Elaborating with Details

Nov 4, 2008 by

A Lot About a Little

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown is a classic and has so many uses in the writing classroom. To use it as a lesson on focus, read it aloud to students and encourage them to notice how Brown takes each topic and describes it in detail to write “a lot about a little.” As a shared writing activity, select one of Brown’s topics and have students add more details about it. Have students write their own paragraphs—either elaborating on another topic from the book or selecting a topic of their choice.

A Tree is Nice by Janice M. Udry is another great book to model this technique.

Asking Questions

Some young writers have difficulty clearly conveying their message on paper. They know what they want to write about but struggle to capture their thoughts on paper in a way that is clear to the reader. This mini-lesson helps students see the need to clarify their information and include enough details for the reader. Model this technique by writing a “story” on the overhead or chart paper: “I have a cat.” Ask students what they think of your story. Most will say that you need to write more. Ask students what they want to know about your cat. They will ask questions such as, “What is its name? Where did you get it? What does it look like?” Write a second draft of your story, including answers to their questions. Help students to see that a writer needs to include enough details for the reader.

Extend this technique by having students volunteer to read a draft of one of their stories aloud to the class. Invite classmates to ask the writer questions that will help clarify the message. After sufficient modeling, this technique can also be used in a peer conference setting.

To give students more practice in asking questions to help clarify their writing, I often use this technique as a brainstorming tool. We begin by making a list of all the questions we think the reader might want to have answered in the piece. Students answer the questions either orally or on a planning sheet before beginning their rough drafts. When using planning sheets for this prewriting activity, I always model how to go from the completed planning sheet to the first draft. Without sufficient modeling, students will end up just recopying the answers from the planning sheets.

Below are two sample lessons that work well with this technique:

1. Special Object

Read aloud a picture book involving a character who owns a special object. The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston and Laura Charlotte by Kathryn Galbraith are good ones. Have students select an object that is special to them. Brainstorm questions that the reader will want to know, such as:

  • Where did you get this object?
  • Why is it special to you?
  • How long have you had it?
  • Have you ever misplaced it?

Have students answer the questions and then write a first draft.

2. Family Traditions

Read aloud a picture book involving a family tradition such as Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr., The Hickory Chair by Lisa Fraustino, or A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams. Give students the following assignment: “Make a list of some family traditions that are important to you. Think about holidays, birthdays, or other special events. Think also about everyday events that are traditions in your family. The traditions can be from the present or the past and can involve your entire family or just one member. Talk to other members of your family to get more ideas.” Have students complete planning sheets and drafts using the following questions as a guide:

  • What is the tradition and how do you participate in it?
  • Why is it important to you? Why do you love it?
  • How does it make you feel?

Take a Snapshot

To introduce this technique, select a picture of something from a catalog or magazine. Without showing it to the students, tell them that you have a picture of an “amazing car”, “a cute puppy,” “an awesome bicycle,” or whatever. Ask students to form a mental image of it and then draw a picture of it. If they ask for more details, give them adjectives like neat, great, fantastic, delicious. After giving them time to draw, show them the actual picture and compare. Students will realize that you did not give them enough specific details.

Next read aloud well-written descriptions from children’s books to model how to describe a character, object, or place.

When ready to have students begin elaborating on a description, assign a topic sentence about a character, a setting, or object. Before they begin writing, ask them to “take a mental snapshot” and have them practice listing all the questions that a reader might ask about the subject. For example, if writing a description to follow the sentence, “I found an old box in the corner,” questions might include:

  • How big was the box?
  • Was it open or closed?
  • What room was it in?
  • Who did it belong to?
  • What did the outside of it look like?
  • Was there anything in it?
  • Did you open it?
  • What was it made out of?
  • What condition was it in?

After they have listed and answered the questions, students can write their descriptions. This should first be modeled as a whole group mini-lesson, and then students should each write their own answers and descriptions.

When students are just getting started, it is helpful to give them a list of sentence starters so that their descriptions don’t end up being just a “grocery list” of adjectives or descriptive phrases. Some helpful sentence starters include:

  • I noticed..
  • It was evident that…
  • As I ran my hand down…
  • They were surprised to see..
  • He couldn’t help but notice…
  • My eye was drawn to…
  • She could make out the sound of…

Here is a sample of one of my third-grader’s snapshot of a setting:


Topic: It was a nice fall day in the forest.

Elaboration: My eye was drawn to the beautiful colors that seemed to be swirling. I loved the way the sun was shining and the wind was blowing gently. I was swept away by the variety of plants. The autumn sunset had millions of shades and colors. I heard the maple leaves crunching under my feet as I walked. I could hear the geese getting ready to go south.

by Micah

Paint a Picture Using Your Senses

Often when we ask young writers to be more descriptive, they respond by adding adjectives such as cool, awesome, nice, really, good, etc. To help remedy this problem, invite students to use their senses when they are writing to help create “mind pictures” for the reader. When helping a child add more description to a piece of writing, ask questions such as, “What did you see? hear? smell? feel? touch? taste?”

Show, Don’t Tell

Another way to elaborate with details is to show rather than tell. Instead of telling the reader that the character is happy, excited, angry, or scared, the writer should show it. Introduce this technique by acting out an emotion without telling students what it is. For example, act out “angry” by using body language and describing what you are thinking or feeling without using the word “angry.” Have students guess the emotion. Next have students list as many emotion words as they can and call on volunteers to act out several emotions.

When you feel that students understand this concept, have them select an emotion to write about. Have them write a sentence or two, telling the emotion (e.g., “I was so happy when my dad said we could get a puppy.” Have them write a second draft, showing rather than telling (e.g., “When my dad announced that we could get a puppy, I jumped off my chair and planted a kiss on his cheek!”).

When reading aloud picture books to students, look for examples where the author shows rather than tells. For example, in Night Noises by Mem Fox, instead of telling the reader that Lily Laceby is old, Fox shows us: “Her hair was as wispy as cobwebs in ceilings. Her bones were as creaky as floorboards at midnight.”

Below are samples of some of my students’ first drafts (telling) and their revised drafts (showing).  Click to enlarge image.

Show Don't Tell Student Samples

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