Sunday, June 26, 2016

My "How to" with the 6 Traits

Once we have completed our first baseline and introductory piece of writing, I get started right away with the traits.  First I introduce "Ideas" by explaining that writers need to think about what they want to say or what they want their readers to know.  I share my own idea list from my writer's notebook.  We do a great amount of verbal sharing, and students begin creating idea lists to keep in their writing folders.

We also read lots of books and talk about how we think the writers came up with the idea to write that book.  It's important to share lots of mentor texts and teach the students how to think like a writer.  We talk about the books we read in the context of writing.  I love when there is information included on the back of a book or inside cover that tells more about the author.  Often times it explains where the idea came from for the book.  I want my students to understand that writers get ideas from their own life and experiences.

I also show my students the rubric that we use for "ideas." There are 4 indicators on the rubric:
* I have one clear main idea.
* I have great details to explain my idea.
* My writing stays on topic.
* My writing is focused and not too broad.
I do mini-lessons on each of these indicators.  I use samples of writing from past students, samples from current students (only show the positive), and mentor texts.  I think it is so important for students to have lots of experiences with anchor pieces and models.

After we have learned about each of the indicators on the "idea" rubric, I put students into small groups and give them 3 or 4 samples of writing.  These samples provide a range on the continuum from strong to weak.  I don't tell the students the scores or which pieces are strong or weak.  I have the groups look at each piece, discuss it using the rubric as a guide, and put the pieces in order from weakest to strongest.  We don't actually score each piece, we just want to put them in order.  Then we talk about it as a whole class.  Often times the students have different ideas about which is the strongest piece.  This is fine.  I think it's most important that we have the conversation about what we think.  I want the students to tell why they think a certain way.  When they have to explain their reasoning it gives them an opportunity to really reflect and sometimes revise their thinking.  This is the good part because it helps the students define what they think is "strong" writing.  (I don't like to use the words "good" or "best" when referring to writing.  I prefer "stronger" and "weaker.")

After working with a team to put pieces in order, we then work in pairs to score a different piece.  I give each pair of students the same writing sample. They have to discuss it with their partner and write a final score on the sample.  Then we again, talk as a whole class about what we think.  The more practice the students receive scoring other pieces and discussing ideas, the more comfortable and capable they become in scoring their own writing.

While we are working on learning about "ideas" through mini-lessons and models, the students are also working on writing.  During my writer's workshop time, I usually start with a mini-lesson for the first 10 minutes or so. This is where I am sharing mentor texts and modeling.  Next I give students time to write (and sometimes draw).  This usually lasts about 30-40 minutes.  We always end with sharing time.  I try to vary this as well.  We share with partners, I call on random students, or we do some whole class sharing.  It depends on how much time we have and if I have noticed certain students that I really want to share.  The important thing is that you never skip the sharing.  If the students don't have the chance to share, they will stop writing.  They need to have an authentic audience and purpose for writing.

All of this practice with sample pieces really helps students learn to identify what makes a piece of writing strong or weak.  They learn what to look for and what to do in their own writing to make it better.  By this time, they have had several days of writing and mini-lessons on the featured trait.  The final step is for students to complete one piece of writing and score it for "ideas."

At the beginning of the year, the students usually score themselves very high.  I guess it's good that they are so confident. LOL!  But soon I begin to see a shift in their self scoring that shows me they understand the traits and can identify their own strengths and weaknesses.  This is important because when I am conferencing I can usually start by looking at how they have self scored.

Speaking of conferencing, this is what I do while the students are working on writing.  I sometimes conference with students one on one.  Other times, I have a group of 3 students.  I don't like to have more than 3 at the table at once because I need to be able to attend to each one and provide guidance and feedback.  The more students I have at the table, the less effective it becomes.

Whenever I introduce a new trait, we usually work on that trait for a couple of weeks.  During that time we are doing the mini-lessons that I have mentioned above.  (I may also have mini-lessons on procedural  things woven in there.)  I work with individuals and small groups during the writing time.  This gives me a chance to listen to the students read their writing, ask questions to help them reflect, and provide scaffolds or modeling where needed.  Writer's workshop is naturally differentiated because the students will work at the level they are capable.  My job is to  meet them where they are and nudge them forward.

Once students begin turning in final drafts, I start pulling them to the table in groups of 3.  Each student reads his or her writing to the group.  We then start by looking at how the student self scored on the rubric. (I have them attach the rubric to the draft before they turn it in.)  We discuss whether or not we agree or disagree and why.  The listening students can ask questions of the writer.  When other students ask questions, it helps the writer reflect and see areas that may need revision.  That's another reason it's so powerful to have students share.  The writer may do some revision right then and there at the table or they may decide to take the piece back and rework it at their table.  When the writer is satisfied that his or her piece of writing is "finished", we work in groups of 3 to share and score.  Many times that occurs the first time the student is at the table.  If not, I will pull them back to the table at another time and we'll repeat the above process.

I want the writer to be satisfied and proud of the writing they have completed.  I always focus on positive parts and praise the student for what is strong in the writing.  If a writer's final scores are less than 4's, I ask them if they know what to do to move it to the next level.  If they can tell me, that's great!  If they are clueless, I give them some specific suggestions or show them some models to help clarify.  When conferencing, I keep in mind that I want the student to be able to use the skills and strategies independently.  I want to teach for transfer.  Before a student leaves the conferencing table, I want to be sure they are confident in what they have done as well as know where they are going as a writer.  In other words, they know the next steps.  I will usually ask them, "So what are you going to do now?"
The answer they give tells me a great deal about their thinking.  If a student says, "I am going to go back and work on my bold beginning"  or "I am going to add some sparkly words" I know they are thinking as a writer.  If they say, "I am going to start on a new piece.  I have a great idea that I need to share," I know they are thinking as a writer.  If they look at me and say,"I'm done.  Can I do something else?" we have some work to do!

Basically, I follow the procedure I just explained for each of the 6 traits.   We usually work on each trait from 2-3 weeks.  When it comes to scoring, the rubric builds as we learn the traits.  At first, I only score for ideas.  Then I score for ideas and organization.  Then I score for ideas, organization, and voice…
This makes it less overwhelming to students.  They have the opportunity to build on what they know.  We are usually using all of the traits by Januaryish.

I feel like this post was long and a bit of a ramble.  (Maybe I should score myself and revise it).  Hopefully,  it's not too confusing.  I still have lots to share on the topic of writing!  Overall, I really like the way my Writer's Workshop time is structured.  I am still learning and improving my teaching practices, but I feel like at least there's a solid foundation.

How do you structure your writing time?  Do you use the 6 Traits?  Can you share any successes or challenges?


  1. Writing has always been an area that I feel I don't dedicate enough time to during our day so I can definitely share your struggle. Reading your posts is helping me visualize how 6 traits will look in my classroom. Do you use the rubrics from the book or have you created your own? I am looking for ideas to make the rubrics a little more student friendly for my 1st graders.
    I love that you use a variety of books to talk about how writers get their ideas. I also like to get on some of our favorite authors websites after we've read their books. Some are of course better than others, but many of them have a question and answer section or even videos where the author will talk about how they come up with their ideas and the writing process.

    1. I have created my own kid friendly rubrics. I would love to share them here, but I might have to do some revising before I am ready to do that. I'll work on it for a future post!
      I love your idea about getting onto author websites! This really helps the students make personal connections with the authors. Thanks so much for sharing!