Good characters, a compelling plot and engaging dialogue are three things that make a story interesting. However, it’s the rich details and active verbs that draw me into a story. After all, no one is going to identify with a character or a setting without knowing what it, he, or she looks like. I feel that one of the best ways to teach descriptive writing is with strong examples. Then, give children the chance to weave some descriptive details into their own stories. Here are a few ways to use picture books to teach descriptive writing.
Using Vivid Descriptive Adjectives
When I was teaching fourth grade, I remember children simply throwing in a chain of adjectives. For example: The huge, furry, striped tiger jumped onto the big gray rock. While this is a good attempt for a child to use descriptive words, it’s also necessary to teach that less is more. For instance by saying, the massive tiger leapt onto the boulder, you can paint a similar picture with fewer, but more vivid words. When teaching kids about using adjectives, I like the book Pumpkin Town (or, Nothing is Better and Worse than Pumpkins) by Katie McKy. The author doesn’t use an excessive amount of adjectives, but the ones she chooses are powerful.
Sometimes we forget that verbs can be just as descriptive as adjectives. For instance, there are so many different alternatives to the word run. Instead, kids can use dashed, sprinted, or scampered. To help children understand the concept of using verbs as description, pick several ordinary verbs such as said or the color red. Then, brainstorm some other verbs that are more vivid. For said, some examples are announced, declared or whispered. After all, people say things in different ways. Verbs help convey the tone and volume of the words. Of course, reading picture books can further help educators illustrate this point. Little Bea and the Snowy Day by Daniel Roode uses vivid verbs to describe the experience of playing in the snow.
Teaching children to weave occasional figurative language into their stories will help their descriptive writing become stronger. I say occasional because you don’t want your students to write a story filled with similes. However, using similes or personification, from time to time, helps writing become much richer. Good Night Little Sea Otter by Janet Halfmann has some wonderful examples of personification and vivid verbs.
Investigating the Text
After giving your students some examples of descriptive writing at its finest, you can have them go through the text, look for and write down more examples of vivid adjectives/verbs/figurative language. Teachers can make a chart with each kind of descriptive technique occupying a column (adjectives, verbs and figurative language). After reading a picture book, you can have students share their findings. Then, keep the poster on the wall as a reminder, and inspiration, of these descriptive words and phrases. You might even want to have a descriptive writing wall. Give students sentence strips and have them write down descriptive sentences that stand out to them. Then, post the strips on the wall.
More Picture Books
Here are some more great picture books I like to use to teach descriptive writing:
Elbert’s Bad Word by Audrey Wood
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
Owl Moon by by Jane Yolen
Puddles by Jonathan Landon
Using picture books to teach descriptive writing isn’t just for little kids. I taught mostly upper grade and found teaching descriptive writing with children’s books was fun for everyone.
More from Melissa:
Teaching Tips: Using Picture Books to Teach Figurative Language
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