Education Innovation

A Practical Approach: Strategies and the Six-Traits of Writing

As appeared in Moanalua High School’s Conversations for Learning: Redefining Success Professional Development Conference Professional Journal Reflections III 2003-2004


Human beings have a great need to represent their experience through writing. We need to make our truths beautiful.
- Lucy McCormick Calkins -

In the November 2003 NEA Today magazine, Gwendolyn H. Middlebrooks, an associate professor of education at Spelman College in Atlanta, expressed the concern that, “while high school academic records may be impressive, these first-year college students have difficulty functioning as independent learners.” As a high school teacher, the article raises important issues facing education today—developing “multiple high-level cognitive tasks such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation;” skills which “many [college freshmen] seem ill-prepared…” and how it has become increasingly significant that “high school students must hone their [critical] thinking skills.”

For the first time since students started taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a step toward college, the SAT board is preparing to administer an essay component in 2005. University of Texas at Austin president Larry Faulkner adds, “…the ability to write [is] very closely connected with the ability to think…[he] believes in the power of writing and…[that there is] the need for every student to learn—and every school to teach—better writing skills.” How then does the language arts teacher negotiate this divide? How do we better prepare students to address such tasks? These concerns, initially recognized in our own student’s struggle to clearly articulate their ideas in an essay, prompted such inquiry.


Writing is perhaps the purest form of communication—it sits there in black and white for all to view and re-view. E.L. Doctorow adds, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” How do we help students begin such explorations? Bridging the gap between student’s ideas and communicating them clearly in an organized format becomes the challenge. And ultimately, “to express the most difficult [ideas] clearly and intelligently is to strike coins out of pure gold.” (Geibel) Therefore, the driving question: “Can the six traits positively affect student writing?”

SIX-TRAITS– “Going for the Gold Coins”

(Based on one week = two 60-minute blocks + one 80-minute block)

Essential Questions students should be able to address:
What are the characteristics of good writing?
How do I write effectively to convey my ideas more clearly?

General Learner Outcomes:
GLO 1: Self-Directed Learner - ability to be responsible for one’s own learning
GLO 2: Community Contributor - understanding that it is essential for human beings to work together
GLO 3: Complex Thinker - ability to perform complex thinking and problem solving
GLO 4: Quality Producer - ability to recognize and produce quality performance and quality products
GLO 5: Effective Communicator - ability to communicate effectively
GLO 6: Effective and Ethical User of Technology - ability to use a variety of technologies effectively and ethically

DAY 1: INTRODUCTION [60 minutes]

Standards: Writing – Attitudes and Engagements 5
Reflects on own attitudes, work habits and products and how these affect own learning and development as a writer.
Recognizes when writing can be used to accomplish own purpose and follows through by writing.
Is self-reliant and accepts responsibility.

General Learner Outcomes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
ASK: “What are the characteristics of good writing?”
Purpose: To dissolve the student concept that grammar, spelling and penmanship are the most important elements of writing
Student volunteer writes responses on the board
CATEGORIZE: as a group, review all the ideas on the board and group similar ones together
TRAITS RUBRIC: Overview of expectations—What are the six-traits of writing?
READ & DRAW: “Lanikai Beach” and create an illustration based on the text
BREAK IT DOWN: Students then identify parts of speech and literary devices* effectively used in piece to make writing more vivid and interesting
FOLLOW-UP: Students write their own descriptive paragraphs
NOTE: *prior to this lesson, students should have already been introduced to and have beginning practice with recognizing literary devices (simile, metaphor, irony, etc.) in writing

DAY 2: IDEAS: [60 minutes]

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
-Ray Bradbury-

Standards: Reading and Literature 4 – Response
Makes a warranted and plausible interpretation of text(s) using information synthesized from sources that represent different perspectives. [Interpretive]
Connects the meaning(s) of text to issues of larger significance. [Interpretive]
Associates interpretations of text to self and links associations back to the text. [Personal]
Analyzes the effectiveness of the author's stylistic choices (e.g., point of view, tone, diction, structure) in conveying meaning and affecting the reader. [Critical]
Makes supported judgments about the underlying assumptions and values represented in text. [Critical]

