Descriptive Writing, Part One
Reading and writing are inextricably intertwined. In order to develop good writing, children must be exposed to good writing and must learn to read critically, examining each part and how it fits into the whole. I choose my books to work on for our reading exercises based on what I plan to be teaching in writing. For more on how I teach reading, check this entry on text structure. Teaching reading systematically in this way provides an excellent basis for teaching writing because it helps children see how the components of a book work together to form a whole. The following is essentially a reading lesson, but must occur before the writing lesson so that your child has a good working example.

Descriptive writing is perhaps one of the most difficult skills for students to really master. Particulary young children have great difficulty determining what information someone else might need to know in order to describe an experience accurately. Still, descriptive writing is foundational to all other forms of writing.

Descriptive writing paints a picture in the reader's mind. It uses words to describe feelings, sights, sounds, taste, scents and touch. Common examples include menus, travel brochures, catalogs and technical manuals. Word choice, organization and the ideas expressed are main components of descriptive writing.

The best way to teach any kind of writing is to examine examples of excellent writing. Children's literature provides a wealth of resources here because the stories are typically short enough to examine how elements of writing come together to form a whole, but well-known passages from other books can also be used effectiviely as well.

The first step, therefore, is to gather examples of good descriptive writing. My favorite children's book for this is:

I have read this enough times that even my two year old has portions memorized. Perfect for pausing to pick a bit of it apart. This is not the time to introduce a new book or passage. I would keep this activity to ten minutes or so.

Second is to begin analyzing the book. Provide a definition, perhaps a modification of the description above, and ask your child to apply it to the story. Pick out a sentence that illustrates the concept.

This book begins, "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." Things only get worse for poor Alexander, but we already have a start for a description of what a bad day is like.

This book does not utilize sights and sounds like a menu or travel brochure might. Instead, it uses a listing of events which all children can identify with on some level. They know how Alexander is feeling because they would feel the same way and probably have felt the same way at some time.

Introduce the graphic organizer. This is probably one of the simplest orgainzers of any type of writing. Use the organizer to map the story or excerpt you are going to be using as an example in your descriptive witing practice. Pay special attention to adjectives, details and word choice. These are the hallmarks of descriptive writing and are very powerful when used correctly. The graphic organizer linked to does not work terribly well for this book. I take simple models, think about the book we are working with and develop one that more accurately depicts the structure of the book. I will share the one I made for this book in my next entry on descriptive writing. These are great for using in compare and contrast exercises later.

Another thing to pay attention to is the organization of these details. Objects are commonly described from top to bottom or bottom to top while scenes are described from side to side. Alexander's day is described from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed. After the chart is filled out, talk about where the author started in his description and ways he or she let you know the relationship between different things described in the story.

Once your child is comfortable filling out the organizer with familiar books or passages, you can introduce some material he is not as familar with. Ideas include:

Travel brochures
Passages from the bible, Exodus 25 has an excellent example of descriptive writing in its description of the tabernacle construction
Field guides

Also important is to remember to discuss the purpose of each text. Does the author wish to inform, entertain or persuade? I usually ask my daughter to predict what the purpose is by examining the title and illustrations before reading. She then checks her prediction after we have read it. This is not applicable in these lessons since you will be using texts your children already know, but don't forget to have them define the purpose. All writing should flow from its purpose and your child will need to determine his purpose before being able to write anything meaningful.

Next, I'll share some ideas on how to incorporate this into a writing lesson.

For an online descriptive writing workshop, check out this site from Scholastic:

Descriptive Writing With Virginia Hamilton

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