Six Traits of Good Writing (And How We Develop Them)
Teaching students the art of writing is one of the most fundamental components of the middle school English curriculum. Hilltop students begin fifth grade with a strong background in composition skills to develop well-constructed paragraphs about a variety of topics. In middle school, we build on those fundamentals and encourage students to become more confident and expressive writers.
It has always been challenging to know where to begin. That’s why I’m a fan of Ruth Culham’s brilliant work in identifying the six traits of good writing. This is a comprehensive program that gives students and teachers a way to communicate about writing in a clear and complete way. In her book “6+1 Traits of Writing” published by Scholastic, Ms. Culham defines each trait and provides clear samples and rubrics so that teachers and students have a common vocabulary to assess and improve writing.
1. A Good Idea
Every good piece begins with an idea – a focused, specific idea that will be supported by details and evidence. In a classroom setting, the teacher often provides the topic for the students by posing a question about the literature studied or a point of view to be defended. The harder task, however, is to decide on a topic on one’s own – the dreaded blank page and the inevitable, “I don’t know what to write about!” In middle school English, each Wednesday class is devoted to practice in this dilemma. Writing on Wednesday (WOW!) presents the students with four topics and encourages them to choose a topic and compose a response in 20 minutes. In time, students become more adept at choosing a topic that they like, about which they can offer a new idea or perspective and confidently share their ideas.
Middle School students are learning to arrange their ideas clearly and logically. Having learned the forms of one, three, and five paragraph essays in the elementary school, students begin their middle school time by asking me how many paragraphs will be required for the assignment. Initially, they are frustrated by my response. “How many paragraphs will it take to answer the question or tell the story?” In time, through models and outlining, students learn to make these organizational decisions for themselves.
3. and 4. Sentence Fluency and Word Choice
The traits of sentence fluency and word choice focus on the choices writers make in crafting their sentences and using strong vocabulary. Do the sentences flow from one to the other? Are the sentences varied in their form and length? Are the words vivid and precise and descriptive? Students practice using rich vocabulary and sentence fluency by reading their work aloud to hear the flow of the piece and picture the images being described.
The hardest writing trait to define is voice. In Writer’s Workshop class, this trait is described as the heart of the writing piece. Middle school writers are learning to put their personal stamp on their work, developing their own writing styles and find their voices in their writing. We read professional stories and share our own, beginning to notice what makes each of us unique in the ways that we approach a topic.
The easiest writing trait to define is conventions. Everyone recognizes the need to be accurate in spelling and the uses of punctuation and capitalization. Daily proofreading exercises and editing practice help students to be better at finding and correcting their errors. Middle school students have been challenged to find real-world spelling and punctuation errors in menus, advertisements, and road signs. Developing a critical eye and learning the rules of conventions are both necessary to make one’s writing correct and easier to understand.
Culham’s book adds a +1 – and that’s presentation. The way a student’s paper looks is the first impression the reader has of the work. Is it as neat as it can be? Appearance matters!
When talking to students about their writing, we now have a common language to discuss weaknesses and strengths in an essay. When we encourage children to talk about their writing in these terms, we empower them to target their efforts toward effective and creative communication.