General Learner Outcomes: 2, 4
IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS : Honing in on ideas that make up the content of the piece
Selecting an idea (topic) – Balance…
Narrowing the focus (focus) – …Not too broad…
Elaborating on the idea (development) – …Not too narrow
Discovering the best support information to convey the main idea (details)
REVIEW : Peer grade own descriptive paragraphs using rubric terminology to comment
SAMPLING (Activity): Introduce and expose students to a variety of writing samples that progress from bad to better. Issue six-traits rubric and allow students to “rate” each piece along with explanations using trait terminology (content vocabulary)
Sample 1 – President Lincoln (terrible ideas, digression)
Sample 2 – President Lincoln (focused on topic, but lacks development)
Sample 3 – 9 th grade student (ideas articulated on one topic throughout a three-paragraph assignment)
Sample 4 – 10 th grade students (ideal)
Stress the importance of QUALITYover quantity—more is not always better.
FOLLOW-UP : Students choose a topic in which he/she is familiar and descriptively write about it for at least three solid paragraphs—show with words, don’t only tell. Remind students to stay on focused on topic throughout the entire writing sample.

STRATEGIES : Suggestions - use the following two methods in alternation to avoid routine homework assignments; a mix of the two methods is also a possibility; keep the expectations reasonable and do-able to motivate students.
Literature Logs :
Students pull appropriate quotes from a text focusing on a particular themes and also notes page numbers and theme in the left-hand column (each entry can be on a different theme); three to five solid entries are ideal practice
On the right side, students explain why this particular quote/event/evidence supports the theme. Stress the fact that students should be answering “why” or “how come” the excerpt is representative of theme. The purpose is to develop interpretive skills in smaller “chunks.” Comments should be approximately twice the length of the excerpted section. As the student’s get more advanced, the teacher can have students also examine use of 3 rd person and active verbs in their analysis, especially with regard to more formal, academic writing.
Levels of Questioning – Bloom’s taxonomy: Students craft questions based on a given text. Usually the assignment requires the creation of three level one type questions, five level two type questions, and two level three type questions; for a total of ten questions. Writing the questions begins the process of analyzing—the teacher has each student share level one questions first. Most students can recognize these types of questions easily. Go around the room and repeat the process for levels two and three. The bulk of the discussion should focus on levels two and three where students have more trouble discerning between the two. Level two questions are textually implicit, requiring analysis and interpretation of specific parts of the text. Level three are much more open-ended and prompt students to make broader connections beyond the text — intended to provoke discussion about an abstract idea or issue. By having student share their own creations, hopefully they begin to recognize the differences between the levels. It is this understanding that becomes the foundation for generating writing ideas—level three questions generate thesis ideas; and level two questions provide support and evidence for those ideas.

Day 3: IDEAS Continued [80 minutes or two 40-minute blocks]

The writer should not follow rules, but follow language toward meaning,always seeking to understand what is appearing on the page, to see it clearly,to evaluate it clearly for clear thinking will produce clear writing.
- Donald Murray -

Standards: Writing – Composing Processes 2
Articulates decisions made about what to say (content) and how to say it (form), guided by a sense of purpose and audience.
Selects significant and authoritative sources to investigate a topic and/or to generate and support own thesis or stance.
Discusses own writing with others to gain new perspectives, explore options for revision, and solve writing problems.
Crafts writing (e.g., developing interesting leads and satisfying endings; using accurate and precise word choices; designing coherent organized of ideas) to appeal to convince readers.
Demonstrates an understanding of good writing from which to judge and improve own writing.
Makes writing public through publication, read aloud, public display.

