As a writing teacher, you probably feel like your mantra is “show don’t tell!” Getting students to write descriptively is a real challenge. Here are five writing challenges and prompts to try.
1. Do they understand what you mean by descriptive writing? (and can they find it?)
Here is where a mentor text will help. Provide your students with a few texts that exemplify this. Great examples aren’t difficult to find; the opening scenes of a dystopia novel or historical fiction text can provide you with great examples – and you only need a paragraph or two. (I have a worksheet in my resource library that you can use — just click on the button below to get it.)
Go through the mentor text with your students, locating and annotating descriptive writing. I try to focus on sensory words and vivid verbs. You can make an anchor chart as you go or just have students create their own observation notes as you analyze the text.
But don’t stop there!
Now put your students to work to find their own examples of mentor texts that “show not tell.” They don’t have to go any further than your classroom library or their independent reading texts. Use their sentences to create a class poster of “sentences that show.” They can also create a “sentence collector” page in their notebooks to record favorite sentences. (As a side note, this is a great opportunity to reinforce the use of quotes and citing sources!)
2. Now, let’s do some descriptive writing! Let’s start with verbs!
Once your students have some examples, give them the opportunity to practice.
One of the easiest challenges is to ask students to write a descriptive paragraph (any topic – soccer practice, the lunch room, your locker) and NOT use any verbs of “to be.” Or — limit them to one or two in a paragraph. The aim is to help students try out different verbs.
3. Use the five senses/five sentences
In this challenge, students are asked to write a five sentence description using a different sense in each sentence.
Helping students write descriptively is a challenge!”
To start this, have students write a five sentence description — (their right shoe, backpack, text book, top of their desk, etc.). When the paragraph is finished, have them revise their wriitng so that each sentence uses a different sense.
Now, here is where this assignment gets interesting:
Sense of taste! You don’t want your students to be licking the tops of their desks! However, by writing, “the golden, honey wood glistens as the sunlight streams across it” does have a sense of taste — honey, right? You can “taste” it as well as “see” it in your mind as you read. Use this sense as an opportunity for students to think about word choice in a different way.
4. Gross me out!
One of my favorite exercises in trying to help students “show not tell” is to challenge them to write a gross description. The grossest description wins!
I put a lot of restrictions on this one including:
- must be about a real event
- must be 100 – 150 words long – no longer!
- cannot include anyone in our school
- If it’s a real event, students are less likely to write about zombies or TV horror shows. I want them to write about their own experiences.
- A 100 word word description is a challenge! Every word matters. By limiting the word count, I force students to weigh each word carefully — if it doesn’t bring anything to the party, it must be cut!
- And, by restricting who can be included, I avoid potential drama.
5. Take me there – descriptions I can see!
A fun descriptive writing activity is to ask students to bring in a picture (or provide them) of a vacation spot.
Day 1: Have students write a descriptive paragraph for their pictures. Encourage them to make them so descriptive that readers will be able to see the picture in their mind.
Collect the writing and pictures.
Day 2: Hang the pictures up around the room. Have students work with a partner. Provide each pair with two descriptive paragraphs that were written the previous day. Have students read, discuss, and match the description with what they believe is the correct picture. Allow students to tape descriptions below the pictures. If there is more than one paragraph that students think belongs with the picture, allow it to be taped below the picture.
Analyze: Which pictures and descriptions were correctly matched up? Why? How did the writer(s) paint the picture in the reader’s mind?
Hints about this assignment:
- This works well if you teach two sections of the same class. You can swap the pictures so students are reading and analyzing pictures and writing from the other class.
- Focus on the writing that is effective. No negative responses allowed!
- Use numbers or letters rather than student names to match the photo and writing.
Helping students write descriptively is a huge challenge! They will remember to do this on an in-class exercise but will forget to apply that skill to their next writing assignment! Consistent practice does help. By repeating any one of these activities throughout the school year, you will be reinforcing their “showing” skills.
If you need additional writing prompt ideas, you might be interested in creating RAFTS or using a journal jar. Both great ways to help students practice their writing skills!
What do you think? Are there activities you use with your students that strengthen their descriptive writing skills? Let us know in the comments below!