How to Evaluate What Your Kids Write
The world needs to hear what your kids have to say that is uniquely theirs to share. Here’s how to help them.
Meet the Six Traits of Great Writing.
I can still remember my confusion as I stared down my first pile of student essays. Now what do I do? How do I decide who gets an A and who gets a C? Is this good writing for a fifteen-year-old, or not? Even more mysterious—what do I say to help them improve?
Ever feel that way when looking at your kids’ work? I sure did. Math always seemed obvious—this answer’s right, this answer’s wrong—but their stories, essays, poems? What do I tell them? I’m their mother! Seems likely I will be too hard or too easy on them. Odds are slim I’m going to give them feedback that’s on the money.
All that changed when I learned about the six traits model for teaching writing. Suddenly I had a language to discuss writing with my kids and students they could understand—and their writing took off. As their writing coach, I knew what was working well. I knew what to suggest that they try next to improve.
Here are the six traits in a nutshell:
While following the conventions of the English language for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization plays an important role in great writing (it’s trait number six), it isn’t our most important concern.
The number one trait of great writing is ideas. When you read something your child has written, first respond to the quality of the ideas in the story or report. Are the topics discussed interesting, unique, thought-provoking, or insightful?
Your kids will be eager to gauge your reaction to what they produce. Begin with feedback about the sections of the paper you find most intriguing or thought-provoking. Focus here so young writers learn that their ideas matter most. With beginning writers this was often the only aspect of the assignment I responded to. If writers don’t pack their essays, reports, and stories with solid ideas, none of the other traits matter—readers won’t read what they’ve written. So, invest lots of time learning about and working on the most important trait: ideas.
The second trait of great writing is organization. Ideas need to be presented in an order that makes sense to the reader. Is there a logical progression in the way ideas and details are revealed? Readers like to have their curiosity piqued; they also enjoy the unexpected. A logical progression can include an interesting fact or question at the beginning or a surprise ending. Young writers need practice using common organizational schemes (there are only a few)—chronological order, order of importance, compare-contrast, cause and effect, lists, and summaries, as examples. If the order of ideas appears to be random or illogical, show the writer where you get confused.
The third trait of great writing is word choice. Consider the vocabulary your child has used. Is it academic enough for a science report? Is it descriptive enough for a short story? Are certain words often repeated and should be replaced to keep readers interested? Is your child’s vocabulary growing and can you see this in his or her writing? Praise your kids for attempting to include new words in what they produce, even if misspelled or not quite right for the context. Reward experimentation and risk-taking. A rich and varied vocabulary keeps readers reading.
The fourth trait is sentence fluency or syntax. Syntax is the way a writer builds sentences. Great writing has a rhythm to it. This is created by varying the length of sentences—some are short, some are long—or by varying the types of sentences. For instance, some begin with an introductory phrase like this one. Others are more complex and include several phrases and clauses strung together—like the next one. This variety is pleasing to the ear and adds interest, which keeps the reader engaged. And keeping the reader reading is a writer’s number one job.
The fifth trait is voice. This may be the most difficult to understand, but if ideas are the foundation of great writing, then voice is the capstone. Voice is the writer’s personality shining through. I tell my students to think of it this way: in the same way you can identify your mom’s voice calling from the kitchen or a friend’s voice on the phone, you can tell a writer’s voice by the ideas, organization, word choices, and syntax he or she commonly uses. Kids will certainly try many different voices as they grow as writers, but eventually they will each settle into habits of writing that identify a piece as uniquely theirs. We should celebrate the distinctives of each child’s writing and emphasize the value of this trait. God loves our diversity—we should too.
That’s a whirlwind tour of how to evaluate what your kids write. I hope this brief introduction gives you some tools to work with. Want to give it a try? I conscientiously tried to model the six traits of great writing in this article. How did I do? Can you give me feedback on my ideas? Do you recognize the organizational scheme I used? What about my vocabulary—do I have enough variety? Have I varied the length and types of sentences? And even if you’ve never met me, do you have an impression about my personality? (Do you want to meet me?) Finally, have I observed the conventions of English for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization? Or do I have distracting errors?
If you can answer any of those questions, that illustrates how the six traits model gives readers a language to discuss what a writer produces so he or she can improve. I’d love your feedback because I want to help you raise writers in residence—I think it’s a sacred mission. The world needs to hear what your kids have to say that is uniquely theirs to share.
Aim Academy English classes are writing-intensive and focus on teaching students the six traits of great writing.