Using our senses: A descriptive writing lesson

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

ONE OF THE most difficult aspects of writing is perfecting the art of description—the thing that really brings a scene, image, character, or feeling alive within a piece of writing.

While younger children often love using imaginative language, many struggle to find the most appropriate and engaging words to put down on paper. One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Try out this fun and simple lesson to help your students experiment with descriptive language that is unique and full of life and movement.

1. Discuss the Senses

It is through our five senses that we experience the world around us. Discuss with your students what the senses are and how they work. List the five senses and invite them to come up with examples of descriptive words within each sense category.

  • Talk about sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
  • Collect words from your students that fall within each category. They will likely suggest that something can look pretty or ugly, sound loud or quiet, feel hard or soft, smell good or bad, taste yummy or nasty.
  • This is a great way to help them identify weak, unimaginative descriptions.

Talk about why it is difficult to come up with sensory words in this manner: Writing with your senses means you have to really take the time to see, hear, feel, smell, or taste what you are trying to write about. If you can’t experience the subject at hand with all your senses when you are writing about it, then your readers certainly won’t be able to either.

2. Experience the Senses

This is where the lesson gets interesting and fun. Gather objects your students can experience with each of their senses:

    • Sweet, salty, sour, or bitter foods for them to taste
    • Objects that are interesting to touch
    • Noise-making items to listen to
    • Fragrant or aromatic things to smell
    • Objects that are colorful and interesting to look at

Let’s say you gathered some Silly Putty, a fork, and a sharp rock to help them experience their sense of touch. Hide the items in a bag or box. Have your children take turns closing their eyes, reaching into the bag, and feeling an item. Remind them to focus on only one sense at a time (in this case, touch).

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

It’s important that they only describe how the object feels (hard, sharp, pointed, cold, smooth), not what it is used for (you stab food with it). This will help focus their senses on the subject, and it will narrow their descriptive language to really pinpoint the attributes of that item. If extra help is needed, they may use word banks or a thesaurus.

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Next, hide a bell, rattle, squeaky cat toy, or other noisemaking objects in a box or bag. Have students close their eyes as you produce each sound, and then make a list together of specific words to describe it.

Descriptive Writing Lesson: One of the best ways to engage students in descriptive and imaginative language is through the use of the five senses.

Repeat this exercise with the other items you’ve collected to help them explore the other senses. Help them really zero in on one sense at a time. You and your students will be surprised and excited by the descriptive language they come up with for each of the senses, such as fluffy, icy, pliable, jagged, papery, leathery, or slick.

3. Use Descriptive Language in Writing

Once your students have recorded all of their sensory words and phrases, have them compare this list with the list they made at the very beginning.

Open up a conversation about why the second collection of words contains stronger, more descriptive language. Your students will surely explain that they were able to actually feel, see, or smell the thing they were writing about, so it was easier to come up with more concrete, specific words like downy or silky instead of just plain soft.

Stop And Smell The Flowers

This is the lesson: If you can’t picture what you are describing in your writing, neither can your reader.

Now that the students have a collection of interesting, concrete words to draw from, invite them to create a poem or story containing descriptive language. What a fun and engaging way to help students “feel” their writing to create more illuminating poetry or prose!

Thanks to Alvina Lopez for joining us as a guest blogger. Alvina is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She welcomes your comments by email at alvina.lopez@gmail.com.  

Photos: Gustaff Prins (cat), Charles Barilleaux (listening), Dan Zen (ice cream cone), and Paul De Los Reyes (rose), courtesy of Creative Commons
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