Firm but Fair: Balancing Praise and Discipline in the ESL Classroom

Firm but Fair
Balancing Praise and Discipline in the ESL Classroom

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 25,007 views

Developing a reasonable attitude to classroom discipline is a challenge.

No one likes a tyrannical teacher, but being a passive, permissive doormat isn’t very effective. This balance is especially tricky for young teachers, and those who find it difficult to keep their emotions in check; events in the classroom sometimes don’t go as planned, and there’s always the risk of an unguarded moment when you inadvertently compromise your relationship with your students by lashing out.

One thing to bear in mind, when we consider student mis-behavior, is that it’s seldom meant to be a personal insult. It is, however, a reflection of an underlying causation, and at the risk of being reducing a complex problem to a very simple substrate, I’m going to boil it down like this:

Most discipline problems result from boredom.

There, I said it. The comments section is there if you’d like to argue your own view. Know in advance however, that I deny the existence of ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ students, or those who ‘cannot be taught’. With the exception of people who are dealing with social disorders and the like, everyone can be taught. They just need the right environment, cohort and materials, and they need their teacher to engage with them in a way that brings out their best.

Defining the Problem

We need certain things from our students in order for the class to function properly. Our aim is language acquisition, and this depends on clear, concise teaching of the relevant material, and well-organized, effective practice. To create this delicate environment requires our students to agree to do the following:

  • Pay attention
  • Work together harmoniously
  • Follow the class rules, including suspending the use of their own first language (L1)

That’s pretty much all we need. Achieving this isn’t about control - at least, in a perfect world, it wouldn’t be - but instead, it’s about creating that environment through consent and the subtle shaping of behavior.

Dealing with the Problem: An Incremental Approach

Gaining this kind of consent is an exercise in using your personality and classroom methods to get your students on board. They must understand why you need them to behave a certain way, and recognize that it’s for their benefit. For this reason, I tend to advocate a gradual, tiered response to discipline problems which guards against over-reaction and, instead, tries to build the students’ consent and participation.

6 Steps for Balancing Praise and Discipline in the ESL Classroom

  1. 1

    Step One: A Reminder of the Rules

    Only in recent years have I asked my students to sign a kind of ‘contract’ at the beginning of a semester, and I truly wish I’d thought of it earlier. I articulate very clearly the expectations I have of them, and the work they can expect of me. Everyone signs it, and doing so seems to create a stronger bond among the class, as though they’ve undertaken a communal challenge and will be loath to let each other down. There’s also a usefully formal sense to doing this; I produce the contract in the form of a legal document, so it feels binding and authoritative.

    If someone breaks a rule - using their first language (L1), interrupting a speaker, or becoming distracted by their phone - I simply have to point to the contract on the wall. It’s a powerful tool, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  2. 2

    Step Two: Explain The Problem

    Rules enforced arbitrarily are confusing and unfair. A population, or a class, which understands which the rule is important are much more likely to ‘buy in’ to it. Here’s a genuine exchange from my classroom which demonstrates how I do this:

    Teacher: (Cups his ear) Wait a minute. I’m hearing Spanish from somewhere.
    Students: (Looking at each other)
    Teacher: And I think I know where. (Walks slowly to Jorge’s desk) Can you help me in my investigation?
    Jorge: Hmm?
    Maria: He thinks you were speaking Spanish.
    Jorge: Oh.
    Teacher: Oh? Well, Jorge, we signed a contract on this, right? (Gestures to the contract)
    Jorge: Yes. I know is important.
    Teacher: Good. Tell me why it’s important, Jorge.
    Jorge: Because… Is an English class.
    Teacher: It is? Oh, great! I’m in the right classroom.
    Class: (Laughing)
    Teacher: What else?
    Jorge: Because Spanish is lazy.
    Maria: Speaking Spanish is lazy.
    Teacher: Something like that. Here’s what I think: you already speak Spanish pretty well, right? Upper-intermediate? Maybe better than that?
    Students: (Laughing)
    Jorge: Native!
    Teacher: Then, you don’t need to practice it, do you?
    Jorge: No. Is already perfect.
    Teacher: When your English is perfect, then you can speak Spanish in my classroom. Deal?
    Jorge: Deal (shakes hands).
  3. 3

    Step Three: Incentivize Good Behaviors

    Moving away from L1 and bedding in your other class rules can take time, and will be difficult for some students, especially younger or lower-level learners. After all, you’re asking for a major effort and the leaving behind of that which is familiar and comfortable. So, with elementary classes (especially mono-lingual classes of Asian learners, who - just in my own experience - tend to find this more difficult than others) I offer incentives for groups, tables, or individuals I hear use not one word of L1 throughout a class, a week or a whole semester. These vary from the offer of a field trip, entry into a raffle, the promise of a DVD, and (of course) candy.

