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The Writing Teacher's Big Advantage - Rediscovering 6+1 Traits Writing System

Updated on November 25, 2008

Over twenty years ago, writing teachers around the country wanted a better way to assess and teach their student writing programs. They bantered with ideas, experimented with scoring systems, and came up with six characteristics that defined common elements in good writing.

That was the beginning of the 6+1 trait system for writing. Finding a system that could be used by all teachers literally everywhere has enabled students to consistently master the elements of good writing. Though not applied in every school district, teachers and districts in every state from primary schools to college levels have successfully used this system. It is successfully being used around the world in places like Australia, Bahrain, China, France, Great Britain, Turkey, and South America. The traits have even been applied to mathematics, science, foreign language, art, music, social studies, and anywhere that writing is used. It is a basic and easy guide for writing and comfortably applied in the classroom. Students readily pick up the 6+1 traits because of its simplicity and its malleability in a variety of situations and models.

The concepts of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation (6+1) can be used in and out of order or broken down to its various parts. Teachers can adapt the trait system to fit their own teaching styles, or their students' learning curve. The 6+1 traits is undoubtedly an extremely useful tool and statistics that show student progress using this system are undeniable. Assessment is streamlined with this system and scoring is universal. Most importantly, student's grasp the concepts because it is applicable for every learning style.

Breaking Down 6+1 Traits Writing

Ideas: Ideas are the bones of writing. Without ideas, there would be nothing to write about. Every form of writing is based on some kind of idea. This article is a perfect example. The idea is that the 6+1 trait system is so useful for teaching, every teacher and student can benefit from its principles.

Ideas are the fuel behind the message. Once the idea is clear, the writer can implement details to convey that idea. This can be broken down in so many ways. Students can read anything and decide what the writer's idea is. It could be a short story, a book, an article, a poem, a blog; anything that is written can be used.

Student's can take their own ideas and decide how they would share that idea. They can evaluate the details in each other's work and pick out the idea. If the student's aren't identifying the idea, how could the writer deliver it differently? If the idea is clear, how did the writer accomplish that?

Teachers can use the concept of ideas to identify the use of descriptive details. How do these descriptors communicate the idea? Are the descriptions obvious, useful, unneeded, definitive, unproductive, or illuminating?

The basic use of ideas can be revisited throughout the implementation of the 6+1 traits because they are what make writing interesting.

Organization: Bones need a brain to function. This is where organization comes in. Ideas that are revealed haphazardly can't constructively communicate the writer's idea. Organization is the system or structure that makes the idea comprehensible. The idea is the big picture. Organization is the idea broken down into building blocks; like the frame of a house. Without the frame pieces, the house will fall apart.

Within each piece of the mini-structure, a writer needs a bridge to cross over to the next piece of structure. The bridge also creates the anticipation for the next piece. Teachers can use any number of analogies to demonstrate the image of organization to help their students grasp the concept.

Again, analyzing any written work and identifying the pieces the writer uses to construct his house of ideas will help students understand the second trait. They can be broken into groups and work together on outside works and each other's.

Teacher's can also use this portion to discuss the various means of organization like chronological orders; comparison and contrast; logical orders; openings, bodies, and conclusions; and the like. Some organizational methods are more common than others. Teachers can take advantage of these different methods by exploring the diverse means of organization and what makes them interesting.

Voice: In keeping with the body parts analogy of the 6+1 traits in this article, the voice is the fingerprint. It is the speaker of the idea, the narrator of the story, the singer in the song.

Voice is perhaps the easiest concept to identify and understand, but the hardest to do. A writer's voice is the personality behind the words, the magic of the idea, the soul of the piece. It is an exposing element of writing and often uncomfortable for students (and writers) to explore.

Copying another writer's voice style is a constructive way to discover how voice works, but eventually the student must find his or her own voice. Engaging your own personal voice should be like speaking. Everyone has a voice and each one is as unique as, well, a fingerprint. Many teachers slide over the use of voice, happy if their students understand what it is, but not pushing them to unearth their own. Some teachers concentrate more on the aspect because it is perhaps the hardest of all traits to master.

Poems are often the best way to find the voice. It could be through standard poems or lyrics. Poems are essentially musical and most students identify with some kind of music. Using poetry to discover voice is like finding the melody.

