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!