January 4, 2018

How to Introduce the 6 Traits

Learning more about our 6-Trait online graduate class?

This article was originally published by the Writing Teacher, a fine blog that is no longer online.  I retrieved the article using the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive Project.  Lessons Learned! Always keep a back up copy of your work.  Many thanks to the Internet Archive project for attempting to back up the entire Internet!  This version of the article has been refreshed with additional resources.

Dennis O'Connor teaches online at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and has 42 years of experience as an elementary and middle school teacher, a professional development trainer, and online instructor and designer. As a district Language Arts Coordinator he organized teacher training in the writing process and Traits Writing Model. His online graduate course, Teaching and Assessing Writing with the 6-Traits has been engaging students via the internet for 16 years. In addition to teaching and consulting, he maintains several invaluable websites:

I have taught 6-traits assessment and writing on the Internet since the turn of the century. Before that I developed a writing workshop with a technology enabled blend of writing process and traits. Most of my students were 7/8 mixed classes in a block schedule. I was fortunate to have the same students two years in a row. The blend of writing process and 6-traits instruction produced remarkable results, in the classroom and on the state mandated writing test. Online, I have shared what I learned in the classroom with hundreds of dedicated teachers as they create writing workshops empowered by 6-traits concepts.

Establishing the writing process as the basis for instruction.

It's always writing process first, then the traits. Traits and the writing process fit together naturally. The writing process provides a path to a young writer. The traits are the touchstones on the path.
The pre-writing phase of the traits is the perfect place to hammer home the importance of Ideas. Help young writers generate ideas with any number of brainstorming techniques. When the right topic and information has been generated, you'll see a writer light up.

Drafting helps the writer apply organization, word choice and sentence fluency to the first rush of ideas and voice.

Responding is enhanced by a traits based vocabulary that sharpens and enhances revision. When students understand the language and criteria of traits, they have a variety of ways into the revision process. Simply checking conventions and making a neat copy gives way to revision based on all the traits.

Multiple response sessions may be needed, since you'll want to limit the response to one trait at a time. Too much feedback will only confuse a writer. It's always better to keep the feedback short and focused on one strength and one area for improvement.

Editing for conventions helps prepare the piece for formal assessment and publication, which ends the writing cycle.


Where do I start teaching the 6 Traits?

Introduce traits sequentially:

  • Ideas
  • Voice
  • Word Choice
  • Organization
  • Sentence Fluency
  • Conventions
This order of presentation isn't set in cement. If there is a particular trait you are comfortable with, start there. I start with voice in my online class. Many teachers struggle with this trait, so I make understanding the concept of voice the foundation for the class. However, in a face-to-face, K-12 classroom, the trait of ideas is a logical place to start, as generating ideas is the first step in the writing process.

How much time do I spend teaching the 6-traits?

You can spend the entire year working with the writing process and the 6-traits and never exhaust the possibilities. Of course, you have to adapt your planning to meet the realities of your classroom. That said:

  • Quick overview introduction: 6 short lessons, one for each trait.
  • Introduce one trait at a time.
  • Introduce and teach all of the traits.
  • Go deeper throughout the year. Schedule 2-4 weeks for each trait.
  • Provide rubrics, 6-traits writing guides and checklists.

Rubric Resources:

First teach the concept, then apply the concept as a trait of writing.

Introduce the core concept of a trait separately from writing.
  • What's the voice you see in a painting or hear in music?
  • Can you recognize fluency in a dance?
  • One more good example
A teacher in one of my online classes introduced organization by scattering desks all around her room. Students walk in and suddenly, they're confused. There's no order! Once students experience the connection between chaos and organization, it's time to explain the concept of organization in writing.

A basic pattern for introducing each trait.

Hammer home the trait's criteria with many small focused lessons, followed by a practice writing period.
  • Compare strong and weak writing examples for each trait.
  • Provide ample practice rewriting weak samples into strong samples.
  • Have students score sample papers.
Consider using online databases of practice papers that provide expert feedback. Have students assess samples for a single trait and then check expert feedback. Students need to practice recognizing traits in anonymous samples many times before they are able to independently use the traits to revise their own writing.