General Learner Outcomes: 2, 3, 4, 5
Read another person’s paper in the group of no more than three or four students and use the peer response guide to evaluate the effectiveness of the ideas in the paper. The peer response guide provides questions generated from the ideas rubric presented on the first day. Again, emphasize the importance of using rubric terminology.
Have students choose the best paper of the group to share with the entire class.
End discussion with importance of staying on topic and how it adds to the overall effectiveness of a paper.
Modeling - Provide clear expectations for literature log and levels of questioning content by showing samples of good work and discuss why it’s “good”
In small groups, students imitate samples using their own text
Using an assigned text, have students complete a literature log and/or levels of questioning, perhaps allow students to choose which exercise to complete

Day 4: Linking IDEAS to crafting THESIS [80 minutes or two 40-minute blocks]

Words, like glass, obscure when they do not aid vision.
- Joseph Joubert -

Standards: Reading and Literature 4 – Comprehension processes 2
Reads actively by posing questions, taking exception, agreeing or disagreeing with ideas in the text.
Monitors meaning using appropriate strategies (e.g., marginal annotations, graphic organizers, graphic forms, outlines, logs, notes, metaphors, analogies).

Standards: Diversity 6
Uses writing to represent the diverse cultural and social differences that make up society.
Uses writing to consider, explore, and analyze issues of diversity, identity, perspective, and culture.

General Learner Outcomes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Peer grade and share literature log entries and levels of questioning—address the idea of “quality” thought and effort and appropriate and fair grading; allow for student’s to appeal final grades with the teacher, if necessary (“no complaining, just explaining”)
Round robin sharing out with entire class – each student takes a turn to share out a few good literature log entries or level 2 or 3 type questions
Keep focus on each level’s characteristics: 2 = tied more closely to novel in some way; 3 = more global, big-picture connections
What is Socratic seminar? An effective Socratic Seminar creates dialogue as opposed to debate. Dialogue creates "better conversation." As William Issacs states in Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, dialogue is a conversation in which (students) think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others---possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred."
Rationale - The practice of Socratic Seminars teaches students to recognize the differences between dialogue and debate and to strive to increase the qualities of dialogue and reduce the qualities of debate (conversational vs. confrontational)
Conduct a Socratic Seminar (Activity) - students talk about important concepts and thematic questions as related to the literature (novel, short story, drama) to gain a better understanding of multiple perspectives. This seminar has certain rules: teacher as participant only, not as facilitator, no off-topic talking, and participants address the whole group, which creates a comfortable and safe environment.
Teacher-guided discussion should steer students towards shaping ideas from Bloom’s levels 2 and 3 into questions that can be addressed as possible essay topics
THESIS: sentence that makes an argument (opinion); something that must be proved or backed up à “Subject + Attitude (opinion)” statement
In small groups, brainstorm patterns of questions or ideas about literary elements like characters, plot, setting, etc. (How or why the character develops or changes?; Prominent qualities? Function of the character—hero, servant, wise man, antagonist, tempter, trickster? Similar to another character, perhaps a double? Or contrasts another, perhaps a foil? Does the character react in the same manner when confronted by another character or setting?)
Class generates a list of possible question ideas and the teacher then models the transition to thesis while “showing” and “telling” about the process; do multiple examples identifying pitfalls like scope of topic being too narrow, too broad, etc.

Day 5: ORGANIZATION: Establishing the road map [80 minutes or two 40-minute blocks]

Order is the shape upon which beauty depends.
-Pearl S. Buck-

Standards: Writing – Rhetoric 4
Uses or designs an organizing structure that gives coherence to the writing and showcases the meaning. [Form and structure]
Reveals meaning that is significant and/or offers fresh perspectives, ideas, and arguments. [Meaning]
Reveals thinking and reflects a deep understanding of the subject. [Meaning]

General Learner Outcomes: 3, 5
REVIEW : Journal Entry
Students write a reflection or assessment on one idea learned from the previous day or one concept that they still found unclear or vague. Teacher collects as a formative assessment and should address at some point during class instruction.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER (Activity): Examining order, structure, and effective presentation of information
Give students pieces of a completed essay (the pieces are cut into strips—be sure students must focus on ideas and not how the paper is cut—and placed in a paper bag)
Ask student to reconstruct the essay based on the content. Purpose: to show that logical order is necessary to communicate ideas clearly.
Handout the organization rubric and explain the importance of structure.

