Education Northwest

6+1 Trait® Writing FAQ

  1. How can one rubric address writing across such a wide span of years?
  2. What's the best thing about the traits?
  3. Why aren't all the papers in the practice paper packets scored?
  4. Isn't the 6+1 Trait® Model mainly for narrative writing?
  5. Do I have to assess all seven traits for each piece of student writing?
  6. Doesn't voice assess personality, and should we be doing that?
  7. I've been to an Education Northwest-sponsored 6+1 Trait® Writing Institute. I love all the materials I got, but how on earth do I organize and use them all?
  8. Which trait should I teach first?
  9. Can we divide up the traits to teach year by year?
  10. What if some of my students have already had 6+1 Trait® instruction?
  11. My students assess very well until it comes to their own work. They just don't see the problems with their own writing.
  12. Is there ever a time when the traits come together in student revision?


How can one rubric address writing across such a wide span of years?
The 6+1 Trait® Writing rubric defines good writing, whether you are a third grader or in 11th grade. For the trait of Ideas, for example, you still need a focused idea, supporting details that matter, and a central theme to your writing, regardless of age ... right?

There is a legitimate question, however, regarding the degree of sophistication that is reasonable to expect at different levels of writing maturity. That's why we depend so heavily on anchor papers at regular intervals across the years. If you have good example papers of what a 5, a 3, or a 1 look like at grades 3, 5, 8, or 11, you can begin to see the subtle changes that occur as students develop successful writing strategies. Never forget, however, that a good paper has the same embedded qualities no matter what the age of the writer. Think of it like this: Would you hesitate to give a third-grader an "A" on an assignment if s/he did a great job at meeting the criteria? Do we hold out on the good grades until the student can perform at a high school level? Of course not! Why is this any different than scoring a third-grader's paper with a 5 on one or more of the traits if the student meets the criteria?

Keep these things in mind:

  • Good writing is good writing; it can be noticed and recognized at all ages.
  • It is possible for all students at every grade to get all 5s if that is the true performance level.
  • Benchmark pieces (anchor papers) at different grades and at different performance levels will help you to see the differences in development of the traits over time.

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What's the best thing about the traits?
It's the language, the shared vocabulary, which adds such a rich component to our teaching and assessing of student writing. The traits are really nothing new; that's probably why people like them so much. Educators realize that this is not a trend, a blip on the educational reform screen, or simply a quick-fix way to address the many challenges of a writing program. Students, teachers, administrators, and the community echo the same sentiment: This just makes sense. The traits help students understand what is working well and what needs to be improved in their writing. The traits give teachers a focus for their writing instruction. The traits give us all a common language for talking about and celebrating writing. Rather than a curriculum or a canned program of writing, 6+1 Trait® Writing offers a model of assessment and instruction designed by teachers and based on best practices. Furthermore, the model offers teachers lots of autonomy to select literature, sequence their instruction, and decide how to best meet the needs of this year's students.
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Why aren't all the papers in the practice paper packets scored?
After teachers have scored and discussed the prescored sample papers provided at Education Northwest trainings, we urge them to become independent of thinking someone else must provide "a right answer." In order for the 6+1 Trait® Model to become a meaningful tool in classrooms, teachers must do enough independent practice to trust their own scores and use the rubric as the evidence for why they score the way they do. The more papers people read and assess, the better they get at scoring. When we take the training wheels off (i.e., the prescored papers), the stakes go up a notch and real ownership of the process begins. Now, the scores become defensible, not because some expert says so, but because there is agreement among a group of practiced raters supported by evidence found in a rubric. Discussions need to take place, with participants disagreeing when necessary and always referring back to the rubric to resolve opposing scores. The final step is for teachers to become so confident in their own scoring that they can work independently in their classrooms, providing consistent and reliable feedback to their students.

Scoring is a time-consuming and demanding process. Our hope is that teachers will find the process, as well as the product, so useful they will transfer this kind of thinking to other areas of student work. It takes years for teachers to internalize all that is involved with the trait model, and as with every long journey, we begin at the beginning and then move on.
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Isn't the 6+1 Trait® Model mainly for narrative writing?
Definitely not. In fact, the model was field tested in 1985 on both expository and narrative samples, and the teachers who scored those samples felt the scoring guide worked well for both forms, just as it was designed to do. The 6+1 Trait® Model will work for any prose form of writing (e.g., descriptive, narrative, expository or informational, business, and persuasive). It is not intended for use with poetry. It can also be used to assess technical writing intended for a general audience. If you teach technical writing targeted toward a technically educated audience, you will likely need to modify the language of the scoring guide. To do so, ask: "What things do I value in my students' work?"

The answer might be that idea development shines through in clear and logical expression or organization becomes the logical and instructive presentation of ideas. Word choice may become correct use of terminology, and so on. Also, there may be qualities—traits—that need to be added to the total picture. What's critical is that you share with your students what you feel is important in their work.
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Do I have to assess all seven traits for each piece of student writing?
No! You do what makes sense for the assignment given to the students. For example, you might be working on ideas, organization, and voice for a period of time and only want students to focus on those three traits. Or, perhaps you will want to take it more slowly and work on one trait at a time. The beauty of an analytic system is you can take the pieces apart, examine them, and then insert them back into the larger picture. It is impossible to look at one trait without feeling the impact that other traits have on the piece as a whole, and it can be very useful, for instructional purposes, to look at one, two, or even three traits in isolation as students are learning to recognize what you see in their work.

