This question came up several times during my recent visit to Kyrene District in Arizona, and it’s one of the questions I’m most often asked. It’s very important because, if you think about it, embedded is the underlying question: What are we actually DOING when we teach various traits? It’s how we spend our time that defines how much we need. What I’m going to say here is not a prescription–please be flexible! Think of it as a guideline.

First, if you are working with primary students, you may teach traits primarily through reading aloud and modeling. Let’s say you are teaching ideas. You might look through books like Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came or Roald Dahl’s Matilda for passages rich with detail, and share them aloud. You want students to talk about what they see, hear, or feel as they listen. You want to talk about what makes for good detail in writing. And then, of course, you want students to write, to put detail into their own words–and their drawings, too. In addition, you want to do some modeling. You might begin with a piece two or three sentences long that has modest detail, ask your writers for suggestions, and with their coaching, add a few details to enrich it. How long will all this take? That’s very personal, but I would want at least three days. There’s more to the trait of ideas than just detail, of course, but this is where we get hung up sometimes, thinking we have to teach every feature of every trait at every grade. That’s waaaaaaaaaay too rigid. It’s fatiguing–and can make trait-based instruction tedious for you and your students. Don’t try to go too wide. Instead, go deep. More literature, more modeling, more opportunities to write (and draw). 

Now let’s say you teach older writers. In that case, in addition to detail, you might also want lessons on clarity or focus (sticking with your topic). You’ll also use more strategies. Here’s a quick list–yours might look a little different. I would–

  • Share contrasting writing samples (weak and strong) to introduce the trait of ideas, and ask students to tell me what was working and what wasn’t. We might also spend time practicing revision (or at least talking about possibilities) for the weaker paper.
  • Read samples from literature aloud. I’d be looking for detail, yes–but also clarity and a strong main idea. In addition, I’d try to read across genres: fiction, nonfiction science or history, memoir, business writing, PR (say, an advertisement), and so on.
  • Have students look for and share their own samples from literature.
  • Model several things connected to the trait of ideas: e.g., finding a suitable topic, defining a topic to make it manageable, defining my message to readers (different from topic), writing with detail, cutting parts that wander too far from the original topic, and more.
  • Do a group revision of a piece that cries out for stronger detail or focus. This might be a student paper–but it could just as well come from business writing or even a textbook. Real world writing always works best for this.
  •  Give students opportunities to write, practicing what they’ve learned about ideas, and revising their own work to add detail, clarity, and focus.

Clearly, the span is far greater at upper grade levels, and so the time allowed needs to be longer, too. Depending on how many features of the trait you address, you’ll probably need at least a week. But I’d be cautious about focusing on one trait for more than two weeks. The pace can start to feel slow and draggy. After all, you want writers to keep the “big picture” of writing in their minds–of which each trait is only a small part.

Finally, don’t forget to cycle back! This is critical. Once we finish a trait such as ideas, that doesn’t mean we’re all done (brush dirt from hands) and can now move on forever. On the contrary, each trait just opens a door to new thinking. Words like detail, focus, main idea, message, and so forth should continue to pop up in your everyday discussions with your writers. What’s more, if you work on detail in October, you might return to it in, say, February. This feature is worth revisiting because detail is so vital to good writing. Similarly, you might work on leads and conclusions in November, then cycle back in late February or early March. Remember when we talked about the importance of good leads? Now that you have more experience as writers AND readers, let’s take another look . . . Other good “cycle back” candidates include such things as transitions, overall design, writing with voice, modifying voice to suit the audience, using strong verbs, cutting clutter, varying sentence patterns, and more.

In short, don’t think “time” first. Instead, ask yourself, Which features of this trait will I teach? (For ideas, that could include main idea, detail, focus, clarity, message–or any combination.) Then ask, What strategies (discussing writing samples, reading aloud, modeling, etc.) will I use to teach each feature? Answering these two questions will tell you how much time you need. Then finally–don’t forget to cycle back. The most important features of good writing are always worth revisiting.

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