After presenting your traits mini-lesson, write with your students. As you write, you will show your students how important writing really is. Revise your weak pieces using a computer or overhead projector. Use a think aloud technique as you revise for a specific trait. This form of modeling is essential to any writing workshop.

Seize Teachable Moments

If a chance to understand another trait presents itself before you formally introduce it, seize the teachable moment! Quickly introduce the new trait in the context of the current trait. If you have an opportunity to show how finding the right idea fires up a writer's voice with confidence and enthusiasm, don't miss it! Say enough about a trait to be appropriate for the moment without getting lost in a tangent. Foreshadowing concepts and vocabulary creates a foundation for the traits concepts to come.

Use 6-Traits Posters

Plaster the walls with traits posters. Keep the concepts and criteria on the walls for ready reference. Sometimes just walking over to the poster and touching it as you talk will set the patter for your students. Soon you will see students glancing at the posters as they work. Constant coaching on the concepts, supported by bullet points on the criteria helps everyone build understanding. Posters that explain the writing process are a good idea as well. Multiple graphics representations of big concepts are always a good idea.


Plan to Teach and Re-Teach.

Each time you introduce the concept of a new trait, refer to the previous trait, while mentioning the traits yet to come. Freely use the vocabulary of traits as you present your mini-lessons. Plan to teach and re-teach throughout the year. Combine mini-lessons with ample writing time focus on the trait. When using sample papers or the practice databases available on the web, focus one trait at a time. Here's the practice pattern:
  • Read the story.
  • Write your traits score and a brief rationale for your thinking.
  • Check your score against that of the experts.
Once the new trait is locked in, repeat the process for each trait you have already introduced. This can be done solo or in small groups. Understanding the traits by scoring and discussing multiple samples works for both students and teachers!


Traits allow meaningful revision!

The ultimate goal of writing instruction is for students to become assessors of their own writing. 6-Traits provides the vocabulary and the concepts teachers and students need to recognize the entry points for revision. Too often, students think revision is just a matter of fixing the sloppy copy. While conventions are important, there are 5 other, equally important traits to consider while revising during the writing process.

It is best to save intense focus on conventions until the editing phase which happens just before the publishing stage of the writing process. Sadly, many young writers freeze when hit by negative feedback on conventions. Those who don't instantly suffer a case writer's cramp may go into a play it safe shell that destroys voice by limiting word choice to only those words the writer can safely spell. By postponing editing until later in the writing process, the writer has time to practice traits application during an extended respond and revise experience.

Patience and Waiting for Eureka Moments

When you first start, you wonder if a six traits approach will really work. You have to commit a lot of time to teaching and writing. This is difficult in test-driven environments where time is short and success isn't always measured by improved writing ability. However, over the course of the first year you will see significant improvement. It will take faith and patience, but doesn't all teaching?

I recall a eureka moment as I listened to previously inarticulate kids from my toughest class speak eloquently about the ideas and voice being shared by their peers. These middle schoolers, who a few months earlier hated writing, were using traits vocabulary to offer supportive and insightful feedback. It is moments like these teachers never forget. These people were writers helping each other.

Contrast the hushed and focused atmosphere of a writing-process-based classroom full of motivated young writers with the groans, protests, and glassy eyed resentment of kids stuck in a test prep system and you'll understand why fighting to create a writing workshop powered by the traits is worth the effort.

Recommended books on the 6-Traits

PK-4 Creating Young Writers: Using the Six Traits to Enrich Writing Process in Primary Classrooms (2nd Edition) (Creating 6-Trait Revisers and Editors Series) (Paperback) by Vicki Spandel. Allyn & Bacon; 2007

Middle School-Adult EdCreating Writers Through 6-Trait Writing Assessment and Instruction (5th Edition) (Creating 6-Trait Revisers and Editors Series) (Paperback) by Vicki Spandel. Allyn & Bacon, 2008.

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