This week my students and I are working on writing narratives. Today we began drafting. After finishing part of my draft, I walked around the room to assess how my students' drafts sounded. While they were writing, I skimmed some and noticed that several students were using details that didn't really "show" what was happening. I also noticed that many of them were using a lot of generic words that could be improved (get, went, and saw to name a few). My drive home from school allowed me some time to process how to help them create better details to make their narratives more interesting. Here's what I've done in the past that I know will work for us as we move into Revising later this week...
Show, Don't Tell
I start my Revising lesson by sharing this with my students, "When I think about the parts in books I like best, the parts that hold my attention are the ones where the writing sounds poetic. There's a beauty to the writing that stands out more than other parts, and I can visualize what the writer is sharing with me. Today, I want to show you how to create details that sound as beautiful as the best details in the books we read."
To show my students how to do this, I read through my draft and find a place where my details can be improved, and I place a star above the line. In one draft, I'm writing about losing our family dog, Polly, last December. The part in my draft where I know I need better details is when I'm crying because I wasn't just crying. After 11 years in our lives, losing Polly was devastating, and I need to make sure that my readers have a clear picture of how upset I was. While I was drafting in class today, I even shed a few tears.
One of the strategies I use to help my students add rich, descriptive details to their pieces is something called a Tell-Show. When writers Tell, they say things simply. When writers Show, they describe it in details readers can picture.
I set this up in a T-Chart format like the one you see in the picture. On the left side, under the Tell column, I write the part from my draft that I starred earlier: I cried. This is the part I know I need to explain in more detail. Under the Show column, I add in more specific description by picturing, in my mind, how I must have looked:
Tears welled up in my eyes and poured down my face. As I sobbed into Jill's arms, my entire body shook. Snot was running out of my nose, and I had to keep wiping it on my sleeve. I was balling so hard it was difficult to breathe. My heart ached so much my chest felt empty. I couldn't believe I'd never have Polly greet me at the door with her jumps of excitement. I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye. To hold her close and tell her, "You were the best dog we've ever had." My beloved Polly was gone, and I didn't want to believe it.
When I'm done, I share my Tell-Show with the class, and I ask them which "showing" details they can picture in their minds. I go back to my draft where I placed the star and add these details into my narrative. (In my class we skip lines, which allows room to add in any changes we need to make). Once I have these "showing" details in my draft, I re-read this part of my narrative aloud to the class. Then, I ask them to give me a grade on the work I've just done and ask them to compare it to what I originally wrote.
We have a quick discussion about why "showing" is better than telling. It goes like this:
- Showing is more specific than telling.
- Readers can visualize in their minds what you're describing.
- Showing is more interesting than telling.
Once I've shown my students how to use the Tell-Show strategy, I ask them to find a place in their drafts where they know their details could be better. I have them mark this spot with a star and then ask them to set up a Tell-Show on a new piece of paper. In the Show column, they can either list their showing details or write them in complete sentences. Both are effective as long as they choose descriptive words/phrases that are specific. Then, I give them 10 minutes to complete this new strategy. While they're working, I walk around to check their work and clarify any steps from my lesson for struggling students.
After they've finished, I'll have 3-4 students share their Tell-Show with the entire class. We use a document camera and LCD projector so that everyone can see this work. After each student shares, we give him/her a grade based on the work and then I ask that the student to add in these details into his/her draft in the place he/she marked earlier. I like for students to see these step because it allows the rest of the class a chance to see where and how these new details will fit into this part of the story. It also holds the student accountable for making the change--a key component of the Revision process. When the student has finished, I have him/her reread this part with the "showing" details.
A Quick Fix for Important Parts
The Tell-Show strategy works great because it doesn't take long to teach or practice. I can use it with students of varying skill and ability level. It allows them to add vivid details to their pieces, which make these pieces, sound even better. By adding "showing" details, students are learning to use more specific words like adjectives, adverbs, and strong verbs, which give readers a clear picture of what the student had in mind as he/she was writing. Incorporating "showing" details into our writing helps readers slow down and focus in on the most important parts we want to direct them to. As writers, helping them figure out those important parts is the least we can do.
For more on the Tell-Show strategy, see The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at email@example.com.