Education Northwest

Getting Started with 6+1 Trait® Writing

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Although there is no one right way to begin the marriage of assessment and instruction in your classroom, what follows are some words of wisdom shared by teachers and schools across the country and world. They are not in any hierarchical order so browse away, select a few that are most meaningful for you and your students right away and go for it.


  1. Become hunters and gatherers of the Traits. Find, organize, and store exemplary samples of Trait-based writing
  2. Identify books and look for trait connections
  3. Browse through student papers
  4. Review some old favorite lessons and activities
  5. Create editing lessons on the word processor
  6. Select strong/weak pairs of student papers to contrast
  7. Yikes! These papers could use revision
  8. Build student writing files
  9. Make writing time a thoughtful, nonthreatening time for students
  10. Let students be the teachers
  11. Philosophical ideas for teaching conventions

Become hunters and gatherers of the Traits. Find, organize, and store exemplary samples of Trait-based writing

As you are working during the day with students and around your building, keep an eye open for text materials that illustrate qualities of the traits--both weak and strong.. Looking from a whole new perspective, search for signs on the way home, displays at the supermarket, and, yes, even your junk mail. Check out cookbooks, letters from friends, greeting cards. Or how about technical writing like manuals, annual reports, maps, and brochures? Ever read a really bad romance novel? Now there's a good example to use for word choice! There are thousands of places you can find examples of the traits–they're everywhere! It would be equally helpful to stay organized by starting and maintaining a Trait spreadsheet showing what you found and where you filed it--drawer, tub, file, cabinet. Once this is started, it only takes a few keystrokes daily to maintain the organization.

Say to yourself, "How does this artifact or sample show something about one of the traits–either in a positive or not so positive way?" Get an accordian-type file folder, label sections by Trait, and begin your gathering process, or get a set of plastic tubs, label them, and place your nuggets in the tubs. Collect as many examples as you can and drop these examples in files/tubs by trait name for use later. Hunt and gather with colleagues--combine your resources. Here's a short list of possibilities:

  • Beginnings, conclusions, or key moments in books or texts; think these out loud with your students as you discover them--turn these discoveries into teachable momoents, then file away for use another time
  • Ideas from other writers on how the process works. There are numerous collections of books that capture authors' thoughts on their own writing process, tips for writing, and words of wisdom for students. They make excellent resources to motivate students!
  • Pick up copies of reflective thinking that you might run across from writers, workers, designers, artists, planners, etc. Use these examples to model with students that revision is a thinking process as well as a pencilI process and that everyone does it in one form or another.
  • Find writing that contains creative uses of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, grammar/usage, and paragraphing. Show students that authors can manipulate the conventions of a piece of writing to enhance the ideas, set a tone, and generally create interest on the part of the reader. The first page of What Jamie Saw, or the piece by Lynda Barry in the anthology entitled "Home" are good starters.

If you see something that catches your eye, but you don't have a use for it right away, clip it out anyway, and file it under the trait you think it would fit. You'll be glad you did later on when you can't remember where you saw that neat example of ... and now you wish you had it! If you file it while you have it in hand, later, it will be EASY to find! (Add it to that spreadsheet for easy retrieval.)

