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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.
Appropriate group size, 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 (opens in a new window) .
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.
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 (opens in a new window) — organized into sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch categories — helps students capture sensory details related to a topic. The Describing Wheel (opens in a new window) offers a more open-ended format for capturing and organizing descriptive language.
The Show-Me Sentences (opens in a new window) 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 (opens in a new window) guides students through the process of writing about a favorite place using descriptive language.
This lesson plan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (opens in a new window) 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 .
For second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and younger learners.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
- RAFT helps students understand their roles as writers, the audience they will address, the varied formats for writing, and the topic they’ll be writing about.
- Revision teaches students about the characteristics of good writing, which will carry over into their future writing. Revision skills complement reading skills; revision requires that writers distance themselves from the writing and critically evaluate a text.
- Writing Conferences give students a chance to share their writing and and receive feedback from peers or the teacher.
- Think-alouds can be used for writing as well as reading instruction
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
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.
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.
The Mysterious Tadpole
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.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
10 Minutes Till Bedtime
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.
One World, One Day
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 (opens in a new window) , 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.
If America Were a Village: A Book About the People of the United States
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.
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11
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.
The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth
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.
No Easy Way: The Story of Ted Williams and the Last .400 Season
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.
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.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Children are encouraged to observe as experiment as they learn about wind and air as well as practice science writing by describing their findings.
I Face the Wind
26 Letters and 99 Cents
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.
A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder
Each Orange Had 8 Slices: A Counting Book
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).
Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella
Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme
The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza)
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.
Squids Will Be Squids
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Teaching Descriptive Writing in the Upper Elementary Grades
Descriptive writing is one of my favorite units to teach. I love that it gives students lots of room for creativity while also getting them to think critically about a topic or story event. And it reinforces the idea that when we write, we write for the reader – we want to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.
Learning how to “show, not tell” isn’t just important in writing workshop. It also helps students in science (when recording observations) and social studies (when explaining about important people, places, and events).
Teaching Descriptive Writing
Descriptive writing won’t be new to your 3rd, 4th, or 5th graders, but it’s still something they need to practice. We don’t want them to write a list of adjective-heavy sentences. We want them to engage the reader while describing in detail a topic or moment in a story. Lots of modeling, practice, and student-made anchor charts are great to use in these lessons.
Some minilessons you might teach include sensory details , figurative language, using specific vocabulary (i.e., vivid verbs, choosing synonyms for overused words, etc.), and varying sentence length and structur e.
Revising is also important since we want students to make sure their writing is cohesive and on topic. Students often think more = better when it comes to descriptive writing, but that’s not always the case. Having opportunities to read their writing aloud and get partner feedback is really helpful.
Use Mentor Texts
Descriptive writing mentor texts are a great way to share concrete examples of “show, not tell”. Owl Moon is a classic go-to, but here are some of my favorite books that may be new to your students!
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I love how Elisha Cooper takes a simple topic and describes it in such detail! Beach , Train , and Farm are great for modeling how to do a deep dive on a topic.
Ten Ways to Hear Snow is one of my new favorite picture books! You can use this charming story to model descriptive and narrative writing and, in particular, sensory language . It’d be great to have students write their own versions on other nature topics.
Another nice mentor text to use is The Night Box . It includes personification, onomatopoeia, similes, and metaphors that add detail to the story. And I love the tie-in to day and night if you want to fit in a quick science review!
Roller Coaster is one more tried-and-true read-aloud to model descriptive details. I like how it’s not just a description of how a coaster looks or how quickly it moves, but also what the people riding it experience.
Come On, Rain works well for teaching sensory language as well as how to write a small moment story. I love how Hesse uses vivid vocabulary to make the reader really feel the heat and the rain!
The Wild Robot is a must-have chapter book for upper elementary classrooms! You can read the whole book or an excerpt to model how sensory language and specific word choice help the reader to easily visualize the setting.
And don’t forget poetry! The Great Frog Race , The Best Part of Me , and collections of haikus and concrete poetry are awesome to use during this unit, too!
Revise Boring Sentences
This one’s so easy, but it works! Have students compare a short sentence with a much more descriptive one. Which one is more interesting/helpful, and why?
Then you can practice taking a short sentence and revising it to make it more descriptive and appealing to the reader. This is a great whole-class kick-off before students write on their own.
Use Picture Prompts
I love using pictures for writing prompts in this unit! Funny photos, landscape pics, photos of food and animals, and even famous paintings are fun to use. I like to use a mix of busy and simple images.
Bring in Media Messages
A descriptive writing unit is an easy place to tie in media messages . You can have students analyze radio commercials, print ads, real estate and catalog listings, etc., to see how the author used descriptive language. And then have them create their own media messages describing favorite products they want people to buy! They LOVE this activity!
I’ve also had students write travel brochures for places we’ve studied (like Virginia’s regions and bodies of water). That’s a perfect way to hit social studies during your writing workshop!
Play a Game
This activity is so simple and it’s always a hit! Have them write a short descriptive paragraph or poem about a food, toy, sport, instrument, place in your community, etc. Display them on desks or make a bulletin board, and then have students try to guess what each describes.
A modified version of “I Spy” is also good practice! You can have students zoom in on tiny details to make it more challenging.
Descriptive Writing Practice
Looking for a resource to use to teach this unit? My forms of writing digital activities walk students through descriptive writing with a sample text, guided practice, editable word lists, checklists, rubrics, and more.
I hope you and your students enjoy your descriptive writing lessons! What other favorite activities do you have to model and teach this form of writing?
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Examples of Descriptive Writing Using the 5 Senses
What is Descriptive Writing?
Descriptive writing uses details and the five senses to describe a person, place, thing, or event. Proper word choice and the use of adjectives are very important for the reader to create a picture in their mind. Similes and onomatopoeia (sound words) are some other examples of descriptive writing.
Basic Sentence: The leaf fell off the tree.
Detailed Sentence: The yellow leaf fell off the big tree.
Descriptive Writing: SWOOSH! The smooth yellow leaf floated down from the enormous oak tree.
Using the 5 Senses
Using the five senses is one of the best ways to incorporate descriptive writing. Describing sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch will enable the reader to envision the words and better understand the writing. Although it may be difficult to use all five senses, even just using a few will enhance the reader’s experience.
Grab your FREE 5 Senses Charts!
It’s fun to choose one topic and describe it in depth. Look at the list below for some examples of descriptive writing ideas for kids to try.
- Food – pumpkin pie, ice cream, hot chocolate
- Animal – dog, bird, elephant
- Season – winter, spring, summer, fall
- Holiday – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas
- Place – zoo, island, school
- Event – birthday, parade, sporting event
Winter by Mrs. Sutton
Cold harsh wind engulfs me like a tornado.
White fluffy snow falls from the sky.
WHOOSH! The sound of the sled as it races past.
The smell of logs burning in the fireplace.
Sweet hot cocoa hits my tongue.
Autumn is Here by Mrs. Sutton
Bright vibrant red and yellow leaves.
The sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
Cool crisp air surrounds me.
The sweet smell of pumpkin pie as the warmth enters my mouth.
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Hi Angela, This article was really helpful for me. Thank you so much for the best resources given.
I’m so glad this information was useful and helpful. I really appreciate your feedback!
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