Don’t Skimp on the Compliment.

Many teachers follow the research-decide-teach structure of conferring. These types of conferences are opportunities to provide explicit instruction targeted to the needs of one particular student/partnership. This is the go-to conference structure anytime we need to do on-the-spot conferring. First, we investigate so we can understand what the writer is doing, what their plans are for the piece of writing they’re working on, and how they’re working towards their writing goals. Next, we decide what to teach the writer so we can help the student become a “dramatically better writer” (Calkins, 2013, 75) by the end of the conference. Once we’ve decided upon one thing to compliment and one strategy for instruction, we teach the writer how to do something new. All of this happens in about five minutes!

Since time is short, it’s easy to gloss over the compliment. However, the compliment is critical to boosting a student’s self-confidence as a writer. It’s important to take the time to genuinely respond – often with emotion – to what the writer is doing well.

Way back in 2006, I heard Jennifer Serravallo say a good compliment should be equivalent to a paragraph of speech. During the compliment, teachers take the time to explicitly name a strategy they notice the child using. One might start a compliment with one of the following phrases:

  • I want to compliment you. Some people are doing ____, but you’re doing ____.
  • You’re doing really smart work as a writer. I see you…
  • I noticed the way you’re…

Here are some sample compliments you might give a writer or a writing partnership:


1_1 Conference Compliment
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peer conference compliment
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When I was trying to build my conferring skills, I often shifted from a compliment to a teaching point by uttering the word “but.” Thanks to some smart people pointing out that this negates the compliment one gave moments before, I monitored my language so in an effort to eradicate the word but as a transition word during my conferences. Instead, I memorized a couple of phrases that build beautifully on was said during the child’s compliment so it flows into the teaching point:

  • You’re already doing this work, so I want to give you another tip…
  • I think you’re ready for the next step…

Attachment-1Language like this helps build up something a student is trying to do so you can help that student excel.

There are many ways we can build-up young writers. One of the many ways is by delivering long and sincere compliments every time we confer with a student. What are some other phrases or ways you use to help build your students up as writers? Please share them by leaving a comment below.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Skimp on the Compliment.

  1. Stacey,
    A timely post for sure because in the “hustle, bustle, let’s keep moving’ rush to make sure we get everything in sometimes it’s easy to want to “tack parts” together! So important to not add a “BUT” because the whole first part of that sentence disappears. I see this with teachers and adults SO MUCH! We just aren’t always so accepting of compliments when we wonder if we should be doing more!!! 🙂


    1. It’s easy to shortchange the compliment when you’re working on conferring since there’s so much to accomplish during a short 1:1 conference. I think when we think about the compliment as noticing what kids are almost doing and teaching into it, it often seems worthy of a bit more time, eh?

      Glad the timing worked out well. I’ve had this on my to-write list for awhile, but hadn’t written it until working with some 3-5 teachers earlier this month.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My storytelling coach of 30 years, Doug Lipman, introduced this idea to me using the word “appreciate.” I don’t have trouble with “compliment,” but somehow as a listener/reader of a work, when I appreciate something in the told story/piece, I’m noticing strategy, imagery, style of presentation, and many other kinds of skill. An appreciation as I use it with students of all ages whom I coach, tells the teller/writer something he/she is often UNCONSCIOUS h/s is doing. Also, I’ve found it’s “catching” – something young and older students LIKE saying to each other: “I really appreciate the way you…. or how you showed me….the way your voice landed on…” Appreciating empowers them as coaches. We commit to offering the appreciate FIRST before a question or suggestion. And we “keep it clean – NO BUTS ABOUT IT.” Children often hear at home or from other teachers, “I like the way you did this BUT……” I think it’s the way many of us got complimented, with a “now that I’ve praised you, you need to know there’s a lot you need to work on” tone. In my training of children to coach each other (and I”m a visiting artist SOMETIMES introducing the idea of co-coaching) we talk about how it’s a habit many people learn and need to be aware of in order to break. Sure we will make the mistake of it, but when we follow the appreciation with BUT, that more or less cancels the feeling of encouragement and the moment of being conscious you’ve done something skillful or extraordinary. I SO APPRECIATE READING THIS PIECE! I’m retired from full time teaching, yet work occasionally with teachers on both storytelling and writing, different but similar kinds of composing/coaching. I love this blog. It lifts my spirit in a thousand ways.


  3. After chatting with a child and reading his writing I often will say, “It seems to me that you are working hard on _______________. Am I correct?” Peter Johnston in his book Opening Minds talks about the difference between praise and being positive. That has always stuck with me and I try hard at the start of my conference to be positive and show kids that hard work pays off. That way, when I move into my teaching point, they can see how if they work hard on this new aspect it will pay off. Also, posing it as a question rather than a statement it keeps the conversation going. A child can agree with your assessment but they also can disagree.


    1. There’s certainly power in this, Leah. Another thing that’s important to keep in mind (à la Johnston) is to refrain from telling kids we “like” or “love” what they’ve done. I always go with phrases likes “I see…” and “I noticed…” This makes kids less dependent on our praise since we aren’t placing value judgments on their work.


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