Word Choice: Word choice is the blood flow or the heart of a composition. It gives life to the ideas and the voice. Using colorful, descriptive, and tasty words allow the reader to visualize the idea. Nutritious, oxygenated words produce energy.

If voice is the hardest concept to teach, word choice is probably the easiest. The English language is overflowing with adverbs and adjectives. Image or pictorial exercises can be used very effectively for finding descriptives. Nouns and verbs can also be very illustrative. Increasing vocabulary is a plus to these exercises, but being able to use common words in a powerful way is also a good exercise. Students can learn that careful and deliberate word choices will give their words a dynamic quality that can be fun and empowering.

Sentence Fluency: This is the muscle on the bones. It allows the bones to function properly and efficiently. It provides rhythm and cohesiveness. Combining the bones, brain, and blood with the muscle gives movement, flow, power, and function.

Just as our muscles operate without us being consciously aware of them; lifting our arms to scratch our heads, walking down the sidewalk, turning our heads; so should sentence fluency. We shouldn't be aware of the sentence. In other words, when we trip, we suddenly become aware of our feet and legs. When our heads bang into the cupboard, we become aware of the turning.

When sentences are constructed awkwardly, it's like tripping. When sentences are far too long, it feels like a marathon and we tire. When sentences don't make sense, it's like falling off our bicycles. When sentences flow, our ears hear it. When we read, we also listen. Our minds give sound to the words. If we aren't listening, we are liable to get blindsided. Taking turns reading good and bad sentences in the classroom is an ideal way to have students start actively listening to what they are reading, and writing.

Conventions: Conventions, or the mechanics of language, are the organs of writing. The organs enable the body to behave or perform properly. Just as organs have to be precise in their function, so do the mechanics of writing. Just as the organs perform specific duties, so do the different conventions of writing.

These are the rules of the language: spelling, grammar, usage, capitalization, punctuation, paragraph placement. Without these rules, the liver might decide to digest food or the intestines may decide to clean the blood. Pretty soon, there's anarchy and the body falls apart. Without the order of the written word, no one can understand what you're trying to say, let alone read it with any accuracy. The most common analogies are the use of street signs. Without a stoplight, cars just crash into each other.

Conventions simply put the reader and writer on the same page, so to speak. Everyone knows the rules, how traffic must flow, how food must be processed, and there's no confusion. And then you can competently convey your idea, your story, your music.

Presentation: For the plus one part of the 6+1 traits of writing, comes the presentation: the skin and teeth and eyes and clothes of our writing. It is the display of our idea. The picture our words make on the page or the screen. The visual presence of the text and other elements, such as graphs, text boxes, sidebars, maps, pictures, bullets, and captions.

When the layout of your idea is visually pleasing, inviting, and easy to follow, your reader doesn't have to wade through the seaweed to swim out to the sandbar. If you show up to a job interview in torn raggedy jeans, a holey t-shirt, greasy unwashed hair, and bad breath, you can be sure you're not going to get that job, if they even allow you to walk in the door.

At the same, if you show up wearing a blinking neon shirt, excessively sparkly jeans, orange spiked hair, with a heavily perfumed wake, you are going to be too much to take in. The right balance in presentation is essential to the ease for your readers to be willing and able to appreciate the message and idea of your writing.

Rediscovering and Using the 6+1 Trait Writing System

Teachers using the 6+1 Trait system firmly believe in its effectiveness and wouldn't use another system unless it proved to be even more remarkable. The 6+1 traits offer teachers a proficient way to teach and assess their students. Besides those things and its consistency in usage, it allows the teacher to adapt and create lessons within the guidelines of its system.

Just like this article used body parts and functions as an analogous way to demonstrate this highly effective system, teachers can create and expand on any of the traits to fit their style and classroom.

Many books outlining and offering textual guides for teaching the 6+1 trait system are available for teachers and school systems. Along with these texts books and materials, there are numerous articles and blogs online that offer other viewpoints, hints, and tools to implement into your 6+1 teaching.

If you as a teacher, or as a student, want a more effective way to understand and convey the elements of successful writing, go out and discover the 6+1 Trait Writing System. To more beautiful writing!


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