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How to Best Teach Character Traits in Upper Elementary

Teaching students about character traits beyond the standard 'kind and mean' can be challenging, especially in the upper grades where not only are students expected to identify specific character traits, but also discuss how events in the story change the character, and how the character impacts the plot.  The good news is that providing them with scaffolds and a variety of examples can really impact their knowledge of character traits.


1. Define and Discuss Character Traits

Start off by defining what a character trait is and displaying the definition for students to see. Although in the primary grades, students learn to identify between external (physical) character traits and internal (personality) character traits, in upper elementary grades, students should be focusing on understanding internal character traits more deeply.

Discussing and making a list of some specific character traits can be very useful. This will be especially useful in assessing whether students know the difference between character traits and character feelings. (If students seem to get these two concepts confused, you may want to quickly clear this up for them at this moment.) While creating a visual list of character traits with your students, discuss whether these character traits are positive, negative, or neutral.

2. Introduce Strategies for Identifying Character Traits

Very rarely will an author come out and state a character's trait, so skilled readers must be able to infer a character's traits through the character's thoughts, actions, and words. This concept is best explained and taught using an anchor chart like the one shown below:

Here are some ideas for teaching these three strategies:

Thoughts: Teaching your students to first evaluate WHO is telling the story can be extremely helpful. Explain to students that if the book has a (third person) narrator, there is a good chance the narrator may explicitly disclose SOME of the thoughts of the main characters in different situations throughout the book. However, if the narrator is a character in the story, they are in luck! Chances are they will only have access to that one character's thoughts, however it will most probably be VERY EXPLICIT and SHARED OFTEN giving them a great indication as to the character's traits.

Actions: Discuss with students that the way a character acts in a given situation can help us infer about the character's trait.  For example, if a character was asked to stand before the class and state their opinion on a specific topic, but walked up slowly while dragging his feet and looking down at the ground? What if that type of behavior was portrayed various times in the story? What would that imply about the character?

Now, what if in that similar situation another character swiftly got up out of his seat, jolted to the front of the classroom, and made eye contact with the teacher?  What would that imply about the second character? 

Words: Inform students that characters' words and the way they are said can give you insight into a characters' traits.  For example, the statement "Yeah, right?" can be said as a way to confirm what someone else is saying, but said as "Yeah, right!" can have a sarcastic intonation depending on the context of the phrase.

3. Provide Opportunities to Enhance Character Trait Vocabulary

Give students opportunities to learn synonyms for different words, and decipher the difference between similar words. For example, students may think of the words 'loving' and 'compassionate' as the same thing. While they are similar, they are in fact different.  Students should be made to understand that while a compassionate person is in a way being loving, not all loving actions are a sign of compassion. Allowing the opportunities for discussions and providing examples is one way to enhance their vocabulary when discussing character traits.

Another way is to regularly provide them with new character trait terms, definitions, synonyms, antonyms, and examples. You can do this by introducing a new Character Trait of the Week

4. Incorporate Picture Books

Discussing character traits in isolation is a good way to introduce the standard and give students exposure to the concept, but exposing them to text with solid and intricate characters is imperative. Picture books with various characters who face different challenges are an efficient and effective way to do so. This allows students to be exposed to a variety of characters and character traits. The key is to find well developed characters whose traits can be supported through their thoughts, actions, and words.  This will allow students to support their inferences with solid text evidence. 

5. Provide Them with Higher Order Thinking Questions

Have a list of questions prepared before hand. Trying to come up with questions 'on the spot' can lead to simpler knowledge and comprehension questions. 

Here is a list of stem questions you can use to implement questions of various levels:

Knowledge (Remembering)
  • Define the phrase "character trait."
  • List 4 positive character traits.
  • List 4 negative character traits.
  • What are three strategies authors use to help you identify a character's traits?

Comprehension (Understanding)
    • Give an example of when (the character) was (character trait).
    • What character trait describes (the character)?
    • What character trait was (the character) displaying when _________?

    Application (Applying)
        • What other characters exhibited the same character traits as __________?
        • How would the plot of the story have changed if (the character) would have been (trait) instead of (trait)?
        • What event caused (the character) to go from being (trait) to being (trait)?

        Analysis (Analyzing)
              • Compare and contrast (the character)'s traits to (other character)'s traits.
              • How did (the character)'s character trait of __________ affect other characters in the story?

              Evaluation (Evaluating)
              • Which character trait do you think the author spotlighted the most throughout the story? Why do you think the author did that?
              • If you could assign another character trait to one of the characters, what would it be? Why?

              Synthesis (Creating)
              • Write a short story where the main character exhibits (character trait)
              • Create a graphic organizer for (the character) displaying character traits he or she possesses and provide support.

              5. Give Students Opportunities to Implement their Knowledge

              Lastly, give students opportunities to implement what they have learned about character traits. Provide them with picture books and novels to read. Then allow them to apply their knowledge by reflecting using journals, working with task cards, filling out organizers, etc. Allow for discussions about character traits with each book you read. The great thing about the character trait standards is that they can be implemented with any fictional text students are exposed to. 

              Most importantly, HAVE FUN WITH IT!  It's always so interesting to see the conversations that come from these types of discussions.

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