Activities for Demonstrating the Traits of Writing
Instruction and mini-activities for teaching the Six-Traits writing model
- Grades: 6–8
I can remember being a student in middle and high school, and the teacher returning an essay smeared in red ink with so many notes, I did not know where to start. At that time there was not a common vocabulary when discussing the assessment of writing. You just received a score, and that was it.
I have used the Six-Trait writing model in my classroom for several years and it is an effective way to teach and assess writing in all subject areas. Whether students are writing an essay in language arts class, or a lab report in science class, the teacher wants the response to have the correct content, be organized, have voice, and most have good conventions. I am going to focus on four traits: ideas, organization, voice, and conventions. I emphasize these traits to my students because our state standardized test, PACT (Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test) requires students to write an extended response, and they are scored using those four traits.
Before I review the traits with my students, I have my students brainstorm the topic, "What do Teachers Look for in Good Writing" for homework. The next day in class, I split them into groups of three to four to discuss their ideas. Most students do not write the exact names of the traits, but rather the descriptors under each trait. For example, most students will write correct spelling, capitalization, and staying on topic, but that is fine because the fine tuning will come later.
They then complete a poster responding to the prompt, and present their poster to the class. This may sound a bit elementary for middle school students, but they absolutely love designing and decorating their posters. This is also a great pre-assessment to gauge what the students know and do not know about the Six-Traits. Usually most of my students are familiar with the traits, because they have been taught in elementary school. The posters can be displayed around the classroom, and it is more attractive than the Teacher Store posters, because it is actually students’ work. This activity leads into a discussion about the traits.
I begin my review of the traits by presenting a brief, simple PowerPoint to my students detailing each trait and its importance. I explain that we will discuss each trait in detail, and complete activities and writing assignments for all four traits.
- Ideas – topic supported with relevant details.
- Organization - order makes sense: introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion, and transitions are smooth.
- Voice - text makes you feel some type of emotion: laughter, crying, anger; without voice, it is usually boring.
- Conventions - spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar/usage.
I love to teach mini lessons with each trait and I focus on one trait at a time. I give students the Student Friendly Scoring Guide. You can see a writing example with the scoring guide (PDF). They use the guide to discuss and score writing samples, and to assist them revising their own work.
Next, we review strong and weak examples of the trait in a piece of writing. Students love to critique their peers’ papers. I keep papers from year to year, and simply white-out the student’s name, and scan or make a transparency. I try to be sure the papers are interesting and noticeably strong or weak within a specific trait. When we discuss the paper as a class, I draw a chart on the board and write students’ responses. Most students automatically zoom in on convention errors. It’s important to remind them about the trait you are working on, because they tend to notice everything else but that particular trait. I also review and assess papers frequently so students will get used to the process and learn how to evaluate their own papers.
Ruth Culham, the Six-Traits guru, was a speaker at a teachers writing conference I attended and she was awesome! The Hickory Chair, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, was read to the attendees and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. My students enjoyed it just as much as we did.
Materials: The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, board, markers
- Students to pretend they are authors and write a story about a chair. Brainstorm a list of questions about what they would need to know about the chair in order to write the story. Most students will respond, "What type of chair, how does it look, what is it made of, and who does it belong to."
- Read The Hickory Chair to your students — it’s a tearjerker!
- Discuss the main idea of the book. Ask if is it really about a chair or does the chair symbolize something. The chair is a symbol of love between the grandmother and grandson.
- Discuss an object that symbolizes something in your life. For example, I share a story about a ring I wear that my deceased mother gave me and how it keeps me connected to her at all times.
- For homework, ask students to brainstorm ideas about special objects in their lives that are symbols of love, friendship, or special relationship.
- Allow time for them to discuss their objects with a partner or group
- Students are expected to write a story or essay using their object as a symbol of something important. You will be amazed at the responses you will receive.
- Ask students to share their stories with the class; some students will bring their object in, which is great too.
- Students write directions from their home to the school using MapQuest on the computer to check their directions.
- Cut a difficult reading selection into strips and have students order the strips correctly (introduction, details, and conclusion). Make this activity a competition by splitting students into groups and rewarding the group who finishes first.
Materials: Two or three recordings of two distinctly different singers. Try to find contemporary music that students can relate to. Two different genres work well, such as country singer, Dolly Parton, and R&B singer, Alicia Keys.
- Play a bit of each singer.
- Discuss the differences in their voices and style of singing.
- Play a third selection and ask students to explain how they can tell which singer it is.
- Discuss how singers have their own individual voices.
- Relate this to writing by explaining that authors have their own styles also. For example, read and compare/contrast the voices of the two authors Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stein.
Materials: Samples of unedited student and teacher work, pencil, highlighter
- Students edit a piece of your work — they love it! I always have my students read and edit my weekly blogs. Their comments are insightful and helpful.
- I recently learned this at the writing conference. Have students collect fairly short pieces of their writing such as a journal response or response to a piece of literature in a folder. As a get started activity, have them choose a piece from their folder and edit it just for spelling or just for punctuation. (During the conference, Ruth Culham emphasized that teachers give students entirely too much to edit. I reflected on that and it is definitely true. Now I chunk editing and peer-editing assignments.)
- Students edit a longer piece such as an essay by chunking the introduction, body paragraphs, or conclusion.
- 6+1 Traits of Writing by Ruth Culham
- Writing From the Inside Out: Revising for Quality by Vicki Spandel and Ruth Culham
- Trait-Based Writing Skills by Connie S. Martin
- Using Picture Books to Teach Writing with the Traits by Ruth Culham