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The Power of Compliments for Writers

In the age of distance learning, does this sound familiar?

“My kids aren’t writing as much as they did in the classroom.”

“Writers aren’t trying any of the strategies I’ve taught them.”

Many teachers I’ve worked with have shared these sentiments when working with their writers online. While there may be various factors that have led to these things happening, one strategy we can use to help support our writers is to ensure we are giving the kind of feedback that will push them forward.

You have to ACCENTUATE  the positive.

In Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins remembers a quote her brother had on his bulletin board, “I can live three months on a good compliment.” The power of the compliment is an excellent reminder for us as writing teachers. We know from our experiences, along with research, that the right compliment can produce positive emotions, promote agency, and motivate us to keep going.

So what makes a compliment a “good” compliment — one that our students will be able live on for three months?

  1. It’s specific.
    We name what the writer is doing and why it’s important. This way, they can keep doing that thing and build upon it. Here’s how it might sound, “The way you used realistic dialogue, using words your characters would really say, helped me understand how the characters were feeling in that scene.”
  2. It’s about the process, not the person.
    Researchers such as Carol Dweck and others have found that when we give praise such as, “You’re a good writer,” children will later have a more negative view of themselves and their abilities when given challenging tasks and are less likely to persist. So instead of “You’re a good writer,” name something specific the writer did. See number one above for an example.
  3. It’s not about me.
    If I had a nickel for every time I used the phrase, “I like the way…” in my earlier teaching years, I would be retired in Tahiti by now. By making my compliments about me and what I liked, I was inadvertently sending students the message that the goal for doing things was to please me. I was also attaching a judgment to what they were doing, even if it was positive. Students could fill in, as Peter Johnston says in Opening Minds, “the other side of the conversation and infer our disappointment when they are unsuccessful.” Instead of starting with “I,” start compliments with “You.”

    It could sound like this, “You’re the kind of writer who uses energetic verbs like ‘dashed’ and ‘leaped.’ I could feel the frantic movement of the characters as I was reading.”

Meet me in St. Louis — or on Zoom

How do we give these compliments to our writers? As you know, face-to-face feedback is better than voice feedback, which is better than written feedback.

  1. If possible, set up your writing workshop synchronously in the same way you would in your brick-and-mortar classroom. When students write independently in breakout rooms or in the waiting room, you can make a plan to meet with students individually, in partnerships, or in small groups.
  2. Set up a schedule at a specific time of day to meet with students. Choose a consistent time to make it easier on your students and their families and for you.
  3. When it’s impossible or challenging to get face-to-face time, use apps such as SeeSaw or Flipgrid that allow you to record a video of your feedback. You can also use the Chrome extension mote to leave voice feedback on Google docs.

Teachers, we can’t eliminate the negative. Still, maybe as you focus on giving powerful compliments, you’ll be able to get your students writing with more volume, more agency, and especially more JOY.

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