Spotlight on Strategies

Helping students write more descriptively

"Show Don't Tell"

Narrative writing is essential at the 4th grade level. The ability to paint a picture in someone else's brain takes time, patience, and a solid vocabulary. "Bright Education" explains that narrative writing encourages creativity, improves reading skills, and helps us better understand the English language. According to author Glen C. Strathy, specificity is the key to writing descriptively. In his article, he breaks down relative examples for us as teachers or aspiring authors, showing how specificity transforms generic description into an experience. Every writer or reader of prose must understand this essential principal, and our students have to start somewhere! Thus, it is important to not only provide students with strong descriptive vocabulary, but demonstrate its importance in narrative writing.

This video provides us of the writer's perspective before we begin to focus our students on the task at hand. These tips will help you guide students to more important description.

How to Become a Descriptive Writer : English & Writing Lessons

IL State Standards:


Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

Use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.

Use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely.

Pictionary-Stlye Strategies

To demonstrate the importance of descriptive words, students will be introduced to this concept through two difference methods. Both methods are based on the concept of the game Pictionary, but in reverse. As you will see, the "artist" can only draw based on the descriptions they have been given. It is imperative that artistic ability has no bearing on this activity. As long as details, objects, and landforms are in the correct places, the skill needed to draw each item to perfection is irrelevant.

Image Choices: Since we are reading The Hobbit as a class, I use landscape drawings of different settings in the book I found online for both activities. In addition, after we do this activity, I read the description of the setting from the book to equip my students with additional vocabulary and further demonstrate the necessity description has. I highly recommend finding images that will be meaningful to your students, as my students enjoy comparing their mental image to their drawing and the picture shown.

Strategy 1: Solo Student Artist

For this demonstration, I randomly select a volunteer and ask them to leave the room. While that student is gone, I ask the rest of the class to observe a picture of a landscape. After a few minutes of observation, I then ask the volunteer to reenter the room. At that point, he or she may call on anyone in the class to give them a description of the landscape they were shown. The volunteer must recreate the landscape as best they can using the SMART Board Notebook. At the end, we compare the picture to the drawing and discuss what words would have helped provide more description. Repetition improves both their individual skills as well as classroom strategies. The purpose is for students to create accurate descriptions using nouns and adjectives.

If we have time, we usually compile the different descriptive sentences into a coherent paragraph to write our our descriptive essay.

Strategy 2: Whole Class Draw

This puts students on the other end of the issue. Students will use "GoFormative" to draw while the teacher describes a landscape picture. This way, the teacher will have their drawings immediately in a web browser to compare the photograph to their work, and also to compare & contrast student work samples with the class. In addition, this allows every student to draw their own depiction of what is being described. The purpose is for students to realize the detail necessary for every reader to have a similar experience when reading their work. Also, it shows students that when we read, our mental pictures will all vary.


At the end of each activity (repeated however many times you see fit), a small group and classroom discussion are very beneficial. Questions I ask my students to discuss are:

Why is it important to give detailed descriptions?

How can a lack of details be harmful to a reader?

How can details improve a readers interest in our story?

What types of words should we add to help our own stories be more descriptive?

Image Examples


Our goal with narrative writing should always be to promote creative story-telling.

  • What methods could be added to improve student descriptive vocabulary?
  • How could the use of technology transform this activity even more?
  • How would student collaboration improve descriptive writing?

Citations & Credits


Key To Descriptive Writing: Specificity. (2016). Glen C. Strathy. Retrieved from

Why is Narrative Writing Important. (2016). Bright Education. Retrieved from


How to Become a Descriptive Writer : English & Writing Lessons. (January 14, 2013). eHow Education. Retrieved from


Prairie Landscape. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Ruins of Dale. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Lonely Mountain. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Rivendell. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Pictionary. [Web Photo]. Retrieved from