Character Traits

About a year ago, maybe more, I read The Complete Four by Pam Allyn.  See it here  I appreciated the concept of integrating reading and writing lessons so that what you do in reading workshop directly impacts what you do in writing workshop.  Here’s what the authors say about “the complete year”:  “Organized around the Complete 4 components (Process, Genre, Strategy and Conventions) and four unit stages (Immersion, Identification, Guided Practice, and Commitment), each book in the Complete Year series features a year’s worth of integrated reading and writing curriculum.  Because we honor your professional decision-making, you will find the Complete Year provides a flexible framework, easily adapted to your state standards and to the needs and goals of your community, your students, and your teaching style.”  I particularly like the last sentence of the above description of the “complete year”, and that is why I’ve put the quote in italics and bold, as well as underlined it for the sake of emphasis.

     Although this is not a new idea, subsequent grade level books fleshed this out even more and I went ahead and purchased the grade 2 book, The Complete Year in Reading and Writing by Patty Vitale-Reily and Pam Allyn which I am just getting into right now.    You can view the grade 2 book here  I didn’t start at the beginning of the calendar year (the book is divided by seasons – early fall, late fall, winter, and spring) but I went smack to the middle of the book to the section entitled The Second Grader as Researcher, which includes lessons on recognizing strong characters in reading and applying these understandings in writing. 

     Yesterday I started reading workshop by talking about different ways that an author lets us know what his or her character is like – telling us, through the character’s actions, or by what the character says.  Then I read Jessica by Kevin Henkes and we briefly discussed the main character, who is not named Jessica by the way, and what we could say about what she’s like from her actions.  The discussion was not easy but the children were engaged and there were hints of potential gems in some of their comments.  To be fair, we didn’t have enough time for a full disclosure type of conversation; we’ll get back to that today. 

     The biggest stumbling block, however, was when we started listing “character traits”.  I have found that although it seems like children should know about character traits, they don’t.  (Of course, should is the absolutely wrong word to use here but I won’t edit it out for the moment as it exemplifies my thinking in this particular process.  I recognized that I rarely talk about this when we discuss books during read alouds.  That’s a change I am going to make immediately.)  Nevertheless, I plunged ahead and we created a list of character traits after I explained that a trait is more about what a character is like inside, rather than on the outside (in their heart and mind).  This wasn’t an easy process.  Some children used words like sad, happy, nice, good, and bad until I said that we needed to think of other words besides nice, good, and bad.  (Sad and happy are for another character traits discussion.)  After a few words had been on the list they started coming up with opposites which will allow for further discussion.  When we started our discussion of the main character of Kevin Henkes’s book, a few children suggested that we could use our list to talk about what the character is like. 

     Our final list included the following words:  honesty; dishonesty; responsible; irresponsible; smart, etc.  I can’t wait to get back to this discussion later today.  I will write more on this as it develops.  My big question to readers is:  how do you teach character traits in an early childhood classroom?  What are some books with strong characters for doing this?  What do you do prior to identifying the traits of a particular character?  Why do this in the first place anyway?  How do you get children as young as 6 or 7 to think about characters in a more robust way?  I look forward to reading your comments.

4 thoughts on “Character Traits

  1. When I begin to work with students on character traits, I like to give them vocabulary to use. I will list several words and ask which one describes the character and why did they choose that word. I find they don't have the vocabulary beyond the happy, mad, sad, etc. So I give them adventurous, obedient, sly, etc.
    Any book with a well developed character will give you a rich discussion. Kevin Henkes is good on developing characters. I love to use Scaredy Squirrel and Chester from Melanie Watt.
    By developing language for character traits we can help students make deeper connections in their reading.
    Patrick Manyak has created a list of character traits by grade levels.It has some interesting word choice.(Sorry this is so long.)


  2. Hi Elsie,
    Thank you for your comment. Not long at all!
    And, thank you for mentioning Patrick Manyak. I immediately googled him and found the Reading Teacher article where he gives a list of character traits by grade level. This afternoon, I took four words from the list and asked my students to think of the main character in Jessica in terms of those four words and to decide which of the four, or any combination thereof, best described her. Tomorrow we will justify their choices by going back to the book for evidence.


  3. I've never taught the little ones Elisa, but when I've discussed & taught lessons about clues to character with older middle school students we often turned to actions. What is the character doing? When doing that, what does it mean he or she is like? We've practiced facial expressions also, which I imagine your young students could do & have much fun with it too. Younger children often are in tune with how faces 'look', so perhaps that could be a way 'into' the term of 'trait'. Even though looking sad doesn't mean it's a trait, it is a beginning to understanding the feelings of a character.


  4. Hi Linda,
    Thank you for your insight. As a matter of fact, your first suggestion is precisely what we tried out today. I asked the children to think of what the character does and then think of a word (I gave them 4 choices in case they couldn't come up with one of their own) to describe that character. This is the frame that I gave them: If (the character) (acts/behaves/does) then, she or he is (character trait). For example, one child said: “If Callie (a cat in a book she was reading) runs away from another cat then she is a scaredy cat or a coward.” I am also going to try to have the children think about themselves and use the sentence frame to help them organize their idea. One step at a time!


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