6+1 traits of writing

Should You Teach Genre Or The 6 + 1 Traits?

Feb 14, 2021

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.

It usually 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 its effectiveness.

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 do I tell them?

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 hundreds 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:

  • Ideas
  • Organisation
  • Voice
  • Word Choice
  • Sentence Fluency
  • Conventions

(The +1 of presentation was added at a later date and remains a +1 as the criteria only applies to published pieces of writing.)

The 6+1 Traits of Writing. I always surround these traits with 'purpose' and 'audience' because every trait is impacted by these. 


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 won't tell you what to teach on Tuesday or next week. 

The 6+1 Traits are a simply a tool for assessing writing that should then inform what you teach in writing.

These traits help teachers diagnose areas of need for their students, so they can teach from there.


What does it mean to teach ‘teach 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:

In fact, I ask them a few questions:

  • What do you mean when you say you’re ‘teaching genre’?
  • What are you actually teaching your students?
  • What do you focus on in your lessons?
  • What do you assess your students 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 the 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.

It’s both.

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 adding on 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?”

Actually, no.

There’s more to good quality writing than organisation and conventions alone.


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 well and good, 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. That is, that it does take good structure but it also requires strong ideas, effective word choice, carefully structured sentences, an engaging writer's voice and appropriate use of conventions.

So teach genre, but teach more than just structure and conventions when you do. 


Hang on, I’ve got more questions now…

If you're feeling like you need to build your knowledge about all the ingredients that go into creating strong writing - not just correct structure and conventions- I recommend signing up to the  Writing Traits Masterclass Series. It’s a self-paced fully online course that builds your knowledge of each trait so you can provide more effective feedback to your students and have more confidence to know what to teach them. You can learn more about it here

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


How do you plan for traits-based genre instruction?

Good question!

My answer to this requires its own blog post. You can read it here: How to plan for effective genre instruction. I also go into much more depth on this (and provide specific examples) in my ADVANCED Traits Masterclass Series. This online course focuses on the implementation side of using the traits- in the writing classroom. I demonstrate what traits-based writing lessons look like and how you can plan your genre units using this approach. You can learn more about this course by clicking here.





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