There is growing recognition that classifying terrestrial plant species on the basis of their function (into 'functional types') rather than their higher taxonomic identity, is a promising way forward for tackling important ecological questions at the scale of ecosystems, landscapes or biomes. These questions include those on vegetation responses to and vegetation effects on, environmental changes (e.g. changes in climate, atmospheric chemistry, land use or other disturbances). There is also growing consensus about a shortlist of plant traits that should underlie such functional plant classifications, because they have strong predictive power of important ecosystem responses to environmental change and/or they themselves have strong impacts on ecosystem processes. The: most favoured traits are those that are also relatively easy and inexpensive to measure for large numbers of plant species. Large international research efforts, promoted by the IGBP-GCTE Programme, are underway to screen predominant plant species in various ecosystems and biomes worldwide for such traits. This paper provides an international methodological protocol aimed at standardising this research effort, based on consensus among a broad group of scientists in this field. It features a practical handbook with step-by-step recipes, with relatively brief information about the ecological context, for 28 functional traits recognised as critical for tackling large-scale ecological questions.