I love teaching descriptive writing and I don’t save it for creative assignments only. That is because the elements that make description so important in creative writing are the very ones that make for rich and engaging expository and persuasive pieces as well.
I want my students to be able to capture their readers’ or listeners’ attention with their words, and so I show them that accurate and vivid descriptions are the best way to engage any audience. By making it a daily practice to show, not tell, my students get into the habit of always considering their words and phrases.
Let’s talk about the strategies I use to build that habit in my students:
Showing, not telling, is a cornerstone of all writing and speaking in Room 213. From the very first class, my students start practicing description, regardless of what they are working on, even with class discussions and speaking assignments. Right from the beginning I want my students to begin playing with words, so I show them how other writers do so with mentor sentences and texts. Because I want them to know that description is a key part of all genres of writing, I show them news articles, editorials, letters, short stories and excerpts from novels to illustrate how authors choose their words and phrases to paint pictures in their readers’ minds.
Then we talked a lot about our parents and how we didn’t want to become them, but we had no other role models–or “maps,” Alex kept saying. “My father is a terrible map, mostly because he doesn’t ever lead me anywhere.” And I thought about my parents being maps that led to places I didn’t want to go– and it made a shocking amount of sense, using the word maps to describe parents. If almost made you feel like you could fold Mom and Dad up and lock them away in the glove compartment of your car and just joyride for the rest of your life maybe.
We talk about the metaphor that Quick has chosen to describe parents. We discuss the effectiveness of that choice, and how it gives the reader a much better picture than just saying “our parents guide us.” It’s also interesting that the narrator reflects on the picture that Alex created for him with the carefully chosen word, map.
Then, I’ll show my students examples of description in non-fiction and poetry too. For example, I have used Santiago Lyon’s The Purpose of Photography in a Post-Truth Era to illustrate the effect of description on reader engagement. I show students two openings for the article. The first I wrote myself, and the second is Lyon’s opening:
There is a controversy over the number of people who attended Trump’s inauguration, and people are questioning the validity of photographs that captured the crowd size at the ceremony.
Theatrics are an integral part of the American presidential inauguration. A well-located stage, many actors, a few scripted roles, costumes, crowds and waving flags all culminating in the oath of office. After the deed was done this time, artillery pieces fired and the new President spoke; cameras whirred and the audience roared.
Then we discuss the difference between the two and why the second is a far more interesting read, one that makes the reader want more.
We read the rest of Lyon’s piece and I pause on sentences like this one, where he refers to the swollen and treacherous river of content now requires us to question the source of everything we see and read. We discuss why this is very effective metaphor to describe the onslaught of images and information we have to navigate today.
There are many places to access great mentor texts, but my favourites are Time Opinion, The Atlantic, New York Times Op-Eds, and Mitch Albom’s Sports Articles.
I break the skills of descriptive writing into chunks and present mini-lessons paired with mentor texts. One day we might look at tired words and active verbs. Another we will look at sensory images. Each time I model the skill then give kids a chance to practice it themselves.
For example, if we are talking about verb choice, I will show them lots of examples, like the ones in Lyon’s piece above: cameras whirred and the audience roared. I ask them how the verbs whirred and roared affect the meaning of the sentence.
Then, they practice. I do this in a number of ways: I might give them mentor sentences to mimic, or I’ll have them read over some of their journal entries to look for places where they can use more effective, active verbs.
I also use learning stations to give students opportunities to practice these skills, beyond what they’ve done during our mini-lessons. The stations target components of descriptive writing like sensory imagery, figurative language and diction. Students get to experiment with their words in a low-stakes, highly engaging way.
As I’ve said already, I want my students to be descriptive, regardless of the genre. In order to foster this, descriptive writing is not just reserved for a certain unit or assignment; we make it a daily practice to show, rather than tell.
After every writing prompt we take a few minutes to reflect and revise, focusing on the skill I’m targeting that day. I instruct students to re-read their words and highlight or underline places that need more detail or description. I might ask them to find one passage that would be enhanced with a sensory image, a more accurate word, or some figurative language. Some days, we take the time for them to actually add these things, but more often than not, they will just highlight and make notes in their margins. We don’t always have the time to finish the revision; however, I believe that those few minutes reflecting and note taking builds that habit for the kids, so they begin to naturally look for ways to be more descriptive, without me telling them to be.
With major assessments, even speaking ones, students consider how they can use description to enhance their work: can they draw the reader or listener in with a descriptive opening? Can you enhance one of your points with some sensory imagery? Will figurative language help the reader see your point more clearly? These questions are built into all of our revision activities, like peer checklists or revision stations, but by the time we get to that stage of the writing process, the kids already know that I want them to show, not tell.
I hope I’ve given you some useful ideas that you can use in your classroom. If you are interested in any of the resources mentioned in this article, you can check them out here.
Short Mentor Texts
Writing Lessons: Word Choice
Descriptive Writing Learning Stations
Writing Prompts For Building Skills & Stamina
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