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.

How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

What is descriptive writing?

Descriptive writing helps the reader visualize the person, place, thing, or situation being described. When a text conjures a vivid, sensory impression in the reader’s mind, not only does it make the writing more interesting to read; it helps the reader understand the text better and recognize the author’s intention more clearly.

Why teach descriptive writing?

  • It helps students make their writing more interesting and engaging to read.
  • It creates opportunities for students to practice using new words in meaningful contexts, a key strategy for building vocabulary.
  • Descriptive writing tends to include figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, and onomatopoeia. Noticing figurative language in mentor texts and incorporating it into their own writing help students build critical verbal reasoning skills. To find out more about verbal reasoning and other components of language comprehension, see the “In Depth” section from the Comprehension module of our Reading 101 Course.
  • It encourages students to learn from—and be metacognitive about—the techniques other authors use to write vivid descriptions.  
  • It can help students clarify their understanding of new subject matter material and remember more of what they learn.

How to teach descriptive writing

If only descriptive writing were as simple as “show, don’t tell”! Descriptive writing is a skill — and a craft — that takes instruction, practice, and time to learn. The good news is that it can be explicitly taught. An understanding of the characteristics of effective descriptive writing, combined with a toolkit of structures and strategies to scaffold learning and practice, can enhance students’ development as authors of vivid, evocative writing.

What effective descriptive writing looks like

Authors of descriptive writing use a variety of styles and techniques to connect with readers, but effective descriptive writing often shares these characteristics:

  • Vivid details. Specific details paint a picture in the reader’s mind and appeal to the reader's senses. Descriptive writing may also go beyond creating a strong sensory impression to give the reader a “picture” of the feelings the description evokes in the writer.
  • Figurative language. Tools of the writer’s craft such as analogy, simile, and metaphor  add depth to authors’ descriptions.
  • Precise language. General adjectives, nouns, and passive verbs are used sparingly. Instead, specific adjectives and nouns and strong action verbs give life to the picture being painted in the reader's mind.
  • Thoughtful organization. Some ways to organize descriptive writing include: chronological (time), spatial (location), and order of importance. Descriptive writing about a person might begin with a physical description, followed by how the person thinks, feels and acts.

What effective instruction in descriptive writing looks like

There isn’t one right approach to teaching descriptive writing, but effective instruction often includes:

  • Mentor texts. Reading aloud and analyzing high-quality mentor texts to help students understand how authors use descriptive writing to connect with readers.
  • Focus on the five senses. Helping students make the connection between sensory input (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) and descriptive writing.
  • Teacher modeling. Modeling different ways to generate descriptive writing.
  • Guided practice. Repeated, structured practice scaffolded to meet students’ needs.
  • Feedback and revision. Cycles of constructive teacher and peer feedback followed by thoughtful revision. 

Watch a demonstration: show NOT tell using your 5 senses

In this virtual lesson, the teacher models generating written descriptions of a hot day using the five senses as a framework.

Watch a classroom lesson: five senses graphic organizer

Students use their five senses and a graphic organizer to brainstorm ideas for writing a report on a recent school event and to help them think about interesting words to include in their report. See the lesson plan.

Watch a classroom discussion: writer’s workshop

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.

Collect resources

Here are some routines and structures for teaching descriptive writing:

The RAFT strategy encourages descriptive writing and supports writing in general by encouraging students to think through the writer's Role, the Audience, the Format, and the Topic. ReadWriteThink offers this RAFT Writing Template.

This Sense Chart — organized into sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch categories — helps students capture sensory details related to a topic. The Describing Wheel offers a more open-ended format for capturing and organizing descriptive language.

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

This lesson plan from Utah Education Network guides students through the process of writing about a favorite place using descriptive language. 

This lesson plan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art has students work collaboratively to generate descriptive writing about works of art. It is intended for upper elementary and middle grades but can be adapted for lower grades.

Teacher Laura Torres created a lesson plan that uses images to jumpstart vivid writing: Three Descriptive Writing Picture Prompts.

Differentiate instruction

For English-learners, readers of different ability levels, or students needing extra support:

  • Use dictation as a way to help capture students thoughts and ideas.
  • Provide sentence frames for writing descriptive sentences or paragraphs.
  • Use pictures and other sensory prompts.
  • Provide budding writers with real-life or virtual experiences that give them something to write about. Trips to a relative’s house, playground or 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 .
  • Work with students to brainstorm a word bank of interesting and descriptive words students can incorporate into their writing.

Extend the learning

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 support math instruction by helping students make sense of important concepts and procedures.

Science

Descriptive writing in science can help students capture observations and scientific phenomena with greater precision, and can help them comprehend new material by explaining 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.

Related strategies

Learn more about building writing skills in our self-paced module Reading 101: 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.

MacArthur, C., Graham, S., & Fitzgerald, J. (2016). Handbook of research on writing (2nd Edition). NY: Guilford.

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.

Children's books to use with this strategy

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) 

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) 

By: Philemon Sturges
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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.

Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme 

Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme 

By: Jack Prelutsky
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Paul Fleischman
Genre: Fiction, Fairytales, Folk Tales, and Tall Tales
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Paul Giganti
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Walter Wick
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Tana Hoban
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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

By: Vicki Cobb
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Pat Brisson
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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

By: Nina Crews
Genre: Fiction, Fairytales, Folk Tales, and Tall Tales
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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

By: Melissa Iwai
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 0-3
Reading Level: Pre-Reader

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

By: Fred Bowen
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Kathleen Krull
Genre: Biography, Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Brian Floca
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: David Smith
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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

By: Barbara Kerley
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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

By: Peggy Rathmann
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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

By: Steven Kellogg
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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.

By: Doreen Rappaport
Genre: Biography, Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

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.

Squids Will Be Squids

Squids Will Be Squids

By: Jon Scieszka
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Scieszka and Smith set sights on creating fresh fables — short traditional tales intended to teach a moral lesson. With humorous twists and take-offs, new, different and wacky fables are presented for readers' edification and amusement.

Science Verse

Science Verse

By: Jon Scieszka
Genre: Poetry
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

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.

Comments

Really good examples and nice enjoyable videos. The videos make it easy to understand.

Fun, useful, precise and captures all the elements needed to build a descriptive essay.

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