eslinsider5 logo


Is it a good idea to use rewards to teach English to children or adults? In a previous post we said no, but it can go a little deeper than that. Before I tell you that I'll share a little bit of my experience.

When I first started teaching children I think I did a pretty poor job of managing my classroom and using rewards. And I learned that from other teachers in the schools where I was working.

Rewards were often used to manipulate the children and I not knowing any better just followed along.

I first started teaching English in a buxiban in Taiwan called Gau Jie Language School. Most of the teachers in this private language school gave their students (children) stamps for rewards at the end of the class. I followed along in their footsteps.

At the end of every class the students would line up to come and get their stamps. I would spend at least a few minutes giving them stamps and I would subtract stamps from them if they were causing problems.

I can't exactly remember how many stamps I would give them. But in the beginning I think it was many. But considering I was just starting off... I had a lot of classroom management problems then, basically because I was for the most part a poor teacher.

But as the time passed I got better and then moved to a system where I gave the students two or three stamps a day and if they misbehaved I would subtract a stamp.

The whole class became about getting stamps. The kids would talk about them. I guess some didn't care about them, but it became too big of a deal and part of the class became about giving the kids rewards (stamps).

It was too much.

More time passed and I started improving as a teacher. I started getting tired of the whole stamp process and the kids asking for stamps. I eventually just did away with them.

At this point I felt that my teaching had gotten much better. I realized I didn't have to give them stamps.

What I had to do was create lessons that where fun, interesting and educational for them. When you do that you don't need rewards because the reward is hardwired into the learning.

Stamps are just one form of rewards. Other teachers used stickers, candy, and/or prizes. I worked in one school that gave their "best" students prizes such as toys and such.

The main problem was that the stamps became to regular and consistent. They became part of the routine. Children were asking for them. They weren't interested in the class they were interested in the stamps.

When to use rewards

The first question you should ask: Is what you are doing boring or routine? And is it the material or you?

If it is then see if there is some way to make it more interesting or fun. Learning a language or learning anything for that matter takes repetition, so repeating the same things over and over again can be boring. But is there a way how you can make it less boring?

Try using more games and activities in your lessons, music or role play.

The point here is to make what you are doing more enjoyable so that you don't need a reward.

"If-then" rewards are usually bad

An if-then reward is when you offer a reward such as a sticker to a student if they get "A" on their test. These are the kinds of rewards you usually want to avoid. But what if your school is asking you to teach something that's really boring or routine? Can I offer the students a reward to do the task or assignment?

You can, but do these things first.

  1. Explain why it's necessary to do the assignment or task.
  2. Admit that it is boring.
  3. Allow the students some autonomy and try not to control them.

Here's an example. The students need to complete their TOEFL workbook. First you can say that a higher score on their TOEFL exam will enable them to get into a better school, which may enable them to have better future prospects.

Admit to them that it is boring to listen to the CD and complete the workbook. And lastly give them a date to complete it and let them know that they can do it on their own or with a friend. It's up to them.

"Now that" rewards are usually better

Usually "now that" rewards are better. This would be like, "Hey you did great on your test, here's a sticker." This is a much better way.

The truth is that if you give children (or adults for that matter) rewards then they have to come unexpectedly. They can't know about it in advance and they shouldn't be asking you about them. If they are, then that means you are giving them too much and you are poorly training them. Rewards for the most part should be used on occasion and come without expectation.

Instead of rewards

You can consider giving them feedback or praise, but make sure it's specific and read more on how to properly use praise.

Some of the ideas in this article came from the book Drive.