One Simple Way to Keep Students on Task

Why commenting on children's work might be better than asking them questions

A common scenario

Some of the "lively" kids had finally settled into the assignment. It took them longer than their peers, and I had to use a handful of strategies to help them get there, but they eventually picked up their pencils and began writing.

"What a relief!" I thought to myself. "Got there in the end."

After a minute or two, I stood up from my desk and walked around the room to assess progress and ensure they grasped the objective. When I arrived at one of the energetic student's desk, he was fully engaged with the assignment - the one I had spent 5-10 minutes trying to get him started on. He had come up with a couple of good sentences and was in a good writing flow.

"This is great!" I though to myself.

A fatal error

In my eagerness to understand how he came up with his ideas, I did something I would regret for the rest of the lesson:

I asked him a question.

"How did you come up with that idea?" I blurted out as the child was writing mid-sentence.

He looked up at me, dropped his pencil and proceeded to answer my question. After all, why shouldn't he? I was his teacher. He kept talking unceasingly, pulling others into his conversation, and it spiraled from there.

It was my fault and I should have known better. I should have known that distracting an easily distracted student was a bad idea.

What do you mean by "Commenting"?

Commenting simply means making a statement about what a student is doing well - using capital letters, writing a grammatically correct sentence, including a good thought or idea, demonstrating an understanding of the learning objective, answering the question well, etc. Once we provide the praise we walk away.

That's all.

We don't ask any questions. We don't expect them to respond. We simply encourage. In doing so, we empower them to make a decision whether they will respond to us. It's their choice.


Giving students choices - especially those who find school difficult - helps them become motivated and empowered learners. By commenting on their progress rather than asking them about it, we give them a choice. They can either:

  1. Keep working, or

  2. Share with us what they're doing

Either way, the choice is theirs!

Just SPIT!

When commenting or praising a student's work, keep "SPIT Praise" in mind. No, it's not that kind of spit! I mean our comments should be:

Specific to the skill

Positive language only

Instructional- related to the task

True to what they've demonstrated in their work

One additional benefit to SPIT Praise is that other students hear you celebrating their progress/achievement and view them as a successful learner. It can build their confidence in countless ways!

Using SPIT will make our comments even more meaningful. If you're not already doing it, have a go!