For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been going into my son’s 3rd grade class to talk to them about aspects of creative writing. In line with the state’s common core, one of the things the students needed to learn was the art of writing a good description.
As writers and readers, we understand the importance of a good description: those select details that transport us to a different place and allow us to experience the events of the story.
But most of the 3rd grade class had no idea what the word “description” meant.
To help them better understand the concept and use it in their own writing, I used a three-part activity.
Illustrate the Concept
First, I selected a passage from a children’s book that was rich in description. For this class, I read the first part of chapter six from Little House in the Big Woods–where Ma and Laura encounter a bear. The selection worked great: it’s full of sensory details (sound, sight, touch), and the kids were fascinated by the bear. Afterward, I asked students to tell me what they could tell of the setting from the story: what time of year was it? (How did they know?) What time of day? Where did all of this happen?
After the students had a basic idea of the concept, we moved on to application. Before class, I cut out several interesting pictures from magazines and pasted them on paper. During class, I assigned the students to pairs. I gave half of each pair an image, with the instructions not to show the picture to their partner. Their job was to describe the picture while their partner attempted to draw it. When they were done, we switched the pictures up and swapped roles. Afterward, we talked about important descriptions can be (those who didn’t do their job well had pictures that looked nothing like the original), and what kinds of details help readers visualize the image.
Finally, I gave each child an opportunity to write their own description. I asked them to describe a person, place, thing, or animal that was important to them. When they finished, a few volunteers read their description to the class, and their classmates tried to guess what it was that they had described. Most of them chose to describe animals, and they quickly realized that they needed more details in order for anyone to guess what they’d described: a fuzzy gray animal led to guesses from a cat to an elephant, but no one guessed chinchilla; a green reptile living in the swamps led to guesses of crocodile, snake, lizard, and more–but no one hit on gharial, a narrow-nosed crocodilian. (That was my son’s description: chances are good no one would have guessed gharial anyway! He prides himself on knowing obscure animals.)
What aspects of description are most important to you? What useful activities have you used to teach description?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.