Alternatives to Using the Word “Great”

Ubiquitous at best. Overused and cliché at worst. Nevertheless, I was in love. But it was the kind of love affair that reminds me of a July 4th sparkler: you get a quick reaction, but then it forgettably burns out too quickly.  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. Yet another lesson I learned from paying attention to the kind of classroom data that helps me change my practice: student work, my feedback on that work and classroom video was I needed better alternatives to my “go to” word of 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 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.

Of course, I can’t wait to hear what you all 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 Melisa Porforio, 1st grade teacher)

When I’m really thinking: You need to know there’s something special here.

  • “Brilliant!”
  • “That’s exceptional!”
  • “Bravo!”
  • “Amazing!”
  • “Marvelous!”

When I’m really thinking: You’re really 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 is 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 can’t remember the last time someone make me think about _____ this way.”
  • “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!”




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