Monday, January 18, 2010

How to Teach the Six Traits of Writing

The Six Traits of Writing is an assessment designed by teachers and administered through Northwest Regional Education Laboratories. Many years ago, a group of teachers studied hundreds of pieces of student writing to determine the traits of quality writing. Six traits emerged: ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, voice, and conventions. An analytical assessment was designed and the Six Traits was born.

Fast Forward to Today

Formal Six Traits training teaches teachers how to assess and score papers, as well as a how to teach the traits. Teachers are taught to spend chunks of time on each trait. There is a benefit to spending time with each trait, but I propose spending time with the Six Traits within genres.

Students need to apply what they learn in the Six Traits to a variety of genres, so they understand that all writing pieces exhibit the traits. Our students need to strengthen their word choice in nonfiction, as well as fiction. Words choice in nonfiction looks different than it does in fiction. Students can learn how to improve the quality of their writing by strengthening the traits within specific genres.

The Basics Steps

Your curriculum guidelines determines the genres you teach, or you may be one of the lucky few who gets to choose the genre best suited for your students. Decide on a genre to study, and then collect professional and strong student examples to use as models. Analyze pieces of writing for all of the traits (this is assuming you've spent some time introducing each trait beforehand), and the organizational text structure. What are the critical attributes of the the genre?

Model brainstorming an idea for writing within the genre. Prewriting can include "thinking", so "think out loud", and show students how you write notes as you are thinking your way through the piece. Writers do this differently, and the genre often determines how writers approach the prewriting stage.

Model drafting a piece, focusing on organization. You must consider the lead, transitions, conclusions, and the text structure. The organizational text structure is critical to the genre. Take your draft and model revising word choice and sentence fluency. Voice naturally follows. Correct conventions along the way, and model a final edit of conventions before creating your final copy. Type up your final copy and distribute it to your students. Allow your students to assess it using the Six Traits. Follow the same procedure again working together on a shared writing piece before releasing students to write their own paper.

As students work on their own piece, teach mini lessons in the traits. Choose specific objectives based on your curriculum and student need. Ask students to apply their learning within their paper. Teach grammar within word choice, and spelling within conventions.

An Example in Fiction

Fiction requires the study of plot, characters, and setting. Study pieces of fiction as readers before attempting to write fiction. Students need to understand how to put together a simple plot, how to create vivid characters, and how the setting is integrated throughout the story. Collect a text set of fiction picture books with strong plots, characters, and setting. Spend time analyzing the books and identifying the attributes of fiction.

Once students understand at a deeper level how fiction is put together, begin introducing the traits within the fiction genre. Each time you read a book together, think about where they author may have gotten the idea. Start a list of places to find ideas on chart paper, and continue to add to the chart throughout the unit.

Fiction writing is organized by plot structure, but there are different patterns students can discover in fiction. Common patterns include transformation stories (the character changes in the story), circle stories (the story ends and begins in the same place), back and forth stories (there is a back and forth struggle throughout the story), and copy cat stories (one character attempts to "copy" another character).

Fiction provides a wonderful opportunity to explore word choice. Punch up your noun and verb lessons, and teach literary devices. Find examples within fiction stories to use as models. Kicked up word choice creates a stronger voice. Take it up a notch by focusing on sentence fluency. Read aloud examples of how authors slow down or speed up text through the use of short and long sentences. Notice sentence beginnings, the structure of longer sentences, and how authors mix up sentence lengths.

Authors edit throughout the drafting and revision process. If they see a mistake, they fix it. Teach your kids to pay attention to conventions in each read through. A final edit requires students to pay close attention to capitalization, usages, punctuation, and spelling.

The Difference in Nonfiction

The procedure for teaching writing in nonfiction is the same as it is in fiction, except this time you are focused on a different organizational text structure. There are different types of nonfiction: letters, editorials, news articles, information articles, instructional articles, essays, advertisements, and more. The list is rather long, so take a look at your curriculum and decide where to focus. Gather examples of your nonfiction genre to use as models. Study the structure of the model together and list out the attributes you notice.

In a study of magazine articles you will notice different ways authors organize their writing. Popular structures include: main idea and supporting details, compare - contrast, cause & effect, top ten, and interviews. If you study a variety of structures, then you can allow students to select the structure that works the best for the piece they are writing.

After spending time studying the structure of nonfiction, bring in the traits. Brainstorm a list of things kids know or want to learn. Students generally write better when they write about something they know and love. Now your students can select the best organizational text structure to suit their piece and follow the models as examples. Nonfiction doesn't need to be dry and boring. The days of encyclopedia articles are out, and creative nonfiction is in. This is where word choice and sentence fluency play a role. Apply the same techniques from fiction in nonfiction to create interesting pieces with unique voices. Don't save conventions for last. Edit throughout the writing process and once again at the end.

Assess Writing Using the Six Traits

Teach students how to assess their own writing using the Six Traits. They should learn how to assess and improve their writing by analyzing their pieces. In writing, ultimately the writer makes the decisions. Kids need to learn that all writers assess, revise, assess again, and revise again until they get their pieces "just right". Editors provide another level of assessment, giving the writer an opportunity to see their writing through someone else's eyes. Peer and teacher collaboration provides the "other" eyes for student writing. Reading your own writing objectively is a hard job. Writers depend on their critique groups, beta readers, and editors. Publication in the end is a community effort with the writer acting as the heartbeat.

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