Hunting, gathering, collecting and organizing Trait examples is a great way to begin. You can create bulletin boards of "good and bad word choice" or any trait you want. However, you need more, right? So let's add another twist.
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Identify books and look for trait connections
  • Practice reading passages aloud (for your own fluency, and so kids can hear writing the way the author intended). You'll be amazed at how much more you like the piece yourself when you hear the words come alive.
  • Stop during the reading and ask kids to focus on a specific trait. You could be reading "The View from Saturday," by E.L. Konnisgburg, for example, and stop during the reading to ask students if they are hearing FLUENCY. Or perhaps after a particularly descriptive phrase or paragraph, ask them to recall specific images in their mind (WORD CHOICE). And, when they beg you to keep reading into the next chapter, remind them that the book must have VOICE, or they wouldn't want to keep going. Always link your questions to the traits as a way to reinforce key concepts. Think aloud, make your Trait cognition visible to your students by showcasing aloud passages that highlight various Traits..
  • Listen to other authors read (tapes, CDs, etc.). A perfect example of this is Mem Fox's cassette tape of any of her picture books. When Mem reads them, they come alive. Ask students to capture the way the reading influences their understanding of the idea.
  • Create your own "Book of Books" collection:
    • If you have favorite books, make colored copies of the covers and backs, cut them out, and paste them on a piece of 8½ x 11" paper. Add an explanation of what you liked (or didn't like) about this book. DON'T summarize the story-react to the feelings, emotions, and ideas in the book. Link the traits to your descriptions if you can. After you have 4-5 covers, laminate each page so it is stiff and durable and bind it with a plastic book binding. Before you know it, you have a "book of books" and students have a model of how to create their own. Keep doing this–add magazines, new books, adult and children's anything and everything you are reading. Model for students what readers and writers do to get ideas!
  • Try something new with books. If you love fiction, tell your students you are going to read something different and report back to them how it's going. If you prefer non-fiction, give a good mystery book, romance novel, comic, or other selection a chance. Talk with students about what you are reading, how you like it, and why it is different from other things you usually read.

Not to be a NAG, but one of the most important things you can do to prepare yourself and your students for a successful writing and reading classroom is to READ. They need to feel your joy, excitement, anticipation, agony at being interrupted, and all the emotions that flow when a good book really captures your imagination. Many children have never experienced that magic for themselves. They are not read to at home; they don't consider themselves readers; they just don't know how to go about picking a good book. We can create a generation of readers if we show them how wonderful it is in the world of books–but it starts with you.

Read to students every day, at every age, and in every class. It's not just for fun; it's an essential part of becoming a good writer. No one is too old to benefit from being read to. Having a chance to think about new ideas, people and places through books, stories, magazines, and other print materials is a magical experience for all of us.

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Browse through student papers
You have tons and tons of them, right? You don't have to read every word on every one, just thumb through them and see if you can find an example of one that stands out in a particular trait. Maybe you notice some nice moments of word choice, or an unusual and effective beginning. Put Post-it® notes on those passages with the reason why you picked it–make a photocopy and white-out the name. Or better yet, send home a note or make a call to the family requesting permission to share the paper. Believe it or not, if you don't write down the reason, you may forget why you selected that passage when you look at it later. Look for the lower scoring pieces as well. Kids really appreciate seeing the range of performance that is possible–from the best to the unbelievable

Just think what a help it will be to have authentic samples of work on assignments you regularly give to students. Maybe it's a history essay, a science project, a literary analysis or a group project report. The closer you can get to showing students the target, the better chance they will have at hitting the bull's eye!

  • Find 2 samples—a STRONG and a NEEDS WORK sample—for each trait you want to teach.
  • Think of specific questions to raise for each paper: What's the point you want to make using this particular set of examples?
  • Form a network of colleagues who save papers for each other, so your collection can grow and grow.
  • Plan a meeting time when you can exchange papers, score them, and talk about what you see happening in student writing performance.

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Review some old favorite lessons and activities

  • Which traits do these lessons reinforce?
  • Make new files, or use your tubs created earlier, and copy these tried-and-true lessons and drop them in or ideas to sock away for use later

Everyone has favorite activities. Maybe it is something you developed with a colleague and use as a cross-curricular activity; perhaps it is a unit you developed using a special book or resource material. Think about your files (and I bet you have a ton of them!) and all the goodies that are buried in there. As you find units and lessons that prompt questions such as, "Gee, that always worked so well. Why did I stop doing it?" put a copy of it in a file marked for one of the traits.

As you look at this lesson, run through the traits in your mind. Does this activity help students find interesting things to write about? (Ideas) Does it show students an effective way to sequence or put ideas together? (Organization) Does it inspire students to come up with unique perspectives on topics? (Voice) Does it develop a sense of word stretching or vocabulary development? (Word Choice) Does it give students the opportunity to practice reading aloud, sentence structures, patterns, different beginnings, or rhythms? (Fluency) Or, does this activity build editing skills in a student-friendly way? (Conventions) Does this activity (science fair) lend itself to the Trait of Presentation?

