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
- 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.
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
- Author’s Chair – where students come to a fancy chair in front of the classroom and read aloud their work to their peers
- pair feedback (students read to each other in twos and use Two Stars and Wish feedback template)
- 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)