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Don’t Forget the Compliment

Recently, I received an authentic compliment on my writing.  And I must say, it gave me pause.  It sort of jangled around inside me for several days, causing me to reflect and occasionally bringing a smile to my face.  Even though I’m an adult, I could honestly feel myself walking taller, feeling larger, and experiencing a true sense of, well, pride.  Just that one compliment changed, perhaps ever so slightly, the way I viewed myself as a writer.  Suddenly I began to take myself a bit more seriously.  Suddenly I started to imagine more possibility.  Suddenly my writerly identity somehow expanded.  All because of a great compliment.

Lucy Calkins once taught me that a good compliment can accelerate learning.  And yet, so often in my own conferring and the conferring I have witnessed in the middle school classrooms in which I have worked, the compliment suffers one of the following fates:  It is phrased as a quick, non-specific version of “good job”; or it is given, but couched in a perfunctory tone that strips it of any real educational value; or it is skipped altogether! If you are reading this and thinking, “Oh, yeah…that’s happened to me before,” you are most definitely not alone!

Oftentimes, we are so committed to moving our kids forward as writers that we don’t feel like there’s the time to stop and pay a writer a specific compliment.  During writing workshop, we pull up next to a writer. We research.  We converse a bit.  But how many of us all the while are really thinking, “I’ve got to get to the teaching part of this conference…  I’ve got so many kids to confer with and give feedback to today!”?  And compliments aren’t really true feedback anyway…are they?

Actually, compliments are feedback.  In fact, feedback tucked inside a really good compliment can be some of the most powerful feedback we can offer.  Someone once said, “If you want to light someone up, acknowledge him or her.”  As teachers of writing, we aim to light up our students.  We strive to fill them with light that acknowledgement, a sense of accomplishment, and writerly independence can provide.  Compliments offer a wonderful way to generate the kind of light inside our students that can sustain them as writers for years to come.

That said, there are some specifics we might consider when it comes to complimenting our writers:

  • Causal statements– Be wary of the phrase, “I like how you…” In his seminal book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), Peter Johnston reminds us that when we employ such phraseology in our compliments as “I like…,” we unwittingly place ourselves into a position of judgment.  He argues that we really ought to strive for “process-oriented” feedback” versus “person-oriented” feedback.  That is to say, we as teachers want to consider focusing our feedback on a process—in this case, the writing process.  As teachers, we are in the business of nurturing agency within our students.  Saying words like, “I like how you used flashback here.  Good job with that!” while well meaning, communicates a message to the student that her job as a writer is to please you.  Alternatively, consider such phrases as, “Look how you used flashback to help readers learn about some important background to the character. It really helped me understand why she made that decision!”  Delivered in an enthusiastic tone, this will likely be interpreted as a compliment.

Johnston calls this a “causal statement” and argues that these types of statements (typically phrased as, “You did this…with this consequence”) lie at the heart of building agency within our students.

  • Tuck in some teaching- A good compliment contains some teaching inside of it. When we deliver that compliment, whether it is to one writer or a group of writers, consider working to tuck in a little teaching that is transferable to future pieces of writing.  For example, I recently worked with a sixth grade writer on moving from summarizing to storytelling in his narrative writing.  One day, I noticed him revising his draft to contain more internal thinking.  “Wow, Spencer (not his real name),” I began, “look how you help your reader begin to see the real meaning in your story, that ‘thinking before you act’ is so important!  You wrote your inner thinking right here where you think about the importance of wearing a helmet, and then again here when you think about what your mother had always said.  This is one way writers get their messages across, by writing an internal dialogue—and look how effectively you’re doing that!”  This compliment definitely lit Spencer up, as I saw him smiling from ear to ear.  But it was also meant to teach or reteach some important content about narrative writing.
  • Compliments are paragraphs—Although this idea has been written about by many, it’s still worth mentioning. The middle school schedule can instill a panicky sense of haste in even the most experienced teacher.  Just remember that a compliment begins by “listening for the gold” as it has been called by Lucy Calkins.  And once you have heard or seen a writer do something you would like him to continue to do as a writer, try gushing a bit about it! I often try to do this in a few ways:  (1) Be specific about what the writer did in his current writing piece.  And tone matters here—I try to include some real enthusiasm when I do this! (2) Mention this particular move as a worthy technique that published writers often make; (3) Discuss the payoff this writing move or behavior will have for both him and a reader.  Yes, complimenting in paragraphs takes a bit more time.  But consider the rewards for your writers!