Chances are, if you look at favorite units and activities with an eye for the traits, you will see a direct connection to one or more trait. If you make copies and file these familiar resources and lessons away as you run across them--and new things, too--in a folder by trait, then when you are working with students and decide that you need a skill-building activity or a reinforcement activity for one of the traits, you will have a ready collection. It's all about being organized and building Trait resources. Better yet, the materials will be those you are already familiar with while enhancing YOUR curriculum.
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Create editing lessons on the word processor
  • a specific editing lesson on spelling
  • a specific editing lesson on punctuation: commas and/or periods
  • a specific editing lesson on capitals
  • a specific editing lesson on subject/predicate agreement
  • a specific editing lesson on paragraphing …or …???
  • >
    One of the things that makes Daily Oral Language (DOL) and other similar editing activities so popular is the thought that students are getting regular, routine and systematic practice using editing skills. Notice I say thought because, as most teachers readily admit, students get really good at the DOL practice, but have difficulty transferring the skills into their independent writing. So how do we help with this transfer of learning?

Try this. Focus on one part of Conventions at a time. Take a couple of the DOL sentences, or a piece of writing that you create from the daily activities of your classroom and put it on the computer. One day, give students a copy that is correct in all areas but spelling. That means, all the capitals, punctuation, paragraphing, grammar and usage are correct. Let students edit the text for the one conventions skill, spelling. Then, do another and another. Each time you give them a piece to edit for spelling, add new twists and turns that they have been working on; each piece getting progressively more difficult. A series of 4-5 pieces will work well. Focus, focus, focus on one element of conventions at a time. Next, take the same text(s) and rework it on the computer to have correct spelling, but have a different problem, say capitalization. Students learn to edit for one focused thing at a time. Writing skills can develop over time and they really get a handle on each piece of the big conventions/editing puzzle. This exercise is even more effective if you choose some authentic writing from the classroom--perhaps your own?

See how this builds on Daily Oral Language? Instead of learning a little bit about a whole bunch of complicated things, all in isolation from the curriculum and life in the classroom, students learn to focus their editing on one skill and build toward complexity in one area of conventions at a time. You can create and use text that links to what students are learning, and you develop deep and meaningful editing skills.

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Select strong/weak pairs of student papers to contrast
Another way to teach the traits to students is to teach students to become the assessors. This may well be one of the most powerful ways to motivate students to consider quality, develop a writer's vocabulary, and to create a partnership with you as you work together on writing.

Writing is so big, isn't it? One of the things that students and teachers respond to so positively about using the 6+1 traits is it gives a framework and provides something tangible to hang on to as we wrestle with the complexities of writing and thinking.

So, to capitalize on using the traits as a tool for learning, try sharing papers with students on the overhead that represent strong and weak examples of performance in a trait. Begin with any trait you want. My favorite is IDEAS, because it is the basis for all writing in all content areas, and students need tons and tons of practice in a variety of different modes, content, and areas to begin to get a handle on it.

  1. Pre-select a paper that is very, very strong (5+) in the trait, and another that is very, very weak (1 or 2-). By doing this, you create a contrast and a sense of the range of possibilities that students will see as they learn to assess writing using the traits.
  2. Make sure every student has his/her own personal copy of one of the student-friendly writing criteria. Use one of Education Northwest's or create your own with student help (only create your own version with students who know the traits well from previous years or toward the end of the year when students have worked with the traits quite extensively).
  3. Make overheads or scan into computer for projection using an LCD of the papers and read aloud together as a whole group. Teacher reads papers, students follow along with hard copies at their desks.
  4. Ask students to assess each paper using comments or numerical scores. If the paper is weak, be sure to get specific reasons from the students about why they think it's at the early stage. Ask students to show you in the scoring guide the words that make them select the early stage.Also, ask students to make suggestions for revision on weaker samples. In other words, keep it positive. Every piece of writing can be made better, especially those that are identified at the lower end of the continuum. If the paper is strong, be specific about why--ask for support from the rubric/scoring guide. As a way to internalize the criteria and actively work with criteria, encourage students to use the language of the criteria as much as possible as they defend their assessments.
  5. Create these pairs for practice scoring in each trait, about 4 or 5 pairs of papers per trait. Use the high and low examples until you think students really have a handle on the trait. A good way to check for understanding is to share a paper that is appropriately scored 3 in the focused trait. If students can identify it as a 3, they understand the trait. What an important moment! Students realize and can articulate that a piece has some good qualities and some things that still need work. Now it's time to move on to another trait!
  6. Save these pairs of papers from year to year. The more papers come from work that looks familiar to students--similar assignments, curriculum, content--the more students will learn from this activity. Remember, the goal is for students to continue to improve their writing skills after learning to assess; the more students see work in context that has meaning to them, the better!

