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The Power of Written Praise

Voice of ExperienceBeing roused from a sound sleep by one of your student's parents can be a rude awakening. But in one recent case it got educator Max Fischer reflecting about the power of written praise to raise student achievement. Included: Six reasons to put praise for students in writing!

Max W. Fischer

It's unusual that I receive a phone call before 7 a.m. But it was cold and still dark on the December morning when a mother of one of my students called. She tearfully expressed gratitude that I had acknowledged her son's progress in my class.

Tommy (not his real name) had failed abysmally in my social studies class during the first quarter. My grade book was pockmarked with his failures. You name it -- homework, writing assignments, extended projects -- it had not been completed. He fared no better when I figured in his test average.

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His 40 percent grade in social studies, coupled with failures in other classes, made it painfully obvious Tommy was not adjusting to middle school.

Then something happened. During the second quarter, his work habits began to improve. His tests scores still weren't strong, but they had risen from their first-quarter depths. Tommy might never make anyone's short list for induction into the Junior National Honor Society, but his grade had risen to 63 percent by the middle of the quarter.

So I mailed Tommy a congratulatory postcard with a brief note of encouragement -- the postcard that prompted his mother's call before sunup!

"No teacher has ever written a note of encouragement to my son," she said. "He's never been a good student, especially in social studies. His previous teachers seemed to concentrate on his faults. I just wanted to thank you. It means a lot to him and me."


The poignancy of her comments still grips me. The fact of the matter is that this particular student had never been more than a D student in social studies. But I have always had a philosophy of building up students with praise -- when warranted. Tommy's dramatic improvement, albeit not earth-shattering by many standards, indicated to me that this young man could achieve at a higher level and was making a serious attempt to do so. My written note of praise was designed to applaud and motivate Tommy.

By the end of the second quarter, his grade had risen to 73 percent. He'd made a huge leap -- from failure to the D level to a C -- in a single quarter. I thought that deserved some additional recognition, so I wrote him a formal letter that extolled his quarter-long improvement.

Before the year was over, his grade would peak at 81 percent (a B-) before leveling out at a C.


Sincere letters or notes to students can be potent motivators. [See sidebar.] When I think back to my own personal experiences on the receiving end of written praise, I am reminded how I felt. I know firsthand how I warmed to the expectations of those who went out of their way to thank or commend my efforts in a letter or note. Those notes sensitized me to the power of such praise. That's why I write notes of praise. I hope my students will respond in kind.

Put Praise in Writing!

A number of considerations prod me to make the effort to put praise in writing.
* Students love to receive mail.
* Spoken platitudes are nice and equally well deserved, but a handwritten note can be a source of continuing encouragement -- long after spoken words of praise have been forgotten.
* Written expressions of authentic praise counter many parents' beliefs that only bad news is sent home from school.
* Letters or notes build a solid foundation for a positive relationship between the teacher, student, and home. Such notes demonstrate that the teacher truly cares about the student.
* Students respond commensurately to the level of their teacher's expectations. Letters can be used to express those expectations and motivate students to achieve them.
* Written praise can increase student self-esteem.

The basis for praise may vary from teacher to teacher. Each instructor maintains his own barometer for determining what warrants commendation, oral or written. The key, as I see it, is that the praise must be truly genuine.

Students have internal radar when it comes to praise. They can usually detect fraudulent, disingenuous acclamation. Comments such as "That's nice," "Well done," and "Good job" might be fine for reinforcing correct oral responses during a question-and-answer session that's moving along at machine-gun pace; however, using those common and overused reinforcers in the face of significant student achievement would severely understate the accomplishments.

As I have heard it said, Insincere praise is worse than no praise at all.

I reserve letters home for extended progress over a period of time. I will usually send a letter to a student who gains ten percentage points or more during or a quarter. I also send out letters to students who have demonstrated outstanding progress outside of the classroom in athletic or cultural events.


Praise does not have to be sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Students class work is the perfect place for me to pen some praise. Short positive notes on student tests and papers are an excellent way to reach students who are remarkably steady in their academic work. A straight B or C students work is capable of achievement worthy of a written tribute.

I have also learned to appreciate that even for advanced students, who have been at the head of the class for years, praise can carry great benefits. Praise is also an opportunity to provide constructive criticism. When balanced with merited acclaim, such critique will be respected.

This week I am sending out 15 letters of commendation for students who raised their performance in my class anywhere from ten to 25 percentage points. Will those episodes of improvement continue? Statistically, it is improbable. However, experience has taught me that their effort will continue.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max W. Fischer
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