Picture It: Teaching Descriptive Writing
There are many fun and effective ways to teach students to write descriptively.
By Dawn Dodson
“O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.”
I love that stanza from Frost’s poem “October”! Every time I read it I am transported to my favorite season, and can visualize my nine year old self walking through the woods across the street from my house. I can see the maple trees with the syrup buckets attached; their leaves cascading down to the ground, hear the birds, and feel the cool air. I can even smell the sweetness of the leaves underfoot. This kind of experience can inspire a person to write about it, but this is not always an easy task. Descriptive writing is an art form that needs to be practiced and refined. The activities that follow are some of my favorite writing lessons to teach, and help students produce writing that is also interesting to read.
My descriptive writing lessons almost always begin with a short story or poem. I like to use Robert Frost or Maya Angelou poems. Or I might choose a short story from “The Scary Stories Treasury” collection by Alvin Schwartz. In these stories students are given an example that sets the scene for adjective and literary device discussion. These types of exercises can help students identify images given by the authors. In each example I choose I like to have students keep a post-it note to write down any images they visualize as I read aloud, noting words or phrases that “jump out” at them. I collect their post-it notes and display them on our classroom bulletin board. I encourage students to refer to the bulletin board for help and/or inspiration for their own writing. There have been years when wall space was limited and students kept lists in their writing notebooks or folders. The examples help students understand what descriptive writing sounds like/looks like, and to help students identify the strategies involved.
After providing examples, I like to help students begin writing their own pieces by asking them to define the five senses and how objects can look, taste, hear, smell, and feel. After creating a list on the board, I use Chris Van Allsburg’s book “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” to provide students with a prompt. Each page has an illustration, title, and caption. Students choose an illustration and write a paragraph describing it. Their descriptions should include the five senses, adjectives and literary devices we have discussed in other examples.
Another activity/game that focuses students on the five senses is “Grab it, Describe it.” I play this with students who are having trouble finding the right descriptive words. I put various items that have different textures in a paper bag. Students cover their eyes and choose an item. The student describes what they feel. I’ve also played this game having students blind folded and the class use adjectives to help a student guess the object. Either way, this is a fun way to get students thinking about descriptive words. I like to have a student keep a list of the adjectives used during the game for students to use in later writing assignments.
In our last activity students go on an “adjective walk.” In years past I was located at a school building with a nice view of the woods and a field. I had students carry a pencil and a notebook. We walked around the playground and described things we saw. Everything from the playground equipment to trees and birds were used as prompts to come up with adjectives and phrases. Each of the activities I've mentioned above helps students to identify words to use and helps them to create more interesting imagery within their writing. It is amazing to see students’ writing come alive with the right resources and the opportunity to practice. What follows are more descriptive writing lessons.
Descriptive Writing Lessons:
In this lesson the teacher models the process of writing a paragraph using descriptive words. Students play “I Spy” using descriptive words and then create their own original paragraph.
Students learn to write descriptively by participating in a visualization activity in which they arrive at a beach via an elevator. Students are encouraged to use their five senses to describe their experience. After writing about their experience, students form groups to peer edit their work.
This lesson provides practice and reinforcement for literary devices and parts of speech. Students learn strategies for descriptive writing and identify authors’ techniques.
Students draw a picture of a monster, and write an organized set of instructions. They describe their monster using adjectives in a paragraph.