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.