Positive Feedback That Moves Writers

Have you ever taught a student who couldn’t meet your gaze or felt physically uncomfortable with receiving a compliment during a writing conference? There are a multitude of reasons that a child might be uncomfortable with receiving positive feedback. Some children come from homes where they only receive negative feedback while other kids might not know what to say — beyond “thank you” — when they hear they’re doing something well. Regardless of the “why,” all students must hear that they’re doing things well as writers. The words “good job” are hollow since they lack specificity. “Good job” doesn’t automatically lead to replication. Rather, specific feedback helps children do “that thing” (you are recognizing) again and again.

Over a decade ago, Jen Serravallo stated that teachers should aim for compliments to be about a paragraph of speech. Despite the fact that paragraphs can be varying lengths, I try to keep my compliments between four to six sentences, which I think is a robust paragraph. During the compliment, we take the time to notice one thing the child is doing as a writer. Many times kids don’t know what they’re doing well, so we make note of the strategy we noticed the child using in their writing.
Here are some ways to provide writers with positive feedback (Shubitz and Dorfman, 2019, 98) when you begin a compliment.

  • 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…

Be careful not to gush if you’re dealing with a student who is uncomfortable with praise. Notice or see what the child is doing as a writer rather than stating what you like or love about their writing. Stay focused when you compliment by naming the student’s strength with specificity and precision. Then, move on to teach them something to make them a stronger writer.
In an interview I did with Carl Anderson last year, I asked him about the importance of giving feedback to students on their emerging strengths. He said:

We preface our conference teaching points by giving students feedback. The best kind of feedback isn’t about something random that we’ve noticed that the student is doing. Instead, it’s a combination of naming what the student already understands about doing the writing work she’s doing, and then what she needs to learn in order to do that work better. This kind of feedback gives the student the message that she’s someone who has some strength as a writer, a strength that she can build on by trying out what we teach her in the rest of the conference. I think it’s important to keep in mind that students learn better when they feel we see them as people with some strengths already!

It’s important to build on the positive feedback a student receives after you compliment them. Refrain from starting the teaching portion of your conference with the word “But…” Using the word “but” makes anyone feel as if all the good stuff you just told them is negated. Instead, transition from the compliment to the teaching portion of your conference by saying something like, “You’re already doing this work well so I want to give you another tip.” Most kids are going to be receptive to another tip (even if it’s a writing strategy) after you took the time to notice something they’re doing well as a writer.

If you have students who are new to writing workshop who aren’t used to receiving compliments from teachers, then it might take a several weeks — or months — until they become comfortable with receiving positive feedback. Remember, just because a child doesn’t look at you when you’re sharing positive feedback doesn’t mean they don’t hear your praise. Keep sharing positive feedback and, eventually, it will be more readily received.