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Yikes! These papers could use revision

Select some authentic student papers that are weak and NEED WORK. They can come from things you write as examples, or from work done by students in the past. But, be sure that no one is put in an embarrassing spot by using his/her paper as "Boy, this really needs help!" Working in pairs or small groups, ask the students to:

  • Assess the piece, rubric in hand, on a specific trait or traits (keep it focused)
  • Brainstorm things you could revise. Ask questions about what you want to know that needs to be included in the next version (keep it centered on one trait at first)
  • Work with a partner to create a revised draft answering those questions (keep it short)
  • Meet as a class or in groups of six to share revisions aloud (keep it positive)
  • Discuss what you did to revise (keep it focused on the key trait)
  • Follow-up: Students work on a piece of their own or something out of their writing folders, revising for the same traits(s) they've just worked on (keep it doable!)

This activity is an excellent tool for teaching students how to help each other with revision, and it is a practical application of effective feedback, which Marzano (2001) tells us is critical to learning in any subject.
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Build student writing files
From the very first day your students write, give them folders, boxes, discs, files, something, anything, in which to store their writing. You want to begin encouraging them to collect all of their work in one place so they see examples of drafts, pieces in different stages of revision, pieces created quickly, and pieces that are done over time. There are many methods for organizing such a file. One proven method is to combine three pocket folders into one, and mark each pocket as a different step of the writing process. Prewriting, Draft 1, Responding, Revising, Editing, Publication; then collect away! 3-hole punch a large envelope, include it in this folder, and label it goals; have students write independent goals to be visited and updatead at least quarterly.

Now and again, you'll have to stop and weed out this collection, but you'll always want students to have a nice variety of things to show the range of their writing over the year. No matter what the age, students will be amazed at the improvement they have shown in writing over the course of a year if they keep samples from the beginning of the year and contrast these with work from later on.

To make saving papers an even richer experience, ask students to write a self-evaluation (reflection) at the beginning of the year and set their own writing goals--goal setting another proven strategy for helping students improve their academic skills. Share some samples of good reflective pieces from past students or an example of one you write yourself. As a class, you can talk about the kinds of things that make good writing goals. Not: "I want to write better," but "I want to learn how to pick interesting, manageable topics." Periodically during the year, ask students to look back at their writing goals and see if they want to revise them; keep them in the student's writing portfolio.

It probably goes without saying, but to have good, rich student writing files, you need to provide time for students to write and write often. It's hard to find time for all the things that are important for students to learn to do and do well. Complex tasks like writing and reading are demanding of your talent, expertise and TIME as a teacher and facilitator. Some things just don't get done when you have a rich and full reading and writing curriculum, but the most important things do get done, and done well.
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Make writing time a thoughtful, nonthreatening time for students
We all have writing anxiety. Some of us have learned just to plunge ahead (for better or worse!) and others have decided that writing is too scary and challenging so they just don't do it any more.

Think about the things you could do to make your classroom a "writing-friendly environment." There's no point in creating more tension from that which is natural and normal in the writing process.

Here are some suggestions for creating a friendly writing environment:

  • Build writing centers where students can sit comfortably, talk about and work on their writing
  • Create a climate where a variety of opinions are valued and honored
  • Establish a regular routine which includes writing for lots and lots of purposes
  • Model how hard it is to write, and how scary it can be to share
  • Allow students the freedom to begin all over again
  • Grade only what's important and use good grading practices (that's another whole workshop)
  • READ, read, read to students
  • Conduct a model conference so kids can see how writers think and process information
  • Laugh at yourself when things don't go as planned
  • WRITE, write, write, and think aloud for kids to help them see the writing process through a writer's eyes
  • Have fun, because if you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right!

