NOTE: I am changing my blog writing style as I realized that many teachers prefer (like me) blog posts that are short, concise, and more practical. I reserve the long, detailed ones for the other blog I have had for years and that focuses on education theories, research, and evidence.

So…let’s start. How do we teach character description? It has been my experience as a teacher that character description was one part of descriptive writing that the students struggled the most with and so I tried to come up with ways to make it easier for students.

The teaching sequence:

1.Pre-writing: ORAL description

  • use very powerful photographs (NO clipart! not even with younger students – we need to let them enjoy real-life photos that are so much richer in detail and trigger true emotion and connection)
  • start with a whole-class discussion and invite students to describe what they see 
  • keep adding questions to focus their attention on what is NOT there (e.g.”Where do you think s/he came from? What language do you think s/he speaks? Do they live in a city or another place? What do you think they are afraid of? What might their strength be?”)
  • you can then give groups or pairs of students different photographs to discuss
  • have a Gallery Walk and let them add some post-its under the photos with some keywords (this way you can create a bank of adjectives and adverbs – “startled”, “grumpy” etc.)
  • wrap-up: discuss with the class the importance of language in making us “see” rather than be “told”

2.ANALYSE character descriptions with the students

  • Divide the students in groups. Give each group a character description. Ask them to highlight the words and phrases that make it a memorable character.
  • Gather the groups and share findings. Have a class talk and use the flip-chart to write down the student findings. That can act as an assessment tool later, too (“What makes a good description?”).

3. MODEL the steps 

“Turn on” your brain and model out-loud how you think about the process. Use the charts and the steps below. (*Click on each picture- it will enlarge).

E.g. “Hm, I think I would like to write about an unusual man. Let me see… I will describe his eyes (*and you circle “eyes” on the list), then maybe his hair (*circle “hair”)… “

  • Each time you choose an item circle it on the list so the students can see how effective it is to focus your attention.
  • Use color to make it easier for students to discriminate between items, parts of speech and so on.
  • Emphasize that when creating a memorable character description, we do NOT want to make a list of all her/his features like a police report. We select only a few aspects that are essential, unique and revealing of their personality, likes, fears, dreams, and way of being in the world.

3.Co-construct with class

Do the same but this time inviting students to come up with adjectives, figures of speech and so on. Fill in the chart as they contribute.

I was amazed at how engaged and excited the students were! At the end, when we put the sentences together in a paragraph, all of them were astounded to see what they were actually capable of writing provided that they go through some steps.

4. PRACTICE – students practice writing the paragraphs 

How?

  • You can ask (in the first session) students to work in pairs.
  • Next session (individual work) the students can select fewer items and create, say, only 3 well-crafted sentences.
  • Following sessions – the students can now build on their knowledge and develop skill slowly, by adding more and more details.
  • Also, start working on the sentence structure as you see students becoming more competent. Teach them how to alternate simple, complex, and compound sentences for effect.

NOTE:

Throughout these sessions:

  • keep the flipchart visible in the room (so that the students can see what the criteria for a good description are; also, as they progress they might add even more criteria)
  • each next session analyse a student-created paragraph (without mentioning the name, obviously); use the criteria on the flipchart (“S/he used quite an interesting metaphor here so…”).
  •  have more character descriptions displayed in the room *before* the students start writing – have a Gallery Walk and let them immerse themselves in excellent examples (select only very good ones, from real writers and even from the books/novels your students are reading)
  • provide students with lists of adjectives, adverbs, and connectives (I use a simple, efficient method – I have them printed for each student and inserted in a transparent sleeve at the end of their notebooks- they simply pull them out and use them as resources the entire school year!)
  • ensure you engage students in sharing their paragraphs
  1.  Author’s Chair – where students come to a fancy chair in front of the classroom and read aloud their work to their peers
  2. pair feedback (students read to each other in twos and use Two Stars and Wish feedback template)
  3. group sharing (make groups of 3-4 and students rotate reading aloud their paragraphs)

MATERIALS I created and you can use and adapt to your class (age-group and proficiency level)

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