Teaching students to identify sensory details as they read is a great way to teach author’s craft. And, bonus, it helps to encourage students to use descriptive language in their own writing! Here are some ways that I teach and review sensory words in the upper elementary classroom.
What Are Sensory Words?
Sensory words describe what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel or touch. Authors use sensory verbs and adjectives particularly in fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry to “show, not tell.” Sensory language helps the reader experience what is happening in the story – to “visualize” it with their own senses. It helps us to connect with the story, understand what the characters are experiencing, and even better enjoy and remember the text.
Most states teach the five senses in science in grades K-2, so by 3rd and 4th grade, students should have a good understanding of what the senses are. They’ve also likely had a lot of practice with visualizing, so now is a good time to have them consider how an author’s language appeals to all of our senses.
Introducing Sensory Language
I recommend teaching sensory words early in the school year since students will see them in multiple genres as well as in your writing lessons. You may have already hit them in science, too.
I’ve introduced sensory words in reading workshop a couple of ways. One is doing a shared reading where we notice and name examples of sensory language in the text. I try to pick a funny poem or a really engaging picture book. Another option is to start with a sorting activity where students sort words and phrases according to sense.
I also like reading I Hear a Pickle with students who need a refresh on the five senses.
Prompts for Students
When I teach this standard, I want students to identify examples of sensory details, but also to understand why the author uses them. I find the questions and sentence frames below to be helpful.
- What sense does this word appeal to?
- The word __________ appeals to my sense of ___________.
- Why did the author use the word ___________ to describe __________?
- What does the author want us to think about here?
- Look at the word _________. What sense would you use to experience this?
- When I read __________, I used my sense of ___________ to visualize it.
Interactive Read Alouds
An interactive read aloud is a great way for students to practice identifying words that appeal to our senses. Fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry are all good go-to’s to look for sensory details examples.
One option is to create an anchor chart and to write down examples as you read. You can try having students close their eyes and give a thumbs up when they hear sensory words. You can also give students mini versions of the anchor chart for them to complete during the read aloud or later as part of guided reading groups or independent reading.
If your students struggle, you can copy examples of sensory details from the book ahead of time and then have students sort them by sense as you read.
See the end of this post for a list of recommended read alouds!
Sensory Words Scavenger Hunt
A sensory word scavenger hunt works well as a small group activity or center. I pull books and poems ahead of time that I know have multiple examples of sensory language. Students use sticky notes to identify different examples in the text.
Finding Sensory Words in Poetry
Poetry is full of sensory words! You can also use poems as interactive read alouds using the strategies I mentioned earlier. Another idea is to copy poems for small groups to read. They can use different colored pencils or markers to circle sensory words that appeal to the different senses.
Here are a few poems and collections that work well, though there are tons you could use:
- “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” by Shel Silverstein
- “The Dirtiest Man in the World” by Shel Silverstein
- A Lucky Thing by Alice Schertle
- Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman
- Suzie Bitner Was Afraid of the Drain by Barbara Vance
- any poetry collection by Jack Prelutsky
Recommended Mentor Texts
Here are some of my favorite picture books for teaching sensory details:
- Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
- Into the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson
- Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
- Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
- Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe
- Hello Ocean by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- Kate, Who Tamed the Wind by Liz Garton Scanlon
- The Night Box by Louise Greig
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
- Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin
- Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson
I hope that helps you to get started planning lessons on sensory details during a poetry or fiction unit! If you want to save time and grab some ready-to-go sensory words resources, I’ve got you covered!
Amazon Affiliate links are included in this post.