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Descriptive Writing

The primary purpose of descriptive writing is to describe a person, place or thing in such a way that a picture is formed in the reader's mind. Capturing an event through descriptive writing involves paying close attention to the details by using all of your five senses. Teaching students to write more descriptively will improve their writing by making it more interesting and engaging to read.

Why teach descriptive writing?

  • It will help your students' writing be more interesting and full of details
  • It encourages students to use new vocabulary words
  • It can help students clarify their understanding of new subject matter material

How to teach descriptive writing

There's no one way to teach descriptive writing. That said, teachers can:

  • Develop descriptive writing skill through modeling and the sharing of quality literature full of descriptive writing.
  • Include lessons such as the ones listed below throughout the year.
  • Call students' attention to interesting, descriptive word choices in classroom writing.

According to Book Nuts Reading Club, descriptive writing shares the following characteristics:

  1. Good descriptive writing includes many vivid sensory details that paint a picture and appeals to all of the reader's senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste when appropriate. Descriptive writing may also paint pictures of the feelings the person, place or thing invokes in the writer.
  2. Good descriptive writing often makes use of figurative language such as analogies, similes and metaphors to help paint the picture in the reader's mind.
  3. Good descriptive writing uses precise language. General adjectives, nouns, and passive verbs do not have a place in good descriptive writing. Use specific adjectives and nouns and strong action verbs to give life to the picture you are painting in the reader's mind.
  4. Good descriptive writing is organized. Some ways to organize descriptive writing include: chronological (time), spatial (location), and order of importance. When describing a person, you might begin with a physical description, followed by how that person thinks, feels and acts.

Language Arts

The Show-Me Sentences lesson plan from Read Write Think was created for students in grades 6-12. However, elementary teachers can modify the Show-Me sentences to make them interesting for younger students.

The Writing Fix provides a lesson plan for using Roald Dahl's The Twits as a mentor text to teach descriptive writing.

Project GRAD offers a method for using photographs to encourage descriptive writing. Initially created for older students, many of the same prompts could be used for younger students as well.

Writer's Workshop connects great children's literature with children's own writing experiences. In this video clip from our Launching Young Readers PBS series, Lynn Reichle's second graders practice their use of descriptive writing.

When to use: Before reading During reading After reading
How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Examples:

Math

This resource from Greenville County Schools in South Carolina provides several ideas for writing in math class. Writing and mathematics are similar in that they both require gathering, organizing, and clarifying thoughts. Writing can assist math instruction by helping children make sense of mathematics and by helping teachers understand what children are learning.

Science

Writing in science gives students an opportunity to describe observations and scientific phenomena, and can help them comprehend new material by having to explain it in their own words. Fazio and Gallagher propose two instructional strategies to assist teachers and student when writing in science: a mnemonic acronym (POWER) and an editing checklist.

Social Studies

In social studies, descriptive writing can help students describe an important historical figure or event more clearly. Writing rich in detail will create vivid depictions of people and places and help make history come alive.

The RAFT strategy encourages descriptive writing by encouraging students to think through the writer's Role, the Audience, the Format, and the Topic. The Writing Fix offers guidance for building a RAFT writing prompt that challenges students to think deeply about history.

Differentiated instruction

for second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and for younger learners

  • Use dictation as a way to help capture students thoughts and ideas
  • Provide budding writers with experiences that give them something to write about. Trips to the park, post office, and grocery store provide real-life experiences that can be recorded by a new writer.
  • Encourage students to work with a buddy or in a small group to develop first drafts of documents
  • Provide a word bank of interesting and descriptive words for students to incorporate into their writing.

See the research that supports this strategy

Akerson, V. L., & Young, T.A. (2005). Science the 'write' way. Science and Children, 43(3), 38-41.

Miller, R.G., & Calfee, R.C. (2004). Making thinking visible: A method to encourage science writing in upper elementary grades. Science and Children, (42)3, 20-25.

Mitchell, D. (1996). Writing to learn across the curriculum and the English teacher. English Journal, 85, 93-97.

Santa, C., & Havens, L. (1995). Creating independence through student-owned strategies: Project CRISS. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Children's books to use with this strategy

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) 

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) 

In this spin-off off from the traditional tale, the indomitable bread-making Little Red Hen makes pizza. Describe why her friends wouldn't help her and in the order they refused her request. Make the pizza, its maker, and the ingredients irresistible in your description. Compare it to a time-honored version.

