By making some adjustments to the words you use with your students, you can change your negative tone into the positive and encouraging language of success.
Change Negative Terms into Hopeful Terms
I teach screenwriting and students demonstrate a wide variety of creative work in their scripts. The quality of their writing varies. (See, I’m already being tactful.) Less tactfully put, some of their writing or their ideas are just plain atrocious.
When you grade student work, and I’ve found this to be particularly true when grading student writing, you should phrase your criticism tactfully. Nothing demoralizes people more than to have their creative work referred to as weak, problematic or… atrocious.
Instead of using the word “problems” or “errors”, you can say “areas for improvement” — they mean the same thing, except the second one provides a sense of hope to the student that they can improve. I also allow students to rewrite and revise their work, so it’s another reminder to them that they should work to improve their writing.
Use Plus Signs instead of Minus Signs
This is the glass is half full or half empty issue when it comes to grading. When students get test questions incorrect, your first response may be to say they lost points.
A student who gets 9 points wrong on a 20 point test, may receive the dreaded -9 at the top of their test page. However, consider phrasing this in terms of how many points they received, in this example, +11 out of 20. It’s still 55% either way (likely a failing grade), yet the plus sign may soften the blow.
If you aren’t concerned about the emotional impact of a minus sign, consider the more fundamental impact: addition is easier than subtraction, and seeing a positive number may get the student thinking about their overall score in the class. The positive number with its emphasis on addition will be more motivational than a negative score.
“I like you, but…”
Notice how the “but” in that sentence negates everything that occurs before it?
It’s something I’ve long endeavored to remove from my speech and writing. Reducing the “but” in your communication is the best way to turn your criticism into the language of success instead of the language of failure.
Now, if you think the “but” is a safer way to deliver criticism, it’s not. Let’s say you want to deliver the good with the bad when it comes to criticism. You tell a student
“I appreciated your creativity, but you have a lot of grammar errors.”
Again, “but” just negated the first positive thing you said. It also sounds like you are trying to sugar-coat the criticism, which may make your compliment seem insincere. If you want to keep it on a positive note, state the positive thing last and drop the “but”.
“There are a lot of grammar errors you should correct. Be sure to do that. Your writing is very creative.”
You can almost always use “and” instead of “but”. Consider this
“You have a good grasp of the mechanics, but your creative insticts could be improved.”
Instead, try this
“You have a good grasp of the mechanics, and if you work to improve your creative instincts, your overall work will benefit.”
Some simple adjustments to the words you choose as a teacher can turn your negative language into the language of success.