  4. 4

    Step Four: Carrot, Stick and Song

    If the ‘carrot’ is candy and other promises of good things to come, then the ‘stick’ is the least unpleasant type of enforcement you can think of. Strict discipline, where students are berated in front of their friends, can be enormously counter-productive, and can harm both the class atmosphere and your relationship with your students. Instead, I have late students sing a song before they can sit down. This is also applied to those who use L1, or break the other rules. For the natural performers, this is hardly a punishment at all, but it does usefully highlight the rule. It also shows other (perhaps much shyer) students what might happen to them. For a dozen good reasons, it’s my preferred method of ‘punishment’.

  5. 5

    Step Five: Sanctions

    I always hope that it never comes to this, but if a student truly disappoints me, and lets down the class, I’m in the position where I have to impose some kind of penalty. Not to do so - or, importantly, at least to appear as though I will - risks further problems, as I’ll be seen as a ‘soft touch’ who can be manipulated.

    Sanctions can include the withdrawal of offered goodies (trips, movies, candy) or old-fashioned embarrassments like being told to stand in the corner. Note that my small arsenal of punishments does not include homework; practicing target material should never be assigned as a punishment. If old-fashioned ‘lines’ are to be given (and I recommend something more creative, but that’s just me) then at least make the repeated phrase something which might actually be useful:

    A one-L lama, he’s a priest,
    A two-L llama, he’s a beast;
    And I will bet a silk pajama,
    There isn’t any three-L lama.

    I remember those spellings because of lines given for late homework when I was a twelve year-old. Another example, which is also a wickedly useful pronunciation exercise is:

    Whether the weather is cold,
    Or whether the weather is hot,
    We must whether the weather,
    Whatever the weather,
    Whether we like it or not.

    But, honestly, I find that I can quickly build a rapport with my students which is positive enough that the specter of my disappointment is sufficient to motivate positive classroom behavior. A raised eyebrow, a frown or a grimace can have ten times the effect of a noisy tirade. Besides, most of the world’s cultures regard losing your temper as a loss of face on your part, and this will erode the students’ respect for you.

  6. 6

    Step Six: Request an Intervention

    When faced with troubling classroom discipline, almost every new teacher reaches a point where they think, “I can’t do this. I can’t teach them properly, and they’re not learning very well. I don’t know what to do.”

    Ask for help. If you work at a language school, or the language department of a university, you’ll be surrounded by older, wiser people who have been through the same problems. Search for articles online (Busyteacher is an outstanding resource, with lots of pertinent articles from experienced teachers) and consider getting creative with your incentives and admonishments. Bring an assistant into the classroom, or consider asking someone who speaks the students’ first language to have a word with them. It might help to make clear that all of these methods are unusual, that you’ve never encountered anything like this before (even if you have) and that their behavior has been disappointing to the extent that you have to involve the management, other teachers, and advisors.

The Importance of Balance

Discipline comes easier to a class who believe they’re getting it right most of the time. Infractions can then be placed in contrast to a body of otherwise excellent behavior. To encourage a good general atmosphere, praise your students warmly, and invite them to praise each other. Do whatever you can to foster the sense that the language-learning journey is one they’re undertaking together.

Keep smiling, and keep the atmosphere light. If you hit problems, speak to the transgressors privately, and remind them of the rules, and that the other students are depending on them. Explain clearly why the rules exists, and the benefits that flow from following them. Be clear that you want this student in your class, that you like and value them as a person, and that you want to see them succeed. This makes them much more likely to meet you half way.


As a young teacher, I made the mistake of raising my voice in the classroom, and the negative implications were so clear and obvious that I never did it again.

I much prefer rule by consent to rule by fear. I give my students every chance, and every reason, to subscribe to the program of learning and behavior that I propose, and make clear why these methods and rules are beneficial to everyone. I very obviously have a great time in the classroom, and encourage my students to do the same; if they’re engaged, having fun and feeling as though they’re making progress, disciplinary problems tend not to emerge, and we can all focus on the much more enjoyable business of learning.

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