Helping students understand the importance of creating good, descriptive sentences, especially when describing characters, settings, or important events in a story, can be like pulling teeth or even getting a person to walk into the dentist's office in the first place.
To help students with this, I begin my lesson on improving sentence construction, variety, and description, by telling students that I have a picture of an "awesome cat" in my hands and go on to use what I call "garbage words" to continue describing this cat as the "best" and most "amazing" cat ever. Then, I ask each student to draw a picture of this amazing, awesome cat and what they think it looks like.
The obvious "ah-ha" of this lesson introduction is that no two pictures will look the same, and when I show them the actual picture of this "amazing" cat, it will also look nothing like what they have drawn.
Hence, the lead in to using good descriptions to describe exactly what our readers to envision when they are reading our stories.
I usually incorporate this lesson after allowing students to write an exposition for a creative story they are working on in class. I allow them to first write about their character, setting, and problem before introducing this lesson.
Now, I give each student a five room brainstorming chart, where I ask them to place the name of their protagonist (main character) in the center box and then in the other boxes describe, in each box respectively, what the character looks like, sounds like, acts like, and thinks like. I of course model this with a familiar character from a recent book we have read, so students can contribute and participate.
One character I like to use is Billy from Where the Red Fern Grows.
Here is an example of four "simple sentences" from our five room brainstorm chart, based on student responses.
"LOOKS: He has blonde hair."
ACTS: "He is determined."
THINKS: "He thinks about God alot."
SOUNDS: "He sounds like a boy."
Now these are all simple sentences, and we work to turn these into sensational sentences by trying to take a "SNAPSHOT" of each sentence and visualize it first in our mind and then describe what we are "seeing" in a new, interesting way that will help our readers better understand what we are seeing.
To help students with this, I take out a photo album from a recent vacation trip to Disney and use some of my favorite pictures to illustrate this by using descriptive language and sensational sentences to describe each picture, before showing it to them. Then I see if my description gave them a good mental image of the picture in their minds. With practice, it always does.
Now I start with the simple sentences we came up with.
The first is "he has blonde hair." Well, what does this mean, what exactly does blonde hair look like. Using the students in my classroom, I point out the different shades and colors of blonde and use them to explain what happens if they stay in the sun a lot in the summer (it usually gets lighter).
Now, using what we know from the story, we know Billy spends a lot of time outdoors, and I use this to help generate a better sensational sentence to describe his hair.
Some examples of student sensational sentences, with some guidance from me:
"It was obvious that the summer sun had kissed his usual straw colored hair."
"His hair shone in the sun like the beaches of a tropical island."
These sentences are much more visual and pleasing to the reader, and you cannot help but automatically visualize this boy in your mind, and at the same time smile at your own memories of running around in the summer as a child.
Now, consider the next sentence about how the character acts.
The "simple sentence" is "He is determined." Well, what does it mean to be determined? I ask the students for examples of how he was determined in the story, and ask them to extend their thinking by telling me about how they have acted determined before. Now that we understand what determined means, and have listed some examples of determined actions as a class, we develop a sensational sentence to describe his determination.
Some example of student sensational sentences, with guidance from me:
"He was as determined as a hawk with his eye on a field mouse."
"He was like a mother, not budging by her child's meaningless temper tantrum, intent on teaching them a lesson."
I let students work on the remaining sentences on their own, and compare their sentences in small groups, helping each other develop the very best they can do based on how I helped and guided them. Then, we share and write the sentences out on chart paper as examples.
An additional tip for effective writing:
Consider a round robin activity for helping students think "outside the box" about sensational descriptions, especially in emotions (which I have found are hardest for students). Many students simply say the character was happy, or sad, or angry, which are all "garbage" words in my classroom and are not allowed in my classroom. We work to throw these words out of our writing in my classroom, hence the term "garbage" words.
To help, I put an emotion word at the top of a piece of paper, "HAPPY", "SAD", "ANGRY", "SCARED", "EMBARRASSED". Then I do a round robin where each student starts with a paper with a different word on it. The challenge: they must think of a way to describe the emotion by telling me what they do or how they act when they feel this emotion. For example, for happy, some responses might be "smiling from ear to ear", "feeling jumpy, not able to stand still", etc.
No one is allowed to put the same thing down, so they must read through and think of a new way to describe it. We do this until they have written something for each emotion at least twice, then I post this in the classroom for students to refer to. That way, when they come to me with a story and I see one of these "garbage" words, I can refer them to the chart. As the year goes on, students automatically go to the charts to help them improve their writing, and even add on to it as they come up with new ways to describe their emotions.