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:
- Builds students understanding of concepts like voice
- Provides language for thinking and talking about writing
- Gives students options for revising
- Teaches students to think – by making them evaluators
- Connects reading and writing through mentor texts
- 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:
- 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
- Reorganize the sentence to eliminate the “to be” verb with an active verb- but keep the meaning
- Delete the sentence – sometimes the problem with the sentence is that it is not needed
- 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.)