Introducing the Concept of Showing Vs. Telling

Writing can be somewhat overwhelming to teach because there are so many moving parts.  Structure. Punctuation. Grammar. Spelling. Word choice.  First drafts. Revision.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and I haven’t even touched on content. 

It’s a crazy mess of stuff for grown-ups to keep track of, let alone children!

In order to remain relatively sane as one of my third-grade students yet again forgets to capitalize the first letter of a sentence, I try to remember my two basic, yearlong goals.  In the end, if my third graders can do these two things, I’ll feel like I earned my keep:

  1. They should have the tools needed to generate content.  In other words, if students are given an assignment, they should know several techniques to help them mine ideas from their fertile little brains.
  2. They should be able to distinguish between a showing sentence and a telling sentence.

I feel strongly that number two needs to be emphasized throughout the year in order to create more proficient writers.   Kids naturally tell everything, but although we expect showing in their writing they aren’t going to understand the difference until it is made crystal clear to them.  (I find that telling a student to “add detail” is more ambiguous and frustrating than helpful—what we really want them to do is show.)

I use character traits to introduce the difference between showing and telling.  As a class, we come up with a name for a character—let’s say Mr. Mosher.  And then we tell a character trait about Mr. Mosher.  For example, “Mr. Mosher is friendly.”  The assignment is to show Mr. Mosher being friendly.  We do the first one together, and I point out how you can show Mr. Mosher being friendly either through dialogue, action, or thoughts.

“How was your weekend?” asked Mr. Mosher.  “I hope you had a chance to enjoy the nice weather!”  (dialogue)

Mr. Mosher held the door open for the woman pushing the baby stroller.  (action)

That man looks like he could use some help, thought Mr. Mosher.  (thoughts)

After this initial introduction, I give a “Mr. Mosher prompt” for the next two weeks (in lieu of a journal entry).  I write a telling sentence with a character trait on the board, and the students are expected to change it into a showing sentence.  Some of the character traits that work well for this exercise are:

  • bossy
  • curious
  • rude
  • picky
  • polite
  • funny
  • foolish
  • brave

As enrichment, more advanced students are expected to write three sentences using dialogue, action, and thought.  As a follow-up extension, students could settle on the character trait they think best describes their Mr. Mosher, and write a story about him.

From here, I start to introduce showing vs. telling in more complex ways, which I’m sure I’ll blog about in the future!


Welcome to my blog!

I’ve wanted to keep a blog for some time, but I’ve gone back and forth between writing about being a writer or writing about being a teacher. When it comes right down to it, however, I’m not sure that I have all that much to share about the actual day-to-day routine of being a writer. For me, it usually goes something like this:

1. Wake up at an absurdly early hour.

2. Try to make coffee without knocking something over.

3. Drink coffee while I check to see how badly the Mets lost last night.

4. Do absolutely useless internet things while the caffeine kicks in.

5. Wonder what I’m going to write.

6. Realize that wondering what I’m going to write is not actually writing.

7. Get more coffee.

8. Write.

Thus it goes, day in, day out. Not a lot of variety there.

However, I’d love to share some of the writing lessons I’ve used in class–the good ones, at least (as any teacher can tell you, they don’t all pan out). A lot of these can be done in a short, ten-minute period; I’m a big fan of writing exercises and fun little games. My goal is to write one blog entry a week at the minimum, and I hope all you teachers out there find something that you can use!