Descriptive writing seems like it should be easy to teach, yet it is one of the most popular posts on my site, and I receive the most questions about teaching it.
We know what we want our students to do, but they still struggle. There are plenty of reasons for this, but let’s start by making sure they can identify descriptive writing when they see it.
First — Is it narrative or descriptive?
What’s the difference between narrative writing and descriptive writing? Students sometimes have a difficult time with this– isn’t a narrative just describing a story?
The difference is that while narrative writing should be descriptive, not all descriptive writing is narrative.
To help your students distinguish between the two, try using a Venn diagram. On one side, we have a book, while on the other side, we have a cereal box.
This can help your students visually see the differences between the two writing styles:
- book is a narrative that tells a story
- a cereal box includes a description of the contents, but doesn’t tell a story
You can have them add items to the diagram as you work through a variety of texts.
Next, find descriptive texts
I LOVE reading descriptions of food products. Cereal, crackers, soup … they fascinate me.
I think that describing food is an art! The crunch, snap, sizzle, spice…all the words that make me want to dump the contents into a bowl and grab a spoon!
Food descriptions are great items to use as mentor texts. They are perfect examples of sensory language.
Another great place to find description in for clothing. Lands’ End is one of my favorites.
Here’s a description for boots:
- “You’re going to need a boot that can handle even the most torrential downpours. Our rain boots have you covered for those rainy days with a waterproof upper and durable rubber outsole. We didn’t skimp on the comfort either. Our rain boots have a removable padded footbed that’s easy to clean and perfect for a little extra cushion.”
And here’s one for a dog raincoat:
- “Wouldn’t rainy day walks be a little more bearable if you just had to dry off Buddy’s feet – and if he didn’t make a wet mess by shaking off all that water? Get him a Dog Rain Jacket! It’s an ideal barrier against stormy weather, made with a water-resistant nylon outer shell for protection against wind and rain. The soft cotton jersey knit lining is comfortable without being too warm. Reflective nylon trim and cording detail help drivers see your best friend on nighttime walks. Fun details like a handy back pocket and woven interior name label – which you can fill in with your dog’s name – complete the package. Adjustable hook and loop closures for easy on and off.”
Students can start a collection of descriptive writing to add to their resource books — or create a “descriptive writing wall” that students can add examples to.
Once students have a collections of examples, they can write their own descriptions in similar ways.
Involve your students to identify descriptive language
Share a few clothing descriptions with students and ask them to point out where the description is. (You can use the examples above.)
Next, ask students if these ads are narratives. Certainly, they have an element of a story to them (especially the dog jacket is one one), but they are not true narratives. They are descriptions.
Now take a closer look
Where do they see sensory language?
Words like: dry, wet, soft, warm included in the description are great ways to show students that sensory language includes “feeling” or “touch” words as well as the more obvious ones of sight and sound.
What are other types of descriptive language?
Are there any similes or metaphors? If someone is as quiet as a mouse or has a heart of gold, these aren’t literal, but they can describe more abstract concepts in simple terms.
Be sure to keep an eye out for connotative language as well. Saying that you’re sitting by a peaceful lake, or that you see angry storm clouds on the horizon acts as a shorthand for all sorts of broader reaching descriptors.
As students notice these things, have them create a word bank — and continue adding to it as they find more examples and texts to analyze.
This will give your students a start when they are going to write something descriptive.
Classify your mentor texts
If your students are struggling to see the difference — keep your descriptive narrative texts separate from your narrative ones at first.
Of course, you’ll have narrative texts that are full of description, but until your students are clear on what exactly descriptive writing is, and they have practice using it, you should have a separate list of narrative texts.
By asking “Is this a narrative or a description?” will help students look for and see (or not see!) the elements of a story.
Digging in deeper
Once your students have a grasp on distinguishing narrative and descriptive writing, we can move into your more narrative-heavy texts. Stick with a small passage at first, and have them identify all the descriptive language in the text. Be sure that they’re looking for all the same types of descriptive writing as before.
Looking for more? This descriptive writing freebie walks you through the process!
Ways to practice descriptive writing
After giving your students multiple examples of descriptive texts and having them analyze them, challenge them to write descriptions only.
How to do this:
1.Go back to the descriptive mentor texts you collected.
2. Challenge your students to students think about the bottle water industry. Back in the day, the only bottled water was distilled water. Now, there is practically an entire grocery store aisle filled with choices of water.
It’s all water!
How did this market grow — by descriptive writing!
Fiji water states: “From a sustainable ancient artesian aquifer in Fiji to more than 60 countries across the globe, FIJI Water has been bringing Earth’s Finest Water to the world since 1996.”
3. Give your students a product to create a descriptive ad about. How about an apple? A pretzel? A toothbrush? A paper clip?
They are describing the physical item, yes, but also describing how the items feels, smells, tastes — how does it make the reader feel about it?
Don’t forget to bring in figurative language and connotation when your students are ready for the challenge.
Once your students have some practice with descriptive writing, add in a challenge.
Here are five writing challenges and prompts to try.
1. Find descriptive writing in a text
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 that you can use for this — grab it here.)
Go through the mentor text with your students, locating and annotating descriptive words and phrases. 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.
It can also be helpful for students to create a “bank” in their resource book with descriptive words. This is helpful when they need to add description to their own writing.
But don’t stop there!
Now put your students to work to find descriptive details on their own in other mentor texts.
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. Practice: Let’s start with verbs!
Once your students have some examples, give them the opportunity to practice descriptive writing.
One of the easiest challenges is to ask students to write a descriptive paragraph (any topic – soccer practice, the lunch room, their locker) and NOT use any verbs of “to be.” Or — limit them to one or two per paragraph.
The focus of this activity:
The aim is to help students try out different verbs.
3. Use the five senses/five sentences
In this challenge, students are asked to use sensory details to write a five sentence paragraph using a different sense in each sentence.
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 writing 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 sensory details with the 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.
The focus of this descriptive writing activity:
Students will need to think about their word choice in order to use all five senses. Paying attention to sensory details helps bring writing to life.
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 descriptive essay. 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 — each one has to bring something to the party, otherwise it’s cut!
- Limiting the word count also requires students to focus on sensory details.
- And, by restricting who can be included, I avoid potential drama.
The focus of this activity:
If your students can gross you out, they are writing descriptively! They will need to use all of their writing skills to create vivid images and along with an emotional response for the reader.
How will they do it? Through descriptive writing.
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 be 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 descriptive writing.
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!
Where does descriptive writing fit in the writing process?
Ideally, using descriptive writing is something that is second nature to students. They add it as they are writing.
However, as teachers, we want to think about how we can help students develop that second nature. Consider adding descriptive writing into different places in the writing process — from prewriting to revising.
Asking students to pay attention to where and how they are using descriptive writing will help develop the second nature of using it.
Check out this complete resource for teaching descriptive writing — using mentor texts, sketches, & self-assessments. Plus more writing support in my shop!
Looking for more fun writing activities to engage your students? Check out this post for some cool ideas.