Being able to think deeply about character traits for the characters in a short story or novel is an important part of understanding the author's deeper message. Lower-level texts often spell these out directly, describing a character as friendly or sly, to help the reader.
However, as students begin reading more challenging texts, they'll need to think more deeply about the characters and their character traits. Being able to accurately describe characters is a prerequisite skill that students must master before they'll be able to analyze how characters are influenced by the plot and their relationships with others.
Establishing a strong understanding of character traits is essential for success with later skills like analyzing character change.
Today I wanted to share some of my favorite resources and strategies for teaching students how to use text clues to identify character traits. I'll also share some great printables you can use to facilitate these lessons in your classroom.
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Why teach character analysis?
Character analysis, or identifying character traits, is an approachable way to get students used to the rigorous expectations for deep thinking about literature. Students must use text clues to make inferences, and they must also be able to support their answers with details from the plot.
Character discussions can be great for building vocabulary and helping students build a bank of interesting adjectives they can use as they begin writing their own stories.
You'll find you can spiral character analysis skill practice throughout the year and can progressively raise your expectations as students become more proficient.
Getting started teaching character traits
Identifying character traits is an important foundational skill. Whether this is your first year teaching reading or you're looking for some new ideas to incorporate into your classroom, my hope is you'll find some ideas and ready-to-use resources you can add to your lesson plans for this skill.
Before we dive into the lesson plan, here's some background information on how this skill fits into the larger picture of teaching reading.
What standards address character traits?
This skill is introduced in very different grade levels depending on what standards you use. This is a second grade standard in Texas, and students are expected to apply this skill to analyze character relationships by third grade, The Common Core standards introduce character analysis in third grade and expand upon it through the remaining elementary years.
Here are the Texas standards (TEKS) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS to aid with lesson plan documentation:
- TEKS 2.8B Describe the main character's internal & external traits
- CCSS RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
- CCSS RL.4.3 Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text.
What reading comprehension skills do my students need to have before I dive into teaching character traits?
Unlike many higher-level reading comprehension skills, Identifying character traits doesn't require a ton of prerequisite lessons. Once students are able to recall the main elements of fiction and can tell about the main character, they're ready to begin the process of identifying character traits. In other words, the foundations of comprehension must be solid.
If you're worried about students' reading levels or you have a very diverse group of learners, the lesson below outlines a great way to begin teaching this skill because it doesn't even require students to use text for the initial lessons.
What books are good for introducing & modeling how to identify character traits?
There are so many great books to use with lessons on character analysis. While we tend to look at picture books as mentor texts, biographies are actually a great option for this skill. The story just needs a strong main character and/or supporting characters that your students can make inferences about.
Here are my 10 favorite books for teaching students to identify character traits:
- Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
- The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
- The Recess Queen by Alexis O'Neill
- Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
- The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig
- The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach
- A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon
- The Good Egg by Jory John
- Sheila Rae the Brave by Kevin Henkes
- Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman
Before Reading: Introducing Character Traits
Character traits can be hard for younger learners to grasp. While many things are spelled out for them in early readers, character analysis requires students to make inferences based on clues in the text.
When you're introducing character traits, it is important to begin by helping students define the term. Examples and non-examples can be a powerful strategy for building understanding.
Students need to be able to differentiate between what a character looks like – their appearance – and their internal character. You'll also need to differentiate between emotions and character traits.
One great way to do this is by modeling these differences using yourself or a student in your class. Have students take turns giving examples of physical attributes first. Then transition to discussing the traits of that person. When you finish, compare the two lists to help students internalize the differences between the two.
Here's a great example of an anchor chart you may want to consider using with your class as you begin this foundational work.
Once you've done this as a group, you can even have students break off into groups and complete an example using themselves or another classmate.
The great thing about doing this first is that it doesn't require text. This means that your struggling readers get the change to understand the skill without using up all their mental energy on decoding.
You may also consider creating a list of character traits as a class or sharing and discussing one as a group. This can help students build vocabulary.
If you feel like your students might need additional practice before they identify these traits in text, you can work backward by assigning each student a trait and having them write about how someone with that trait might think, act, or speak to others. This can really help students tune into what clues the text might provide.
Transitioning to Text – Guided Practice
Once your students have a solid grasp on what character traits are, you're likely ready to transition them toward identifying the traits of characters in a short text.
At this point, I like to pick a picture book to use as a mentor text. My favorite for upper elementary is A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon. A great alternative for younger students or those with shorter attention spans is No, David! from the same author.
As you read, have students pay attention to the main character's thoughts, words, actions, and feelings. Stop to discuss character traits they can infer along the way.
After you finish reading, use the free flipbooks to help your students document the traits they observed. Under each flap, they should provide evidence from the text that supports the trait they've identified.
Depending on the text you select, this can also be a great spot to begin the discussion of positive vs. negative character traits. You can even use the cut & paste character traits included to help your students sort traits into three categories – positive, negative, and neutral.
Independent Practice Options
Once students seem to have a solid grasp on this skill, there are many different ways you can incorporate this into independent practice.
Encouraging students to discuss character traits during their literature circles or guided reading is one great option. I've included a free graphic organizer that students can use to organize their thoughts and record text evidence for their book.
Here are a few ways you can offer some fun additional practice:
- Use free online games to practice the skill & keep students engaged
- Use task cards to have students practice identifying character traits
- Have students create a Wordle for a character in a book they've read
Grab the free resources for teaching character traits
Now that you've read about how you can get students to think deeply about characters and their traits, I'm sure you're ready to tackle this in your classroom.
That's why I created a set of free resources for teaching this skill. In this free pack, you'll find:
- Character traits list for reading journals
- Character traits graphic organizers – internal vs. external, text evidence, comparing characters
- Comparing characters graphic organizer
- Character trait writing task – differentiated options available
- Character trait sort – positive, negative, and neutral traits