Descriptive writing, or what many teachers like to call “show, don’t tell writing,” is a skill that needs to be practiced and modeled A LOT for students to truly master it. Check out one of my favorite lessons for modeling writing with a mentor text to help students be as descriptive as possible!
Model Descriptive Writing With a Mentor Text
Sharing a mentor text full of descriptive language is going to help students understand how to truly “show” and not “just tell” when writing. Writers want readers to visualize. Yes, picture books provide illustrations, but most text requires our imagination!
One of my favorite books that models descriptive writing is I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll. It’s about a little boy who absolutely cannot sleep without his monster under his bed. When his monster decides to take a vacation, he interviews substitutes that, of course, don’t compare to HIS monster. It’s such a cute book to read around Halloween time, but you can read it ANY time of the year. It’s definitely not “Halloween-themed.” Not only is it an absolutely adorable book, it’s the perfect mentor text for SO MANY lessons, including show, don’t tell writing. If you don’t own the book, you can also check it out on Storyline Online, read aloud by Rita Moreno!
As you read the book to your students, stop and analyze the descriptive writing that the author uses. From his monster’s ragged breathing and uncut claws to his spooky green ooze, you will be able to discuss the descriptive language that helps the reader visualize on every page!
You could make a list on an anchor chart of all of the descriptions, or have students keep notes of what they hear. Having these examples is going to help them with their writing activity later. Having models handy doesn’t mean they’ll copy, it means they will have some good examples to help with their own thinking!
Modeling Writing In a Mini-Lesson
You can get a free copy of the lesson I am going to describe in this post by entering your information here. It will be sent straight to your inbox!
Use the paragraph provided in the free download, or write your own descriptive paragraph to read to students about a monster. If you are writing your own, I suggest drawing a monster (don’t show it to them yet though!) and then writing your paragraph. Make sure to describe your monster MOSTLY well if you write your own, while also leaving out some very small details. (You’ll see why in the lesson.)
Read the paragraph about your monster a few times to the students, and have them draw what they hear and what they visualize based on your description.
Once students have had a few minutes to get their sketch as accurate as they can based on what you read to them, show them YOUR monster. Have a discussion about what is different in their picture than yours, but especially what is the same. Ask questions like, “What descriptions did I provide that helped you accurately draw your monster?” and “What could I have added to my writing to be more descriptive and specific so that your drawing would have looked more like mine?” (This is why you needed to leave out some very small details that would affect them being exactly the same.)
Below is a student’s drawing of my monster you see pictured for this lesson from my class a few years ago- pretty good, right? Notice the teeth are different- even though I was detailed, I didn’t specify that my teeth were “flat” so she drew them as sharp. I also didn’t mention that my monster’s tail was also green and warty.
Put It Into Practice
**This lesson can be done over the course of two or three days if needed for time constraints!**
Give students the opportunity to do exactly what you just modeled! Provide students paper to draw their own monster. If you have “privacy folders” or some other form of hiding work, use them! Students are going to write about their monsters and then read their paragraphs to a partner. Just as your students drew YOUR monster blindly, so will their partner, so you won’t want the students to see each other’s monsters.
Once students have drawn their monsters, direct students to label the parts of their monster that they believe to be important to include in their descriptive writing. Remind them that they will be reading their paragraph aloud to a partner for their partner to draw, so it should include as many specific details as possible.
Allow time for students to write a paragraph about their monsters using their labeled drawings. As you saw in my example, I wrote in first-person as if I was the monster because this is a great way to get students away from every sentence starting: “My monster has…” When I did this lesson with my students, I even left my paragraph projected up on the screen to give them ideas for their writing (because modeling is key!) – after all, it isn’t like they could copy mine since their monster was completely different.
Now for the fun! Have students pair up (or even get into small groups if you have more time) to read their paragraphs to each other. Once their partner has drawn the monster based on the descriptive paragraph, the student can reveal their real monster picture to see how well they match up!
Take It Further
As you can probably already imagine, this activity lends itself well to the revision process. Once both partners have read their paragraphs and drawn each other’s monsters, encourage them to have a discussion about what is different about the two monsters, just as you did with your own example. What details were missing that could have made the pictures more identical? Students could revise their writing to add those details in to make their paragraph even more descriptive!
Your students will really love the challenge of trying to get their partner to draw a monster exactly like theirs. This was a lesson that my students talked about for weeks after- so much so that I ended up doing it again with a turkey theme!
If you loved this lesson, you might be interested in getting the entire I Need My Monster Mentor Text Unit which also includes mentor sentences, practice with amazing adjectives and vivid verbs, quotations, drawing conclusions, vocabulary lessons and activities, as well as more writing prompts to be done from the point of view of the monsters in the book!