Compliments are a bit like little gifts we give our students each day. One of my mentors once told me that if your compliment makes the writer smile, you have succeeded.  I would add that if your compliment is not just given but strives to make a real difference for a writer, you truly have succeeded.

Happy Complimenting!

For more than 23 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy.  With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers.  Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy and reading consultant in Northwestern Connecticut.  Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano.  Find him on Twitter @LannyBall, as well as his literacy blog: lannyball.com.

11 thoughts on “Don’t Forget the Compliment Leave a comment

  1. Great reminders here, Lanny! Giving good compliments takes practice – it doesn’t come as naturally as I once thought! Beth Moore has a post in our archives where she wrote about beginning with, “I’m going to give you a compliment.” I love that post and always use those words myself now!

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  2. I learned early on in my teaching, from a wonderful mentor, “validate and activate”. One must validate the specific hard work the student did to produce something wonderful. That will do much to activate the student to try new learning you might propose next.

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  3. Lanny,
    Wow! So much to remember to use from your post. Thank you for the examples of what to say instead of “I like” so that students are NOT writing for teacher approval. The concepts of “Tuck in some teaching” reminds me of “Noticing and Naming” and “Compliments are Paragraphs” reminds me again to be more specific and not to rush through the “listening for the gold”!

    And thanks for the additional examples and for telling us that “I’m leaning on the student-facing checklists and writing rubrics to help me compliment the writers here.” ❤

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  4. I love your post, Lanny, and how your personal experience led you to reflect on classroom practices. The idea of validating student writing is powerful. When I read Learning From Classmates by Lisa Eickholdt, it was a real A-ha for me about the need to publicly name what students are doing as writers and share that with the class. It’s a compliment but even more so a teaching point for others. Now there is more than one writing teacher in the room!

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    • Oftentimes I’ll try to couch a compliment inside a broader category of “Structure”or “Development” (unless the student’s use of language conventions leaps out as particularly effective– then I might consider a compliment coming from there). So a structure-oriented compliment might sound like– “Charlie, look at the way you’ve built this argument on the page. You clearly understand that a writer can’t just say what he thinks; no, you really get that writers need reasons to support their claims. Here, you’ve given a really solid reason…then look down here, another logical reason! This is a move that the most convincing writers always try to use, that is to build their arguments with convincing reasons– and you’ve done it! I can tell you that this technique will certainly pay off when your audience reads it because, as you know, the most convincing writers are the ones that use strong reasons to support their claims. This is definitely something you should continue to do in all of your argument writing.”

      Let’s say we are working on information writing, and the student is struggling not with elaboration, but with structure. A compliment inside elaboration might sound like, “Wow, Hannah, look at how you’ve worked to make hedgehogs interesting to readers! You’ve listed all these little-known facts here, but then look down here where you’ve told a little story… then over here you’re comparing them to people– great! What you’re doing is making your topic interesting to readers by using different text structures. This is so important because making your writing interesting is something that information writers work really hard to do…and look– you’re doing it! Varying your text structures is a writerly move you’ll definitely want to keep doing in all of your informational writing.”

      You probably see right away that I’m leaning on the student-facing checklists and writing rubrics to help me compliment the writers here.

      Thanks for your question!

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  5. Identifying the way that a compliment made you feel as a writer, has provided insight about the ways compliments will affect our children as writers. I think that sometimes we forget that children are people too, with feelings just like us, and we try to focus on the work, rather than the student, and push them to the next step, the next level. Compliments help them stretch because they see the effects of their work, not just the product. Thinking about the effects of compliments on ourselves, or the ways in which we would respond to adult writers, can inform the ways in which we respond to our children as writers. I loved your post for its insights! 🙂

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    • Norah, I couldn’t agree more! I love how you said, “Compliments help [students] stretch because they see the effects of their work…” While I am a firm believer in setting up students to publish for authentic audiences, I also believe the student’s writing coach (the teacher) can make a huge difference in this regard. Thanks for your comment!

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