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Guest Post: Why Teach the 6-traits of Effective Writing?

by Dr. Jolene Borgese

We need only go to the source to find why we need to teach the traits—Vicki Spandel. Vicki, while working at the Northwest Laboratory, worked with 17 teachers at Beaverton, Oregon School District, using the research of Paul Dietrich, who created an analytical writing assessment rubric. Through their work with Vicki, they also identified six characteristics true of all good writing (ideas. organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency and conventions).  Vicki capsulizes the reasons for teaching and using the six traits:

  1. Builds students understanding of concepts like voice
  2. Provides language for thinking and talking about writing
  3. Gives students options for revising
  4. Teaches students to think – by making them evaluators
  5. Connects reading and writing through mentor texts
  6. Puts students in charge of their own writing process  (Creating Writers, 2013 page 3). 

Like many good ideas in education, the 6-traits rubric was used widely without first teaching the traits. The rubric is a student and teacher friendly framework, but the concepts of the traits first need to be understood before writing is assessed with them. Vicki created a simple template to teach the traits. First define each trait so that all writers know what we mean by voice.  “Voice is the writer’s presence on the page” (Creating Writers, 2013).  I ask my students to identify the audience and purpose of the writing – so they can determine what voice to use.  Vicki encourages the use of mentor text to illustrate the trait. She recommends teachers read from any text as an example of what we mean by voice.

My favorite text to use is To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus gives his closing statement to the jury on page 208, ”But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal-there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president…” His voice is so righteous and hopeful that I often tear up when I read this. At this point the writers need to write to illustrate the trait of voice.  The last step is to look at a piece of writing and assess the voice of the piece.  

In a foreword Vicki wrote for a book about revision that I co-authored with two of my colleagues, she said, “though our original focus was on writing assessment, it became apparent almost overnight that the real destiny of the 6-triats was to influence revision. Trait-based instruction lays the groundwork for revision by showing writers what makes their writing work- or stands in their way” (Revision,2013).

Before I even knew I was teaching word choice , I taught my students to reduce the use of “to be” in their writings and replace them with more active verbs. My high school students would moan and groan about how difficult this was, since you can’t often replace a “to be” verb with an active verb easily. When my students returned from college and told me their composition professors were teaching the reduction of “to be” verbs too – I knew word choice did make writing more effective!

Reducing “to be” verbs is my core revision strategy. First, writers highlight all their “to be” verbs in their writing (am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being).  I give them four options for reducing the “to be” verbs in their writing:

  1. Combine sentences- find a sentence that makes sense to combine with the “to be” sentence to eliminate a “to be” verbs or already has an active verb
  2. Reorganize the sentence to eliminate the “to be” verb with an active verb- but keep the meaning
  3. Delete the sentence – sometimes the problem with the sentence is that it is not needed
  4. And last but not least – keep the sentence as is

The conference on March 19 will be a celebration of the 6-traits with PAWLP teacher consultants presenting their own 6-traits strategies. Vicki Spandel has agreed to Skype into the conference.  We have started to collect questions for her—she asked that we send her questions so she can focus on our needs. So please post any questions below! Hope to see you on March 19th! (If you are counting I used 6 “to be” verbs here.)

To register for the PAWLP Day, click here.

Borgese profileJolene Borgese is a national 6-traits trainer and has been a PAWLP Fellow since 1980.


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Arnold #

    Jolene, thank you for your efforts you put into this post. You did a great job!

    It’s my first time, when I’m acquainted with 6-traits rubric. But it seems to me quite reasonable and effective.

    All writers are thinking about ways of improving and simplifying of the writing process. Some recommend to avoid adverbs (, some advice not to use specific words (

    As for me, if you want to become a better writer, you need to read more and to “absorb” writing style and techniques of well-known writers. And then you need to work hard on exploring your own writing style.


    March 29, 2016
  2. Michelle Polito #

    Thank you for this post, Jolene. It was a great reminder of how practical and important the Six Traits are within the writing process. As you quoted from Vicki Spandel, the Six Traits “Teaches students to think,” which is my utmost goal as a teacher. I appreciate how the Six Traits are concrete and succinct, and therefore accessible to students, without being formulaic. I find teaching voice and style harder than organization or conventions, so having practical strategies like “identify[ing] the audience and purpose of the writing – so they can determine what voice to use” is very helpful. I especially appreciated your suggestions on eliminating to-be verbs to elevate word choice and to enhance the writer’s voice. My twelfth grade English teacher only allowed us to use two to-be verbs per paper, which was always very challenging; however, I appreciated the skill when I got to college. Occasionally, I’ve tried the eliminating-to-be-verbs strategy with my tenth grade students, and it’s something I want to encourage more often in their revision process. I plan to go back and teach the trait, show examples, and then offer them this strategy for improving their word choice, so thank you for the helpful tips!


    March 28, 2016
  3. bm819452 #

    So much of what’s done in the writing workshop involves providing writers with tools to think and talk about composition. While I am not a teacher, the second reason above resonates most with me as I work with students in WCU’s Philadelphia Campus Writing Center. Conversations that we have in the WC with students about their writing provide opportunities to challenge the corresponding thought processes of composition. Effective writing reflects effective thought processes. If the writing center’s mission is to help students become better writers (not simply ‘fix’ papers), discussions of effective writing traits become part of trans-genre composition vocabulary. When writers think about their writing more effectively (using language, for example, that we see in the six trait method), they can take ideas and concepts and make them concrete, something that research shows is not only linked to effective writing processes but overcoming procrastinatory behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 23, 2016
  4. MaddieD #

    Jolene, thanks so much for your thoughts about the six traits. I attended the conference last weekend and thought it was terrific. The information presented was what I needed to hear in order to enhance my teaching. Learning about the six traits gives me great excitement for my writing instruction. I think for my fourth graders, these six traits are concrete enough that they will see how to enhance their writing. I hope to incorporate your “to be” revising strategy into my writer’s workshop soon. I also like to use the tally it up strategy for revising, where my students focus on tallying up the first words of their sentences then go back and revise as needed. Revising is so important and I find that without specific tasks, my students don’t willingly revise on their own. I can’t wait to add this lesson idea to my tool box. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    March 22, 2016
  5. Ariana Ciamaricone #

    I really enjoy this. As a potential teacher, it’s very easy immerse myself in writing the rubrics and how to grade. You brought up a great point though. We need to teach the students the traits before we start assessing them. Otherwise, we’re leaving students at a disadvantage. How can they write like we want them to if they don’t even know where to start? I also liked your point about “to be” verbs. I learned that in high school also, and I found that it helped me a lot in college. I think that these are manageable lessons that we can teach to our students without getting into very complicated grammatical matters. I also think that this presents a great opportunity for students to learn how to revise. Students begin to look at that work as parts, which make up a whole essay. They begin to comb through each part and see how it affects the whole. This can then be spread to other pieces of grammar or revision items. Overall, this is a lovely read.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 14, 2016

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