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Teaching Descriptive Writing in the Upper Elementary Grades

April 13, 2022 No Comments
Alyssa Teaches blog post on descriptive writing

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 structure.

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.

teach descriptive writing with these digital writing activities for 4th grade students

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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