Developing Character Trait Vocabulary

Improve reading comprehension in upper elementary students by building their character trait vocabulary.

Around October of my first year teaching, my students had to take their first district mandated practice test. Fortunately, the test only covered skills that we had already covered, one of which was character traits.

Improve reading comprehension in upper elementary students by building their character trait vocabulary.

I was pretty confident – we had created character trait anchor charts, used evidence from the text to identify different character traits, and examined characters in books whose traits had changed over time. I just KNEW my students were going to rock the character trait portion of the practice test. I envisioned myself being praised by my principle, who was telling everybody she knew how this first year teacher she had hired was amazing.

My dreams came to a crashing halt as soon as my students took the test.

Most of the character trait questions looked something like this:

This character can best be described as:
a. generous
b. brave
c. nice
d. humble

Many of my students couldn’t even read a word like “generous.” Even if they could read it correctly, they probably didn’t know what it meant. And the only students who knew what “humble” meant were the students who had Charlotte’s Web as a read-aloud in 2nd grade.

The majority of my students chose either “nice” or “brave” as their answer simply because they recognized those words. And I was surprised how many students had misconceptions about what the word “brave” actually meant.

I realized that all of the in depth study we had done on character traits was almost useless if my students had a limited character trait vocabulary, so I tried a variety of different methods to help build that vocabulary. Below are several that I used successfully in my classroom.

1. Character Trait Lists

If you do a google search for “character trait list,” you’ll find a variety of options. I have created several of my own FREE Character Trait Lists as well. The list that is sorted by synonyms can be incredibly helpful for students to use as a reference.

These types of lists can be very useful when planning different activities to build students’ character trait vocabulary. For many of the activities listed below, having a character trait list will come in very handy.

2. Word Sorts

Word sorts require students to think about the meaning of different character traits. This activity works best for words that have a variety of synonyms, like the words “happy” and “sad.”

You could use index cards to write down several synonyms for the words “happy” and “sad,” mix the words up, and then have students sort the words into 2 groups. Make sure you include several synonyms that might be unfamiliar to your students. Use my free “Character Trait: Sorting by Synonyms List” to help you create different word lists.


Or, if you would like to go the no-prep route, you can use my Character Traits: Building Vocabulary resource that contains several already created cut and paste word sorts, as well as a variety of other activities that will help you build your students’ character trait vocabulary.

3. Would You Rather Questions

This is a fun twist on an old favorite. Use “Would You Rather” questions to get students thinking carefully and discussing the meanings of different character traits. This works best when there is not one obvious answer.

Some sample character trait “Would You Rather” questions could be:

  • Would you rather be patient or reliable?
  • Would you rather be irresponsible or thoughtless?
  • Would you rather be bossy or lazy?
  • Would you rather be generous or cooperative?
  • Would you rather be brilliant or unselfish?
  • Would you rather be meddlesome or deceitful?

Make sure students choose one character trait and defend their answer to their fellow classmates. Choose character traits that will help build your students’ character trait vocabulary.

4. Use a Thesaurus to Build Character Trait Vocabulary

Having students use a thesaurus is a simple but effective way to get them introduced to new words that describe character traits.

You can do this old-school, where students have to look up words alphabetically in a “real” book. Or you can have students practice their “googling” skills online.


Create a word wall using the synonyms students find to use as a reference. In my Character Traits Word Wall Post, I include a FREE printable you can use to help create a word wall with your students that will build their character trait vocabulary. The Word Wall post discusses having your students sort words by their “shades of meaning,” but you can also do this as a class activity. Have students sort synonyms they find based on their meaning. For example, if students were looking up the character trait “funny,” have them sort words based on which word means “The Most Funny” and which word means “The Least Funny.”

Words like “hysterical” will be closer to “The Most Funny,” while words like “entertaining” will be closer to “The Least Funny.”

You can do this activity by writing different words on index cards and having students line up the words. Or, I also have one no-prep continuum sort in my Character Traits: Building Vocabulary product.

5. Character Trait of the Day

I saw this Character Trait of the Day idea on Life in Fifth Grade’s blog. Although I never got a chance to use it in my classroom, I can see how it would be very helpful for building character trait vocabulary.

Basically, while you are teaching a character trait unit, choose a new character trait every day to post and discuss with your class. It’s a good way to introduce your students to variety of new words.

6. Identifying Character Traits Within Short Text

Building your students’ character trait vocabulary isn’t going to be useful unless they can actually apply it to text. I created these Character Trait Task Cards to help assess my students’ ability to identify character traits within text and use evidence from the text to defend their reasoning.

These task cards provide students with a word bank so students are required to think about the meaning of character traits like “patriotic,” “humorous,” and “clumsy.” The answer sheet also requires students to use evidence from the text to defend their answer.


These task cards require students to apply character trait vocabulary to text.  Students are also required to defend their answers with evidence from the text.

Save more than 20% when you buy my Character Traits Bundle, which includes several of the Building Vocabulary activities listed here, my Character Traits Task Cards, as well as some additional No-Prep Character Trait Activities.

Character Traits bundle- includes task cards, cut and paste activities, reading passages, no prep activities, and more.  Great for third graders and fourth graders to help build their understanding of character traits.

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