Squids Will Be Squids 

Squids Will Be Squids 

Fables are short and usually presented with an explicit moral. These offbeat fables, however, are sure to inspire expansion or even additional vibrant, rib-tickling offshoots.

Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme 

Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme 

A prolific (and popular) poet, Prelutsky provides poem starters for slightly older children. Young poets can either finish the "poemstarts" suggested here or create their own original poem.

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella

Cinderella stories are found around the world; here, they have been fused into one tale with special characteristics in text and illustrations that reflect the different origins. Expand parts of the story to echo the traditions of the culture and its history from which it comes. It may be possible to develop a map of tales (e.g., ancient vs. modern countries, or as a visual as to where it is/was told).

Each Orange Had 8 Slices: A Counting Book

Each Orange Had 8 Slices: A Counting Book

Counting is fun especially in this sophisticated but accessible and handsomely illustrated book. Various situations are introduced in straightforward sentences followed by questions that are answered by counting. Describe each situation in the order presented.

A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder

A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder

Arresting photographs of water in various states not only introduces water but also weather, solids and liquids, and more. The sophisticated text further encourages experimentation and observation, although is not necessary to use the entire book with younger children.

26 Letters and 99 Cents

26 Letters and 99 Cents

Sequencing, sets, counting, and money (coins) are introduced in crisp photographs in this wordless concept book. Upper and lower case letters from A to Z with attendant objects are half of the book; turn it over and numbers, counting, and more are presented.

I Face the Wind

I Face the Wind

Children are encouraged to observe as experiment as they learn about wind and air as well as practice science writing by describing their findings.

Benny's Pennies

Benny's Pennies

A boy has five pennies and spends them one at a time as he meets people during a walk. Told in rhyme, this cumulative story is appealing and well supported by illustration.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk

The traditional tale of a boy who planted magic beans is reimagined as a city story of a spell broken. Illustrations are photographs that have been manipulated for good effect.

Soup Day

Soup Day

A mother and her child get the ingredients for soup on a snowy day and then add everything to the pot. The pair plays snug and warm while the soup simmers until Dad comes home when they enjoy soup together. Crisp collage and a simple text make for a cozy read.

No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season

No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season

Ted Williams never flinched at hard work or a challenge. In his last season with the Boston Red Sox, Williams had to decide if he wanted to take the chance and lose his rare .400 average or go to bat. Williams' decision creates a riveting read in this handsome and thoughtful look at one man's ethics and the times in which he lived.

The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth

The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth

Two machines captivated young Philo Farnsworth: a telephone and a phonograph. Both had cranks and both connected people with others (one in real time, the other through music). These and other inspirations motivated young Philo to invent what was to become known as the television. His early story is fascinatingly told and well illustrated.

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

Relive the journey of the Apollo 11 where the first people stepped on the moon's surface and saw Earth from a very different perspective. Eloquent language and illustrations combine to present this historical event in a unique, unforgettable way.

If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States

If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States

If all of the 300 million people were simply one village of 100 people, its diversity is easier to understand. That's just what the author has done to make the complex make-up of the U.S. residents (in terms of languages spoken, ages, and more). Colorful illustrations accompany the understandable text. Additional resources complete the book. If the World Were a Village: A Book About the World’s People, also by Smith, looks at the inhabitants of the world as a village to allow its diversity to become more understandable for adults and children.

One World, One Day

One World, One Day

Every day children around the world awake to begin their days having breakfast, going to school, coming home to families. A poetic text combines with photographs from myriad countries to visually highlight the richness of the world and its people.

10 Minutes Till Bedtime

10 Minutes Till Bedtime

At One Hoppin' Place, the countdown to bedtime is about to begin when a family of hamsters--a mother and father with nine kids and a baby all wearing numbered striped jerseys--arrives at the front door.

The Mysterious Tadpole

The Mysterious Tadpole

When Louis' uncle sends a tadpole from a certain lake in Scotland, the small tadpole grows to enormous proportions. With the help of a resourceful librarian, Louis figures out a way to feed his large and ever-hungry Alphonse as well as determine a permanent solution. Humor abounds in this contemporary classic.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. grew up fascinated by big words. He would later go on to use these words to inspire a nation and call people to action. In this award-winning book, powerful portraits of King show how he used words, not weapons, to fight injustice.

Science Verse

Science Verse

This boy's curse begins when his teacher suggests that the "poetry of science" can be heard everywhere. From Moore to Frost, familiar poems are parodied and turned into science verse. Again art and illustration are inseparable as are the laughs in this offbeat look at science.

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo