Ubiquitous at best. Overused and cliché at worst. Nevertheless, I was hooked. I started to notice it everywhere. I’d say “great” when a student offered a response; “great” when she really dug in and started working; “great” on the margins of papers.
All over the margins of papers. But because I was using it to describe everything, I wasn’t saying anything. Our feedback, our praise, our gentle nudging is most effective when we are deliberate with our words and precise in our communication. And once again, I learned a valuable lesson from paying attention to the kind of classroom data that helps me change my practice: student work. Upon reviewing my feedback on student work, I noticed I needed alternatives to my “go to” praise if I wanted it to matter.
Even though I’d come up with alternatives, there was a catch to using them. The real reason I would too often default to “great?” I could say it and offer the illusion of feedback. I noticed — especially when contemplating the comments I’d left on the margins of papers — how much more time it took to go beyond saying something is “great.” And I don’t mean the actual writing of the comments, I mean the time it takes to think about that sentence, that idea, that writer. So when I look at this list of 25 phrases, I don’t just see replacements for the word “great,” I see catalysts. These are my reminders of what I can look for in the story of the learner in front of me.
Take a look at mine, and then share some alternative phrases of your own. I can’t wait to hear what YOU will add to this list!
When I’m really thinking: It’s great that you’re showing new thinking.
- “Your brain is working hard!”
- “Tell me how you thought of this.”
- “How would you explain this to someone who just walked into our classroom?”
- “What makes you proud of this work?”
- “Kiss your brain!” (from Melissa Porforio, 1st grade teacher).
When I’m really thinking: You need to know there’s something special here.
- “That’s exceptional!”
When I’m really thinking: This is very impressive, but I need to keep pushing you.
- “What does this make you curious about now?”
- “What do you want to learn next?”
- “Where was your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?”
- “What would you revise, re-think, or re-do?”
- “Where do you grow from here?”
When I’m really thinking: I want you to have to think about my feedback.
(These alternatives build on the work of Katherine Bomer, who uses the phrase “long language” to describe the kinds of feedback that embed metaphor or descriptive language into the comments.)
- “Your thinking here is so precise, it’s like a hot knife on butter.”
- “Your effort reminds me of great runners. They always run through the finish line, never just up to it.”
- “Your strategy in solving this problem would outwit a Google engineer.”
- “Your ingenuity in this project would make a jazz musician proud.”
- “Your curiosity reminds me of the joy of watching young children play.”
When I’m really thinking: You have just blown me away!
- “I need to write this down. I don’t want to forget what you just said!”
- “When did you realize there was some special thinking going on here?”
- “There are adults who wouldn’t even think of this.”
- “You need a wider audience. Who else should we share this with?”
- “I just sent your parents an email. They need to know you blew me away today!”
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.