To ability to accurately describe an event, a location, a person or an object adds depth to a student’s writing. One strategy is to teach students how to include details to give ‘life’ to their description. Underpinning this is teaching students to improve their observational skills and to use all of their senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Introduce your students to the purpose of descriptive words by writing a simple sentence on the board: The cat sleeps. Ask students to quickly illustrate this sentence. Discuss how each student’s picture is different. Discuss how the greater the detail provided the more consistent will be the image formed by the reader.
Begin with a focus on adjectives. Choose nouns that can readily be observed and ask students to write an adjective applicable to that noun on mini-whiteboards or turn to their partner and tell their partner the adjective. Return to your simple sentence: The cat sleeps. As a class, students suggest adjectives to describe the cat. Choose a selection of adjectives to include in the sentence. The final sentence might be: The black and white, hairy, fish-smelling, lazy cat sleeps. Give students a new simple sentence and have them create their own complex sentence by adding adjectives.
You could introduce adverbs by playing ‘Simon Says’. Each instruction should include an adverb (e.g., walk four steps crazily). Choose students to issue the next command using a different action and adverb. Keep a record of these on the whiteboard. Next, build on the existing sentence from the previous session. The final sentence might be: The black and white, hairy, fish-smelling, lazy cat sleeps quietly and motionless. Adverbs don’t stack as readily as adjectives, so this step can be extended by having students add in adverbial phrases: The black and white, hairy, fish-smelling, lazy cat sleeps quietly and motionless while dreaming peacefully. Finish by showing students several pictures of cats sleeping and see if they can select the one that best illustrates the sentence.
An important part of this process is encouraging students to increase their word knowledge. Therefore, it is useful to teach them how, and encourage them, to use the thesaurus on the computer.
A great way to have students practise writing descriptive sentences is to do the expanding sentences activity. Each day, provide students with a simple sentence consisting of just a noun and a verb. Give them a limited amount of time (5-10 minutes) to rewrite the sentence as many times as possible. In each rewrite, they should add in adjectives and adverbs. They could also add in adjectival and adverbial phrases. Allow these sentences to be as strange or outlandish as they wish.
Word scavenger hunts could be used to either introduce or reinforce the use of adjectives and adverbs. Think of several crazy sentences that are rich with adverbs and adjectives. Write each word of the sentence on a separate piece of card. Colour-code each sentence so that each word in a sentence has the same coloured dot. You will need sufficient cards so that there is at least one card for each student in your class. Hide the cards around the room for the students to find. Students who find a card quickly should help other students to locate a card. Once all the cards have been located, all the students with the same coloured dot should work as a team to put the cards in order to form a grammatically correct sentence.
You could also provide students with an empty table consisting of four columns labelled: Adjectives, Nouns, Adverbs, Verbs. Students work together using a thesaurus to write at least 10 words in each column. In a separate lesson, students then use these words to create crazy sentences.
Develop Observation Skills
Accurate descriptions require students to be observant. Take students to different locations around the school. Working in pairs, students describe the environment. Focus on one sense at a time. Student A could first describe what they can hear. Then student B describes what they can smell. Continue with the other senses. Often it is useful for students to close their eyes to help them focus on the senses other than sight. Finish the activity by having students write a description of the environment in as much detail as possible.
Another activity encouraging accurate observation is to ask students to bring in an unusual or strange object. All the objects are secretly given to the teacher who place the objects on a table where they can easily be seen. The students write a detailed description of their object without naming the object or describing how it is used. The description is read aloud and the class tries to determine the object being described.