How Gratitude Speaking and Writing Prompts Increase Student and Teacher
Engagement, Connection, Community, and English Production
“Your ability to see beauty and possibility is proportional
to the level at which you embrace gratitude.” —Steve Maraboli
How did speaking and writing prompts for my English Language Learners affect academic and mental health results for the students AND the teachers? Well, after teaching English in Greece and Panama, I was in a transition, changing my country of residence, career, and mindset. Naturally, I’d been homesick at times, and upon my U.S. return, normal things I’d taken for granted about my mostly-Midwest upbringing seemed so magical: cornfields, the variety of colors of leaves changing in the fall, and of course, the ease of speaking my native language fluently.
Positive Teacher Mindset
It was perfect that while I was transitioning back into life in the United States, I was teaching adult refugees who were new to the United States. Firstly, I love teaching and learning about different cultures, hearing people’s stories, and connecting on a personal level with my students. Additionally, the gratitude of my students was absolutely heartwarming– my favorite thing about my job. Gratitude Speaking and writing prompts guided my English Language Learners to increase their engagement, connection, and language acquisition. But as the teacher, the spirit of gratitude endeared me to my students, and my mindset, both inside and outside the classroom, soared.
Speaking and Writing Prompts
I started using gratitude as a teaching topic slowly, by teaching a lesson on likes and dislikes. I used our community as an example, sharing my own likes and dislikes. When I asked my students to share their likes, we created an endless list. So many of my students’ likes were things I’d taken for granted:
—“It’s clean here.” (Many of my students had never lived in a place with public sanitation.)
—“Girls get to go to school.” (Some of my adult female students had never had any formal education.)
—“We don’t have to hide from soldiers.” (Many students said their homes were burned down, and they would’ve been murdered had they not hidden in the jungle and escaped to refugee camps.)
Focus on the Positive
When the class topic switched to dislikes about our community, no one responded. I rephrased my question and gave some examples of my own dislikes. Still, no one volunteered any dislikes to add to our list. I looked at my students’ notebooks, full of notes. Not a single student had written down a single dislike. My most vocal student said, “Teacher, we like it here. Thankful. No dislikes.” Others nodded in agreement.
And so it became that my students’ favorite topic was gratitude, easy to express with simple speaking and writing prompts. Students from many different countries connected over the vulnerability expressed. Writing production and efficiency soared.
Why is Teaching Gratitude so Powerful?
When writing about gratitude, students are so passionate about what they want to say, that the level of engagement supersedes the fact that writing in a non-native language is difficult for most. Just like in all facets of life, when we’re highly motivated, we’re able to tackle challenging feats.
Simply put: Gratitude gets people talking about what truly matters to them.
Since most of us aren’t automatically vulnerable in new settings, it’s important to create a safe space in which examples of vulnerability and support are modeled.
Tips for Getting the Most out of Gratitude
Speaking and Writing Prompts
#1) Give Students a Prompt/ Open-Ended Sentence Starter
I usually start class with a speaking prompt. I write a simple speaking and writing prompt on the board, such as: “I am grateful for …” or “I feel gratitude when…”. I include my own examples, with as many images as possible. Google Images is my friend. We start a class list together of possible responses before students write their individual responses.
#2) Students Respond to the Prompt through Writing First, as Preparation for the Speaking
Students need time to process, especially when producing writing and speaking in a non-native language. The written response gives them the preparation and “security blanket” to then be scaffolded into speaking about the topic. Plus, students are apt to add, revise, edit, and study from written notes later.
#3) While Students Write, the Teacher Circulates amongst all Students, Providing Feedback.
This is the “writing conferencing” stage of the Writer’s Workshop model. While students are writing, I circulate amongst the students, helping them compose their ideas into complete sentences, and then supporting them with the pronunciation of their words. Students get individualized feedback on whatever they need, whether it’s how to more thoroughly respond to a prompt, or a specific grammar teaching point. From this one-on-one support, they feel more comfortable with sharing aloud. (My students in general report more difficulty with speaking than the other domains of language learning: reading, writing, and listening.)
#4) Cycle Back to the Same Topic Repeatedly, Expanding Vocabulary
After the initial gratitude prompt, students wanted to talk about gratitude more. Being that we all learn from frequent exposure to concepts, I was happy to create more prompts to address gratitude, using different words each time.
“I am grateful for …”
“I feel gratitude when…”
“Today I am thankful because…”
“I most appreciate…” or even more general,
“My favorite thing about ____ is…”
“I show gratitude to others by ______ “
My students shared examples such as:
“Today I am thankful because I get to go to school.”
“My favorite thing about the United States is freedom. I can wear whatever I want.”
“My favorite thing about living here is that it is safe to walk to the grocery store. The grocery stores here always have food.”
#5) Transfer this Gratitude Practice Outside of the Classroom
As gratitude becomes a more frequent classroom topic, it becomes more natural to express gratitude in everyday speech and actions. My students made cards and wrote letters to loved ones for holidays, but also made thank you cards for community members who helped them or visited our class.
The Smile Project: Spreading Random Acts of Kindness
We were fortunate to have an impactful visit from The Smile Project, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading happiness through random acts of kindness while on a roadtrip across the United States! The Smile Project delivered friendship bracelets and uplifting notes to our class, which were made by a group called “Emerge” in Rapid City, South Dakota. My students then enjoyed making cards for the Smile Project’s next destination–complete strangers.
Of course, the process of making thank you cards teaches manners, a sense of gratitude to combat negative emotions, and can be used to teach a myriad of writing skills. AND, especially for people in a new community with limited language skills, expressing gratitude is a natural and uplifting way to build human connection.
“Practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough
and that we’re enough.” —Brené Brown