This seems like an obvious question. Aren’t we teaching six writing concepts–idea development, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions & presentation (the art of publishing)? Sure. And in doing so, we’re giving students a language for talking and thinking like writers, as well as an indepth understanding of how writing works.

If were teaching the traits well, however, there’s more to it–a LOT more. To understand this, consider the primary strategies we use to teach trait-based writing:

  • Assessment & discussion
  • Literature (mentor texts)
  • Modeling
  • Practice in revision

Through these strategies, we not only increase students’ understanding of writing, but also provide them with three mindsets every writer needs:

  • Independence
  • Awareness
  • Confidence

This is what separates trait-based instruction from all formulaic approaches: The ultimate goal is to have students working on their own, not dependent on formulas, not even dependent on us. To see how this works, let’s explore each of the four key strategies.

Assessment & discussion

Students learn a great deal about writing by assessing and talking about the work of others. They can use rubrics (writing guides) to do this, but they don’t have to–any more than we have to grade a piece of their work to appreciate it. The point is to get inside the writing, to figure out what is strong and why, and what you’d do differently if you were in charge. This kind of evaluative thinking is not easy; it requires imagination and focus. But consider what an education in writing teachers get all the time just by assessing their students’ work. Why shouldn’t students have a chance to learn in this same way? Students also need the insight and perspective that only comes from getting to wear the evaluator’s hat now and then. They need to review more than student writing, though–because very little of it resembles what they’ll be asked to do in the real world once they are out of school. Have them assess editorials, newspaper articles, directions of all kinds, excerpts from textbooks or other nonfiction, advertisements, speeches, letters, proposals, resumes, and more. Remember that rubrics can be helpful for this kind of assessment because they often help us find words to express ourselves, and the numbers on a scale can provide a basis for discussion when we don’t agree. But with practice, students go beyond the language of any rubric, finding their own words for describing strengths and problems. At this point, they become confident evaluators who can determine on their own whether a piece of writing (including their own) is working–and if not, what to do about it.


Almost everyone who teaches writing uses mentor texts in one way or another–whether simply reading aloud or, like my author friend Jeff Anderson, tracking down model sentences or short passages to illustrate dynamic structure, innovation, grammatical nuance, creative punctuation, and more. Exposure to great literature expands the understanding students gain by assessing and discussing everyday writing. When you share a fine published piece, you’re stepping up the game a notch, letting students see how the pro’s do it. How does a best-selling author achieve voice? Is it true that professional writers rely more on verbs than on adjectives? Do professional writers vary their sentence structure as rubrics suggest we should do? Are they conventionally rigid–or do they mess around? Do the pro’s generally have a main idea and three supporting details–or is that a myth?

Literature heightens awareness. it reveals the truth about writing: the myriad of irresistible things clever people can do with words. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should have classes full of students with green visors, poring over pages with magnifying glasses, hunting for literary gems. Just reading for the pure joy of it has enormous impact–especially if the writing is fine. And mediocre work has its place, too. In his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King reminds us that “quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (2000, p. 145). Hear, hear. Plus, it’s a real kick to hear a student say, “I can do better than that.” Nothing like outwriting a published author to make your confidence soar.

Modeling (aka, Problem Solving)

Mention modeling and a lot of people picture a teacher standing before the class laboriously cranking out an essay. If this works for you, do not let me discourage you. But I have to say, that’s more what I would call “extreme modeling.” Just way too hard. Writing whole pieces in front of an audience is not relaxing, natural–or even especially helpful. The problem is, the watchers don’t learn a heck of a lot more than they’d learn from seeing the finished essay–except, of course, that you’re very nervy. (And good for you–I really mean it–if you do this.) What they need to see, though, is what’s happening in your head. Writing is, in large part, problem solving. Give your students awareness and confidence by sharing the problems you face as a writer–and then solving them as they watch and listen. You have to talk as you write. You might tackle problems like these: choosing a topic, figuring out where to find the best information, writing a sentence three ways and deciding which sounds best, getting rid of a passage you’ve fallen in love with that just plain doesn’t fit, coming up with a good lead or ending, writing honestly so the voice comes through, spicing up dialogue, taking criticism gracefully–and figuring out whether it’s actually helpful, choosing a title, scanning a source to identify the very best quotation–the one your readers will learn from and remember.

Once you start approaching modeling this way, you’ll begin to envision all sorts of “tight spots” your students will love seeing you work your way out of. This might just become your favorite way to teach. And what happens when students discover how to solve writing problems? Right . . . awareness, confidence, and independence.

Practice Revising

Revision isn’t fixing. Nor is it chipping away tediously at your masterpiece until it fits someone else’s vision of how it ought to look. If students think of revision this way, they will hate it. Who wouldn’t? Revision is a creative act. It’s starting to sing the National Anthem too high on the scale–and coming down an octave. It’s rearranging your living room furniture, painting the walls, hanging your own art where the Picasso used to be, going somewhere different on vacation, going sleeveless, losing weight, cutting your hair (or growing it out), accepting a dare.  

In teaching students to revise writing, we usually begin with students’ own writing–and this can be a game killer. Why? Because it’s threatening and because they tend to tread so lightly when tinkering with their own work that nothing interesting happens. Sometimes, they aren’t sure what to do. Worst of all, it feels like someone else’s idea. You don’t want someone else telling you to cut your hair, lose weight, or take down your Picasso. See the difference? Revision has to come from within.

That’s why they need to practice on someone else’s work first. This builds the confidence and skill they need to see their own work differently. It’s almost never tedious to analyze someone else’s writing. It’s fun. It’s also fun to rip it apart and rebuild it. And if students have been discussing writing, listening to good literature, and seeing you model problem solving, they have a wide repertoire of revision possibilities to draw from. Have students work on short, problematic pieces they can readily assess and improve: an anonymous student piece, an office memo, a public relations statement, a business letter, the first page of a not-very-exciting picture book–or just something you make up. They should work in teams of two, so they can talk as they revise. It’s more fun that way. Read the results aloud and applaud every ingenious solution your revisers come up with. Soon they’ll be applying what they’ve learned to their own writing–and when that happens, they truly own their writing process.

Can you assess mindsets?

Yes, actually, you can. Granted, being confident and independent isn’t like “writing a paragraph with a clear main idea.” You can’t just collect writing samples and score them. But that’s only one kind of valid assessment. Think how much you learn about your students just watching them as they work: Who has an easy time coming up with a topic? Who’s ready to coach others? Who’s good at reading her work aloud before revising? Who’s never ready to stop writing at the end of workshop? Who’s always hunting up passages from literature that he just has to share? Who’s comfortable moving from genre to genre? You get the idea.

Listen to the comments students make–here are a few that show real comfort with writing and revising:

  • This isn’t ready to publish yet
  • I need to do more research
  • I love this lead–I really improved it
  • There’s a better way to say this
  • This part right here is the best thing in my whole paper
  • I am going to end this totally differently
  • I tried to write something I’d want to read
  • When I read this aloud, it actually sounds like me

What about rubrics, posters, and kits?

Do they fit in? Can they help? They do and they can–if you use them wisely. We get many questions about this, and we’ll talk more about it in an upcoming post.

Coming up on Gurus . . . 

We are taking an early, very short spring break here at Gurus! But please rejoin us the week of February 13 when we’ll review and celebrate Lane Smith’s gorgeous picture book, Grandpa Green. We love it–and think you will, too. Remember, for exceptional professional development in writing (emphasizing the four strategies outlined here), please contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.