From time to time, you may wish to assess a piece of student writing on all seven traits for your own diagnostic purposes. Certainly assessing at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year to show progress makes a lot of sense (it can be affirming of all your hard work, too). Periodically, you may also want to assess a piece for all traits to get a sense of how students are doing. How much and how often you assess is up to you and the needs of your students. One of the great things about using the 6+1 Trait® Model is the flexibility you have. Assess for one trait, several, or all: It all works!
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Doesn't voice assess personality, and should we be doing that?
The goal of teaching voice in writing is to help students recognize and craft the tone and flavor most suited for a given audience, purpose, and/or piece of writing. In some cases, this might be a very personal voice, such as in a piece of writing about "My most prized possession.” In other writing, however, such a personal voice might not be appropriate. For example, if a student were writing a research report on frogs, the voice might be excitement: These frogs are unique and do unbelievable things; I want you to think so, too! Or the voice might be characterized by sincerity: These frogs will change the way you think about amphibians, and I want you to trust what I have to say. An author needs to craft his/her voice to match the purpose and speak to the audience, leaving them wanting more.
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I've been to an Education Northwest-sponsored 6+1 Trait® Writing Institute. I love all the materials I got, but how on earth do I organize and use them all?
You can't. No one can. We try to give you everything you might possibly need to breathe new life into your writing program and to provide resources so you have what you need to implement the traits. We try. Not everything will be useful to everyone! Give yourself permission to thumb through it all, marking pages or sections of particular interest. Then, pull out those pages and set the rest aside. As you begin implementation, you may find yourself wanting to go back through the materials for specific pieces of support.

Here's the great part ... you can get rid of stuff you don't need! It may be against your nature, but try it. If you teach high school, you may not want to keep some of the materials for early writers. If you teach 5th grade, specific lessons for a content area that you don't cover can go to a colleague who might use them or into the recycling bin.
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Which trait should I teach first?
We think it makes sense to begin with ideas. After all, this is the foundational trait. Your idea is your whole reason for writing. And at the same time, it’s important for you to know that this decision is yours; if it makes more sense to begin with another trait, give it a try! You are the decisionmaker when it comes to teaching this model of writing instruction.
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Can we divide up the traits to teach year by year?
We are teaching writing, not the traits. The traits are just a tool for teaching writing, a shared vocabulary, and an integral part of the writing process. The process provides the structure for writing instruction, and the traits provide the content. Isolating the traits from each other makes no sense. Students need to see how the traits interconnect as their writing matures. To be fair, it is possible to focus on a trait or two for a longer period of time, but to do so a teacher must have a firm and significant grasp of the writing process so she knows how to insert the trait back into its proper spot once she has finished teaching that focus trait.

Sometimes we use the analogy of learning to drive a car. Would you tell your teenager that this year they can use only the gas pedal, then, next year the brake? And, if that all goes well, by the third year, maybe they can work on steering? Of course not. We're learning the whole complex process of driving at once, with an emphasis now and again on the things that maybe need more work, but never, ever, in isolation. Writing is a much more complex process than driving, so teaching it in isolated pieces and parts won't help students become better writers. People who have tried that method have hit the wall because, in the end, we teach writing—all of it—and it's hard. No easy answers, no silver bullets, but it can be tremendously rewarding for the student and for you!
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What if some of my students have already had 6+1 Trait® instruction?
Great, then they're ready for something more advanced. Try something harder, longer, from another grade level. Pull a piece from an annual report or a tech manual. Assess an advertisement for word choice, or a memo for voice and conventions. Be creative. Stretch your students until they can ably and at length discuss the strong and weak features of any piece of writing you throw at them.

At the same time, don't hesitate to use a piece of writing because some of your students have already read it. How many books have you read more than once? Did you learn the same thing each time? Did you bring the same perspective and observations to each reading? Probably not! Visiting an anchor piece over and over again helps students get at important writing issues that may not surface on a first read.
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My students assess very well until it comes to their own work. They just don't see the problems with their own writing.

Don't despair! Almost everyone is like this, not just students. It takes real, guided, and lengthy practice to become skilled at assessment. Even then, our own work is always the hardest to assess. Why? Because we're attached to it. Therefore, it's important to let students warm up on anonymous samples of other people's writing–work that is not theirs. The skill to spot the strong and weak moments will transfer to one’s own work in time, but it does take longer for some students than others. Don't give up. Keep providing practice–then let students return to their own work.
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Is there ever a time when the traits come together in student revision?
Yes, absolutely. They must. The separation of traits in order to do focused revision by working on one trait at a time is artificial, we admit. We have found it works as a way of making revision manageable for students, who often do not know where to begin—it’s a starting place for revision. Writing process steps aren't really separate either. Prewriting, drafting, and revision aren't really mutually exclusive; we separate the traits in order to make writing easier to understand and practice.

Similarly, real writers do think about organization and ideas at the same time; when ideas are revised, voice can improve; when words are revised, sentence fluency will also change Writing is a unified whole, but thinking about it in components breaks down something very BIG and makes it easier to deal with, especially for less experienced writers. Eventually, with practice, students will come to see many possibilities for revision all at once.
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