How to teach character traits in 7 easy steps

7:15 AM

Of all the reading strategies that students need to learn, character traits are one of the most fun for me to teach.  It's easy for kids to fall into "like" with a character in a book; often it's someone with whom they share some traits.  (I wrote this blog post last week that's especially good for remote learning, and gave away this Character Traits freebie.)

Getting kids to dig deeply into the characters and how they grow and change over the course of the book is not always easy, though.  The author doesn't explicitly provide the character traits, so readers need to:
  • make inferences based on the character's words, actions, or thoughts
Why is this so important?  Well, for one, the more students can infer, the more they understand what they read.  And making inferences is hard for some students.  Which is why it's important to break it down in a number of different ways.  One of the ways I do it is through pictures.  You can see that here.
Cover of TeachersPayTeachers product showing Norman Rockwell illustration.  Product teaches how to infer and predict.
At the upper elementary and even middle school level, here are some ideas I've used for ways you can review traits.  Pick and choose which ones work best for you and your class.

Make a list

Do this with your students if they need a deeper understanding of what character traits are.  You can get them thinking a little by asking them to come up with three words that their friends would use to describe them.  Then, explain that authors don't tell you about a character's traits, but they show you by the character's actions, conversations, or thoughts. Make sure students understand that traits are not descriptions of the character (long hair, green eyes) but represent their personality.

Depending on where your students are, have them look for traits in a book that they're reading.  Or discuss one you're reading aloud.  Or use a picture book.  (Mr. Peabody's Apples by Madonna or The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg are two that have worked well for my students.)

Hand out some traits

Give each student a particular trait.  This can be done with cards in the classroom or a list online.  Let students look up the word if they don't know it.  Then have them create a sentence without using the word.  Let them see if others can identify that trait.

Categorize traits

Give students a list of traits and have them put them into categories of "positive," "negative" or "neutral."  Or, to push their thinking a little more, give them a random group of traits and have them group them into categories they create.

Text to Self

What are some traits that students can self-identify?  Do they share traits with any characters they've met in books?  Which ones?  You can have students discuss this if they're comfortable, or perhaps write a paragraph or two about it.

Looks for traits in books

Have them dig into the book they're reading.  How would they identify the main and some of the supporting characters?  Then, take one of the traits (this works best for a whole-class book, a picture book, or one you're reading aloud or reading together) and change it.  How might events have played out differently in The Hunger Games if Katniss had been a rule-follower?  Bashful?

Support the traits with text evidence

If they can identify traits, have them support them with evidence from the book.  You can have them think about what the author would have had to write if the character trait were different.  What would the reader need to have happened, if the trait were A and not B?  Let them decide if it would be best shown in dialogue, an action, or through the character's feelings.

Write using traits

Pick a character trait for your students to write about, involving an event and one or two characters (keep this to a couple of paragraphs.)  Have students share with each other.  The variety of stories will be pretty amazing and fun for them to hear or read.  Then, switch up the trait and have them rewrite the event with the same characters.  This is a powerful tool for students to use and gives them a better appreciation of how authors work to create realistic characters and plot development.

These are some of the ways to teach this important comprehension skill.  If you've found another way that works well for your students, please share!

by Mentoring in the Middle

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