RE-THINKING (Activity):
Give the small groups poorly organized sample essays and ask them to restructure it following rubric criteria. Be sure students can identify areas for improvement but also the rationale for such changes.
Discuss with students how their skills practiced in the literature log commentary section (right-column) and the Bloom’s questions level 2 and 3 help shape their ideas and ultimately structure organization for an essay.
Ask students to bring in a sample of well-organized writing of any type—newspaper articles, essays, magazine articles, novel excerpts, etc. Sample must be accompanied with a paragraph discussing its effectiveness focusing on organization.

Day 6: VOICE: Finding tone, emotion, audience and individuality and WORDCHOICE (a.k.a. diction) [80 minutes or two 40-minute blocks]

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
-Mark Twain-

Standards: Writing – Rhetoric 4
Uses a voice and style that are appropriate to the subject and purpose. [Voice]
Projects an individual stance through a clear and confident voice. [Voice]
Crafts language to suit the message, audience, and purpose. [Language]

General Learner Outcomes: 1, 2, 4
REVIEW : Share out samples. Reinforce the idea of clear and purposeful organization.
SAME SONG (Activity):
Play both versions of the song “Heaven”
Bryan Adams first—discuss voice/tone
Techno version—again, discuss voice/tone

STYLE ALL YOUR OWN (Activity): How you say it is just as important as what you say.
Provide samples of humorous writing—explain that humor is only one voice style
Ask students to describe a situation from multiple perspectives. For example, letters to the editor on dress codes from a student’s point of view, or a parent’s, or the retail store’s, or an administrator, etc.—think audience, for whom are you writing? The purpose is to show how writers convey meaning by manipulating tone and words. The words need to reflect the speaker.
Bring in a bag full of different types of objects or pictures
Ask students to “SHOW DON’T TELL” what they see
Examine rubric descriptions
Mini-lesson on connotation (suggested or implied meaning) of words—i.e., house vs. home and denotation (literal meaning); incorporating details, vivid verbs, and unity between paragraphs
Share out paragraphs, again addressing rubric criteria
FOLLOW-UP : Write a eulogy on the death of their favorite plant, bike, computer, etc. Tone needs to be mournful, sincere, and endearing, or sarcastic, biting and witty. The two options give students the opportunity to explore their voice style. If they would like to come with their own style, allow them the mess around with the concept of tone. Suggestion: do not allow students the “easy” way out by eulogizing something close to their heart—the point is to stretch them in this exercise. Focus should also be placed on precise, appropriate, and purposeful word choices.
Word Pictures handout—a focus on figurative language and its effects/impact on meaning

Day 7: SENTENCE FLUENCY: Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.(William Strunk, Jr.) and CONVENTIONS & PRESENTATION: Spelling mistakes, typos, mistakes in idiom, unfashionable usages, all these characterize you as a writer controlled by language rather than [you] controlling it…These revelations of self don’t usually obscure ideas, they obscure you…[revealing] that you have not paid attention to your own writing and invite the reader to respond in kind.(Richard A. Lanham)

Standards: Writing - Conventions and Skills 3
Shows strong control over a wide range of standard writing conventions and use them with accuracy and consistency.