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Let students be the teachers
You could have a "6+1 Trait Week" in your school where classes are teaching other classes. Kids could sign up for which trait they want to practice and when and where to go to get that lesson. Or, if you are just trying this out for the first time, you can decide just how much time (a day or a week) you and a partner teacher can designate for this peer teaching model.

Maybe one group from your class teaches its lesson to the whole class of younger students. (You'd have to repeat this format seven times so all groups have a chance to share their trait) Or, perhaps the younger classroom is also divided into seven trait groups so multiple lessons could be going on at the same time, e.g., the organization people from both groups meeting together, the two voice groups, etc.

Regardless of whether you organize it to be a short or long activity, students from the older classrooms will have the opportunity to share with other students what they have learned. And we all know that the best way to learn something is to try and teach it yourself, right--reciprocal teaching? The kids will have their own posters featuring each trait; they will have a lesson plan they create to teach someone else a key feature of the trait; they will have a chance to rehearse, reflect, and revise their presentations; in effect, they will have a chance to really show what they know and have learned.

The benefit for the younger class is tremendous, too. These students get a chance to learn about the traits from student writers who will teach them in a way that will connect, kid-to-kid. They'll get to know each other, learn from each other, and practice thinking like writers.

For the teachers involved, you'll get a fresh perspective on just what the kids understand and where things are still fuzzy. And the greatest bonus of all: you'll probably get some wonderful new ideas for lessons for future classes!

Here's another twist on the same idea ...

Have your students, no matter what age, prepare lessons on the traits to teach to parents and the community. Set up a "Writer's Night" at your school and advertise it widely. Invite everyone to come and learn about the exciting new ways that students in your community are learning to assess and improve their work. Be sure to invite the school board, the superintendent, your local school committee, your next-door-neighbors, your dentist–anyone you can find! Tell them to bring their kids! Make the night user-friendly.

  • Set up stations in your gym or multi-purpose room where students can be teaching lessons on different traits
  • Create a handout of all the traits and just a little background information so participants have the big picture as they browse through all the different writing activities and stations. Make sure the kids write this handout so parents can see how involved their kids are in the writing process.
  • Make a map of what things will be happening where and at what times so participants can plan their evening. Organize it so that a participant can attend at least two of the writing sessions and get a good feel for the different qualities of the traits.
  • At the close of the evening, bring everyone together for a celebration of writers! (Food and beverage are essential!) Perhaps your kids will have prepared a skit or a song to commemorate the event. Or you may want to have time for participants to ask a panel of students some questions. However you decide to close, make sure the students get their deserved recognition.
  • The day after "Writer's Night" have a meeting with the students involved and ask for their suggestions and ideas of how to make this event even better the next year. Keep these notes! They will be rich with detailed, specific, and pertinent information.

Don't forget to invite the press–newspapers, TV, and radio. Let's be sure that our communities have a good chance to see for themselves the incredible quality of the writing program in their schools!
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Philosophical ideas for teaching conventions
  • Require students to edit their own work; okay to edit their work for them occasionally and only in their presence.
  • Teach proofreading correctly-one type of error at a time.
  • Assess to learn, not to judge. Understand the nature of the problem before attempting to solve it.
  • Work with what's there, not just with what's missing. Solve problems by building upon student strengths.
  • Seek to model, not just to correct. Provide models for students instead of only corrections.
  • Provide tools, not rules. Provide useful and specific advice to students on how to solve common problems in the form of criteria-based recommendations (found on rubrics), not formal rules.
  • Think process, not product. Introduce students to a wide variety of processes that will lead to success, as opposed to forcing students to create products.
  • Praise the effort, not the results. Establish a system of rewards (including grades, where appropriate) based primarily on effort and progress, not on perfection.
  • Adopt an overall approach to handling errors that is consistent with current research on how the brain works and how human beings learn.

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Attribute: Compiled from the shared wisdom of classroom teachers and researchers.

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