I get asked this question quite a lot.
And it excites me.
Because it’s generally asked after a teacher has had their eyes opened to the 6+1 traits of quality writing.
And it shows that the questioner is starting to grasp just how complex good quality writing IS and therefore just how complex it is to teach.
Once they realise this, they start to look back on their own genre-based writing instruction and question the effectiveness of it.
They start to realise that maybe (and usually through no fault of their own) they haven’t been telling their students the WHOLE truth about good quality writing.
So, what’s my answer?
Should you throw out your genre instruction and only ‘teach the traits’?
Let’s take a look:
What exactly are the 6+1 traits?
In the 1980’s a group of teachers from Oregon (USA) decided they wanted a consistent set of criteria to assess student writing.
They believed that good quality assessment was the starting point in good quality writing instruction; if they could identify the strengths and weaknesses of their students’ writing accurately, they’d be able to target their writing instruction to their students’ actual areas of need.
To do this effectively across a large network of schools, they needed a consistent language around the qualities of good writing (or the elements of an effective piece of writing).
They read thousands of pieces of student writing (in all different genres) and came up with 6 traits that were consistently evident in the strongest pieces of writing:
- Word Choice
- Sentence Fluency
(The +1 of presentation was added at a later date and remains a +1 as the criteria only applies to published pieces of writing.)
As you can see, contrary to what many people may think, the 6 traits are not a writing program or a recipe for perfect writing.
They will not tell you what to teach in week 1 of term 2.
The 6+1 Traits are a tool for assessing writing.
They help teachers diagnose areas of need for their students, so they can teach from there.
What is ‘teaching genre’?
When teachers ask me about whether they should teach genre or the traits, I’m one of those annoying people who answers their question by asking them a question:
Well, I ask them a few questions:
- What do you mean when you say you’re ‘teaching genre’?
- What are you actually teaching students?
- What do you focus on in your lessons?
- What do you assess them on?
If you’re teaching persuasive writing for example, which elements of persuasive writing do you teach?
Perhaps you provide students with ‘the’ structure* of a persuasive writing piece (* we all know there isn’t just one way to structure a persuasive writing piece…don’t we?)
Maybe you look at some of the vocabulary of persuasive writing or assess students on their use of punctuation in their writing.
As a teacher of writing, you need to be clear on what ‘teaching genre’ actually means for you. What are you teaching and what aren’t you teaching?
So it’s traits instead of genre then?
It’s not a case of traits OR genre.
When most teachers reflect on what ‘teaching genre’ really means for them, it’s focusing mostly on teaching the structure of a piece of writing, and then including punctuation, grammar and spelling in their assessment of that writing.
In other words, it’s teaching the traits of Organisation and Conventions (sometimes with a small side-serve of Word Choice).
Can you see the problem?
This style of instruction sends students the message that good quality writing is just a matter of getting the structure ‘right’ and using punctuation and grammar appropriately.
“If I follow this simple formula, I should end up with a gripping piece of writing…right?”
There’s more to good quality writing than organisation and conventions.
In fact, as that team of teachers from Oregon realised, there are 4 other traits that are equally as important as organisation and conventions.
Structure is all good and well, but if your idea stinks and you write with no voice, there’s a good chance your reader will lose interest in your piece and might not even make it down to your carefully structured conclusion.
So, my answer is this:
Teach genre, but do it through the lens of ALL of the traits, not just 2 of them.
Tell your students the WHOLE truth about good quality writing.
Hang on, I’ve got more questions now…
How can I learn more about the traits?
You can join my Writing Traits Masterclass Series that starts on February 22. (It’s a self-paced fully online course that will build your knowledge of each trait so you can identify it in mentor texts and student writing and then be able to teach it.)
How do you plan for traits-based genre instruction?
Good question! I’d start by checking out my blog on that very topic.
The Writing Traits Masterclass Series is focused on building your knowledge of the key qualities within each of the traits.
It’s about going beyond basic definitions and learning how to identify the elements of effective writing in mentor texts and student writing.
Here’s what a previous participant of the course had to say about the course:
“I found this PD fantastic! We have started looking into the 6+1 traits this year but this is the first time I feel confident that I know what I am doing AND that I know how to explain, model and inspire not only my students but (perhaps even more importantly) my colleagues. Breaking it up trait by trait and including actual, useful teaching practice and tips made it so accessible and easy to put into practice immediately!” – Vicki