General Learner Outcomes: 6

REVIEW : Share out eulogies; discuss rubric elements
SING A SONG (Activity):
Start with a song and ask students to listen to the rhythm and cadence of the music.
Go back to their descriptive writing paragraph from the “Lanikai Beach” lesson.
Have the students count the number of sentences, then number of words per sentence—hopefully they will notice the variety, or lack thereof, in sentence lengths.
Now review their ideas paragraph and eulogy—do the same as with descriptive paragraphs—again, focus on sentence fluency and correctness
ASK: “Does your writing have flow, coherence, and unity?”
Chunking: The House on Mango Street practice à writing interpretive statements for each vignette
Discuss in class the characteristics of interpretation
Read sections of the text, then ask students to write, using no more than three sentences, an interpretive statement
Discuss how their interpretations measure up to the criteria
Modeling: Teacher uses student samples to address the following: (verbalize the thinking process as you model)
Eliminating linking verbs, Using active voice
Integrating commentary with concrete details

Culminating Task:

Each day’s plans ends with mini-formative tasks as the unit was planned with skill building as the objective. However, teachers may use this unit in preparation for writing a multi-paragraph essay based on various literature as a comprehensive summative assessment as well.



Good writing is clear thinking made visible.
- Bill Wheeler -

Writing is one of the most difficult content standards to address effectively, and our students continue to struggle with expressing their own ideas clearly in written form. As language arts teachers, it is imperative that we create a myriad of opportunities for student to become more writing proficient. This unit structures the writing process where students can comprehend it in easy to digest, bite-size fragments. Differentiation can be implemented to reach all levels of writers and naturally lends itself to mini-workshops to assist students in the refining individual traits. Also, students should not be evaluated on their ability to incorporate every trait of writing each time they write. This recursive process of focusing on individual traits one at a time eliminates some of the anxiety associated with writing.

This year, I introduced Bloom’s levels of questioning then phased in writing effective literature logs. Once students began to comprehend the differences between each question level, the quality of literature logs improved too. Students initially became frustrated with interpreting and analyzing, slowly recognizing they were only summarizing instead. Creating opportunities for students to examine the critical thinking process through constant dialoguing between students and teacher about the characteristics of completing the exercise correctly and understanding the “why’s” and “how’s” of incorrect responses help students develop confidence and hopefully achieve eventual success. With each of my junior intensive classes, in a few dialogue sessions, students began to demonstrate some measure of progress. Addressing such higher-level skills takes time and patience, and a whole lot of practice.

Though many language arts teachers despise, and yes, despise becomes the accurate term after you’ve spent hours tediously commenting on essays by providing “constructive criticism,” effective, concrete feedback is a necessary part for student learning. The grading, revising, and re-grading helps them begin to identify areas for improvement; however, comments alone are not enough. In order for students to see the critical connections to make positive change in writing, repeated modeling and one-on-one dialoguing needs to occur. Last year, my California advanced placement student performances exemplified such success with their timed writings. Implementing the “Intent to Resubmit” form is an idea worth further exploration. Whether it’s revising just a single paragraph or the entire essay, it gives students the opportunity to re-connect with their writing, applying the commentary and feedback. Moreover, a dialoguing process that involves active interaction between teacher and student enhances skill building and self-efficacy. Such triangulation—conversations, models, and individual practicing, editing and revising—reinforces learning.


In this growing global economy, students must possess strong written communications skills. Individually, teachers can begin by providing students multiple opportunities to write in a variety of genres and for a variety of purposes. Ultimately, the goal would be for language arts departments to establishing grade level specific writing curriculum. If a writing handbook with common terminology followed a student from elementary to secondary school, each teacher would be better prepared to offer more comprehensive assistance. We ask students to tap into prior knowledge- why not assist teachers with prior knowledge of student achievement? With a clear starting point, we can only advance in a positive direction. Continuity and reinforcement remain vital to such success.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory - Portland, OR


Culham, Ruth. 6 + 1 Traits of Writing. New York: Scholastic. 2003.

Fellers, Ben. “Diploma means little, groups says.” 10 Feb. 2004. 10 Feb. 2004

Mcgee, Patrick. “Educators praise addition of essay to SAT in 2005.” 07 Feb. 2004. 10 Feb. 2004.

Safire, William, and Safir, Leonard. Good Advice on Writing: Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1992.

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