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Clarify Character Traits Versus Feelings

April 17, 2017

Inquiring about character traits is a typical reading comprehension question. However, students often respond with comments like I think she’s mad or I think he’s glad or I think they’re sad. They offer information about character feelings rather than traits.


In order for students to understand the difference, explicitly define the differences between feelings and traits. Note the alliteration at the top of the handout: Character feelings are fleeting; Character traits are tried & true.

Define fleeting as something that is temporary. Feelings come and go; they are based on the environment. One minute, someone is happy. But, if something bad suddenly happens, feelings can switch to sad. Feelings change constantly; they are fleeting.

On the other hand, traits are tried and true. Traits are constant. It doesn’t matter what the setting or circumstance, a trait is steadfast. If someone is loyal, he will be loyal to his family, his friends, his coworkers, etc. He would be loyal all the time. “Loyal” is a trait because it is tried and true.


An inherent problem with students learning character traits is that these are unfamiliar words. They know mad, sad, glad. But they don’t know conceited, gullible, pensive. Therefore, make character-traits a part of vocabulary instruction. Apply the same strategies to teach these words as would be employed to introduce new terms in math, science, or social studies.

Compare the unfamiliar trait words with familiar synonyms students already know.

In addition, maintain a list of characters who demonstrate each trait. Examples of literary characters, TV characters, movie characters, famous people, etc. will support students’ growing understanding of the bigger trait term.


Focus on grade-level appropriate traits. According to research by Patrick Manyak (The Reading Teacher, March, 2007), vocabulary instruction should target 20 trait words per grade level.

Studying the characters within the most commonly-read picture books read per grade (K-6), Manyak identified the traits these characters already possess. Consequently, teachers can incorporate trait instruction while reading the same read-aloud texts they have already planned within their curriculum.

SECONDARY TEACHERS: The list ends at grade 6. Middle school and high school teachers should print off the list and highlight the traits students don’t know, beginning with the kindergarten words. Stop after highlighting the first twenty. Target those first.

The Way That I Feel and The Way That I Act are great picture books to help distinguish traits versus feelings.

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