your mouth when you did that.”
“Good readers use the picture to help them when they read the story. I like the way you looked at the picture to help you when reading the words.”
“What was the tricky spot on that page? How did you figure that word out? Good for you, you did it all by yourself! Good readers look at parts in a word to help them figure out tricky words.”
Praise filled with the power of strategy. Praise can be a powerful tool when linked to specificity of what the child does to problem solve. This learning trickled into my personal life as well. As I raised two children, I used the same premises as I taught my children how to negotiate social situations and school matters, family squabbles and self-realizations. Using the language of praise linked to specificity gives the recipient power. It allows the receiver to understand what was done well and bank it in their memory to use again in future situations if so needed.
As a teacher of a graduate class on coaching, I have been revisiting the concept of praise with specificity. My graduate students are practicing the art of listening and coaching. In a safe setting, each student has opportunities to listen and to coach. After the coaching or listening session they are given feedback. The feedback process goes like this: “Student’s name, what I appreciate about your listening (coaching) is that you ____________________. I also appreciate that you __________________. Eventually, as trust grows with the students the following phrase is also offered: “What I feel got in the way of your listening (coaching) in this situation is ____________________. “ This phrase can be as powerful, when given in a safe environment, because it allows the student to see what is missing. Each person receives both kinds of feedback from four fellow students. After receiving the feedback, the student thanks the feedback givers and lets the information percolate. They may, if chosen, write about the feedback process in a weekly reflection. This process is built to allow future teachers and coaches to understand more what they are doing and not doing as they listen and coach. It gives specificity. Which is a powerful thing.
Praise expressed in feedback is a very powerful thing.