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Writing a lot about a little: lesson ideas for secondary descriptive writing

Updated: Jun 16, 2019

How I teach my students to describe clearly using leaves and sticks from my garden!

Teaching descriptive writing is one of my least favourite things. Of course, studies show that the ability of students to describe details clearly is heavily dependent on external factors such as their exposure to vocabulary through things like reading and dinner time conversations. Some students have expansive vocabularies and find descriptive writing to be incredibly easy whilst others struggle to find anything to say. I have previously found that my lessons centered around teaching writing are disjointed as the natural writers finish before the strugglers have even started. Whilst we, as teachers, put in hours of instructional time into developing vocabulary, some students will never be able to develop the vocabularies that we aim for. As such, teaching writing is always difficult for me. Over the past few years, however, I have developed a bank of methods through which I teach students to describe effectively. Keep reading for some of my favourite lesson ideas for helping bridge the vocabulary gap that exists within every classroom.

Writing a lot about a little

To start off, I help students understand how to write a lot about something as simple as a green leaf. I show them a picture of sand and I model how I come up with lots to say about it. We go through the slides (you can download them at the bottom of this post) and then I give them time to discuss and ask questions before handing over to them. Once they are ready to start with their own writing, I give each student some items that I have found in my backyard or at a park - some leaves, a piece of bark, some flower petals. They have a few minutes to look at the items carefully and choose one that they want to write about. 

Once they have chosen their item, they have to describe it in no less than 200 words - and let me tell you, it is not easy! They struggle and have to keep looking back at it over and over again until they can find the right words. This task really helps them to develop the skills they need to really hone in on the finer details of the subject.

Setting maps

I started using setting maps when I lived in England. After noticing that lots of the teachers over there were doing this sort of thing, I designed a map in which my students could take notes on their setting before they even wrote about it - it's nothing fancy but it does the job! I use this as the next part of my lesson, after the writing about the items.

Prior to the lesson, I ask students to print a picture of a setting that looks similar to the one they want to write about (or they can email it to me and I will print it for them) and then they look at these four elements of sensory description. Once they had an image to work from, the students found it infinitely easier to describe the finer details of their setting. You can get your own copy of this setting map here.

A good example is the setting below. Kids find it much easier to think about how their skin would feel as they walk through this setting if they know that the sun is shining through the trees, perhaps in the afternoon. Having an image like this sitting in the middle of their page makes describing the setting much easier.

Do you also struggle with bridging the vocabulary gap in your classroom? Have you found an effective way to teach descriptive writing? Let me know!

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